George F. Kennan, 1904-2005

George Kennan, the man whose strategy for containing Communism shaped much Kennan_pic of the post-war world, has died.

“George F. Kennan, the American diplomat who did more than any other envoy of his generation to shape United States policy during the cold war, died on Thursday night in Princeton, N.J. He was 101.

Mr. Kennan was the man to whom the White House and the Pentagon turned when they sought to understand the Soviet Union after World War II. He conceived the cold-war policy of containment, the idea that the United States should stop the global spread of Communism by diplomacy, politics, and covert action – by any means short of war.

As the State Department’s first policy planning chief in the late 1940’s, serving Secretary of State George C. Marshall, Mr. Kennan was an intellectual architect of the Marshall Plan, which sent billions of dollars of American aid to nations devastated by World War II. At the same time, he conceived a secret ‘political warfare’ unit that aimed to roll back Communism, not merely contain it. His brainchild became the covert-operations directorate of the Central Intelligence Agency.”

Greater New York

The Youth Movement continues in New York arts.

The second “Greater New York,” the youth-besotted, cheerful, immodestly ingratiating jumbo survey of contemporary art, has opened to the predictable mobs at P.S. 1 in Queens. It roams from roof to basement, weaving in stairwells, a ramshackle behemoth. . . . Kimm1843

The show peruses a scene whose wide stylistic range, persistent teenage infatuations and overall dexterousness are firmly entrenched characteristics of the marketplace. Craft and finesse are de rigueur. Descendants of Amy Sillman, Shahzia Sikander and Elizabeth Peyton perform ever-greater feats of willowy elegance. Gallerists and their client pools of hedge-fund optimists, competing for the latest hot list, troll university campuses for budding talents. Last time, there were hardly enough Chelsea galleries to go around. Now there aren’t enough artists. Some of the show’s wall labels, I noticed, have galleries hastily scrawled in pen, as if the artists, buoyed by their inclusion here, were suddenly snatched up in the interval between printing and pasting up the names.

Fiction informed by science

A. S. Byatt’s encounters with science shape the story and characters in her four-part series of novels.

Snail_2 I realized, one idle morning, that a snail in Latin is helix. And a snail’s shell is in the form of a spiral. Later I discovered that there were two species of snail, Helix hortensis and Helix nemoralis (the snails of the garden and the grove), that could be fitted into both my paradise garden imagery and my realist scientific tale. By pure luck I met Steve Jones, an evolutionary biologist at University College London, on a science radio programme (we were actually talking about Marcel Proust and the concept of time in physics). I discovered that Steve was the world expert on what had (unfortunately for my verbal web) been renamed Cepaea hortensis and Cepaea nemoralis. He had been studying the genetics of the external spiral of colours on the shells of the snails — work which the discovery of methods to extract DNA had rendered redundant. Novelists invent facts because of intellectual needs. I later asked Steve if he could see any connection at all between snails and work on neurons in the brain, on memory: he said that snails had giant neurons which made them peculiarly apt for this kind of experiment. I had an imagined woman scientist whom I needed to move from snail genetics to neuroscience. Curiosity is a profound drive in both novelists and scientists. I took great pleasure in learning about snails.

The other spiral that obsessed me was the Fibonacci spiral. It seemed to my non-mathematical brain a thing that could be made as a word game: take a number, add it to itself, the next number is the sum of the previous two, and so on. But this spiral informed (to use an old seventeenth-century word for shaping from within, like the soul in the body) all sorts of natural phenomena, from climbing plants to the sprouting of twigs round stems, from snails to pine cones and sunflowers. I discovered that Alan Turing had been obsessed by explaining this and had not had the computers to do it. I met John Maynard Smith at a Darwin seminar at the London School of Economics and Political Science and he sent me a paper by two French scientists in which they work out the maths and the mechanics of growth in biological Fibonacci spirals. I cannot really understand it, but I do try. I felt that the Fibonacci spiral was an example of a platonic order — a sense that an invisible mathematical order informed all our physical accidental world. My fearful mathematician at the end of the third novel moves from studying the computer as a brain to studying this spiral. This is for him a kind of paradisal completeness.

Read more in Nature here.

he opens his mouth only to change feet

Rachel Donadio in the New York Times:

Summers583_1In 1937, H. L. Mencken offered some advice to the son of the publisher Alfred A. Knopf. ”My guess is you’d have more fun at Yale than at Princeton, but my real choice is Harvard,” he wrote. ”I don’t think Harvard is a better university than the other two, but it seems that Americans set a higher value on its A.B. If I had a son I’d take him to Cambridge and chain him to the campus pump to remain there until he had acquired a sound Harvard accent. It’s worth money in this great free Republic.”

