Archive for the ‘big ideas’ category

For A Good Time In Cambridge (This Thursday)

October 6, 2015

Yo! Local Juicers — if you’ve reserved Thursday evening for watching paint dry, I have an alternative.

I’m going to be moderating a really excellent iteration of the MIT Communications Forum — this time co-sponsored by our city-wide celebration Hub Week.

I’ll be very lightly riding herd on Annalee Newitz and Charles C. Mann as they wonder about how (and whether) study of the past can help us prepare for the future — with the possibility of apocalypse included.

Brueghel-tower-of-babel

Both are wonderful writers and thinkers.  Annalee was the founding editor of io9, and is now Gizmodo’s Grand Poobah.  She’s written Scatter, Adapt and Remember:  How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, which was, inter alia, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. She’s at work now on a history of the city (and its possible future) — and more besides.

Charles  has been producing erudite and elegant science writing for yonks*. He’s perhaps best known for 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus which won the the National Academies of Sciences Keck award as best popular science book of the year.  He followed that up with 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Createdand is at work now on The Wizard and the Prophet, which he describes as a book about the future which makes no predictions. (Yogi would approve.)

Time:  5-7 p.m., Thursday, October 8.

Place:  MIT Building 3, room 270.  Interactive map here.

PS:  If you’re into some long distance planning, I’ve got a couple of events coming up in support of my long-teased new book, The Hunt for Vulcan: and how Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe.  The book is timed to the centennial of Einstein’s discovery of the General Theory of Relativity, which he completed in November, 1915, and it gets to that striking moment through a marvelous oddity of a story from 19th century solar-system astronomy, the repeated discovery of a planet that should have existed, but didn’t.  The appearance and then vanishing of the planet Vulcan is not just a curiosity, (or so it seems to me), as its history reveals a great deal about what it takes for science really to change under the pressure of inconvenient fact.

Anyway — the book comes out on Tuesday, November 3, and we are in the midst of planning a launch event at the MIT Museum.  That will most likely run from 6-7:30, with details to come soon.

Then, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, November 12, I’ll be doing a reading and signing at my local:  Brookline Booksmith.  Stop by if you’re in the neighborhood.

*Yonks being a unit of measure of time roughly equal to more than you thought.

Image: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, 1563

Scientopia!

August 4, 2010

ScienceBlogs bloggers live on in very spiffy new digs.

Many of my favorites from the old place have reorganized themselves here, at Scientopia.org.

Most wonderful, from my perspective, the interaction/conversation between blogs and bloggers that was one of the best (and occasionally worst) of the Seed Megalith’s science blogging aggregation is reproduced here, with much good fellowship and very sharp intelligence.

An evolution to be watched…

Image:  Anicet-Charles-Gabriel Lemonnier, The Salon of Madame Geoffrin” 1812.

My Contribution to Closing the Enthusiasm Gap this Fall + Some Link Love

July 28, 2010

You’ve all heard, no doubt, that the big advantage the GOP + its tinfoil auxiliaries have this fall is the reported greater enthusiasm for such goals as repealing the non-existent-but-zombie-death-panels than that felt on the Democratic side for, among much else, preventing the return to power of those that got us into our current fix.

Well, there’s lots to do about that, and what follows won’t help much.  But it won’t hurt, either.  Enjoy:

Now, some links for edification, amusement, and perhaps action.  (Don’t miss the one above — Sen. “Diaper” Dave Vitter is a source of never ending wonder.

And in partial response to Vitter’s astonishing fail, check out Atul Gawande’s latest on end-of-life care (and the consequences of the absence of such care). I plan to blog on this a little later, but don’t wait on l’il old me.   The article is essential reading.

I’ve been meaning to tout this for a while but again, as a partial response to Vitter, to the ongoing Jeremy Lord “lynchgate” fiasco, and to a whole range of shenanigans too miserable to recall here (enthusiasm gap, remember) check out Batocchio’s elegant The Five Circles of Conservative Hell.

