Archive for April 2009

Why I Love The English Language, no. 1

April 30, 2009

First — and who knows, perhaps last — in an occaisioned series.

One of the reasons to love this grand instrument is that it erupts into sentences that are wholly comprehensible, wonderful, even, that my enormously literate and sometimes word-drunk  father would not have known how to decipher.  From today’s Times, this:

“What I love is that in coed Ultimate, girls can huck the disc just as well as the boys.”

That’s hucking the verbiage; I’m a happy man this morning.

The Future of Science Journalism — a live blog

April 28, 2009

I’m sitting in the MIT Museum, listening to the Institute’s President, Susan Hockfield, introduce an evening in which the good and the great in and around science writing are going to talk about what the future holds for the effort to engage the public in science and technology.  So what will follow is my attempt at a live blog of the event — folks from the Grey Lady of (no longer, alas — ed) 43rd St., Scientific American and NOVA.

So stay tuned….

Hockfield is giving us some historical context:  look back to 1983 — no Apple Macintosh; stem cells; carbon sequestration, DNA fingerprinting etc.  She credits science journalists for the public’s knowledge — to whatever degree it extends — and, speaking ex cathedra, she is clearly right.  Hence, she argues, the need for good science journalism.

This is, of course, a path into the debate some in the science blogosphere have engaged in about the need or value of a role of non-professional-scientist science writing.  I’ve ducked out of the latest little flurry of that debate, though I may rouse myself to re-enter, but it is nice to hear my own institutional leader defend the idea  that the role of science writer is not just significant, but essential.

Third up:  my old colleague at NOVA (and my successor, long ago, as science editor — now senior science editor — of that program) Evan Hadingham.


Back to the speakers….

Hockfield now introduces NY Times Managing Editor Jill Abrahamson

Abrahamson talk:

Begins:  it’s a thrill to be introduced by a lady president.

She begins with the declarations that surround journalism:  newspapers are dying; magazines are barely holding their own etc.

Behind this….quality journalism is essential, there is too little in the current difficult transition.

What to do about the specific question, she asks, of science journalism?

Frames her conversation in light of personal history:  grandfather as an immigrant to NY with Arnold Zucker, founder of what became Paramount with whom he declined to invest, on the grounds that moving pictures were a fad but “ladies will always wear hats.”

Abrahamson, hatless, says that NY Times will persist as the rock of serious journalism, despite the obvious challenges.  Argues that teh integration of print and web earlier than competitors helps; national newspaper status helps is a competitive advantage in the advertising business.

Problems are real in regional business — points to Boston Globe and its science coverage and CNN’s decision to close its science/space unit.   One of the NYT reporters pointed out to her that half of recent AAAS award winners for science writing have been laid off.

She says, “I know how cold it is outside, but quality journalism has always been a good business….”

Emphasizes the idea that the competitive differentiator for places like the Times is quality — in its journalism, its product.

Decades from now, quality newspapers that remain may not be on paper, but journalism will continue to thrive…optimism based on idea that there is a demand for trustable information.  Some want it for help in work; some value it for civic virtue; some for curiousity; some for cultural currency.  Supply is scarce…audience want analytic depth; well told stories; interactivity…what else but quality journalism is going to supply that?

JA goes on to say that the task of quality journalism is expensive.

Goes to the debate on whether or not science blogs can take the place of science journalism.  Argues that science journalism in the Times is aimed at the general reader….science editor says that the Times is a department store serving a range of readers.  Implication:  blogs deeper or more specially focused.  Important, often very good, but narrower than what the Times aspires to be.

Next, Abrahamson references some of the series that the Science Times has done “The Evidence Gap” and coverage of cancer.  Gives props to one of my favorite reporter/bloggers, Andy Revkin, for his work on Bush adminstration war on climate science results.

Argues that bloggers don’t have the experience or resources to do the larger scale investigative reporting that she argues is an essential part of what the NYT does.

What we do, she says, is expensive…and also dangerous.  Refers to coverage of Afghanistan.  “World depends on work of Times reporters” like those in the war zones.

Talks about the use of multimedia w. reference to Corey Dean’s work on beach erosion — emphasizing the use of video to make those stories work.

