Archive for the ‘good books’ category

Quick Heads Up For Some Spooky Action At A Distance Talk

July 30, 2014

Late, late, late I am in getting this out to you, but I’m doing another webcast/podcast for Virtually Speaking Science today.

I’ll be talking to my MIT colleague, David Kaiser, who is a physicist and a historian of science in our Science Technology and Society program.  He’s also an excellent popular science writer, and we’ll use the hour today (and whenever you might choose to listen) to talk Higgs, Bicep2 and gravitational waves (did the very early universe inflate? Are there butt-loads of universes?  How freaking hard is it to make cosmological measurements?*).  And we’ll talk about his wonderful book How the  Hippies Saved Physics — about the Fundamental Fysics group at Berkeley and their engagement with quantum entanglement, Bell’s theorem, spooky action at a distance and the discovery that yup, the universe does behave that strangely…which is why we are now, almost 50 years later, thinking seriously about quantum computing, encryption and the like:  actual this-world technologies that exploit properties that Albert Einstein thought no properly behaved universe should exhibit.

An_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_an_Air_Pump_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby,_1768

David’s a great explainer — so the opaque shorthand above will become much clearer very soon.  We go on the air at 6 ET — half an hour from now.  Listen here live or later (also on iTunes — search for Virtually Speaking Science and or Levenson and Kaiser) — or join us as part of the virtual studio audience in Second Life, hosted by my favorite (as in, my childhood) science center, San Franciso’s Exploratorium.

*Spoiler:  Very, very hard.

Image:  Joseph Wright of Derby,  An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump1768

For A Good Time On The Intertubes Today (And Forever): Annalee Newitz Takes Survival To Extremes

April 23, 2014

Very short notice this time, folks, but once again, I’m doing the funny intertube-radio thingee.  Today’s broad/podcast brings io9 founding editor Annalee Newitz in to talk about her book Scatter, Adapt, And Remember.*

We’ll be talking at 5ET, 2PT (about an hour and half from now).  Listen live or later on Virtually Speaking Science, or join us in the virtually live studio audience at the Exploratorium’s joint in Second Life, where an implausibly tall and fit Levenson avatar will interrogate Annalee’s robot self.

The focus of our chat — death, destruction, and the possibility of slipping the noose.  Annalee’s book looks at what it will take for the human species to survive another million years — avoiding the threat of mass extinction along the way.  Her book really does two things.  For one, it provides a very good short introduction to the science of mass extinction, what we know and how we’ve figured out about the five times in Earth’s history that ~75% or more of all species on the planet went caput.  Then in the second half, Annalee examines the threats humankind have already confronted, looks at what that history tells us about current dangers, and writes about the ways we can now think about near and long term escapes from the worst outcomes.  It’s a combination (as you’d expect from the mind behind the “We Come From The Future” brigade over at io9) of bravura science writing — imaginative and rigorously grounded accounts of current inquiry — and plausible, exciting speculation.

David_Teniers_(II)_-_Apes_in_the_Kitchen_-_WGA22060

To emphasize:  this isn’t a work of speculative writing, fiction or non-fiction.  It’s an argument that includes speculation, given its weight through the third element of  Annalee’s title:  “Remember.”   There’s a beautiful section in the middle of the book in which Annalee discusses the science fiction of Octavia Butler.  There, she grapples with the nub of the book.  Whatever actual path(s) we take, should descendents of 21st century humans persist for geologically noticeable swathes of time, they will do so as one or many species increasingly divergent from our own.  What will be human about them, Annalee argues, will turn on the power and persistence of memory.  That sounds exactly right to me.

Come join us for the chat.  Should be fun…and more than that too, I hope.

*You can take up that title’s Oxford comma-hood in the comments, if you’re that kind of person.  Me, I’m an agnostic.

Image:  David Teniers the Younger, Apes in the Kitchen, c. 1645.

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: Deborah Blum, Poison, Murder, Chemical Ignorance Edition

January 15, 2014

Hey, everyone.

It’s that season again — third Wednesday of the month (what, already?) at at 6 p.m. ET, I’ll be talking on that old Intertube Radio Machine with science writer extraordinaire Deborah Blum.  Live and later here, and/or in Second Life at San Francisco’s Exploratorium in-world theater, should you be minded to join our virtually live studio audience.