And so it is. No university occupies a more central place in the American imagination than Harvard. In ”The Sound and the Fury,” the Compson family sells an inheritance of pastureland to send their son Quentin north to Harvard. His experience there, albeit fictional, does not become the stuff of university promotional materials. Bedeviled by a Southern past at odds with the secure respectability that Harvard promises to confer, Quentin cracks up and drowns himself in the Charles River. ”Harvard my Harvard boy Harvard harvard,” he daydreams at one point. Repeated over and over, the word is reduced to syllables, those syllables to nothing.

Harvard, boy, Harvard. What is Harvard? That question has come to the fore more than ever during the tumultuous presidency of Lawrence H. Summers. A brilliant economist who took office in 2001, Summers has become known for his brutally direct leadership style. As one joke circulating has it, he opens his mouth only to change feet.

More here.

Relativity Poetry Contest Winners Announced

Michelle Pauli in The Guardian:

Einstein_2Einstein may not seem like an obvious muse for poets, but he inspired Terry Pratchett to celebrate the fact that he had “worlds enough and time / to spare an hour to find a rhyme” and Sir Patrick Moore to ponder on “the deep futility of all ephemeral things”.

They were among the authors and experts who were invited by the British Association for the Advancement of Science (the BA) to celebrate national science week and Einstein year by writing a poem based around the work of the famous physicist.

The competition was also open to the public, and the winners were announced today, with the adult prize going to a versified imaginary conversation with Einstein.

Gordon Judge’s poem, which manages to include the legendary equation E=mc2, begins

I once saw Einstein on a train
Which whistled past our station.
‘Your clock ticks much too slow,’ I yelled.
‘Ach, nein. That’s time dilation

and goes on to provide an ‘idiot’s guide’ to the theory of relativity in four-line stanzas.

More here.  And read the winning poems here.  It truly is an “idiot’s guide” since Gordon Judge already gets the science wrong in the second stanza, I just noticed (and too bad no one at the BA did):

“I’m travelling near the speed of light
(A trick I’ve learned to master).
To me, your clock goes much too quick –
You’re getting older, faster!”

On the contrary, to Einstein, Gordon’s clock would also be slowed for symmetrical reasons (to each observer, the other’s clock appears slow).

Welcome to New Dork

John Leonard on Jonathan Letham in the New York Review of Books:

In The Fortress of Solitude, his great white whale of a novel, Jonathan Lethem chases after childhood, neighborhood, and the American leviathan of race relations. In Men and Cartoons, a grab bag of his stories, he paddles a kayak downstream over waters not exactly rapid. Old friends from elementary school reappear in order to deplore the compromises and corruptions of their former classmates. Bygone parents are revealed to have been capable of secret, sexual exultations. Young lovers in a burgled house go to bed with the ghosts of past relationships made visible by a magic spray. Artists, agents, editors, opticians, and a talking sheep named Sylvia Plath negotiate dystopias of gridlock. In “Access Fantasy,” one character lives in his car in a city-wide traffic jam on the wrong side of a One-Way Permeable Barrier.

But the joke’s on Hemingway. According to Lethem, men without women employ comic books to compensate for their absence. When his characters aren’t listening to Frank Zappa and the Talking Heads, or dreaming up scenarios for interactive video games, or hiring out as “advertising robots” at the local Undermall, or destroying the world with air bags made of cabbages, they are thinking about Stan Lee and R. Crumb, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Dr. Doom, and Captain America. If Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, Walt Whitman, and Carl Jung show up in “Super Goat Man,” the most ambitious of these stories, they are really only red herrings or highbrow beards in an epic tale of an Electric Comics superhero from the Sixties who is reduced in the Eighties to teaching a college seminar on “Dissidence and Desire: Marginal Heroics in American Life 1955–1975.”

More here.

From Islam, Pluralist Democracies Will Surely Grow

Reza Aslan in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

From the very moment that God spoke the first word of Revelation to Muhammad — “Recite!” — the story of Islam has been in a constant state of evolution as it responds to the social, cultural, political, and temporal circumstances of those who are telling it. Now it must evolve once more.

It may be too early to know who will write the next chapter of Islam’s story, but it is not too early to recognize who will ultimately win the war between reform and counterreform. When 14 centuries ago Muhammad launched a revolution in Mecca to replace the archaic, rigid, and inequitable strictures of tribal society with a radically new vision of divine morality and social egalitarianism, he tore apart the fabric of traditional Arab society. It took many years of violence and devastation to cleanse Arabia of its “false idols.” It will take many more to cleanse Islam of its new false idols — bigotry and fanaticism — worshiped by those who have replaced Muhammad’s original vision of tolerance and unity with their own ideals of hatred and discord. But the cleansing is inevitable, and the tide of reform cannot be stopped. The Islamic Reformation is already here. We are all living in it.

