Ernst Mayr, 1904-2005

Michael Hopkin in Nature:

1mayrThe evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr died on 3 February at the age of 100, after a short illness. A hugely prolific writer and researcher, he was instrumental in developing modern ideas in evolutionary theory.

As an ornithologist, Mayr classified many birds, most notably risking the hostile terrain of New Guinea to catalogue the region’s birds of paradise. But he will arguably be best remembered for formulating the concept of species that students still use today.

It was Mayr who defined a species as a group of individuals that are capable of breeding with one another, but not with others outside the group. This led to the idea that new species can arise when an existing species becomes separated into two populations that gradually become too distinct to interbreed; it was an answer to a biological conundrum that had eluded Charles Darwin.

More here. And there is an obituary in the New York Times here.

Friday, February 4, 2005

Seeing the Unseen

Freeman Dyson reviews The Fly in the Cathedral: How a Group of Cambridge Scientists Won the International Race to Split the Atom by Brian Cathcart, and A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit by Alan Lightman, in the New York Review of Books:

Every atom is almost entirely made of empty space, with a tiny object called the nucleus and even tinier objects called electrons flying around inside it. Ernest Rutherford, a young New Zealander working in Manchester, England, discovered this fact about atoms in 1909. He shot fast particles at a thin film of gold and observed the way the particles bounced back. The pattern of the recoiling particles showed directly the internal structure of the atoms in the film. The discovery of the tiny nucleus came as a big surprise to Rutherford as well as to everybody else. The phrase “the fly in the cathedral” described what Rutherford discovered. The fly is the nucleus; the cathedral is the atom. Rutherford’s experiment showed that almost all the mass and almost all the energy of the atom was in the nucleus, although the nucleus occupied less than a trillionth part of the volume.

More here.

Quick Reaction Time May Predict Long Life

From the American Psychological Society:

…researchers learned that those with higher IQ scores lived longer, a result consistent with other studies. The study also showed that characteristics significantly related to death included male gender and smoking. But Deary and Der also found something new – faster reaction times seemed an even better predictor of long life than IQ.

There are different ways the results could be interpreted. Slow reaction times could reflect a degeneration of the brain, which in turn could reflect degenerating physical health (an obvious possible cause of earlier mortality). But in another study the IQs of 11-year-old subjects also were found to predict life span length, just as accurately as it did for the middle-aged participants in Deary and Der’s 14-year study.

More here.

Schiller: The German Shakespeare?

Michael Billington in The Guardian:

Shakespeare is crucial to an understanding of Schiller, and one thing we have come to grasp in the past 20 years is the close kinship between German romanticism and our own dramatic tradition. George Steiner in The Death of Tragedy points out that Goethe and Schiller both adapted Shakespeare’s plays for the Weimar stage. In November 1797 you even find Schiller writing to Goethe: “In the last days I have been reading the plays of Shakespeare which deal with the War of the Roses and now that I have finished Richard III , I am filled with true amazement. No Shakespearean play has so much reminded me of Greek tragedy.” Insofar as Richard III deals with the fulfilment of a curse, Schiller was exactly right.

In fact, Schiller is much closer to us than to the hermetic French classical tradition of Racine and Corneille – a point instinctively understood by a young generation of directors free from the anti-German bias of their predecessors. When Lindsay Posner staged a thrilling version of The Robbers at the Gate in 1995, as part of a Sturm und Drang season, the Shakespearean echoes were loud and strong. In the play, two brothers compete for their father’s trust. The villainous Franz inescapably reminded one of Edmund in Lear ; the heroic Karl debated suicide in the manner of Hamlet; and when their imprisoned father cried out from the cellar, he became an echo of Shakespeare’s Ghost.

More here.

Martin Peretz on Larry Summers and Madame Curie

From The New Republic:

Solvay27I’ve been thinking of Madame Curie ever since Harvard President Lawrence Summers stirred a commotion with his remarks about women in the sciences. It has been 45 years since I came to Harvard as a graduate student and 39 years since I joined the faculty. At that time, there was just one female tenured full professor, Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin, an astronomer who filled the singular Radcliffe chair designated for a woman. An important political theorist (whom I didn’t like and who didn’t like me), Judith Shklar, had to content herself with the title of “lecturer” until quite late in her career. My friend Agnes Mongan, who had probably taught more museum curators than anyone else in the United States, served as acting director of the Fogg for years, an incomprehensible indignity. No one can deny that Harvard has changed, and not only in regard to gender. (When I arrived, more than 10 percent of the freshman class came from Exeter and Andover, with another large cohort from the St. Grottlesex schools nationwide. Today, more than 25 percent come from homes where English is a second language.) Summers doesn’t want to stop that change, he wants to accelerate it: In fact, his current obsession is the inability of growing swaths of the population to afford higher education’s mounting costs, a very worthy obsession indeed.