Deborah is probably known to you as the author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, a really elegant book on the birth of forensic chemistry in the Prohibition-era investigations of New York City’s nascent chemical crime investigative laboratory.  It’s just a fabulous read — noir true crime with a solid steel core of great science running through every misdeed.

Jacques-Louis_David_-_The_Death_of_Socrates_-_Google_Art_Project

The PBS series The American Experience just broadcast an adaptation of the book, by the way, which can be viewed here.

There’s a lot more to Deborah’s career than simply this most recent success.  She won a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for The Sacramento Bee for reporting on ethical issues in  primate research, work contained and extended in her first book The Monkey Wars.  She’s published five previous books in total, all great — my favorite is Love At Goon Park, but there’s not a dud in the bunch. Far from it.  Her day job now is teaching science and investigative journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her students are lucky ducks (or badgers).

We’ll be talking about the new stuff:  poison, the emergence of systematic chemistry as a tool, the issues we face of our ignorance of so much of the chemical universe — the West Virginia spill will be our proof text there — and more.  We’ll also continue the extended conversation I’m having with several colleagues about the constraints and worse affecting the work of women in science writing.  Deborah has been a leader in organizing public thinking and discussion on these matters, so that’ll be on tap as well.

I should add what you may have guessed: Deborah is a good friend as well as a professional colleague.  So I’ve got the experience to assure you she’s a great conversationalist.  It will be an interesting hour.  Come on down!

Image:  Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates1787.

For Good Times In Cambridge: Fallows/Kummer and Merry White Distant Early Warning

December 2, 2013

Good stuff coming up this Thursday, Dec. 5.

First off:  I’ll be introducing The Atlantic’s James Fallows and Corby Kummer at the last MIT Communications Forum event of the year.  It’ll run from 5-7 in MIT building 66, room 110. (Map at the link.)

Fallows you all know, I think.  He’s been national correspondent at The Atlantic since forever, with a stint at Jimmy Carter’s head speechwriter thrown in.  He’s covered an enormous range of stories from a great range of places — Washington, Shanghai, Beijing,  and any civil aviation landing strip he can find.  Politics, flight, international relations, China-watching, beer and much more.  He’s a National Magazine Award and American Book Award winner.  Kummer is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he has shepherded many of its signature pieces from wisp in a writer’s eye to publication.  (He’s also one of America’s leading food writers, winner of 5 James Beard Journalism awards including one my previous post would suggest I find most impressive, the M. F. K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

Here’s what the two of them will talk about: “Long Form Journalism: Inside The Atlantic.”

Mary_Cassatt_Woman_Reading_in_a_Garden

The session will focus on two questions: what goes into the making of a major piece of journalism.  First: what’s required to conceive, report, develop, refine, fix, verify, and then, finally, produce a long piece of writing that can both demonstrate the proposition and persuade its readers of its truth and importance.  Second: why such journalism matters (and, perhaps, some commentary on the curious fact that despite the internet’s supposed slaughter of attention, long form non-fiction seems it be entering something of a golden age.)

This will be videotaped, and I’ll post the clip and/or links to same when it goes live (and I  know that I’ve still got to get the promised Coates-Hertzberg video ready to roll…)  But if you’re in town on Thursday, this should be a good one.  We’ll probably be focusing on a single, maybe a couple of signature Fallows articles that went under Kummer’s watchful eye, and as I find out the texts, I’ll post those links in my next reminder.

The other event that Greater-Cambridge folks might want to check out is a truly happy book event for one of my oldest and dearest friends, Merry “Corky” White, (my college tutor, as it happens), whose classic Cooking for Crowds (illustrated by Koren!) is being re-iussed in a 40th anniversary edition.

Jan_Steen_-_Feast_of_the_Chamber_of_Rhetoricians_near_a_Town-Gate_-_WGA21727

She’ll be talking the book at Harvard Bookstore at 7 p.m. on Thursday — and I’ll be dashing as fast as I can from 02139 to 02138 to cheer her on.  If you can, you should too.  (No media for this one, alas.)

BTW: here’s the Amazon link to Corky’s book — but in the spirit of time, place and season, get it at Harvard Books if that’s near you, or from and the independent bookstore you normally use if you’re one of the lucky ones to still possess such a community treasure.