Without investigative reporters she says, who will write the next Pentagon Papers.  Bush was extremely secretive, but Obama’s White House is proving to be adept at controlling the message.  “Don’t expect the sunshine to come streaming in.”

History tells us that the public is harmed when the press is too timid.   References the NY Times failure on BAy of Pigs and the failure of the NYTimes in the run up to the war on Iraq to cover the WMD intelligence claims properly.

Makes reference, admiringly, to Pro Publica’s approach to investigative journalism.

Talks about the attempt to find a business model that produces the kind of journalism she wants to see in the new media environment.

Remembers the election night, talking about the thrill of choosing the front page of the Times…on historic days, she argues, the people come to the Times.

Dennis Overbye wrote to her, everytime someone comes along with some claim that scientists have cured cancer or achieved weight loss etc. its up to someone to set the record straight, and says Abrahamson, that someone is the Times.

(I’ll interject here:  I know and like Dennis, and he’s right about the need to counter the BS, but I have yet to forgive the Times for publishing Gina Kolata’s article on Judah Folkman (whom I also knew and greatly admired) over the fold on a Sunday not long after my mother had died of lung cancer, telling us that Judah was on the verge of curing cancer.  Which he wasn’t, and never claimed to have done (though that was always his ambition, certainly).  You don’t put “cure” and “cancer” in teh same sentence over the fold unless a lot of patients have got up and walked away and the discoverers of the “cure” have been carried in sedan chairs to Stockholm.  Just sayin.)

My take:  I hope JA’s right, in that (a) there is a distinct, economically available market for quality journalism and that (b) despite my complaint above, that the Times continues to invest its resources in what remains the largest single enterprise in this country producing high quality stuff.

I know the lapses, and the regular instances of less than quality stuff (see Brooks, David on anything to do with science, IMHO) that still infuriate me, and JA acknowledged some of the moments in the Times’s past that do not reflect brilliantly on the Grey Lady, but the fact remains that the Times puts people in the field and keeps them there at length in ways and in numbers that no where else does right now.

That said, I’m not sure that I feel as sanguine as she does that the specfic business model of the Times is going to go. She’s right in the value of the brand, and in the importance of the Times’s ongoing attempts to reinvent itself in digital terms, but just taking my own behavior as an anecdote (the plural of which is not data), the way and amount that I use the Times now is very different than it was even two or three years ago; I use it less because I have more specialized sources of information that I go to first; the Times is about the fifth place I go to on the web in the morning.  If that’s a trend and not just a personal quirk, then interesting times are ahead.

Dinner break now; panel to come.

Christine Russell,  senior fellow at Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, introduces the panel:  Andy Revkin of the New York Times.

Andy Revkin: He has his vision of where we are going.  Went out to Ohio University to teach…had an assignment for his students to get the vision for how people will get their info about the environment in five years. Plans to blog about it.

Talks about the history of journalism:  a bunch of white guys with pads and a couple with cameras…then came the women…now a cloud from the folks on twitter to those spending a year or more on a story.  I doubt, he says, the NY Times is going ot hand out candy bars with a billion dollars on it,s tanding for the amount of ad dollars earned in 1999.  Not going to happen, he says; news room is not going to be as large as it is now.

Refers to the Cambridge University museum room of recently extinct birds and hopes the Times that won’t be ina museum for recently extinct journalists.  But not sure.

Argues that journalism and science are similar in their skepticism.  Refered to Obama’s speech to the NAS yesterday, in saying that it is important for scientists to get out there and engage the public; journalists cannot do it on their own.  Argues that every day some part of the day scientists should devote to outreach.

Talks about need to reach developing world.  Refers to developing radio — a project led by an NPR founder to use radio to reach into the world beyond the reach of current conventional media.

Stops there, with the exhortations for scientists and journalists to make connections like that example.

Next up, Ivan Oransky, managing editor, Online, Scientific American.

In context of recent lay offs at SciAm, begins to speak, offers what he sees as at least part of a vision of a way forward.