This is a little self-aggrandizing, given how Jennifer Ouellette begins her analysis, but she’s got a lovely takedown of Amazon anonymous reviewers of science books up at Cocktail Party Physics.

Henry Farrell’s got me salivating over a novel about, among other things, the birth of linear programming.

I’m a few days behind in my reading (days?–ed.), but I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight Kathy Olmsted’s lovely reminiscence about Daniel Schorr.  It’s not the memories that stand out, in fact, as it is the critical assessment of the state of journalism, especially on TV.  Not to give it away, but there are only two cohorts:  Schorr and not-Schorr, and one is vastly different, and better, than the other.

And what would the sultry days of summer without an official celebration of Sex Week.  Carl Zimmer is on the case.

More grimly, Ed Yong, who continues to do so much work that I suspect him of being a collective of at least three symbionts occupying the same meat envelope, writes of the dangers to phytoplankton from a warming ocean.  This is fate-of-the-planet stuff.  Which is why, of course, we should return the party of global warming denialists/defeatists to power.

And with that eternal return of the same (thanks, Freddy!), I’m done for now.

That’ll do for now.

For a Good Time In Cambridge: E. O. Wilson edition

April 7, 2010

The man himself will be giving the third of the John M. Prather Lectures in Biology this afternoon.  The title:  “Consilience.”  The description:

The boundary between science on one side and the humanities and humanistic social sciences on the other is not an intrinsic epistemological divide but a broad borderland of previously poorly understood causal relationships. The borderland is now being explored, and offers increasing opportunities for collaboration across three great branches of learning. A definition of human nature will be offered and examples from the borderland will be used to illustrate it.

No one ever said Professor Wilson lacked ambition.

Time and place:  4 p.m., in the Harvard Science Center.  Map here, and more details on the lecture series here.

And a confession:  I’ll miss this one, as I missed the prior two, Monday and yesterday.  My teaching blocked Monday’s and today’s, while student work ate up yesterday, to my deep annoyance (having to, you know, actually do the job they pay you for can really suck sometimes).  But I can say that Edward O. Wilson is both one of the most important biological thinkers of the last half century and is a damn good speaker.  So if you have the chance, go and listen.

Image:  “Foraging ants (Eciton erratica) constructing a covered road—Soldiers sallying out on being disturbed.” from The Naturalist on the River Amazons by Henry Walter Bates, 1863.

Self Aggrandizement Alert: More cool Newton and the Counterfeiter talk: Chris Lydon/RadioOpenSource edition

September 24, 2009

Old friend and former WGBH-mate Chris Lydon, now the creative intelligence behind one of the web’s really exciting attempts to create global conversation,  Open Source, came by a couple of weeks ago to record an interview with me about that book I might have mentioned around here once or twice — Newton and the Counterfeiter(Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble,Indiebound and  across the pond at Amazon.co.uk, Waterstones, Blackwells, Borders,John Smith & Son)

Chris is a wonderful interviewer, creative, always looking for the angle to evoke a response the interviewee hadn’t thought of ahead of time, really an intellectual partner in each of his recordings.

His conceit for our conversation was to see what would happen if I tried to follow his imagination and lead Isaac Newton around my MIT.  Along the way we talked about God, alchemy, Newton’s qualities of mind, the terrifying (to some) success of materialist interpretations of mind and much more besides. Hilarity ensued, in other words.

Listen for yourself, if you’ve a mind to do so….it was fun, at least for your not always humble interlocutor.

Image: Ralf Lotys, photographer.  Street art in Frankfurt, 2006.

Sunday Links

June 7, 2009

Running late — deadlines on three (3!) pieces by tomorrow at eleven at the latest.

So far I have one in draft, one that I will conjure out of another piece of writing on the same subject for a different purpose, expanding by 60% (all good stuff, no groats for fillers) and a third that is but a gleam in my eye.

Plus it’s Sunday and my son wouldn’t mind having his dad share the same spacetime coordinates with him, and nor, emphatically would his father.