No one serious has called Summers a sexist. (Not even Nancy Hopkins, a professor of biology at MIT, who said that, if she hadn’t walked out, she would have fainted or barfed.) Which is appropriate, since sexism had nothing to do with his controversial statements.

More here.

This remarkable photograph is from the 1927 Solvay Conference. Marie Curie is seated in the front row between Planck and Lorentz, who is next to Einstein. Bohr, Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Dirac, Pauli, de Broglie, and Max Born are also present. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Thursday, February 3, 2005

Now I Am Become Death, the Shatterer of Worlds

William Lanouette reviews Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma by Jeremy Bernstein, in Issues in Science and Technology:

Oppie_1Imagine spending half a century to write a short book. That’s what Jeremy Bernstein has done, and the wait was worth it. A physics professor and New Yorker writer, Bernstein has watched and studied J. Robert Oppenheimer since the1950s: sitting in his lectures and seminars, riding with him on trains, partying, and picnicking. Bernstein calls this book “the New Yorker profile I never wrote,” and it has that chatty personal style. But it also brims with new stories and scientific explanations, making it an ideal layman’s introduction to this elusive and conflicted 20thcentury giant.

Born in New York in 1904, Oppenheimer grew up in an assimilated Jewish family under the sway of the Ethical Culture Society and its rigorous school. There, nurturing teachers guided him to love literature and poetry but also to discover chemistry and physics, enjoying “the bumpy contingent nature of the way in which you actually find out about something.” He studied chemistry at Harvard, then sailed for England. At Cambridge, Oppenheimer found himself among the pioneers of nuclear physics (including Ernest Rutherford and J. J. Thomson), but without guidance he foundered, missed his supportive family, and suffered an acute nervous breakdown.

More of the book review here.

I have taken the title of this post, of course, from Oppenheimer’s famous quoting of the Baghavad-Gita upon witnessing the first atomic explosion due to mankind, at the Trinity site in the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Here, for the poetic, is the full quote (referring to the god Shiva):

If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once into the sky
That would be like the splendor of the Mighty one…
I am become Death,
The shatterer of Worlds.

Third of European cancer patients use complementary and alternative therapies

Unfortunately, it seems that the hocus-pocus of “alternative medicine” like homeopathy is impossible to eradicate, especially when people are in desperate situations with diseases like cancer. Homeopathic drugs are so diluted, that an average dose of homeopathic medicine is unlikely to contain even a single molecule of the active ingredient. Homeopaths make bizarre claims about how this is okay because the active ingredient leaves some sort of “vibration” behind in the other inert molecules, which has the salutary effect. If this were shown to be true, we would have to revise much of what we know about the universe, and science would change in a fundamental way. Which is just another way of saying: homeopathy is undoubtably a bunch of hogwash; anyone with the least bit of background in science knows this. So is almost all other “alternative” therapy. I realize that, like prayer, it probably makes its irrational practitioners feel better, but I can’t help thinking that it is better to understand and face the truth about disease, even in the worst of circumstances. Billions are spent on things like “crystal healing” every year by the gullible. In fact, Complementary and Alternative Medicine is the second largest growth industry in Europe right now.

More than a third of cancer patients in Europe make use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), according to one of the largest surveys undertaken of CAM in cancer.

In the first Europe-wide study of CAM, a team of international researchers found that its use varied from a low of just under 15% of cancer patients in Greece to a high of nearly three-quarters of patients in Italy.

Writing in Annals of Oncology[1] (Thursday 3 February) lead author Dr Alex Molassiotis said that their survey of nearly 1,000 patients showed that it was vital that health professionals were aware of CAM use and able to educate patients, and that the EU was involved in regulating it more efficiently.

Read more about this depressing trend here.