Full essay here.


T. A. Frank. in The New Republic:

If present trends continue, the term “liberal” may eventually come to mean something like “conservative who occasionally disagrees with G. Gordon Liddy.” To fight back, TNR Online has decided unilaterally to reclaim the parameters of the debate. We’ll allow the Bush administration to hold down the right end of the spectrum, but no longer will we permit The Nation to represent the far left–that job will instead fall to the dedicated journalists at KCNA, the news agency of North Korea. As for the middle, that can still be represented by David Gergen. (We would have chosen David Broder but, unlike Gergen, Broder has occasionally been unavailable for televised comment.) …


1. About Condoleezza Rice, I agree with:

A. George W. Bush: “America has benefited from the wise counsel of Dr. Condoleezza Rice and our family has been enriched by our friendship with this wonderful person.”

B. David Gergen: “Listen, there’s nothing to say that she won’t be a terrific secretary of state. She may well be. She’s obviously a woman of enormous stature.”

C. North Korea: “Condoleezza Rice [is] a handmaid of the United States’ aggressive external policy and a faithful spokeswoman for the U.S. munitions monopolies.”

Correct answer: B. While North Korea deserves credit for use of the terms “munitions monopolies” and the under-used “handmaid,” the correct liberal answer is Gergen’s, since it’s true that Rice’s tenure may indeed prove “terrific”–in the original (example: “terrific conflagration”) sense of the word.

Rest of the test here.

The artist as neuroscientist

Patrick Cavanagh in Nature:

Monet_1Although we rarely confuse a painting for the scene it presents, we are often taken in by the vividness of the lighting and the three-dimensional (3D) layout it captures. This is not surprising for a photorealistic painting, but even very abstract paintings can convey a striking sense of space and light, despite remarkable deviations from realism.

The rules of physics that apply in a real scene are optional in a painting; they can be obeyed or ignored at the discretion of the artist to further the painting’s intended effect. Some deviations, such as Picasso’s skewed faces or the wildly coloured shadows in the works of Matisse and other Impressionists of the Fauvist school, are meant to be noticed as part of the style and message of the painting. There is, however, an ‘alternative physics’ operating in many paintings that few of us ever notice but which is just as improbable. These transgressions of standard physics — impossible shadows, colours, reflections or contours — often pass unnoticed by the viewer and do not interfere with the viewer’s understanding of the scene. This is what makes them discoveries of neuroscience. Because we do not notice them, they reveal that our visual brain uses a simpler, reduced physics to understand the world. Artists use this alternative physics because these particular deviations from true physics do not matter to the viewer: the artist can take shortcuts, presenting cues more economically, and arranging surfaces and lights to suit the message of the piece rather than the requirements of the physical world.

In discovering these shortcuts artists act as research neuroscientists, and there is a great deal to be learned from tracking down their discoveries.

More here.

Clues to History of Human Migration in Pig DNA

Rosie Mestel in the Los Angeles Times:

The pig work provides a new tool for tracking movements of prehistoric humans, the authors said. By assessing the genes of local domestic pigs, researchers could learn where the animals’ wild boar ancestors hailed from — and uncover ancient trade routes and human migration paths.

The pig DNA data have suggested that a theory about Pacific Islanders originally coming from Taiwan is incorrect. The data show that pigs in Hawaii do not match wild boars from Taiwan, the authors said.

More here.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Making Black Holes

An experiment at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) may have created a black hole, or its analog.

“A fireball created in a US particle accelerator has the characteristics of a black hole, a physicist has said.

It was generated at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) in New York, US, which smashes beams of gold nuclei together at near light speeds.

Horatiu Nastase says his calculations show that the core of the fireball has a striking similarity to a black hole.”

Nastase’s paper which

“argue[s] that the fireball observed at RHIC is (the analog of) a dual black hole. In previous works, we have argued that the large behaviour of the total QCD cross section is due to production of dual black holes, and that in the QCD effective field theory it corresponds to a nonlinear soliton of the pion field. Now we argue that the RHIC fireball is this soliton. . . . RHIC is in a certain sense a string theory testing machine, analyzing the formation and decay of dual black holes, and giving information about the black hole interior.”

can be found here.