So not much today, except to thank all those who listened to my appearance on Ira Flatow’s NPR TOTN:  Science Friday to discuss Newton and the Counterfeiter— and especially those who mentioned the gig beforehand on Twitter or in their blogs.  (I haven’t managed to send my personal thanks to all those in the latter group yet, but I will.)

If y’all missed it, you can hear my dulcet tones here.*

So just to demonstrate that I’m only mostly about me, and not solely, I’d like to point folks to a running series  of cool over at Daily Kos, Orinoco’s “Fundamental Understanding of Mathematics” farrago, now up to its eighteenth installment.

As long term readers of this blog know, I’m a big proponent of evangelizing the idea that injecting the most basic and simple of mathematical ideas into one’s own reasoning and into public discourse pays enormous benefits.

I’ve given a few scattered examples over the 18 months or so I’ve been writing this blog — e.g. the conversion of raw numbers into abstractions like percentages** but Orinoco, a school teacher who has taught math to young kids, is doing a wonderful job in building a systematic appreciation for both the constructs and habits of mind of mathematics accessible to just about anyone.  Highly recommended — and especially if you read through the comments where a number of math and computer geeks expand on Orinoco’s themes.  This is what I love about the internet:  spontaeneous collective creativity.

Anyway, here’s the link to diary one, and you can find the rest by navigating through Orinoco’s diary page.

*And yes, on the higher traffic day of Monday, I’ll give this another plug — I enjoyed it; I think it went well; and I’d like people to hear it.

**And yes again, I know that numbers are themselves abstractions.

Image: William-Adolphe Bouguereau, La leçon difficule (The Difficult Lesson), 1884

Friday Isaac Newton Blogging: Nick Montfort Cell Phone Fiction Edition

April 2, 2009

Nick Montfort, my prolific colleague in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at MIT, is presenting a reading as I write this (actually, as I wrote this, as it took me a shockingly long time to finish this modest post).  Nick is in some ways the apotheosis of an MIT humanist:  his academic pedigree includes the Media Lab, a B.U. MFA, and a Ph.D. in computer and information science from Penn.  He gave a reading at MIT recently that was, or was supposed to have been (many technical glitches), a technologically enhanced tour through the still not-that-well-known but (to-me) astonishingly beautiful world of machine-mediated poetry (and a little prose).

Given my current passion, it’s easy to see why the following exercise in the art of concision appealed to me.

This one comes from one of Nick’s collections, called Ten Mobile Texts:

A MINIMAL LIFE: Newton was a young man. Then, he devoted his life to wondrous discoveries, such as the calculus. As a result, he was an elderly virgin.

Go here for more — and mouse into the spaces in between for invaluable commentary.

Image:  Kunisada Utagawa, The Ghost, 1852.  From the series An Imaginary 36 Poets (Mitate Sanjurokkasen no Uchi).

Darwinization!

February 13, 2009

This is just to announce that the promised Darwin project So Simple A Beginning has in fact gone live.

This is an ongoing farrago for which I hope everyone here will find some time to join in:  we’re going to be reading Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (first edition) from stem to stern, reacting on the way.

When I say we, I mean first a group of authors that have agreed to chime in on more or less regular schedules; I’ll be the utility infielder, but I’ve got around me a team of all-stars:  Darwin biographer Janet Browne, Evo-Devo guy Sean B. Carroll, my own colleague John Durant, science writer and bon vivant Carl Zimmer, rising star Alex Wellerstein, and others to be named later.  We’re going to be going through Darwin’s seminal text at the rate of about a chapter a month — maybe a touch more quickly — and we will, if all goes well, end up with a range of commentary to help place The Origin in its own time and in ours.

And that “we” again:  it includes everyone who decides to take part, to read, react, and to post their thoughts as the collective we makes our way through the most important written work of the last two centuries (and yes — I don’t think that’s hyperbole).