Musharraf signs book deal

From Al Jazeera:

23_6_2003_pervez20musharrafPakistani President Pervez Musharraf has sold the rights to his political memoirs, which will feature his views on the US war on terror and the Bush administration

Coming to an arrangement with Simon & Schuster Imprint Free Press on Thursday, the company said Musharraf had showed his proposal to several New York publishers before settling for the unit of Viacom Inc.

The military officer who seized power in October 1999 has been a key Bush administration ally as the US pursued wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The book is to be published in the autumn of 2006, according to Free Press Vice President and Senior Editor Bruce Nichols.

More here.

New NYC Artists Wanted

Carol Vogel in the New York Times:

Ms. Heiss, director of the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens, and Klaus Biesenbach, a curator at P.S. 1 and its big-sister affiliate, the Museum of Modern Art, were heading over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. It had been a long afternoon tramping through snow banks and navigating obscure streets in Brooklyn to visit artists’ studios. Now, Ms. Heiss and Mr. Biesenbach were on their way to Columbia University to call on a 27-year-old art student whose work Mr. Biesenbach had spotted in December at a fair held by the New Art Dealers Alliance in Miami.

This is more or less how they and their colleagues on a team of curators have spent the last 10 months – stopping by studios, inviting artists to P.S. 1 and poring over thousands of submissions from painters, sculptors and conceptual artists to photographers and film and video artists, all in the New York metropolitan area.

From more than 2,400 submissions, museum directors and curators will choose the work of 175 artists who they say best capture the city’s contemporary art scene for “Greater New York 2005,” a giant survey show opening on March 13 at P.S. 1.

More here.

More on the New Anti-Evolutionists

Chris Mooney in American Prospect:

It’s official. With recent news of lawsuits over the teaching of evolution in both Georgia and Pennsylvania, even Time magazine now considers the fight over Charles Darwin’s theory a live issue again. The New York Times and The Washington Post have both come out against the new anti-evolutionism, while on FOX News, a braying Bill O’Reilly recently announced that “there are a lot of very brilliant scholars who believe the reason we have incomplete science on evolution is that there is a higher power involved in this.” O’Reilly then proceeded to call the American Civil Liberties Union “the Taliban” for opposing the teaching of anti-evolutionist perspectives in public-school science classes.

More here.

Why the Ground Zero Design is So Bad

Martin Filler in the New York Review of Books:

“When the gods wish to punish us,” Oscar Wilde wrote in An Ideal Husband, “they answer our prayers.” That seems to be true in architecture, whose modern history is replete with eagerly contested public commissions that have turned out to be quite the opposite of the triumphs their winners first imagined them to be. Rarely in the past century have the most memorable buildings resulted from competitions, no matter how promising their rosters of participants. The 1922 contest for a new Chicago Tribune headquarters is now best remembered for the losing entries of leading early modernist architects such as Walter Gropius, Eliel Saarinen, and Bruno Taut. Indeed, Adolf Loos’s iconic design for a tower in the form of a colossal Doric column is far more famous today than the tepid neo-Gothic pastiche by Raymond Hood and John Mead Howells that was constructed.

More recently, the coveted commission for the Getty Center in Los Angeles, which took thirteen years and a billion dollars to complete, has done little for the reputation of the once envied Richard Meier, whose limited powers of invention were exposed by a project of great magnitude, resources, and duration. The recent renovation and expansion of the Museum of Modern Art in New York is another example of that phenomenon. After a widely publicized competition that included several stars of the present mid-career architectural generation— among them Rem Koolhaas, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, and Tod Williams and Billie Tsien—the job went to a little-known museum specialist, Yoshio Taniguchi. A minimalist and a perfectionist, Taniguchi discovered, to his dismay, that in America, working on the mammoth scale of the new MoMA, he could not attain the lyrical delicacy of his smaller and more finely crafted buildings in Japan.

More here.

Tin can creativity

03tinn Our esteemed editor-in-chief, Abbas, has, for years, housed his hi-res digital camera in an Altoids tin, which he carries in his pocket, so this one’s for him:

“WHEN Limor Fried, who recently earned a master’s degree at M.I.T., decided to build an MP3 player not long ago, she went looking for the right case for her new device.

“People put a lot of interesting stuff in Altoids tins,” Ms. Fried said. “Usually it’s one of two options, either drugs or condoms.”

