Archive for May 2008

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.)

Saturday Random Post: Really Bad Lyrics edition.

May 10, 2008

Overheard this morning on NPR’s Cartalk.

From a song leading into one of the breaks:

300 miles to Winnemucca

I drive a van; I ain’t no trucka’

Top that if you can.

Image:  John Constable, “The Hay Wain,” 1821.  Location:  The National Gallery, London.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

More on the fate of science under Bush (and McCain?…)

May 9, 2008

See this comment from Kevin on the Daily Kos thread responding to the McCain/science post below.

Kevin wrote:

Thoughts from a Cancer Biology graduate student (8+ / 0-)

I’m new to the site, but I just thought i’d throw my two cents in here. I’m finishing up my PhD in Molecular Cancer Biology at Duke University and I hope to give you some insight as to how bad things are getting in the scientific community. When i first entered graduate school in 2002, nearly 25 percent of all new grants were being funded by the NIH. Now, slightly more than 10 percent are. This has led to limited job opportunities for graduating students, a smaller group of professors holding a larger piece of the NIH pie (fewer new ideas and perspectives on complex and longstanding problems), and will surely have long lasting consequences on the ability to recruit new brilliant minds as the job market continues to decline.

I urge all to speak to your congressmen, and speak up about a problem many will talk about and few will actually do anything for. You can also find out more information at the American Association for the Advancement of Science website

Technology is at the heart of almost all new invention. At a time when we need great thinkers to solve problems inherent in the U.S. and clearly the rest of the world (i.e. global warming, petroleum dependency, health sciences research and yes, even our countries defense capabilities) the Bush administration has taken away funding and slowed the progress that we’ve been moving towards in all these areas. Unless steps are taken soon, our ability to solve these problems will be greatly compromised in order to pay for a war we dont need, and tax cuts we cant afford.

Pay close attention to the key number in Kevin’s post: there has been a nearly 60% drop in grants funded by the NIH over the education of one graduate student. Similar cutbacks are occuring at other major science and engineering funding agencies.

Everything Kevin says about the consequences of such a decline is true: fewer grad students; fewer jobs for newly graduated researchers (not to be confused with graduated beakers); shrinking incentives for technically or mathematically skilled undergraduates to consider science or engineering basic research as a career, and so on.

The larger consequences follow on with shocking speed. It takes a long time — decades — to build up a research infrastructure. Labs, space, machines — but above all people who have ideas and time and room enough to pursue ideas that don’t work out (most of them) and the few that do. (Take a look at this NOVA program about Judah Folkman for the virtues of persistence and the absolute necessity of an ongoing flow of grad student and post doc money to produce important results.)

As Kevin argues, it takes much less time — years, maybe a decade, to unravel the technical capacity to do research. To take an example from the engineering side of things. As late as 1973, with the launch of Skylab, the United States possessed the ability to lift large payloads into orbit, and to carry manned missions as far as the moon, all using one of the true monuments of 20th century technology, the Saturn V rocket. That was the moon rocket’s last flight. Within a few years, though much of the infrastructure of the moon missions remained, the core manufacturing capacity to build more such rockets was lost.

The consequence: Skylab was designed to remain safely in orbit until 1981, two years past the scheduled debut of the Space Shuttle, which would be deployed to dock with America’s space station (yup, we had one thirty five years ago), and move the facility to a higher orbit.

Then Skylab’s parking orbit deteriorated early, in 1979. The shuttles, behind schedule, were unavailable. The last Saturn Vs had already long since been mothballed and placed, in some cases, on museum display. The production line had been shut down for almost a decade. A decade after landing men on the moon, the US had exactly no space vehicles capable of carrying humans to near earth orbit.

And now, even though the shuttle does exist, we lack anything approaching the heavy life capacity the US space program possessed forty years ago. Hence the very costly, unlikely-to-finish-anytime-soon Ares rocket development project, now scheduled for first flight in 2015, forty three years after the last American walked on the moon.

That is: to put it in the words of that noted analyst of science policy, Joni Mitchell,

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you’ve got
‘Til its gone

To return to the core theme of this post, this blog, and Kevin’s comment: John McCain’s priorities for federal spending put science funding in deep danger. If we continue to gut funding for basic science research and education, we face the loss not just of specific projects left undone, but of the capacity to do the cutting edge science and technological investigation that is the foundation of our prosperity and our national security.

Usually I illustrate this blog with fine art. But this clip from a seminal work in American motion picture history seems more appropriate somehow.

Q: Does John McCain Hate Science?

