The Incandescence of an Intellectual Nuclear Reactor

Oliver Sacks remembers Francis Crick in the New York Review of Books:

CrickI read the famous “double helix” letter by James Watson and Francis Crick in Nature when it was published in 1953 —I was an undergraduate at Oxford then, reading physiology and biochemistry. I would like to say that I immediately saw its tremendous significance, but this was not the case for me or, indeed, for most people at the time.

It was only in 1962, when Francis Crick came to talk at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco, where I was interning, that I started to realize the vast implications of the double helix. Crick’s talk at Mount Zion was not on the configuration of DNA but on the work he had been doing with the molecular biologist Sidney Brenner to determine how the sequence of DNA bases could specify the amino acid sequence in proteins. They had just shown, after four years of intense work, that the translation involved a three-nucleotide code. This was itself a discovery no less momentous than the discovery of the double helix…

It was not until May of 1986 that I met Francis Crick, at a conference in San Diego. There was a big crowd, full of neuroscientists, but when it was time to sit down for dinner, Crick singled me out, seized me by the shoulders, sat me down next to him, and said, “Tell me stories!” I have no memory of what we ate, or anything else about the dinner, only that I told him stories about many of my patients, and that each one set off bursts of hypotheses, theories, suggestions for investigation in his mind. Writing to Crick a few days later, I said that the experience was “a little like sitting next to an intellectual nuclear reactor…. I never had a feeling of such incandescence.”

More here.

A Small Victory for Decency

“A popular Ivory Coast teacher has been allowed to remain in the United States for at least another 17 months after a sustained campaign by his students. Obain Attouoman was due to be deported on Friday but US senators, including former presidential candidate John Kerry, ordered an official inquiry. Mr Attouoman claimed political asylum in 1992, saying his life was in danger for his union and political activities. His Boston students staged street protests after his request was refused.”

Tearjerker from the BBC.

Vijay Seshadri Poem

From The New Yorker:


Orwell says somewhere that no one ever writes the real story of their life.
The real story of a life is the story of its humiliations.
If I wrote that story now–
radioactive to the end of time–
people, I swear, your eyes would fall out, you couldn’t peel
the gloves fast enough
from your hands scorched by the firestorms of that shame.
Your poor hands. Your poor eyes
to see me weeping in my room
or boring the tall blonde to death.
Once I accused the innocent.
Once I bowed and prayed to the guilty.
I still wince at what I once said to the devastated widow.
And one October afternoon, under a locust tree
whose blackened pods were falling and making
illuminating patterns on the pathway,
I was seized by joy,
and someone saw me there,
and that was the worst of all,
lacerating and unforgettable.

Alice Quinn, poetry editor of The New Yorker, interviewed Seshadri. Read it here.

Fever-induced hallucinations

MichaelMichael Slatky is a young New York City-based artist whose work is reminiscent of the great H.R. Geiger. In other words, it’s slightly frightening and disturbing but retains a layered depth. He says of its origins:

Fever-induced hallucinations during a prolonged childhood hospital stay revealed an inner universe which I continue to explore through my artwork. My images spring from a visceral reaction to this microcosm. My work begins where rational thought is disrupted – the limitations of time, space, and order collapsing into the subconscious, illusion, and chaotic emotions.

Check it out here.

The Black Death

Michiko Kakutani reviews The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time by John Kelly, in the New York Times:

The images could have come from one of Hieronymus Bosch’s nightmarish paintings of hell: dusty roads filled with frightened refugees, many of them already ill, covered in boils and coughing up blood; dogs and rats running wild on deserted streets; fields littered with the dead bodies of cows and sheep; plague pits filled with the corpses of men, women and children; survivors pointing accusatory fingers at Jews and Muslims and outsiders; others flagellating themselves in an effort to appease the heavens.

This was Europe in the 1340’s, the decade of the advent of the Black Death, and in his harrowing new book, “The Great Mortality,” John Kelly gives the reader a ferocious, pictorial account of the horrific ravages of that plague. He notes that on the Foster scale, a kind of Richter scale of human disaster, “the medieval plague is the second greatest catastrophe in the human record,” with only World War II producing “more death, physical destruction, and emotional suffering.” He also points out that a cold war-era study by the United States Atomic Energy Commission found that the Black Death comes closest to mimicking all out nuclear war “in its geographical extent, abruptness of onset and scale of casualties.”

More here.

English Grammar and the C.I.A.