String Theory is like a 50-year-old woman wearing way too much lipstick

Keay Davidson in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Already, the split over string theory has caused tensions at some of the nation’s university physics departments. “The physics department at Stanford effectively fissioned over this issue,” said Laughlin, now on sabbatical in South Korea. “I think string theory is textbook ‘post-modernism’ (and) fueled by irresponsible expenditures of money.”

The dispute could become explosive this year, with the publication of contrarily minded books by two of the best-known and most eloquent scientific popularizers of physics, string theorist Michio Kaku of City University of New York and astrophysicist-particle theorist Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Skeptics have long mocked string theory as untestable, because experimental studies of it would require machines of huge scale, perhaps even as big as the solar system. In his new book “Parallel Worlds” (Doubleday), Kaku disagrees and argues that the first experimental evidence for string theory might begin to emerge within several years from experiments with scientific instruments such as a new particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, which opens for business near Geneva in 2007.

More here.

Diane Arbus at the Met

Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker:

Nudist_campThe revolutionary photographer Diane Arbus, who died in 1971, at the age of forty-eight, said, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” That’s not quite right, on the evidence of “Diane Arbus: Revelations,” an indeed revealing, though gratingly worshipful, retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum. Confronting a major photograph by Arbus, you lose your ability to know—or distinctly to think or feel, and certainly to judge—anything. She turned picture-making inside out. She didn’t gaze at her subjects; she induced them to gaze at her. Selected for their powers of strangeness and confidence, they burst through the camera lens with a presence so intense that whatever attitude she or you or anyone might take toward them disintegrates. Arbus’s fine-grained black-and-white film and minimalist form—usually a subject centered in a square format—act with the virtual instantaneity of punchy graphic design. The image starts to affect you before you are fully aware of looking at it. Its significance dawns on you with the leisureliness of shock, in the state of mind that occupies, for example, the moment—a foretaste of eternity—after you have slipped on an icy sidewalk and before you hit the ground. You may feel, crazily, that you have never really seen a photograph before. Nor is this impression of novelty evanescent. Over the years, Arbuses that I once found devastating have seemed to wait for me to change just a little, then to devastate me all over again. No other photographer has been more controversial. Her greatness, a fact of experience, remains imperfectly understood.

More here.

DNA gets a fake fifth base

Emma Marris in Nature:

Helix One of the first things any biology student learns is that DNA, the recipe for life, is written with four letters. But what if you could add extra ones? Researchers who have managed to build, and replicate, DNA with an ersatz fifth letter are on their way to finding out.

Getting the modified DNA to work requires the team to answer all sorts of basic biochemistry questions. But the ultimate hope is that a few of these artificial letters could be sprinkled into the genome of a living microbe, to track its adaptation and evolution.

The four letters that occur naturally in DNA are chemical bases called adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C) and thymine (T). The sequences that code for the different proteins to be built within a cell are spelled out using these four letters.

Floyd Romesberg and his colleagues at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, have developed a fifth base, called 3-fluorobenzene, or 3FB. The bases in a zipper of DNA pair up across the molecule’s two strands: A always pairs with T, and G always pairs with C. The 3FB pairs with itself, forming a completely new base pair.

More here.

Outsourcing Innovation…And Everything Else

Paul Craig Roberts in CounterPunch:

A country cannot be a superpower without a high tech economy, and America’s high tech economy is eroding as I write.

The erosion began when US corporations outsourced manufacturing. Today many US companies are little more than a brand name selling goods made in Asia.

Corporate outsourcers and their apologists presented the loss of manufacturing capability as a positive development. Manufacturing, they said, was the “old economy,” whose loss to Asia ensured Americans lower consumer prices and greater shareholder returns. The American future was in the “new economy” of high tech knowledge jobs.

This assertion became an article of faith. Few considered how a country could maintain a technological lead when it did not manufacture.

So far in the 21st century there is scant sign of the American “new economy.” The promised knowledge-based jobs have not appeared. To the contrary, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a net loss of 221,000 jobs in six major engineering job classifications.

Today many computer, electrical and electronics engineers, who were well paid at the end of the 20th century, are unemployed and cannot find work.

More here.

The Whole-House Machine

Brad Lemley in Discover:

HouseinventorIn a sunny laboratory at the University of Southern California, a robotically controlled nozzle squeezes a ribbon of concrete onto a wooden plank. Every two minutes and 14 seconds, the nozzle completes a circuit, topping the previous ribbon with a fresh one. Thus a five-foot-long wall rises—a wall built without human intervention.