May 8, 2008

A: Apparently, sadly…Yes

By way of background: over the last eight years of Republican power, of the George Bush administration’s misrule, science in America has come under attack in several ways. Among them:

1: Official denialism, censorship, government sanctioned lies and misrepresentations so thorough as to rise to the level of falsehood. See Seth Shulman’s account; Chris Mooney’s book; and anything from the wealth of reporting on climate change deceit, reproductive health nonsense, and the disastrous conflation of religious ideology with public health and HIV prevention world wide.

(Those last two links are to Elizabeth Parisi’s blog and just-about-available book, both titled The Wisdom of Whores. The book is at the top of a growing pile of well written books about crucial topics accreting on my desk. I’ll blog more about Elizabeth’s and several others over the next few weeks — important stuff here).

2. Going further in the same vein — when inconvenient results could not be suppressed, the Bush administration turned to a more direct solution, blocking further research that might yield ideologically unacceptable research. The lengths to which this “I Can’t Hear You” twitch can go can be seen in this 2005 decision to pull out of Agent Orange research in Vietnam.

3. Delegitimizing science through active public disdain. My bile will probably force a separate blog post on an issue I’ve already screamed about — but this quote from GOP Congressman John Duncan captures the theme pretty well:

Rep. John Duncan, a Tennessee Republican, said that it seems “rather elitist” that people with academic degrees in health think they know better than parents what type of sex education is appropriate. “I don’t think it’s something we should abandon,” he said of abstinence-only funding.

(Acute readers will notice the depressing similarity between Duncan’s statement and the one discussed here.)

John McCain has participated in his party’s and its leaders sins against reason. Examples range from his support for the same abstinence funding Congressman Duncan so eloquently defended, to his support for “teaching the controversy” (sic) thus admitting Intelligent Design (sic) into the classroom — but that’s not the key reason to think that his administration will be hostile to science (though such pandering does not inspire much hope, to be sure).

That is, McCain has been willing to go along to get along with the party — and nothing in his gas tax holiday idiocy suggests that he has the interest or willingness to think critically about technical questions, nor to listen to those who do.

But that said, the real test of McCain’s attitude towards science as a would-be President comes where it always does in government. That is to say:

Follow the money.

Here’s the last bit of background: our once dominant international lead in science and engineering training, basic education and research funding has suffered significantly over the last eight years.

To take the NSF as a proxy for science funding as a whole, the appropriation for FY 2002 (the first for which Bush II was responsible) was 4.789 billion dollars, while the current, FY 2008 number comes only to 6.06 billion — an increace of 1.217 billion nominal dollars or a cumulative increase of 25.4% over seven years. That is essentially flat when inflation is factored in, and the year over year number for 2007-2008 actually lags behind current inflation.

Other areas of government supported research fare even worse. You don’t want to be a DOE supported particle physicist right now — nor one trying to solve our energy dependence through fusion research.

So the question for would-be President McCain is: what will you do to reverse the current decline in funding for basic and applied science and engineering research?

The answer is nothing — or worse.

How do I know this, given the near complete lack of detailed science plans on the McCain ’08 policy page?

Because of this speech, delivered on April 14 and billed as a major address on his approach to the economy. He said…

I promise you, if I’m elected President, I won’t leave office without balancing the federal budget. And I won’t do it with smoke and mirrors.”

Then: “I won’t balance the budget by allowing the President’s income and investment tax cuts to expire. When we passed those tax cuts, we increased spending as well. That’s unacceptable … “

Next up, (in this speech delivered the next day): “I will also send to the Congress a middle-class tax cut — a complete phase-out of the Alternative Minimum Tax to save more than 25 million middle-class families more than 2,000 dollars every year.”

And finally (from McCain’s website) ” A greater military commitment now is necessary if we are to achieve long-term success in Iraq.”

Now for a simple exercise in counting on one’s fingers.

2007 budget authority for the Iraq conflict topped 133 billion (or more than 20 times NSF’s budget. (Put another way: we could double basic science spending in this country for what we spent for about 17 days of the conflict.)

McCain wants to spend more — not to mention the increase in the general military budget he also envisions.

Eliminating the AMT will cost the government an enormous sum — as much as 1.2 trillion dollars over the next decade.

Retaining the Bush tax cuts for the top 1 percent of American taxpayers eliminates the possibilty of recovering lost revenues or covering the cost of new spending commitments made elsewhere in the McCain “plan” (sic).