Talks about the idea of curation — made more relevant by our venue, the MIT Museum, in the context of hte Cambridge Science Festival, going on now through this coming Sunday.  (Links to come at next break in the festivities).

Ivan notes that a lot of people cover events one at a time.  Raises questions:  do we need with more than one person covering each event?  Asks …. how do we free people up to do investigative work or big projects.

Answer:  link to the rest and do you best.  That’s what Twitter works best for are people who link out to interesting people do great work.  That’s what museums do:  they don’t commission much or any work; they gather and frame the works of others.

Notes that SciAm loves multimedia, podcasts and video.  What the web allows places like SciAm to do is to engage — comments, through Twitter and more.

Raises the example of how to do something new about swine flu.  Ivan sent out two tweets.  Asked what he should tell this audience about the future of science journalism. Got into a discussion what unemployed science journalists should be doing.

He got replies.  One from Christine Gorman who said that this is not the time for science writers to go it alone — build relationships.

Next up, Evan Hadingham, senior science editor at the PBS series NOVA, old friend (and my successor, long ago, as science editor of NOVA).

Talks about the choices tonight on NOVA, Scientific American, Discovery, History Channel et al.  Says that science communication on TV is OK.  But where is the journalism in all this.  Says that NOVA/PBS is the place where such journalism takes place, but that worldwide, the situation is dire.  Arte in France has cut back; the Brits have reduced their emphasis…and so on.

At PBS/NOVA — refers to NOVA Science Now — the magazine program hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Says it is getting great traction with web presence, viral marketing and broadcast.  But amazingly, he says, this is the only science magazine program available on broadcast/cablecast.

We face, he says, the ghettoization of science.  It is great work (he argues) but how does this get noticed in the noise of the mediascape.  The challenge is the same as it has been in 36 years of NOVA’s run,  the second longest running series on television after General Hospital) — how to entertain while retaining journalistic integrity.

Contrasts w. e.g. Deadliest Catch — some science there but really purely entertaining.   Can NOVA get, he asks, the group who wants minds turned on in the evening rather than those who just want to kick back?

Talks about the success (and it really was good) of the two hour special NOVA Judgment Day on the Dover PA trial.  Talks about the value of using the trial transcript to  create a drama, with actors, recreating the evolution vs. creationism trial.  It worked great; the challenge is to keep that going.

Panel Discussion moderated by Phil Hilts

HIlts (director of the MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellowship Program) asks if the Times is going to go back to seekign payment for web content.

Revkin answers that if it can be done painlessly and brainlessly, it will be.  Should it be?  Yes, if it can, to boil down the reply — a billion dollars in advertising revenue ain’t comign back.

Oransky talks about the idea of a tip jar to raise money for special projects.  Something like this is under consideration at SciAm.

Revkin — put up a post about “buy nothing” day.  Tough to do on an advertising supported medium, so going to an audience supported one might be a good thing for journalism as well as a necessary rescue for the business model.

Russell asks Revkin about comments.  He says that they are passionate and in some senses and instances narrowly.  But learns a lot from them and has got some story ideas from the comment threads on the blog. “I can’t imagine living without that.”  Some of his colleagues aren’t there — want the Walter Chronkhite “that’s the way it is” mode.  But now there are lots of things we don’t know — and two way street helps Revkin’s work.

Oransky:  asks — what percentage of commenters on Revkin’s blog are trolls.  Talks about a SciAm troll named Candide; but broadly about comments — they help, they correct mistakes; often they have an agenda — but so does anyone, including Oransky says, himself.  On Twitter again, Oransky says that at conferences, for example, the use of Twitter gets questions into the conference — engagement helps the daily work of the blogs at SciAm.

Question from the audience asks about changes in the subjects of scientific documentaries.  Hadingham answers that there are traditional subjects that attract ratings.  Categories are now breaking down.  Most recent research throws most of traditional views out the window, and that the issues are now of style:  how visual is it, how many talking heads are present; how fast paced the pieces may be.

Even the most dedicated core audience have pressures on daily life, don’t want to linger so long on stories….there is a demand for more compartmentalized stories.  Hadingham doesn’t see a contradiction between doing good journalism and not requiring attention for an entire hour.  The traditional model of what the audience can absorb is breaking down.