Actually, said Chris Peddy, marketing director at Callard & Bowser-Suchard, which makes Altoids, the tins are far more useful than that, and have been for a long time.

“Altoids have always been what we call a curiously strong lifestyle accessory,” Mr. Peddy said. In fact, Mr. Peddy said, the history of Altoids goes back 100 years, to England, and the tin itself was long seen as a “gentlemanly accessory”.”

Take the Altoids Challenge, but first read the rest.

Body Worlds, The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies

The Body Worlds exhibition attracts a lot of attention and controvesy, made up as it is of real plastinated human corpses.Corpse_1_1

“In 1977, Gunther von Hagens invented the plastination technique which marked the beginning of a second anatomical revolution. Andreas Vesalius who created precise anatomical drawings as early as in 1543 was the pioneer of modern anatomy. Since then human corpses have slowly disappeared again from the human eye with the establishment of medical schools. A taboo emerged.

Gunther von Hagens’ plastinated bodies obviously touch upon this taboo and trigger controversial reactions throughout the world. The high number of visitors, however, proves the general population’s need to learn more about the structure and functions of their bodies.

Since the first exhibition in Mannheim in 1997 more than 15 million people have viewed the interior of the human body. The BODY WORLDS is hence the most successful touring exhibition world-wide.”

You can donate your body to the project if you want to, as 300 deceased and 6000 living people have done.

(Thanks to Elke Zuern for pointing out the exhibition.)

US Military Bases in Iraq

Alex Cooley and Kimberly Marten have this piece in the International Herald Tribune on some problems the US may encounter in making military bases in Iraq permanent.

“Both Congress and the Bush administration have been hotly
debating the future of the American troop presence in Iraq in the wake
of Sunday’s elections. A key question is whether some small number of
forces should be stationed at U.S. military bases after most troops

Discussion tends to focus on U.S. geostrategic interests in the Gulf,
while ignoring experiences with overseas bases elsewhere. The
nonmilitary aspects of bases have political consequences that can trump
security concerns. Planners might consider three factors that help
explain why bases are welcomed (or at least tolerated) in some
countries but not others.”

Make your art and eat it too

03chef “We can create any sort of flavor on a printed image that we set our minds to,” Mr. Cantu said. The connections need not stop with things ordinarily thought of as food. “What does M. C. Escher’s ‘Relativity’ painting taste like? That’s where we go next.”

“Food critics have cheered, comparing Mr. Cantu to Salvador Dali and Willy Wonka for his peculiarly playful style of cooking. More precisely, he is a chef in the Buck Rogers tradition, blazing a trail to a space-age culinary frontier.

Mr. Cantu wants to use technology to change the way people perceive (and eat) food, and he uses Moto as his laboratory. “Gastronomy has to catch up to the evolution in technology,” he said. “And we’re helping that process happen” .”

All this refers to the creations of Homaro Cantu, who may well be America’s first chef to throw himself into the science lab style of culinary creativity pioneered by Ferran Adria of Spain.

“… the sushi made by Mr. Cantu, the 28-year-old executive chef at Moto in Chicago, often contains no fish. It is prepared on a Canon i560 inkjet printer rather than a cutting board. He prints images of maki on pieces of edible paper made of soybeans and cornstarch, using organic, food-based inks of his own concoction. He then flavors the back of the paper, which is ordinarily used to put images onto birthday cakes, with powdered soy and seaweed seasonings. “

“(A customer) described a recent meal at Moto as “dinner theater on your plate.”

Read the article.

Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Dr. Ecstasy: Alexander Shulgin has created more than a hundred hallucinogens

Drake Bennett in the New York Times Magazine:

30ecst1…the continuing explosion in options for chemical mind-manifestation is as natural as the passage of time. But what Shulgin’s narrative leaves out is the fact that most of this supposedly inexorable diversification took place in a lab in his backyard. For 40 years, working in plain sight of the law and publishing his results, Shulgin has been a one-man psychopharmacological research sector. (Timothy Leary called him one of the century’s most important scientists.) By Shulgin’s own count, he has created nearly 200 psychedelic compounds, among them stimulants, depressants, aphrodisiacs, ”empathogens,” convulsants, drugs that alter hearing, drugs that slow one’s sense of time, drugs that speed it up, drugs that trigger violent outbursts, drugs that deaden emotion — in short, a veritable lexicon of tactile and emotional experience. And in 1976, Shulgin fished an obscure chemical called MDMA out of the depths of the chemical literature and introduced it to the wider world, where it came to be known as Ecstasy.