Noah Shachtman in the New York Times:

One of the dullest grammar exercises is being used to help find potential terrorists, and save companies a bundle.

Diagramming sentences – picking out subject, verb, object, adjective and other parts of speech – has been a staple of middle and high school grammar lessons for decades. Now, with financing from the Central Intelligence Agency, a California firm is using the technique to comb through e-mail messages and chat room talks, which can be a rich lode of corporate and government information, and a tough one to mine.

More here.

The Taste of Music

Ruth Francis in Nature:

A recorder player has fascinated neuroscientists with her ability to taste differences in the intervals between notes.

The condition in which the brain links two or more of the senses is known as synaesthesia, and some sense combinations are relatively common. But this is the first time that the ability has been found to help in performing a mental task, such as identifying a major third.

Elizabeth Sulston was at school when she first noticed that she saw colours while hearing music. She realized that the same was not true of her peers, although linkage of tone and colour is a known synaesthetic combination.

More here.

Thursday, March 3, 2005

Virtual reality maps real-life ‘Hobbit’ brain

From the Associated Press:

Hobbitbrain_1Some scientists say brain size points to different hominid species; others question that conclusion: Scientists working with powerful imaging computers say the spectacular “Hobbit” fossil recently discovered in Indonesia had distinctive brain features that could justify its classification as a separate — and tiny — human ancestor. The new report, published Thursday in the online version of the journal Science, seems to support the idea of a human dwarf species marooned for eons while modern humans spread across the planet. Detractors of the theory, however, said the computer models were unconvincing. The new research produced a computer-generated model that compared surface impressions on the inside of the fossil skull with brain casts of modern and ancient humans, as well as chimps and other primates. The scientists said the model shows that the 3-foot (1-meter) specimen, nicknamed Hobbit, had a brain unlike anything they had seen before in recent human lineage. The brain is chimplike in size, between 380 and 420 cubic centimeters.

Despite being up to two-thirds smaller than a modern human brain, the Hobbit fossil’s brain shared wrinkled surface features with the brains of both modern humans and Homo erectus, tool-making human ancestors that lived more than 1 million years ago, the researchers said. Some of those features are consistent with higher cognitive traits, they report. At the same time, they said the Hobbit brain was different from the brain of a modern human pygmy or a human with abnormal brain growth. “This is something new,” said Florida State University anthropologist Dean Falk, who led the study. “This discovery has flummoxed the field of anthropology.”

In October, scientists from Indonesia and Australia caused an international sensation with their report of a trove of fossils found in a cave on the equatorial island of Flores. As many as seven tiny individuals were represented by the bones in layers that were dated from 95,000 to 12,000 years ago. The Hobbit skeleton was the most complete specimen to be described.

Read more here.

Odd life forms found in undersea ‘Lost City’

From the Associated Press:

Lostcity_1Towering white mineral chimneys mark the field, named the Lost City, a sharp contrast to the better-known black smoker vents that have been studied in recent years. The discovery shows “how little we know about the ocean,” lead researcher Deborah S. Kelley of the University of Washington said. “I have been working on black smokers for about 20 years, and you sort of think you have a good idea what going on,” she said in a telephone interview. “But the ocean is a big place and there are still important opportunities for discovery.”

The Lost City was discovered by accident in 2000 as Kelley and others studied undersea areas near the midocean ridge. They returned to the area in 2003 to analyze what they had found and were startled to learn how different the new vent environment and its residents were from the ones studied before.

Black smokers are chimney-like structures that form when very hot water — reaching 700 degrees Fahrenheit — breaks through the ocean floor and comes into contact with frigid ocean water. The minerals that crystallize during the process give the chimneys their black color. At Lost City, on the other hand, the temperature of the escaping fluids is 150 degrees to 170 degrees. The environment is extremely alkaline, compared to the high acid levels at black smokers. A variety of unusual creatures have been discovered around black smoker vents, including tubeworms that can grow as long as eight feet.

Their findings are reported in Friday’s issue of the journal Science.


I found out about Civiblog through my friend (and erstwhile blogging partner at The Aula Point of View) Jyri Engestrom. Jennifer Leonard of Civiblog described it to me as, “A newly designed site out of The Citizen Lab at the Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto, with the view to build community and add ‘global civil society’ bloggers (politically-inclined individuals and all those working or volunteering for non-profit sector, i.e. NGOs) from around the world.” It seems like a great idea. From their site:

Civiblog is about community and the co-creation of content. We’re starting small but we’re aiming huge. From a few key blogs in Kandahar, Uganda and Guatemala to daily commentary and updates from all corners of the globe. From English-only to multilingual. Static posts to pod casting. No commentary at all to dynamic visual pattern analysis of all blog activity. We’re open to your feedback and we’ll get there with your help. As a global citizen, your input is invaluable as we develop Civiblog together.

