Archive for March 2008

Housekeeping; A Bit of Blogrolling

March 23, 2008

Just a quick note to acknowledge the obvious: posting has been a bit light and irregular for the last couple of weeks: I plead both a book and a grant deadline.

Neither are completely under control — but there is some light at the end of the tunnel that, with luck, is not the 3:10 to Yuma — either the original or the remake.

So, proper posting to resume more or less now, to be seen above.

Which leads me to apologies to all those steered here by Sean Carroll’s kind shout out of a couple of weeks ago — he managed to draw attention to this blog at just the moment that its author was trying to see just how quickly he could kill off the villain in his account of Isaac Newton, Cop. (See my most recent Friday Isaac Newton blogging for some of the details. More to come as I keep revising the now almost completed manuscript.)

My thanks to Sean, of course, and with that, another attempt at an update in my terribly slow blogrolling. To begin at the logical beginning, given what comes above, Cosmic Variance needs no introduction, I think, even to those who haven’t come here directly from there. For those that haven’t wandered over there, it is a group blog that is a must-visits for those interested in physics (especially cosmology), the lives of physicists, and a fair amount of humor/culture/misc. bandinage.

Lovable Liberal is one of my favorite places to go for uncompromising political snark and outrage. Full disclosure: LL is actually a former roommate of mine, so I know the man behind the curtain very well. But he’s really caught his stride lately, blending humor with a perpetually renewed sense of outrage at the misgovernance we endure these days.

I don’t really know how to characterize Ex Cathedra, except that I always find something there I want to read. It has a strong political bent, but mostly its got a great voice. Well worth grazing.

And, even though I have a backlog of blogs I need to take note of in posts like this, here’s one I just encountered that is for me what the intertubes are all about: Executed Today, a blog that offers a daily anniversary biography of someone killed with full benefit of law.

Its writer found me because of the Isaac Newton post linked above, which discusses the death by hanging of a notorious seventeenth century counterfeiter, brought to the gallows by the father of modern science himself. I wandered over that way found myself spending much more time than I had against deadline following the detailed and well written individual histories of the executed I found there. Highly recommended.

More posting to come as fast as I can make it happen. I promise. No fooling.

Update: A bit of title rejiggering, to avoid an unintended inference.

Image: Edward Scriven, engraving from a painting by R Westall, 1802. Its title is “Brutus and the Ghost of Caesar,” but I prefer to think of it as “Blogger with the Ghost of Logorrhea scorned,” Logorrhea being, of course the minor god/dess mindful of all those who attempt to feed the blog-beast. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


March 21, 2008

This is going to be all over the science blogosphere in a blink, so there is no real need for me to pile on, except that it gives me the opportunity to recycle one of my recent favorite political snarks,

I mean, if you have done something really dumb — like make an ignorant, ill-informed, duplicitous film that is so ineptly put together as to be unable to attract even papered full houses — and then you decide you want to make sure that none of your critics can actually see the film, it might be a good idea to know your enemy, just a little bit.

But nooooo! The producers of Expelled, Ben Stein’s formal notice of secession from reason knew they had a problem with PZ Myers. After all, they had interviewed him under false pretences to serve as one of a number of straw men to a bankrupt argument. He’s been pretty clear — brutally plain — about both that essential discourtesy, and the larger dishonesty of the project as a whole. They know he can dish the invective pretty well, and to the largest audience in the science blogosphere.

So I can understand why they wouldn’t want him actually to see the film. From their already morally (as well as intellectually) compromised position, that would be tantamount to giving not just ammunition but the whole damn arsenal to the enemy. So it’s no real surprise that they had a police officer at the ready to identify mild-seeming bearded squid fetishists in the line for a restricted screening of the film in Minneapolis.

But as I said, you have to be smart if you want to be safely dumb. And the problem with that, I think is obvious. Hence the result that PZ gleefully documents in the post linked above (and here again).

The thought police expel PZ from the line waiting to get into the theater. They manage to ignore his guest.

Richard Dawkins.

Stop for a moment. Think.

Richard Freaking Dawkins.

This isn’t just dumb, folks. To channel Eroll Flynn in Captain Blood “Bedad! It’s epic!”

(By the way — this really is not the way real film makers behave. When I, or any of the documentarians I know and respect, make a film, we promise –and deliver — DVDs of the finished product to those who have contributed to the project, for receipt right after the premiere.)

What happened in Minneapolis is like — and I’ve been struggling to come up with an analogy that isn’t just blood thirsty — corralling Mothra but losing track of Godzilla, or, f you want a reference to another bad science movie franchise perhaps, caging Velociraptor but failing to account for T Rex.

And it gives me the chance to make the observation that is the real point of this post. I don’t often read Ben Smith’s column over at, but at the height of the Spitzer schadenfreude orgy, he came up with this*: “When stupid gets to $200 a barrel, I want the drilling rights to Eliot Spitzer’s head.”