More here.

How Arab papers spun the election in Iraq

Joseph Braude in Slate:

How do you spin democratic elections in Iraq when your boss is an authoritarian ruler with a restive population?

First option: Pretend those elections never happened. I scoured this Monday’s major Libyan papers online for any evidence that Iraqis voted the day before and found nothing. Well, almost nothing: The Tripoli daily Al Zahf al Akhdar buried–under reports of momentous African conferences and ambassador meet-and-greets–a piece titled, 27 People Killed in Iraq. The article noted that “Police sources in Iraq said that no less than 27 people were killed in attacks targeting voting centers in sundry parts of the country.” Voting centers? Whatever for? It seems unwise for a government-run propaganda sheet to print stories that create more questions than they answer–advice apparently heeded by the Sudanese daily Al Ra’i al Am, which in contrast to its Libyan counterpart, simply printed nothing about Iraq in its Monday edition.

The other tactic–and the more popular one–takes into account the fact that most Arab majorities have alternative sources of information, making a news blackout on the Iraqi elections infeasible. In these countries, the role of the pro-government press isn’t to hide facts, but rather to spin them to the benefit of the ruling regime. Which explains why so many Arab newspapers dwelled on the negative Monday in their pieces on the Iraqi election.

More here.

Two books about Hollywood

Louis Menand reviews a couple of books about the movies in the New Yorker:

The cinema, like the novel, is always dying. The movies were killed by sequels; they were killed by conglomerates; they were killed by special effects. “Heaven’s Gate” was the end; “Star Wars” was the end; “Jaws” did it. It was the ratings system, profit participation, television, the blacklist, the collapse of the studio system, the Production Code. The movies should never have gone to color; they should never have gone to sound. The movies have been declared dead so many times that it is almost surprising that they were born, and, as every history of the cinema makes a point of noting, the first announcement of their demise practically coincided with the announcement of their birth. “The cinema is an invention without any commercial future,” said Louis Lumière, the man who opened the world’s first movie theatre, in Paris, in 1895. He thought that motion pictures were a novelty item, and, in 1900, after successfully exhibiting his company’s films around the world, he got out of the business. It seemed the prudent move.

More here.

Considering the Last Romantic, Ayn Rand, at 100

Edward Rothstein in the New York Times:

Rand184What did Ayn Rand want?

Today is the centennial of her birth, and while newsletters and Web sites devoted to her continue to proliferate, and while little about her private life or public influence remains unplumbed, it is still easier to understand what she didn’t want than what she did. Her scorn was unmistakable in her two novel-manifestos, “The Fountainhead” (1943), about a brilliant architect who stands proud against collective tastes and egalitarian sentimentality, and “Atlas Shrugged” (1957), about brilliant industrialists who stand proud against government bureaucrats and socialized mediocrity. It is still possible, more than 20 years after her death, to find readers choosing sides: those who see her as a subtle philosopher pitted against those who see her as a pulp novelist with pretensions.

More here.

The New Maginot Line: Missile Defense

From Seed:

In August of 1939, Winston Churchill paid a visit to the Maginot Line, a network of French defenses built to safeguard the country’s eastern border against an invasion from her perennial enemy, Germany. “My first impression, the strongest,” Churchill said upon inspecting the vast expanse of forts, “is that France is protected by a shield of material and, above all, by a shield of men, which should assure you of absolute security in this region and defend you from the horrors of war.” Less than a year later, of course, the German Blitzkrieg swept around the defenses and conquered France, transforming the Maginot Line from military wonder to metaphor.

The Maginot analogy will almost certainly be employed by missile-defense critics this fall when the Bush administration publicly declares operational the first piece of the nation’s ballistic missile defense system. After all, similarities between the two generations of defense are easy to find: The line’s elaborate network of fortresses and underground bunkers were advertised as the technological marvel of their time, just as the “hit to kill” ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) system—which by year’s end will consist of six missile interceptors based in Fort Greely, AK, and another four at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California—is described by military and government officials. The Maginot Line’s construction contributed to France’s prewar budget deficits, in much the same way that missile defense—at a cost of roughly $10 billion next year and $70-plus billion over the last 20 years—has drained its share of the U.S. treasury.

More here.