Check them out. Get a free blog there. Help make the world better!

Perry Anderson on Rawls, Habermas, and Bobbio, and, while he’s at it, Kant, Hegel, Empire

In the recent New Left Review, Perry Anderson offers a harsh assessment of John Rawls, Jurgen Habermas, and Noberto Bobbio’s takes on international relations and war.

“In these touchingly incoherent sentences, Rawls’s philosophy breaks down. Our society may be corrupt, but the world itself is not. What world? Not ours, which we can only wish might have been different, but another that is still invisible, generations and perhaps continents away. The wistful note is a far cry from Hegel. What the theme of reconciliation in Rawls expresses is something else: not the revelation that the real is rational, but the need for a bridge across the yawning gulf between the two, the ideal of a just society and the reality of a—not marginally, but radically—unjust one. That Rawls himself could not always bear the distance between them can be sensed from a single sentence. In accomplishing its task of reconciliation, ‘political philosophy may try to calm our frustration and rage against our society and its history’. Rage: who would have guessed Rawls capable of it—against his society or its history? But why should it be calmed?”

Chris Bertram over at Crooked Timber turns the tables on Anderson’s review.

“The article has all the classic Anderson hallmarks — the arrogant pronouncement of judgement from on high, the frequent lapses into Latin, a will to the most unsympathetic reading possible. Typically, Anderson is incapable of reading his targets in any other way that as providing pragmatic cover for the American hegemon. On the one hand he seems to adopt the stance of high principle against the unwitting tools of US power whose every argument is accounted for in terms of their personal history and psychology, but on the other it seems hard to know where the critical principles can be coming from since it is hard to see how, on Anderson’s world-view, principles can ever be anything other than the residue of power politics as false consciousness.”

Bubble chamber art

Sean Carrol in the excellent Preposterous Universe:

Bubblechamber Via MetaFilter, via Syaffolee, something that is pretty cool, but also annoying, because it could have been so much cooler: bubble chamber art. Beautiful images generated to resemble pictures taken from bubble chambers, the devices that physicists used to use to observe elementary particle interactions before we switched to fancy electronics.

Here’s the problem: the particle identities don’t make any sense. “Axions exist in a slightly higher dimension and as such are drawn with elevated embossed shadows. Axions are quick to stabilize and fall into single pixel orbits axions automatically re collide themselves after stabilizing.” Nonsense both grammatically, and as physics. (Axions, if they exist at all, do so in our ordinary dimensions, but they are stable neutral particles, and as such they wouldn’t make any tracks in a bubble chamber at all.) I don’t mind if people take license with scientific truths in order to make interesting art, but here it just seems so gratuitous — the pictures would look just as beautiful if the interactions had made sense, and the descriptions would have sounded even more intriguing. Another lost opportunity for bringing the two cultures together.

(Click on image to enlarge.)

Dawkins reporting from the Galapagos, Part II

Richard Dawkins’s second article in a series of three, from The Guardian:

DawkinsLast week, “The giant tortoise’s tale” described ancestral tortoises floating inadvertently across from South America, colonising the Galápagos Islands by mistake, subsequently evolving local differences on each island and giant size on all of them. But why assume that the coloniser was a land tortoise? Wouldn’t it be simpler to guess that marine turtles, already at home in the sea, hauled up on the island beaches as if to lay their eggs, enjoyed what they saw, stayed on dry land and evolved into tortoises? No. Nothing like that happened on the Galápagos islands, which have only been in existence a few million years.

More here.

Living with the Wall

Saree Makdisi writes in the London Review of Books:

The resumption of negotiations between the new Palestinian leadership and the Israeli government has generated a sense of optimism that one hesitates to dismiss out of hand. Yet previous rounds of negotiation, beginning with Oslo, served only to consolidate Israel’s grip on the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem, while making life even more difficult for the Palestinians. In the same way, the lull that followed the death of Arafat in November was seen by many as a time of hope, but it was then that the people of Jayyus, near Qalqilya, learned that more of their land would be expropriated in order to make possible the expansion of the Israeli colony of Zufim, in the ‘seam area’ between the Green Line and the barrier. Their olive groves were bulldozed in December. Blind optimism that overlooks these ‘facts on the ground’ is no better than despair.