Images: Mary Cassat, Woman Reading in a Gardenbefore 1926

Jan Steen, Feast of the Rhetoricians Near a Town Gate, before 1679

Brief Non Political Interlude To Celebrate Some Smart Writing (Scott Huler edition)

October 14, 2013

Been celebrating the Bat-Mitzvah-hood of my wonderful niece the last few days, and so benefited from some low-intertube days.  Got dug into a book I’ve been peering at on my shelves for a couple of years now along the way.  (One of the pleasures of travelling is the sudden opening of slices of time that the working day routine obliterates.)  And this morning, still on east coast time in my childhood home town of Berkeley (explains a lot, doesn’t it), reading in bed just before 6:00 a.m., I came across this paragraph of just plain, intelligent, happy writing:

What caught my attention about the Beaufort Scale was at first the beauty of its language, but there was something else, something powerful, about how it does its job.  What the Beaufort Scale is, fundamentally is scientific language.  Its descriptions are beautiful, to be sure — but what they also are is distilled, thorough, complete.  The Beaufort Scale, in Beaufort’s form, takes the wind at sea, anywhere all over the planet — wherever a ship might encounter it — and reduces it to a format that is not only clear but quantifiable and communicable.  The Beaufort Scale takes observation and turns it into information.

That’s from Scott Huler’s de-fin-ing the wind, delightful book on the making and significance of the Beaufort Scale, the standard measure of wind strength sailors have used for a couple of centuries now.

Fishing_Boats_with_Hucksters_Bargaining_for_Fish_1837-1838_JMW_Turner

Scott’s a friend of mine, and a fine writer.  He gave me my copy of this book a while ago, and it was just the pressure of all the stuff my day job needs me to read that held it up on the pile this long.

My loss.  I’m finding lots of smart pleasure as I go along with Scott, and nuggets like the passage above  (on p. 124, if you’re asking) is that capture his gift for doing what I like best in science writing (or really, any text).  He distills his narrative down to the essence of its point, the meaning to extract from the (delightful) journey through historical narrative and anecdote.  Where and how and by whom the idea of matching measures of wind strengths to the effects of given speeds on something physical — a tree branch, a windmill vane, a sail — makes (in Scott’s hands) a wonderful account of how  18th century minds made sense of their world.  That’s reward enough on its own — but in the passage above you get something more, something of how an enterprise, science, actually works, or rather, made itself into a system of acquiring both knowledge and understanding of unique rigor and power.

And with that note, apropos of nothing contemporary or political (unless you read well between my lines), why don’t we all enjoy some nice, fresh (never half-) baked open thread.

Image: J. W. M. Turner, Fishing Boats with Hucksters Bargaining for Fish, 1837-1838.

 

For A Good Time On The Intertubes TODAY! — Sports, Genes, Human Potential edition

July 31, 2013

A reminder/follow up to Monday’s post.

This evening at 6 p.m. EDT I’ll be talking with author and Sports Illustrated Senior Writer David Epstein about his new book The Sports Gene.  You can listen to the show, Virtually Speaking Science live and later here — and  you can catch up on my episodes or those of other hosts (Alan Boyle, Jennifer Ouellette, PZ Myers) either by searching my name or Virtually Speaking Science at either Blog Talk Radio or on iTunes.

The show also goes up virtually live in Second Life (yes — it still exists!) at the Exploratorium’s in-world space.  If you’re into SL, or merely avatar-curious, come on down.  It’s weirdly fun doing this in front of a “live” studio audience.

Now to the substance. Let me get right out in front of it.  A book that looks at genes and human possibility — both physical and mental/emotional — is navigating a mine field of sloppy science, bad intentions, and terrible history.  David has managed to write a book that is smart, scientifically literate, clear and subtle.

Here’s the passage with which David begins his Epilogue:

Eero Mäntyranta’s life story is a paragon of a 10,000 hours tale.

Mäntyranta grew up in poverty and had to ski across a frozen lake to get to and from school each day.  As a young adult, he took up serious skiing as a way to improve his life station — to land a job as a border patrolman and escape the danger and drudgery of forest work.  The faintest taste of success was all Mäntyranta needed to embark on the furious training that forged one of the greatest Olympic athletes of a generation.  Who would deny his hard work or the lonely suffering he endured on algid winter nights? Swap skis for feet and the Arctic forest for the Rift Valley and Mäntyranta’s tale would fit snugly into the narrative template of a Kenyan marathoner.