Hadingham notes that in the old days a standard talking head bite would be ninety seconds … no more.

Question about swine flu coverage. Phil Hilts says that the coverage has been in general good and detailed and useful. It seems to Hilts that the coverage was much better than it was in earlier instances of the threat of epidemic disease.

Oransky agrees — there have been some lessons learned especially from the Anthrax scare.

Gideon Gil of the Boston Globe asks Revkin about the claim that scientists themselves may fill the void of science coverage, but Gil talks of the problem that scientists talking about their own work are not as skeptical as they might be… then another question:  what about the young talented people interested in science journalists to whom there does not seem to be a future on offer.

Revkin replies that on the scientist objectivity issue — post publication peer review through comments now keeps folks people honest.  Problem obtains in science writing too — “front page” thinking.  Half the time in science journalism, the beat folks are pushing back on hype.  So problem obtains in both domains.

On youth — demand for science information is not going away. There will be places in business; lots of folks will work in the places we don’t know yet — references advertising on YouTube as a nascent novel example.

Russell adds that she is as or more worried about the impact of the loss of the mid career science writers from the closing news rooms.  The loss of institutional knowledge and experience is also a problem.

(Interjection — briefly, and somewhat self interestedly as head of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing, I’m much less worried about the new folks coming in than those caught in the current transition.  There are lots of venues for science writing out there; some will survive and begin to pay something approximately living wages – I have no doubt about that.  They will demand a skill set different from those I learned and my age cohort mostly knows.)

A question from a WBUR report asking if we are not selling the audience short.  Don’t we need depth as well as making stuff snappy.  Revkin talks of the pressure in times of stress to go to the stuff that sells — news you can use, and fun, rather than the deep stuff.  It can be a hard sell to get some of that stuff going.  Revkin tells of the effort to get a series going on innovation and talks of being asked how to “storify” something like that.

Oransky argue that brain/mind coverage does well which may be explainable on a self-interest model; physics/space coverage does just about as well — which clearly is not ‘useful” in the same way.  So there is an audience for it.  Hadingham says the same thing:  people are interested in important ideas, like the Elegant Universe series, three hours on string theory.

(Self interested interjection:  the much less publicized and lower budget series  for which I produced on program and executive produced into existence called Origins hosted by Neil Tyson did equivalently well in the ratings. reaffirming Hadingham’s point.  Hey — it’s my blog and I get to say what I like.)

Revkin and Oransky talk about the engagement tools (think Revkin says, about tools like Digg) that help validate and drive such interest in deeper work.

The Uses Of Opera: Why We Love High Speed Photography/Disgusting Video Dept.

April 24, 2009

It’s Friday, and that means we need some fun stuff, right?

Try this (h/t Sullivan):

more about “Sneezing In Ultra Slow Motion Video“, posted with vodpod

On the theme of this blog (and of my writing over a long time) — this gets to one of the real drivers of scientific advance that scientists understand intimately, but that the broader audience may not.  And that is the role of instruments, of the tools of the trade, not just in working out ideas investigators may have already had, but in catalyzing new thoughts.

High speed and stop motion photography have provided a world of examples of this, as I should konw, being at Doc Edgerton’s home institution.  But the story goes much deeper than the obvious rewards of recent high technology.  I once wrote a book that argued that instruments are a great way to understand the history of science, because the tools we build make material the questions we want to answer with them — and yet, seemingly always, in doing so create new question and new perspectives.

For example, the telescope, it first seemed, was a device that could make what we already do — look for distant objects, say warships approaching Venice, at greater distances.  Same job, more power.  But then the same man who presented the new instrument to the leaders of the Venetian Republic pointed it in a different direction, and discovered these.

And from thence, much else flowed.  So it may be with the sneeze.  Though I would not, if I may say so, hold my breath.

Image:  Eadward Muybridge, “The Horse in Motion,” animated image made from photographs like these.

Applied Physics: Don’t Try This At Home Dept.