Not me, man. I want to tap into the fine wine of dumb these guys have got going.

(Eyewitness account of the scene inside the theater here.)

*Quoting from memory. Sue me if I missed a word.

Images: Inferred Dinosaur Behavior (Velociraptor and Proceratops) illustration in L. M. Chiappe, A Field Trip to the Mesozoic, PLOS Biol 1/2/2003. Licensed under a Creative Commons License ver. 2.5.

Piotr Jaworski, “Tyranozaur,” 2004. Licensed under a GNU Free Documentation License.

Head’s Up: New Scope up…

March 21, 2008

Scope is the MIT Grad Program in Science Writing’s student webzine. The new issue is up — in fact this is its inaugural web-distributed edition.

Check it out — and please note that while the good stuff within is the product of hard work by the program’s students, the existence of a Web-based Scope is due to both the hard work and the excellence of the career put together by Marcia Bartusiak, one of the professors in the Program. She serves as Scope’s editor (assisted by the Grad Program’s Shannon Larkin) — that’s the current labor part of the deal — and she won the Germant Prize from the American Institute of Physics for 2007. That is, the AIP correctly sees the work that Marcia has done over her career as “the accomplishments of a person who has made significant contributions to cultural, artistic, or humanistic dimension of physics.”

The sweet thing about that prize is that it comes with both a cash award for the winner and an additional pool of money to be used to further the public communication of science at the winner’s discretion. Marcia devoted that money to making this version of Scope possible. And thus the world gets a new venue in which to put science into the mediastream.

You can take this all as a bit of puffery, given that I, like Marcia, do most of my MIT work within the Science Writing program. But still: more science out there is what we classically call A Good Thing, and it should be celebrated whenever we move that boulder of public understanding forward.

Image: Lord Rosse’s 72 inch “Leviathan” telescope, Birr Castle, 1860. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Friday (Isaac) Newton blogging: How Mean Was He?

March 21, 2008

March 22, 1699 offered Londoners one of their favorite entertainments: execution day, the carnival held at the foot of the hanging tree.

The pageant actually begun at Newgate Jail (Gaol, for any British/Commonwealth readers). There, at the edge of the old city of London, after church, and efforts by the chaplain to get the condemned men to repent and forgive, the convoy headed west for the execution ground at Tyburn, where the Marble Arch now stands.

Crowds as large as 100,000 would gather for the fun, passing gin to favored convicts as they rolled by, cheering or jeering bravery and cowardice at the foot of the gallows, thrilling to the beat of the hangman’s dance as dying men jerked and twitched on the rope. (Trapdoor gallows would not come into use until 1760, and even then it took a bit of experience to get the height of the drop just right — far enough to break someone’s neck, not so far as to decapitate them.)

On this particular March day, one of the men to be hanged was a coiner named William Chaloner, who had been convicted of counterfeiting the King’s coins earlier in the month, a crime classified as High Treason. The man who brought him to his last moments on the hanging tree — along three dozen or so others over the years — was Isaac Newton, then serving as Warden of the Royal Mint.

My next book, most likely to be titled Newton and the Counterfeiter (Harcourt/Faber 2009) will trace the quite remarkable story of the cat and mouse game Newton and Chaloner played. The story as I’ve found it sheds a lot of light on how Newton thought, what he was trying to do — not just as a civil servant, but as a natural philosopher, someone trying to make sense of the world of experience — and what he felt, what motivated him. There’s a lot of the times as well as the lives in my account — what it was like to live through an enormously transformative period, not just in science, but in pretty much everything to do with daily life. I’m telling a true crime story, in other words, but a lot more.

That terribly premature plug aside (the book won’t be out until early next year), the question for this post is did Newton take pleasure in the deaths he triggered?

That’s not my question, originally.  Some Newton biographers, most notably Frank Manuel in his psychology – drenched book A Portrait of Isaac Newton, saw Newton as a deeply damaged person. Manuel argued that Newton’s pursuit of counterfeiters to the gallows was a crucial psychological release, a transference of perceived guilt from his deformed psyche onto an external figure.

Manuel writes “In the Mint Newton was gratified with the exercise of naked power over fellow creatures. …With such avenues available to him, he never again sufffered a psychic breakdown like the one of 1693. He no longer needed to beat his head against the bars of his inner consciousness. There were other human beings upon whom he could vent his wrath.” And later: “At the Mint he could hurt and kill without doing violence to his scrupuolous puritan conscience. The blood of the coiners and cliperrs nourished him.”

To which I say, with respect (for I value Manuel’s Newton scholarship highly): nonsense, ahistorical, anachronistic nonsense.

Newton certainly was a good hater — Manuel is right there. I wrote a bit about Newton’s prosecution of his grudge against Robert Hooke here, and Newton certainly pressed without scruple the priority dispute with Leibniz.