If not for a batch of curious scientists who were familiar with Mäntyranta’s exploits and invited him to their lab twenty years after his retirement, his story might have remained a pure triumph of nurture.  But illuminated by the light of genetics, Mäntyranta’s life tale looks like something entirely different:  100 percent nature and 100 percent nurture….

And, a little later in this concluding essay:

In all likelihood, we over ascribe our skills and traits to either innate talent or training, depending on what fits our personal narratives.

One of the pleasures of the book is a proper debunking of the Gladwell version of the 10,000 hours story, and we’ll talk about that.  We’ll talk about genes, about the implications of genetic and human variation, on what use those of us who aren’t elite athletes can make of new scientific investigations into things like the genetics of brain trauma or injury, and much more.  I found this book deeply intriguing, a page turner, for all the complexity of some of the technical matters under scrutiny.  Most of all, for all its presentation as a sports book, or sports science book, I found it best read as an idiosyncratic doorway into an increasingly rich understanding of human possibility.  I didn’t need genetics to tell me that I never could have been an Olympic (or high school) sprinter.

Schiele_-_Laufende_-_1915_

It gives me a kind of joy to realize as a fifty something slowest-jogger-on-the-river that there is a growing body of knowledge that can help me think systematically about the best way to train the body I’ve got.  Cool stuff.

Last — a couple of factoids that turned up in my pre-interview with David that are too good not to share ahead of time.

For one, just for those who think we’re in post-racial America, David pointed out to me that the alleged inverse relationship between athletic prowess and intellectual skill only started to getting talked about in the US as African-American athletes gained access to previously all white or white dominated sports.  For another:  in the 30s, basketball, historically an urban sport, had a disproportionate number of Jews at high levels of the game.  So folks talked about a Jewish basketball gene, and you got some predictable crap about canny Jews knowing how to steal the ball and such like.

Oy — but fodder for some fascinating radio.

Tune in this afternoon or later as you get the chance.

Image:  Egon Schiele, Running Girl,  1915

Good Reads

July 30, 2013

Consider this a shout out to some friends doing fine work that y’all might enjoy.

An aside — or not really:  the early to mid 1980s are sometimes referred (by a highly specialized group of folks, to be sure) as “the Golden Age” of American science writing.  By that we usually mean that there was, briefly, a robust and seemingly ever-expanding ecosytem of newspaper science desks and science magazines (Discover — my alma mater –Science 198x, Science News, Omni and so on) aimed a general audience that seemed to crave focused reporting on really just about anything to do with science.  The tech boom that followed a few years later, brought with it a second wave of venues, places riding the tech zeitgeist, like the much-missed Mondo 2000 and Wired, along with technically literate business rags like The Red Herring and many more.

Now look at us.  Discover is still with us, on its fourth or fifth owner since Time Inc. gave up on it.  Newspaper science sections have almost entirely disappeared, and hundreds of staff science reporting jobs are gone.  That’s what some people point to when bemoaning the state of public knowledge about climate change, for example, or vaccine denialism…and so on.

But while all that’s true —  there has been a collapse of venues (and employment) for science writers schooled, as I was, in the pre-digital journalism world — the reality is that right now is the best time I recall for readers of science writing. There is more available through more channels and conduits than anytime in my working life, and lots and lots of it is smart, literate, important. What’s more, new venues are appearing that offer spaces for both longer and more varied, more expansive kinds of writing — and some of them, at least, are trying hard to pay their writers enough to make this kind of work something that accumulates into careers.

For example — I’ve been loving the work they do at  Atavist and at Matter* too, not to mention an ebook by one of my former students published by The Atlantic (excerpt here),  or the Pulitzer Prize winning journalism by a team that included another one of the fabulous alumnae of the Graduate Program in Science Writing aat MIT [not bragging.  Not me] and I’m leaving out many others, one’s I’ll get back to as I do this kind of post again.

For now, let me  point you to a new kid on the block, Aeon Magazine, which, unlike Atavist or Matter, doesn’t charge for its pieces.  Aeon publishes a long-read every day, each somehow connected with science, and I’ve found it to be an insistent time-sink, really remarkably so for such a recently arrived party to the conversation.

For example, check out this.  Yesterday, Virginia Hughes put up one of the most impressive pieces I’ve read in a long time, a very thoughtful, emotionally rich, intellectually challenging piece on research into the effects on the kids involved of the horrific regimen they experienced and are experiencing now in Romanian orphanages.