April 22, 2009

Via Synthstuff, this:

Seeing this reminds me of a passage from Jeremy Bernstein’s now sadly out-of-print lovely little book Quantum Profiles. In the first of the three scientist encounters, Bernstein talks to the now-legendary Irish physicist, John Stewart Bell.  Bell is most famous for Bell’s Theorem, which provides one of the clearest and most powerful theoretical bases for demonstrating the physical reality of the counter-intuitive claims of quantum mechanics.*

In the conversations Bernstein reported, the two men did speak about that work.  But Bell also thought about the gap between abstract knowledge and the rich messiness of the real world.  He talked about bicycles.

I’m reporting from memory here, and distant recollection at that, but the essence of what Bell told Bernstein was that bicycles are completely comprehensible machines.  They are wholly Newtonian — classically mechanical devices, whose behavior can be expressed in purely deterministic mathematics, with none of the uncertainty that so bedeviled Einstein’s view of quantum mechanics.

And yet, actually modelling the motion of a bicycle in all its detail, Bell said, was so difficult that it was practically impossible to predict the actual motion of a real bicycle coaxed into action by a live human being.  There was just too much — every moving part, the flux of forces produced by a moving body pumping legs up and down, swaying and twisting and generally getting the bike to do much less amazing stuff than you can see in the video above.  The best one could hope for, Bell told Bernstein, was a mathematical description of a riderless bicycle.

Bernstein’s book is a dozen iterations or more of Moore’s law old at this point, so the quantitative limitations Bell was pointing out in his call for a bit of physicist’s modesty impinge a lot less than they did then.

But what Bell meant is still true, or so at least it seems to me, treading a bit out onto a much deeper philosophical argument than I want to engage right now.  Mechanics wholly constrains what our bicycle virtuoso shows us in the video above.  It does not, however, capture all the properties of the experience that the bicycle artist or his audience enjoy.

*In slightly more detail:  In the famous Einstein Podolsky Rosen (EPR) paper, the three authors complained that “no reasonable definition of physical reality could be expected to permit” that measurements on one part of a quantum system could determine (predict) the results of a measurement on another, distant part of the same system.  Bell’s Theorem provides the theoretical apparatus to demonstrate that reasonable or not, quantum mechanics does violate at least one of the assumptions that Einstein and his colleagues posited as “reasonable.”  Experiments to test whether Bell’s argument actually corresponds to the world we live in have consistently shown that quantum mechanics is consistent and does describe events in the world correctly, and that Einstein’s loathing of quantum mechanics, though heartfelt, turned on fundamental beliefs about the aesthetically necessary construction of reality that turn out not to be true.

Image:  Man riding the bicycle in the centre of Kraków, Poland; author: Nova; date: 30.04.2005; permission: GFDL

Sighting: Newton and the Countefeiter First Review

April 22, 2009

As readers of this blog no doubt know too well by this point, I’m on the verge of publishing a new book called Newton and the Counterfeiter (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, June 4, 2009; Faber & Faber, August 20, 2009).  In the writing trade’s equivalent of the first robin of the spring, I just got word of the first pre-publication review, to appear in the May 1 edition of Kirkus Reviews.

I’ve seen it, and as I’m not sure of the propriety of actually posting the whole thing ten days before its official release, I’ll just say that the unsigned reviewer liked it very much, using such author-happy-making phrases as “Levenson (Science Studies/MIT; Einstein in Berlin, 2003, etc.) demonstrates a surpassing felicity in his brisk treatment of this late-17th-century true-crime adventure….” not to mention the reviewers summing up:   “Swift, agile treatment of a little known but highly entertaining episode in a legendary life.”

It’s unseemly, I know, to toot one’s own horn — but perhaps I can be forgiven for transmitting someone else’s riff on the same theme?

Image:  Eva Gonzales, Enfant de Troupe, 1870

Texas is missing (one of its) Idiots: OMG That Man’s A Congressman Dept.

April 22, 2009

Via TPM TV:

Watch it and weep.  I mean really.  There are many reasons the GOP deserves to lose every election:  Joe Barton (R – Magic Beans) is one of them. This man shouldn’t be allowed to operate power tools, much less have 1/435 votes on matters of national and international import. Until that sporadically loyal opposition decides that minimal competence is a virtue, it will continue to earn is deserved losses.

