Archive for December 2007

NY Times on Watson’s African DNA

December 10, 2007

A bit meta perhaps, but there is a choice moment right at the top of today’s NYT Lede blogpiece on the “Lucky” Jim Watson’s DNA. It seems that 16 % of the former chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor’s genetic make-up comes from Africa. (UPDATE: Whatever that means — which is most likely not much. See this NYTimes article for examples of the shaky business of DNA roots research.)

That opens up the way for a pleasant little snark — but check out how the Lede folks tagged the piece:

“racism, science”

That’s spot on: the right thought in the right order.

Remember folks: when someone claims that they have the final, biological scientific proof that one group or another is inherently inferior, the default response is that the alleged science is bullshit. You might be wrong someday, but not so far, after a century and a half of attempts to spread this manure.

This is not to say that one couldn’t imagine such a claim turning out to be true. It’s just that the burden of proof rests with the claimant, and the standard of proof is really, really high. So far, no one has come close, as recently summarized here and, gleefully, here.

Gauss files

December 8, 2007

No real reason for this post beyond that I have to help my second grader with his math homework this weekend. His class is doing a lot of stuff with simple equations, and looking at the different ways different sets of numbers can add up to the same total.

That reminds me of one of the nicest arithmetic tricks to come up in the history of the great mathematicians.

This is how the story goes (some license taken to imagine some of the scene):

It is 1778, in the town of Brunswick, Germany. A schoolroom is full of boys, ten year olds. T One morning, the schoolmaster, bored, mean, or just hung over and in search of a little peace, orders the class to grind through the addition of every number from one to one hundred. The man appears to have expected a good long period of quiet. He settles back in his chair, and then…

Within seconds, one boy, a bricklayer’s son, steps up to the front.

He gives his answer: 5050.

He’s right. The teacher cannot believe it.

Ultimately, the boy, Karl Friedrich Gauss, had to explain the trick involved to his teacher.

Here’s what Gauss did: He looked at the sequence of numbers up to one hundred. He saw you could make fifty pairs of numbers out of that original list: 1+100; 2+99; 3+98; and so on. Each of the pairs adds up to the same number: 101. Suddenly the problem becomes the simple one of multiplying two numbers together, instead of toting up a long list.

50 * 101 = 5050.

Sweet. My son, at seven, doesn’t quite get this yet, but he is learning that numbers are toys. A good start.

posted by tom.

Friday (Isaac) Newton Blogging

December 7, 2007

Isaac Newton by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1689. source Wikimedia

This week’s bit of Newtoniana:

There is one story told by every Newton chronicler (including me) that is supposed to capture the great man’s puritanism in action.

Newton was famously a man of few friends, especially in his Cambridge years (1661-1696). One of those few was the immigrant chemist Giovanni Vigani (whose chemical chest — complete with some of its original ingredients survives at Cambridge to this day). Newton conversed with Vigani, entertained him in his rooms, and even shared or gave him space in his little laboratory shed.

And then it all stopped. Why?

Because Vigani had the temerity to tell a lewd story about a nun.

A nun? Why did that detail stick in memory? Nuns were famously satirized as sexually profligate before Henry VIII, but they had not been a common feature on the landscape in Protestant England for more than a hundred years

If I were trying to do real history here, I’d be more careful. But as long as everyone understands that this is speculation, two thoughts:

First — this is a reminder of the internationalization of the community of scientific thinkers. Vigani was born in Italy, a Catholic — a country and a condition where jokes about overly-enthusiastic nuns came naturally. He ended up in Cambridge, an Anglican, but his sense of humor remained continental. The fact of his presence in the intellectual backwater that was Cambridge in those days is one small measure of how the scientific revolution took place on the ground, as interested parties spread all over Europe, bringing with them evolving new methods of figuring things out.

Second: it helps remember that Newton was a man of many parts, and many dislikes. He hated loose talk (though he had greater tolerance for the fact of other people’s sex lives than he is given credit for. After all, he shared his London house with his niece Catherine Barton, the toast of the Kit Kat Club and Lord Halifax’s mistress.) He also hated the Catholic Church and what he saw as its centuries long perversion of true religion. A joke about nuns, whatever else it might contain, would hardly have seemed funny to the man who saw the history of organized Christianity since the third or fourth century as one long travesty of false belief.