Max_Liebermann_Waisenhaus_Amsterdam_1876

Virginia made this piece significant, as opposed to merely affecting, through her carefully framed account of the ethics of running controlled studies on subjects in such straits.  That’s interwoven with  the science involved, and a deeply felt sense of the human cost of doing this kind of research for both subject and scholar.  Really a fine piece of writing.  Here’s a brief sample:

Nelson had warned me several times about the emotional toll of meeting these children. So I was surprised, during our debrief, to hear him say that our visit had upset him. Turns out it was the first time that he had been to an orphanage with older teenagers, not all that much younger than his own son. ‘I’m used to being really distressed when I see all the little babies, or the three- and four-year-olds,’ he said. ‘But here, I almost had to leave at one point, to get myself some air. Just the thought of these kids living like this, it was really depressing.’

How does he do this? I wondered.

Go read the rest.

Then marvel at the sheer elegance of ant society and the almost classical account of hubris and potential tragedy to be read in Ed Yong’s story,  “Ant Farm.”

Big_Ant

Ed’s piece moves from a close-up look at an ant-borne plant disease and its implications for chocolate lovers to consider a globalized agricultural system that is vastly more vulnerable than most of us (certainly me) usually suspect.

Have a taste:

Indeed, scientists with Evans’s skills and mindset — the Yodas of plant pathology — are racing to extinction faster than the crops they study. Admittedly, ‘they’ve made a disastrous job of promoting themselves’, according to Hughes, but sexy modern sciences such as molecular biology have also drawn investment away from more traditional fields. In a recent audit, the British Society for Plant Pathology found that their subject is in free fall, relegated to a few lectures at a smattering of universities. Labs have halved in numbers, most scientists in the field are over 50, and new faces are rare. (The same is true across the pond.) ‘Molecular biology tells us what makes these pathogens tick, which is exciting,’ said Cooke. ‘But if we end up with a cadre of trained molecular biologists who can’t identify an oak tree, you have a problem.’

Hughes sees a deeper tragedy at play — the loss of a patient, contemplative approach to British natural history that allowed Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace to envision the theory of evolution by natural selection. ‘People like Harry [Evans] have spent 40 to 50 years working on groups of organisms, and know them deeply in the same way that Darwin or Wallace did,’ Hughes said. ‘We’re not replacing them, and that’s a lamentable shame.’

As the old guard retires sans apprentices, we lose the knowledge in their heads and we cripple our intellectual immune system. WhenPhytophthora ramorum started killing oak trees in the western US in the mid-1990s, it took a long time before anyone knew what it was, giving the disease a chance to establish a foothold. When ash dieback disease hit British trees in 2012, history repeated itself. ‘There were no taxonomists to identify the fungus,’ Evans said, ‘because we fired them all.’

Last, I’d like to point you again towards a book I’ve mentioned here before, Russ Rymer’s Paris Twilight.  Russ’s is, to my eyes at least, a simply wonderful novel.  Its science hook comes in the deep dive into both the techne and the psyche of anesthesia, beautifully plumbed by Russ through his lead character, an anaesthesiologist called to Paris to take part in a heart transplant operation that does not seem quite on the up-and-up.

Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_063

The book investigates the themes of loss and distance and (usually) return through a number of different paths — the medicine, of course, and history, and what one might think of as either the battlefields or the courtrooms of memory in which love’s victors or culprits get called to account.  The central character is a compelling woman, and her supporting cast…well, when I finally put the book down I felt so deeply aggrieved that I couldn’t sit with them again tomorrow to hear the conversation we might have had next.

When I first read it, in draft, I thought that this was a book to win prizes.  I still believe that, rereading the finished text, so neatly dressed in its Sunday-go-to-church hard covers.  I’d quote here, but the text is so tightly  interleaved that I can’t easily pick out just a paragraph or to. It leads you on, you see.

Sadly, it’s hit the market in the summer doldrums, and so, in case you missed it last time I wrote (and talked with Russ) about it, then take this for as strong a recommendation as I can offer for words (and people) to keep you company on August holiday.

*One more example of one of my student’s work. Yes, it does make me happy to see folks we may have helped a little on the way do good in the world.  How not?

Images:  Max Liebermann, Amsterdam Orphan Girls 1881.

Pro Hart, The Big Ant, photo 2010.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Landscape at Sacre Coeur, c.1886


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