And it is true that Newton could be violent, at least in thought.  Consider the transgression he listed among his sins in 1662:

Threatning my father and mother Smith to burne
them and the house over them

This confession is, in fact, one of the pieces of evidence Manuel uses to build his picture of an Isaac Newton so scarred by his miserable childhood that he became the blood-drinking monstrous adult described above.

But while it is certainly true that Newton had a lonely, and at least at times an angry childhood, it is too great a leap of logic to posit the connection to grown up psychopathology, or even a connection between what appears to ahve been a bout of depression in 1693 with a murderous streak judicially indulged.

Why? Because within the actual context of criminal justice in London in the late seventeenth century, Newton was a perfectly unexceptional agent of the state. He was more effective than many – not surprisingly. He was Isaac Newton! He knew how to do empirical research. He had spent years weighing evidence for his physical claims. He was incorruptible. He had been given a job to do, and he did it — no surprise there.

And as for bringing men (and a few women)* to their deaths: Isaac Newton did not invent the bloody code. He did not refine the miseries that Newgate and its turnkeys inflicted on the residents there. He did not, in fact, pursue a true horde of coiners to their deaths; many were reprieved — after providing him with enough information about bigger fish to earn their way out of jeopardy — or with or without his connivance were convicted of lesser offenses, and spared the gallows.

That is: Manuel and those who have since picked up on the notion of Newton as a damaged man, have allowed their modern revulsion at the severity of seventeenth century criminal justice to blind them to the fact that Newton’s prosecutions were normal acts in his time, obligatory, in fact. Once he accepted his post at the Mint, it became his duty — as his superiors at the Treasury reminded him — to pursue counterfeiters with all the energy he could command.

Did those he convicted die hard? Certainly. But seen as part of the historical landscape in which he lived, Newton’s moral culpability for their sufferings is roughly equivalent to that of the hammer for the nail’s pain.

*Women convicted of high treason faced an even grimmer fate than men. Out of respect for female modesty (or simply to block the prurient male gaze) it was considered unacceptable to feed the crowd the spectacle of a woman jerking at the end of a rope in a mockery of an erotic spasm. The solution: burn them, when convicted of either high or petty treason — high for crimes against the monarch, low for crimes against constituted authority, including the murder of one’s marital superior, a husband.

In practice, most of those condemned to burn were killed by strangulation before the fire was lit. The last time a woman was truly burnt to death judicially in England came in 1685, when Elizabeth Gaunt was done to death for her part in the politically over-hyped Rye House Plot against the Stuart monarchy. The last use of the stake in England came in 1789. Then, Catherine Murphy, a coiner was led past the hanging bodies of several men hanged that day, including that of her husband, convicted for the same counterfeiting scheme for which she faced death. She was led up to a low wooden platform, and bound to the stake . The executioner placed bundles of straw around her, but then, he tied around her neck a rope fixed to an iron ring at the top of the stake. The platform was pulled out from under her feet, and there she dangled. The executioner waited half an hour before lighting the pyre. bound tied to be hanged before having her body stood up at the stake, and set on fire.

The Sheriff of London, Sir Benjamin Hammett, officiated at Murphy’s execution. The next year, he led the successful effort in Parliament to end the practice of execution. He pointed out that he was himself technically guilty of a crime, like all Sheriffs for the previous fifty years, for he and they had all failed to follow the letter of the law in carrying out the immolation of convicted female traitors. The law mandating the gallows for female coiners passed in spring, 1790.

Images: José de Ribera, “Martyrdom of Phillipus,” 1639. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Diepold Schilling “A Witch is Burned at Willisau, 1447” 1513. Source, Wikimedia Commons.

A Monday Morning pick-me-up.

March 16, 2008

So, my sister sends me this link.

I watch it, despite the sense of instant lame-hood when I find myself tapping toes to a Billy Joel song.

But then I asked myself, in all this fire we didn’t start, how much of what the Hon. Mr. Joel sees as incendiary in the last half century or so falls under the heading of science?

Even stretching it pretty far to tech/engineering, I make it 16 images/ideas out of 120 in the song. And I only get that far by counting the Studebaker, just because I like the engineering ideas in that car. (The Edsel didn’t make the cut, even as an example of a negative elenchus.)

Out of my 16, five connect to space flight, (and I counted a sixth for Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and a seventh for the aerospace/political significance of the U2, just possibly the coolest airplane ever built. (Care to dissent, James Fallows?). The rest are a motley mix of gee whiz and bad news: H-bombs to vaccines to dacron, to my man Albert Einstein.

All in all, I actually think that Billy Joel and his unbelievably dedicated illustrator have caught the central fact of American science interest pretty well: the boffins are good for entertainment, for killing folks, for healing folks, and for gadgets.

