Archive for May 2008

Quote of the Week (not for the weak of stomach)

May 22, 2008

From PZ Myers:

I don’t know about you, but a system that muddles excretion with reproduction and that allows random lizards to crawl up your butt and squat in your oviduct doesn’t sound like great engineering to me.

I’m so sorry I read that before lunch.  That’ll teach me to procrastinate by wandering the blogosteppes.

Image:  Aelbert Cuyp, “Rooster and Hens,” 1652.  Source:  Web Gallery of Art.

Moderation and Its Discontents — Edward Gibbon edition

May 21, 2008

In the no-matter-how-much-things-change-they-remain-the-same department … in my insomnia last night I hit upon the following quote in Vol. V of Edward Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

In the field of controversy I always pity the moderate party, who stand on the open middle ground exposed to the fire of both sides.

As ever, the thought is elegantly and economically phrased by Mr. Gibbon. But what caught my sleep dazed eye was the degree to which, in the current environment, I do not share Edward’s sympathy.

I mean, consider this…or this…or this. My inclination is to remain on the barricades; it’s hard for me to see how the moderate middle holds.

Update: Forgot to title the damn thing.

Image: John Leech “Horatius Cocles defending the bridge” from The Comic History of Rome, c. 1850. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

How not to pay for science…Mass Legislature edition

May 20, 2008

From The Boston Globe today:

The governor’s initial proposal sought to empower a panel of industry specialists and academic leaders to decide how to spend $1 billion over 10 years in several targeted areas, much like a similar program in California. But lawmakers in the Senate and House decided how and where to dole out large portions of the $1 billion that would be spent in the bill, which could emerge from a conference committee as early as this week, earmarking hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for specific projects, even giving names to individual buildings and grants.

House lawmakers earmarked $49.5 million to build a science center at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, though the school currently has no science graduate programs. The college is, however, the alma mater of Representative Daniel E. Bosley, a North Adams Democrat who wrote the House legislation and has frequently joked at press conferences and legislative hearings that “spending $1 billion doesn’t go quite as far as it used to.”

This is how to waste a lot of cash … though of course, that’s not how the state reps see it:

In addition, legislators have designated $12.6 million for a highway interchange near Andover, and $12.9 million for a sewage treatment plant in Framingham, money designed, they said, to spur local development for life sciences companies.

“We are responsible for the public dollars,” said Representative Michael J. Rodrigues, a Democrat from Westport and cochairman of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Caucus. “Our job is to spend money where we as legislators feel [it] is necessary.”

Err, yeah…but necessary for what?

The Mass legislature is famously a machine-driven body, so it’s no surprise that Gov. Deval Patrick’s attempts to inject a little rationality into the budget process gets eaten alive.

But this is a symptom of the larger problem that big or biggish science has faced for a while now. At least part of the SSC’s problem, for example, was that it was an example of a kind of mega-earmark, packed off to the open fields of Texas as part of a political game that lost any opportunity to take advantage of whatever economies might have been gained by marrying the new machine to Fermilab’s existing infrastructure. More generally, in this kind of effort, in which the government is trying to pick research targets for their economic potential is a fraught task for anyone, including the academic and industry insiders who were originally to be in charge of spending the state’s cash.

But still, if there are plenty of problems with peer review, including the difficulty new players face in getting potentially valuable ideas funded. But there is no doubt in my mind about two things:

First, that an imperfect system in which knowledgeable insiders try to drive research is better than having a bunch of Beacon Hill horsetraders spend the goodies…and

Second, that the larger issue here is that we have, so far, even in this research-rich, science-intensive Commonwealth of Massachusetts, failed to create the kind of civic science culture we need. It takes suasion, a shared set of assumptions to create circumstances in which it is understood, even beneath the Sacred Cod, that you don’t treat a science funding bill as a public trough.

To put it another way, Gary Hart and Warren Rudman issued a report last year on the state of US science and math education and research. They wrote,

“The inadequacies of our systems of research and education” posed a threat to U.S. national security greater “than any potential conventional war that we might imagine.”

This is the issue, I think, of which the Mass House display of ordinary venality is only a system. If this view were actually part of the common currency of political conversation, we might actually buy a little knowledge, instead of a sewage treatment plant.

Paying for science means deciding that it is affirmatively worth spending money now on an endeavor in which payoffs come often indirectly and over years.

Easy enough to say, isn’t it. Not so much to do.

(BTW — to recapitulate what I wrote here: this is why McCain is so singularly a bad prospective President for science, and hence, if you buy Hart/Rudman, for our long term national security. He has made a series of promises and policy decisions — especially his lethal combination of much more spending for Middle East wars and the military in general, accompanied by his commitment to exploding deficit tax policies — that means that all US discretionary spending, including all federal science support would have to starve to enable him to keep his word.)