And finally, achieving a balanced budget means that McCain will have to find the cash to cover a deficit that in the first six months of FY 2008 alone is running over 311 billion dollars (very roughly 10 percent of the budget for the entire year).

One last detail: discretionary domestic spending in FY 2007 (the last year with comprehensive data) — everything from roads to midnight basketball to science but excluding defense and veterans spending — came to 522 billion dollars.

So to put all this stuff in one tightly wrapped package:

To deliver on his commitments on taxes, defense and fiscal responsiblity, John McCain would have to eliminate all discretionary spending — including the few tens of billions spent on science R & D.

There is, of course, no real world political calculation that would permit that to happen. But McCain’s priorities are very clear — trillions for defense; trillions more for tax cuts. For the rest, as he put it himself, “the best way to protect the tax cuts and balance the budget is to stop spending money on things that are not the business of government and on programs that have outlived their usefulness or were never useful to begin with.”

In that context, does anyone think that basic science, graduate student fellowships, young investigator grants and all the rest will survive at anything like current levels — much less with funding increases to catch up even to what has been lost to inflation over the last presidency?

This post has gone on too long.

Why so many words when I could simply have said, “It’s the arithmetic, stupid.” Whatever else John McCain would do as President, advancing the cause of science in America is not plausibly one of them.

I’ll leave it to the reader to dwell on the economic and national security consequences of such a choice

*For the record the most comprehensive study to date, performed under contract for the US Department of Health and Human Services, found that

The impact results from the four selected programs show no impacts on rates of sexual abstinence. About half of all study youth had remained abstinent at the time of the final follow-up survey, and program and control group youth had similar rates of sexual abstinence. Moreover, the average age at first sexual intercourse and the number of sexual partners were almost identical for program and control youth.

Image: Gustave Courbet, “The Wrestlers,” 1853. The work of art depicted in this image and the reproduction thereof are in the public domain worldwide. 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

Precision in visual metaphors…

May 7, 2008

…John Cole’s got it.

Inverse Square tries hard not to be a political blog; my gig is connecting something of science — a story, an approach, maybe just a concept — to the public square.  So I won’t write today anything about yesterday’s elections.  There’s plenty out there, better and wittier and more comprehensive and all that.

But check out Cole’s picture; it truly does say what needs to be said as economically as you can imagine.

Then read the rest of the post.  It nails the central issue for next six months. If it isn’t Cole’s best work, it’ll do till something better comes along.

Carthago The contemporary GOP delenda est.

(h/t Mrs.  Small, my Latin teacher at Berkeley High back at the dawn of time.)

(In deference to the excellence of Cole’s art direction, I’ll break local style and give no picture here.)

Clinton, Canute, and a Certain Gravity.

May 6, 2008

Parts of the blogosphere is having (a) some fun with Senator Clinton’s sudden self-discovery as the scourge of experts or (b) a collective WTF at her continued attempt to reorganize the space time continuum in which we live into one that suits her better. (Not to mention this gem of a solution to high gas prices that apparently neither Clinton nor McCain considered.)

But the jump the shark moment — or perhaps the most recent leap in the 400 meter shark hurdle race — has to be this. Senator Clinton, perhaps recently bitten by a radioactive spider, has decided that she now has the mojo to break up OPEC.

Great idea! Why didn’t anyone think of that before?

Plenty of folks have already had their way with this one too. The most succinct that I have seen so far comes from Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo. The basic take is, in essence, that Clinton is playing King Canute, without that monarch’s self awareness. (Or perhaps she’s Glendower in Henry IV: She can call spirits from the vasty deep, but with Hotspur we may reply, “Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?”)

But to pick up on Josh’s take, I’m given to understand that the next target of the growing anti-elitist lobby will be the law of gravity. However, even were Senator Clinton to add her voice to the chorus of disdain for Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and other such out of touch eggheads, this issue has in fact already been put on the table.

Ah well. It will all be over soon.

Image: J.W.M Turner, “The Sea at Egremont,” 1802. The work of art depicted in this image and the reproduction thereof are in the public domain worldwide. 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.

Best Twit the French/Science Joke on the Web recently…

May 5, 2008

…Comes from that trenchant blogger, Charles Darwin.

He writes:

Elsewhere the Telegraph’s Mr Highfield reports that starlings know when humans are watching them. A trait that first developed in France, is my guess.

Stumus Vulgaris Bardotis, no doubt.*

Image: Brigitte Bardot. Photograph taken at a cocktail party in 1968. Licensed under a GNU Free Documentation License version 1.2 or later. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

*Betraying my age here, I think.