And for his part, Steven Chu deserves a medal for not blowing coke through his nose on hearing that question.

A Linnaeus sighting in London

April 14, 2009

I’m in London for a few days shooting a short promotional video for this book. (Or, if you are in the UK, this one.) My ritual for this kind of travel is pretty constant:  I take the day flight over from Boston and devote the first day in my (literally) mother country to jet-lag recovery.  This time that meant an afternoon visit to the British Museum.

It seemed a good idea, until I walked into the main courtyard and realized that if I wanted some peaceful contemplation to rejoin body and brain, the British Museum on the Saturday of Easter weekend was not exactly a sensible choice.  Think the concession concourse of Fenway Park at the 7th inning stretch of a Yankee game.

So I wandered a bit, looking for some odd corner that wouldn’t drown me in families trying to wrangle flocks of small children (i.e. don’t even think about the Elgin Marbles, etc.), when I took a turn to the right off the main hall that I had not noticed in earlier visits.  All of a sudden I was in one of the “dull” bits — Room 1, “The Enlightenment,” untroubled by the massive renovations that have overtaken other bits of the museum since I first was taken there as a child.  The largest part of Room 1’s exhibit is a very old-fashioned kind of display:  a series of cabinets containing representatives of the first collections with which the museum was founded in 1753.

Many of the objects there come from the collection of Dr. Hans Sloane, an avid acquirer of curiousities (and other collectors’ findings) who willed his trove of 70,000 items (47,000 of them books and manuscripts) to the nation.  In conception, the new home of this extremely wide-ranging gathering of stuff was seen as a universal museum, aiming to collect everything, a repository of the sum of human knowledge and experience.

The exhibition of the founding collection is thus a physical narrative of the Enlightenment in action in Britain; it presents a way of seeing how that  society sought to subject to subject its material existence to reason.

All this by way of saying that the exhibition is delightful,  antiquarian.  Modern museums do not emphasize the display of the odd and wonderful in neat arrays beneath glass. There is nothing interactive here, no games nor screens to play with.

And at the same time it is enormously, subtly modern.  It takes the viewer in sequence through (among some other interests) the natural history and scientific interest of the gentleman-intellectuals of eighteenth century England, the new discipline of systematic classification, archaeology, trade and exploration (and hence a bit of what was not yet called anthropology, as the classifiers attempted to make sense of the cultural objects explorers would bring home).  Ideas, things and the flow of history, all in an array of a couple of dozen glass covered tables.

And what of Linnaeus?  He makes his appearance very early in the sequence.  The first cabinets hold natural history specimens — plants, minerals, fossils and the like.  Hans Sloane had a particular interest in the plants, unsurprising given his medical interest in the pharmacopaeia, and the display includes a number of what he considered useful samples.  He found one of them through love (or at least from this distance we may gloss marriage as love):  He married Elisabeth Langley, who had recently been widowed out of a marriage within a Jamaican colonial family.

On his visit to Jamaica, Sloane encountered cacao beans for the first time, in the form drunk by the locals:  boiled in water.  It was bitter and he was said to have found it nauseating.

But in time he figured out that cacao beans steeped in milk with sugar might actually produce something a bit nicer. An inventive man, he went the next step and started selling Sloane’s drinking chocolate.  (Sloane made enough of a fortune, mostly through real-estate investment, to leave his mark on London to this day — think Sloane Square and Hans Crescent, among other street names.)  His drink became popular, to the point that the Cadbury brothers began to sell it in the nineteenth century as one of the leading lines for what became one of the world’s great sweets companies.

So I ask again, what of Linnaeus?  He liked Dr. Sloane’s drink.  So much  that he did what Carl Linnaeus would:  he named it, in precisely the form that he organized the living world into its component parts. What was cocoa to the great naturalist?  This:

Genus Theobromata; species cacao.

Theobromata cacao — the drink of the gods: cocoa.

This is why I love the power of a smartly conceived museum.  Here you have the imposing edifice of Enlightenment systematization …. made friendly with a touch of humor.

Image:  Giovanni Bellini and disciples. The Feast of the Gods, 1515


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