(Also, please note, for those of you who think I may take an excessively partisan view of the world:  this is Democrat on Democrat folly, with the old-line House Democratic Party machine pushing back against yet one more smart, able, idealistic, reformist Democratic Goo-goo governor

Image: William Hogarth, “The Humors of an Election: the Polling,” 1754-55. 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. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Coming late to the Big (Uncanny) Valley

May 20, 2008

One of the things about working at a place like MIT is that you lose your sense of the state of common cultural knowledge.  I don’t think of myself as web or tech savvy — and I’m right, by the standards of my students, and certainly by those of my colleagues over in Building 32.

But I thought everyone knew about the uncanny valley — it has been around for a while, and it has had a run in popular culture that runs pretty deep — think of the role the question of the resemblance between robot and human in Blade Runner, for example.

Not so, though.  This weekend, foreign policy and pop culture maven Matthew Yglesias expressed his surprise that he had to wait for Tyler Cowen and Jason Kottke to tell him about the idea.

Two things.

First, a bit of programmatic self aggrandizement:  Matt! You didn’t have to wait so long.

If you had trawled really hard through the intertubes you could have found the short documentary on this page in which MIT humanoid roboticist and IRobot founder Rod Brooks discusses the valley in the context of Domo, a robot designedmby his student Aaron Edsinger. The artist Pia Lindman weighs in as well, siding with Edsinger on which side of the valley one wants to reside.  The film was made by a team of students in the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing — which is where my self interest lies.

Second, more globally.  What I said above about misidentifying knowledge as shared impinges on a debate, or at least a complaint I hear all the time in what is now a career long (quarter of a century +) participation in endless lamentations on the state of public understanding of science.

That is: very little of what seems, obvious, even basic, in most disciplines is in fact common cultural currency.  Often, when something does seep out, it does so with a conflation between the definitions of words used in technical senses, and the meanings of those same words as understood in daily conversation.  Think “marginal,” for example, or even “quantum,” — or for the most contentious area these days, how about  “genetic?”

I’m not sure where to go with this thought — hey, this is a blog! — but it does make me want to push much harderwhat has become one of the defining themes of this blog .  I’ve written a bunch of times — an example here, and another here — about the much greater importance of understanding how scientists think, compared with that of knowing many of the details of what scientists have learned lately.  It’s not that the latter is uninteresting or unimportant; its just that most of what the public needs to know turns on ways of thinking about daily, material reality.

Enough bloviating for a morning.  Watch the video. Have a little fun.

Illustration:  Not Darryl Hannah.  Mars MER Robot, courtesy of NASA.  Source, Wikimedia Commons.

The Dogs That Do Not Bark For Dawkins

May 19, 2008

Not perhaps the most precise reference there (and no where near the accurate quote), but still, a pointer to a good story.

In re Richard Dawkins, I’m thinking of what seems strangely missing in his latest edited book, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing.

It is, as you might expect, a very nicely put together book, complete with the obligatory butterfly and double helix on the cover. It is handsomely designed, nicely printed; someone who likes books as objects took care over the work.

It is also, as you would certainly expect, full of smart interesting stuff, with an interesting structural conceit, breaking down the world of science writing to questions of what scientists study, who they are, what they think (sadly not what is to my mind the more important question: how they think), and what delights them.

All good so far, you might say, and you’d be right. So what’s the complaint implied by this post’s title.

There are two of them, in fact, one parochial, one global to the project.

The bigger one first. It is amazing how limited a view of what science investigates is on display here.

Dawkins has selected 83 pieces as the exemplars of the best of modern science writing. Maybe he can defend those choices against all comers on his judgment of quality — but still it is extraordinary how narrow a perception of science any member of the public seeking to be informed would get from this collection — not entirely, but almost completely confined to cosmology and related areas of physics, and evolutionary biology, with a certain additional emphasis on the biology of brain, mind and consciousness.

The first section, on what scientists study, begins with two selections from physicists — James Jeans and Martin Rees. Next up one brief piece that straddles the overlap between chemistry of physics at the second law of thermodynamics by a chemist, Peter Atkins. Then ten samples from the world of evolution, followed by four centered on brain/mind questions, then back to biology in a selection of eight pieces the orbit around questions of evolution, ecology and animal behavior.

That’s it. That’s what scientists study, according to Dawkins – or at least that’s what literate scientists have written about at a level of craft sufficient to meet Dawkins’ aesthetic as well as intellectual criteria.

It goes on in much the same way through the other sections of the book. You get the usual suspects — Einstein a couple of times, Medawar (of course — how could you leave him out, and this is no snark; anyone who has not had the pleasure should start here or here or here…you can thank me later) Eddington, Hardy, Gould and Sagan. So it goes. Given a very few prompts it would probably be possible to reconstruct the list of Dawkins choices with quite high accuracy, sight unseen.