More here.

Notes from a time traveller

Jason Cowley reviews WG Sebald’s last book, Campo Santo, in The Guardian:

Sebald is, above all else, an elegist. His lost men, emigrants and wandering solitaries tell of lives ended abruptly or displaced by the inexorable forces of history over which they have no control. Many of the people he writes about exist now only in photographs or as names on gravestones and memorials.

In Campo Santo, this latest collection of fragments, essays and unfinished pieces, we find Sebald in Corsica. There, as usual, he takes a small room in a hotel, visits several museums that prompt the inevitable reflections about Napoleon and his extended family, and accompany him as he begins his lonely walks around the island. Soon we find him in the graveyard of Piana, reading the names of the long dead and worrying about overpopulation and who, if anyone, will honour, let alone remember, the dead of our teeming modern cities: Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Cairo, Lagos, Shanghai, Bombay.

More here.

An Institution between Covers

Sherwin B. Nuland reviews Gray’s Anatomy: The Anatomical Basis of Clinical Practice, 39th edition, edited by Susan Standring and others, in Scientific American:

GraysThe eminent mid-20th century British historian of medicine F.N.L. Poynter once said of Gray’s Anatomy that “what began as a book has become an institution.”

Like all progressive institutions, this one periodically looks itself over, evaluates its development and takes measures to be sure that it has kept up with the times. Keeping up has occasionally required increasing the complexity of its operations, necessarily expanding its bureaucracy, and seeking new and forward-looking leadership. As the institution among medical books, Gray’s Anatomy has throughout its history continued to do all these things, with the result that it has only improved with age; it is venerable but not hoary.

More here.

Maximum pain is aim of new American weapon

David Hambling in New Scientist:

The US military is funding development of a weapon that delivers a bout of excruciating pain from up to 2 kilometres away. Intended for use against rioters, it is meant to leave victims unharmed. But pain researchers are furious that work aimed at controlling pain has been used to develop a weapon. And they fear that the technology will be used for torture.

“I am deeply concerned about the ethical aspects of this research,” says Andrew Rice, a consultant in pain medicine at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, UK. “Even if the use of temporary severe pain can be justified as a restraining measure, which I do not believe it can, the long-term physical and psychological effects are unknown.”

More here.

NY Public Library Opens a Web Gallery of Images

Sarah Boxer in the New York Times:

Lion_1Let the browser beware. The New York Public Library’s collection of prints, maps, posters, photographs, illuminated manuscripts, sheet-music covers, dust jackets, menus and cigarette cards is now online ( If you dive in today without knowing why, you might not surface for a long, long time. The Public Library’s digital gallery is lovely, dark and deep. Quite eccentric, too.

So far, about 275,000 items are online, and you can browse by subject, by collection, by name or by keyword. The images first appear in thumbnail pictures, a dozen to a page. Some include verso views. You can collect ’em, enlarge ’em, download ’em, print ’em and hang ’em on your wall at home. All are free, unless, of course, you plan to make money on them yourself. (Permission is required.)

More here.

Smile Science

John Harlow in The Times:

THEY say “tomayto” and we say “tomarto”. And now a study has established that the Americans and British also have different smiles.

While we British smile by pulling our lips back and upwards and exposing our lower teeth, Americans are more likely simply to part their lips and stretch the corners of their mouths.

So distinct is the difference that the scientist behind the research was able last week to pick out Britons from Americans from close-cropped pictures of their smiles alone, with an accuracy of more than 90%.

The study by Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California in Berkeley, near San Francisco, analysed the 43 facial muscles used by humans to charm, smirk and appease.

More here.

Wednesday, March 2, 2005

The UQQAL and the JUHHAL

Daniel Engber explains who the Druzes are, at Slate:

You can’t convert to being Druze, and you’re not supposed to convert to another religion if you’re born a Druze. Details about the religion are kept very secret—even from most Druzes. Only certain members of the community (maybe 10 or 20 percent) have access to the weekly religious meetings and are allowed to read sacred Druze writings—these people are called uqqal, the wise (as opposed to juhhal, the ignorant). Political and military leaders of the Druzes tend to be drawn from the juhhal; they can be distinguished from the uqqal by the latter’s distinctive dark clothes and white hats. Druzes who wish to become uqqal must undergo a lengthy application process; women are considered especially suitable for initiation. Something like one in 50 initiates attains elevated status and gains a special say in religious and cultural matters; these individuals are called ajaweed.

More here.