Watch the video. It’s fun, and in the end, deeply troubling as well.

And you’ll curse me all day as the tune will not leave your head.

Image: Unknown artist, “The Great Fire of London with Ludgate and old St. Paul’s,” 1670. Source: Wikimedia Commons. One of my favorite fun facts: When Old St. Paul’s burned in the Great Fire (1666), the sixty tons of lead in its roof melted and flowed — a river of glowing metal — from the cathedral precincts a few hundred yards down hill into the Thames. A torrent of lead. Now that’s a conflagration — and in fact it is believed that the blaze turned into a true firestorm by late in the first day of the disaster.

Don’t Play Poker With…

March 16, 2008

JP Morgan.

This not so much science as natural history. Observe the behavior of the fauna in the wild.

Or perhaps this is science, or at least an illustration of the kind of observation on which scientific ideas rest. Consider this quote:

I should premise that I use the term Struggle for Existence in a large
and metaphorical sense, including dependence of one being on another,
and including (which is more important) not only the life of the
individual, but success in leaving progeny. Two canine animals in a
time of dearth, may be truly said to struggle with each other which
shall get food and live.

That Charles Darwin fella kinda had a thought or two in his head.

One Bear goes extinct, and a more lupine creature feasts on its carcase.

File this one variously: The Struggle for Existence (the title of the chapter of The Origin from which the quote above was taken); Homo hominis lupus est, (with a nod to my man Tommy Hobbes); or perhaps in the Gordon Gecko file, under the subhead, “The Rich Get Richer (even the ones that fail).”

And yes, this all pretty much an excuse to link to the ur-Darwin text one more time. It’s never a bad moment to read a little of what the Devil’s chaplain had to say.

Update: I’d temper my snark about wealth immune to risk because while it is certainly true that people like Bear Stearns chairman “Ace” Greenberg have done OK over the years, but there are a lot of folks out there less well cushioned to the blow. They’re grownups, risk is risk, and Wall Street is not for the faint of heart…but still, it’s a very bad day for a lot of folks, and I do not want too dance to hard to other folks’ dirges. (h/t Atrios)

Update 2 (March 24, 2008):  Maybe you can play poker w. JP after all.  Perhaps there was a reason Bear Stearns managed to maintain the third highest average compensation average of the big players on Wall Street as recently as 2006.  (h/t Atrios)

Image: Alfred Wierusz-Kowalski, “Wilki podczas zamieci” [AKA — your guess is as good as mine, unless you have some Polish competence handy], 1910. Source: Wikimedia Commons

What’s Wrong With This Broadcast: NPR Edition

March 15, 2008

I’m listening to my local NPR station’s broadcast of Scott Simon’s Saturday Morning Edition as I write this, and the host introduced a discussion of the upcoming fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq by talking about casualties: the 3,975 American servicemen and women killed to date, and, as the host put it, Iraqi casualties estimated from some 40,000 to over 100,000.

Apparently Scott simply forgot about two separate studies published in the fifteen months, each of which concluded that excess Iraqi deaths since the American invasion topped half a million. The Johns Hopkins, Lancet group published their result first: they see about 650,000 deaths as the most likely number as of the end of 2006. As discussed in this post below, a later WHO led study led to the number Simon quoted, an estimate of 151,000 Iraqis dead by violence since the start of the war as of late 2007. Though that number is often cited as a definitive refutation of the Hopkins work, the WHO survey identified 151,000 deaths by violence among 400,000 excess deaths total. As a Hopkins researcher pointed out while methodological differences led him to trust the higher number more, the two estimates were in broad agreement.

Simon also ignored another major study suggesting even higher totals: a British independent surveying company’s estimate of over one million deaths. (To paraphrase a famous West End comedy, perhaps NPR’s motto has become “No Data, Please. We’re American.”)

In other words: Simon simply spoke falsely when he introduced histwo guests, Senators James Webb and John Kyl to discuss the current state of the war. The misstatement, to put the kindest gloss on it, framed the subsequent interviews.

That error (see — kind) materiallly affected what came next. By drastically understating the upper bounds to the cost of the war to the Iraqis, he allowed Senator Kyl’s claims of the likelihood of a political and strategic success of the occupation to stand essentially unchallenged. Those claims have to be understood against the background the sectarian devastation that has taken place already. The real question, one that Simon never thought or had the gumption to ask is not “is the surge working?” but “is the reduction of violence of the last several months meaningful?” — given the lack of the political change the surge was supposed to nurture.

All of which is to echo, once again, Brad DeLong’s cri de coeur.  Like he said:  Why, oh why can’t we have a better press corps?

Image: Francisco Goya, Los Desatres de la Guerra, plate 79, captioned “Murio la Verdad” — “The Truth has Died,” c. 1820. Source: Wikimedia Commons.