But even within Dawkins primary constraint (to be briefly snarked below), what of most chemistry — arguably the single most significant science in the last century in its impact on human well being? It’s not as if nothing has been written about chemistry for the public — and at a high level too. Try one of the best unknown books of science writing out there, Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffman’s The Same and Not the Same? What about even a nod towards modern geology, in the context of plate tectonics, one of the most consequential public paradigm shifts in all of twentieth century (will all due with apologies to the quantum revolution and the double helix. It would have been possible (were it not for Dawkins other tic) to select from one of the works of John McPhee to get at least a hint of the significance of the discovery that continents and their sub-assemblies roam the globe over deep time.

And so on. So much of what scientists study is a closed book to Oxford, Dawkins, and any readers of this handsome volume.

I’m not saying don’t buy this book. Within its narrow limits, it is a wonderful collection. If it is a bit predictable (how many times has Haldane’s genuinely excellent essay, “On Being the Right Size” shown up in one collection or another?* And Einstein’s worthy statement on cosmic religious feeling has seen a fair bit of wear too…) it still has a lot of goodies to enjoy. But no one should mistake this for anything more than one very constricted view of what constitutes excellence in the craft of bringing to the public the good news of science and lives spent in its pursuit.

I’ll save my other peeve with the book (which I think I’ve telegraphed, rather) for another post this week. As one more blatant hint, let me simply say that I would not think much of a book collecting modern writing about sports that confined itself to athlete’s writing. Can you imagine a baseball section without Roger Angell for example, and if the tennis selections didn’t include at least on passage from this by John McPhee, you’d know you were wasting your time. .You can probably figure out the rest from there.

*Even I blogged this essay here, complete with this link to the full text online. There: if that’s all you wanted to read in Dawkin’s collection, I just saved you 35 bucks.

Image:  Map of Pangaea — the supercontinent that incorporated most of the Earth’s landmasses between 300 and 180 million years before present.  Licensed under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation license, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation.

John McCain’s secret history — John Cole does not go far enough

May 18, 2008

This is a Sunday kind of post (and after an 8 year old’s birthday party too) so feel free to pass this one by in in kind silence.

But I was taking in my morning Balloon-Juice, I came across this post. In it, Cole points to the hornet’s nest of stupid Senator Tom Harkin has provoked by noting that John McCain is “trapped” in a worldview created not just by his career as professional military man, but through the immersion in military habits of thought that comes with being the son and grandson of career guys, and admirals too boot.

What Cole doesn’t add, and what the quote from Harkin seems to miss, just by a hair, is that it isn’t just the command-and-control habits that come with a professional life lived in that particular institution that should lead folks to question whether or not John McCain has temperament needed to govern.

Rather — focus on the phrase, “the son and grandson of admirals.”

Of all the four armed branches, the Navy is the most Burke’s-ian . Its officer corps is not in fact hereditary, of course, but there are strong family tradtions within it (see the McCain three-generation Navy cycle)*  and the Navy is known to have the most “gentlemen and other ranks” culture of the four fighting services. In that context, the young McCain would have spent a childhood within an acutely rank-conscious community — not just that of the Navy itself, but those of Navy officer’s bases, wives and families. Given his father’s rank and his family’s history, he’s been the laird’s son his entire life.

The sense of entitlement, the aggression, the short temper when thwarted, the absolute certainty, facts be damned…that’s McCain’s personality, which comes, as all ours do, from a wealth of sources. But one of those sources is his cradle-adulthood experience of growing up within the Duchy of Navy, a peer’s son and grandson.

It should be noted that career officers have a spotty record as Presidents at best — Einsenhower being really the clear counter example. Jimmy Carter, Annapolis ’47, is the only Naval Academy graduate to hold the office. (Washington was not truly a career military man. He was just the nearest thing to one available in 1775, at least among the well connected candidates.)

Just a thought to be going on with…or rather, perhaps this is another area in which one could channel Brad Delong and wonder why no one in our not-better press corps has dug up what it really was like to grow up John McCain.

*The fourth generation, represented by John McCain’s son, is a member of the US Marine Corps.

Image: “Second Battle of the Virginia Capes,” property of the United States Navy, (Hampton Roads Naval Museum). Nineteenth century. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Housekeeping — belaboring the obvious edition

May 16, 2008

So, no blogging at all since last Saturday. Why?  Not for lack of material.

Last week of term, folks.  Two theses as yet unscrutinized, hordes of last minute seniors asking for dispensations from this or that, and so on.  I’m new enough to the academy still to be caught by surprise at the complete derangement of these few days.

Real blogging resumes tomorrow.  Apologies to all.

So, to ring this crazed moment in the year out, out out, here’s a video I had been saving for August 9th in honor of Amedeo Avogadro’s birthday (and the anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation from the Presidency.  The day is, of course, the anniversary of  with , much more dreadful event.)