I wish, after all this, I could tell the joke itself. Sadly, only its ghost remains, in one line from a posthumous memoir of Newton. Perhaps someone could suggest what it should have been. Maybe a competition will be in order when the blog community accumulates….

posted by thomas levenson

Andrew Sullivan and the IQ follies (short version)

December 5, 2007

The IQ and race mess is a gift that keeps on giving – but I wish Andrew Sullivan would stop teaching the controversy. Links like these to a fanzine level interview (in a self described “engaging lifestyle magazine,” forsooth!) on IQ and heritability don’t help much. (And yes, James Flynn, the subject of the piece to which Sullivan links, is a respected researcher. But so is Eric Turkheimer, who shows what an intellectually rigorous whack at Flynn looks like here.)

On its own terms, The Sullivan-linked piece is an example of wholly uncritical journalism — “critics” are set up for Flynn to swat away, and there is no way within the piece to get a sense of how much of what is claimed there is plausible, and how much bollocks.

If Sullivan wanted actually to advance public understanding in this area he could, just once, please, link to someone who actually knows something about the actual methods of intelligence testing, and their shortcomings. This would be a good start.

But as it stands, Sullivan’s (and others’) faux-naive habit of posting links to crappy stuff is not bold contrarianism — no matter how much one protests all they’re doing is allowing their readers to judge for themselves. Rather, posts like the one that got me started on this rant more closely approximate what a well known media company calls a “fair and balanced” approach to the news.

Update: Edited to make the prose a little better.

Brain and mind–PTSD and Lt. Whiteside

December 3, 2007

Philip Carter, writing in his exemplary blog, Intel-Dump, argues that the Army’s attempt to criminalize the behavior of Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside in the wake of her suicide attempt in Iraq represents a “hard case.” Carter sees a conflict between the Army’s need to discipline its troops and its imperative to take care of its own. (See this WaPo article for more details)

I’m fortunate to be innocent of any combat experience, but I was still struck by Carter’s insistance that Whiteside’s case presented the kind of dilemma he saw.

Think of the counterfactual. If a soldier, badly wounded on duty, attempted suicide while still under military discipline, I think most people would rightly see that action as a response to her circumstances: a symptom of the underlying medical condition of acute physical trauma, and not a criminal act. Why don’t we give the same consideration to Lt. Whiteside?

The answer lies, I think, with the fact that parts of the military appear to suffer from variants of Patton’s syndrome: the belief that if you can’t see where it hurts, then a claim of pain must be malingering.

But to get to the science in the case, Lt. Whiteside’s injury was not immaterial; it was simply much harder to spot than a battlefield wound.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) — the condition from which Lt. Whiteside suffers — has been shown to be associated with at least some discoverable changes in the structure of the brain. For example, then-Yale, now Emory psychiatrist JD Brenner has done a number of functional MRI studies that show a several-percent diminution in the size of the hippocampus in studies of Vietnam era PTSD patients. (The link takes you to the first of Brenner’s reports on this.) Other work documents the involvement of other brain regions in response to PTSD. (Thanks to my student, B. Dolan, for finding that work for me).

In some sense, Brenner’s and others’ research offer penetrating glimpses of the obvious: stress is known to produce changes in the brain. The events suffered by soldiers in and around combat are obviously enormously potent sources of stress. And you should take at least one big caveat on this post: I have merely skimmed around the edges of current work on brains and trauma.

But even in such ignorance I’ll stand by the implications of one of the major themes of modern neurobiology. To oversimplify drastically: mind is a phenomenon of brain; mental trauma has a material context that cannot be ignored.

Given that, as I sit in my peaceful neighborhood of Boston, it looks to me that Lt. Whiteside suffered a serious, life-threatening injury to her brain in Iraq whose complications included the terrible wound in her stomach that she later inflicted on herself. I’d rather see the Army focus on care for that initial damage than on its sequel.

Update:  Army examiner recommends no court martial for Lt. Whiteside.  See this post for details.

Hello World

December 2, 2007

This is, or will be, a blog that focuses on writing about science, the history of science, the interaction (often to the unhappiness of both) between science and what passes for our politics today — and whatever else suits my fancy. Honi soit qui mal y pense.The blog’s title refers back to Isaac Newton’s law of gravity as published in the Principia. I’m at work on a book about a corner of Newton’s life… a little remembered moment when he became a cop. So I’m appropriating a little mojo from the one who stood on the shoulders of giants.

This is what folks in the restaurant business call a soft open. Full frontal blogging begins after the new year.  Occasional thoughts and much logistical back and forth until then.