The wall is humble but portentous. “If you can build a wall, you can build a house,” says Behrokh Khoshnevis, an engineering professor, as he watches the gray mixture squirt out in neat courses from what he calls a contour crafter, a machine about eight feet tall and six feet wide. If all goes as planned, Khoshnevis will use a larger, more advanced version of the device later this year to erect the first robotically constructed house in just one day.

Khoshnevis believes his contour crafter will revolutionize building construction, dragging it into the digital age.

More here.

Genetics: The X factor

Erika Check in Nature:

This January, Harvard University president Larry Summers incited a near riot by suggesting that men might be better than women at science. The resulting pandemonium has revealed few genuine insights into male and female mental abilities — although it has shown that old prejudices linger on campus, and beyond.

In contrast, biology presents a challenge to those who still believe women are better off at home than in the hallowed halls of universities. As geneticists search for the roots of humanity’s unique mental abilities, they are beginning to pay close attention to the ‘feminine’ X chromosome. Women have two copies of this chromosome, whereas men have only one. And the complete sequence of the X chromosome, published in Nature this week1 (see also News and Views, page 279), confirms that an unusually large number of its genes code for proteins important to brain function.

Why this should be the case is sparking debate among evolutionary biologists. And some are even suggesting that the X chromosome will tell us why we are different from our closest relatives — why we can write poetry and design nuclear weapons, but chimpanzees can’t. In a sense, they argue, the feminine chromosome could hold the secrets of humanity.

More here.

Top 20 Villains of Fiction

Michelle Pauli in The Guardian:

According to Waterstone’s, the baddies have the edge over the good guys every time if you’re after a gripping read, and the bookshop chain has launched a campaign celebrating great fictional villains and anti-heroes. It has compiled a list of the top 20 novels it believes feature the best villains, from Lord of the Flies and Fight Club to The Catcher in the Rye, American Psycho and Lolita…

1. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (Penguin)
The devil goes down to Moscow.

2. Perfume by Patrick Suskind (Penguin)
A vile crime carried out by an eloquent criminal makes for moral confusion.

3. Lord of the Flies by William Golding (Faber)
The thin line between human reason and animal instinct is crossed.

4. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (Vintage)
Much nastier than the film. A cocktail of hatred, anger and destruction.

5. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (Penguin)
The ultimate novel of teenage delinquency…

More here.  And click here to submit your own nomination for top villain in 50 words or less, to win all 20 books.

Brain dead

Short review of The 21st-Century Brain: Explaining, Mending and Manipulating the Mind by Steven Rose, in The Economist:

“The 21st-Century Brain” promises, in its subtitle, to explain how neuroscience will allow the mind to be mended and manipulated, and to categorise what the possible implications of this mending and manipulation may be. This is a fascinating topic; indeed, there are few more interesting questions in science today. It is a shame, then, that Mr Rose waits until the last quarter of his book to begin addressing the subject in earnest. And when he does, it is in prose that somehow manages to be both hurried and laggardly at the same time, jumping back and forth between scientific research papers, television popularisations of neuroscience, and apocalyptic novels (primarily Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”) in such a way that the thread of his argument is all too often lost.

More here. There is a rosier review in The Times:

Rose’s timely book warns of the self-fulfilling prophecies of reductionist explanations of human nature for future policy in mental-health and the criminal-justice system. In order to behave freely and responsibly, he argues, it is crucial we believe we are free. We have to grasp the authenticity, scope and limits of human freedom. The spread of “neurogenetic” determinism (the idea that everything is fated in our genes and brain chemistry), he warns, could lead to a state of affairs in which a Twinkie Defence could be invoked for any and every human action and circumstance. This is not a matter, as Rose points out, of merely excusing crimes: it could result in the not too distant future in our locking up as “dysfunctional” individuals diagnosed genetically or through brain scans before they have done anything deemed to be dangerous. “Our ethical understandings may be enriched by neuroscientific knowledge,” he asserts, “but not replaced.” Rose insists that only through confirming our belief in freedom and moral agency can we “manage the ethical, legal and social aspects of the emerging neurotechnologies”.

More here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Israel: A Call for Divestment

Shamai Leibowitz in The Nation:

After years of failed political efforts by the Israeli and international human rights community aimed at ending the occupation, it is clear that new approaches must be implemented. It is time for American civic institutions to support a multi-tiered campaign of strategic, selective sanctions against Israel until the occupation ends. Since the Israeli government is flagrantly disobeying the ICJ decision, international law mandates the use of sanctions to force Israel to comply with UN resolutions and human rights treaties.

The first step for American institutions is to engage in selective divestment–withdrawal of their investments from companies that are, directly or indirectly, funding the occupation.

More here.