The site had its soft opening yesterday, with no fanfare, but there are now two posts up about the introduction, along with one with a bit of background on what edition of the Origin we are reading and why.with some more to come over the weekend and early next week, so if you’re interested — stop on by.  Much more to come.

Image:   Plan of the HMS Beagle: Middle section fore and aft, upper deck, 1832. From A Naturalist’s Voyage Round the World, Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the countries visited during the voyage round the world of H.M.S. Beagle under the command of Captain Fitz Roy, R.N., By Charles Darwin, M.A., F.R.S., with illustrations by R. T. Pritchett of places visited and objects described.

Getting Ready for 200/150: “How Many Removes From Charles?” Edition

December 16, 2008

As everyone with a pulse and an interest in science knows, 2009 is the big Darwin year — the 200th anniversary of his birth (February 12) and the 150th of the publication of The Origin.  I will in a week or so have some news about what Inverse Square — or a derivative thereof — is doing to join the chorus on that one; I think I’ve got something shaping up that the community will enjoy.

In the meantime, and as I get stuck into my prep for that project, just a quick thought as I peered at the Darwin/Wedgewood family tree Janet Browne helpfully included at the front of the Voyaging volume of her Darwin magnum opus.  There I found that Darwin’s latest-surviving child, Leonard.  Leonard Darwin was born in 1850, before the Crimean War, the Sepoy MutinyAme–the Indian Rebellion of 1857 — and the American Civil War; and he saw the end of World War II, India’s independence and the effective end of the British Empire, all before his death  in 1948.*  And, not to overlook the most important factoid, young Leonard would have been a curious eight year old just as his father was in the midst of his most intense labors distilling the work of decades into the book that became The Origin of Species.

That skein of history would be remarkable enough just for one man’s memory, but what struck me was the thought that my f Uncle David, born and raised in England, with an army background (and subsequent career of his own) that could have led him to Major Darwin (Royal Engineers), might indeed have exchanged a conversational commonplace or two with the son of the man whose birth and work we celebrate soon.

All of which is to point out the obvious — and perhaps one tangential thought not quite so banal. The distance between anyone reading this and Charles Darwin is not that great.  It is entirely imaginable to have had a conversation with someone you know or knew who could have heard the stories of life at Down House from someone who watched and listened as Charles Darwin assembled his argument.  The middle of Queen Victoria’s reign, and the very center of a revolution in ideas seem very far away when we toss around anniversary numbers like a bicentennial, or one hundred and fifty years since this or that.  They are not, at least by the measure of human memory.  She danced with a man who danced with woman who danced with the Prince of Wales; we are that close to Charles and his pigeons and all the rest.

Nothing new there — just a reminder of the numbers.  But the thought that crossed my  mind as I wondered if my uncle did in fact ever meet Leonard (as above–I had not known to ask, of course, until the chance-met glance at the bottom of the family tree) was that Richard Dawkins may have missed the point of his own reflection that he too would have been a believer before Darwin.

If you follow my sense of the slenderness of the gap that separates us in the passage of generations, of the transfer of ideas and culture that pass from grandparent to grandchild at so near a remove from Charles Darwin’s in his study in 1859, then the broken chain of belief that separates Dawkins from Victoria’s (or Emma Darwin’s) Anglican God is very short indeed.

And that thought made me wonder  if the heat and urgency I read in Dawkins’ atheism seems a little misplaced.  Without wandering too far into this thicket, it does seem to me worth remembering that it has been a very short time in the history of human society, and a still shorter time if the person-person touch of memory matters, since Darwin’s thought  struck its blow to conventional faith.

It takes some time for big ideas to sink in.  (For a biblical example, as long as we are on the subject, God through Moses affirmed the equality of women, at least as far as inheritance and rights of property go, in the Book of Numbers, which dates back 3,400 years ago or so.  That thought took a while to penetrate, did it not?)

There is no doubt in my mind that Darwin’s rigorous materialism takes some getting used to; that part of the point of 2009 is to confront not just Darwin’s thinking, but the success of the research program that his work (and that of many others, of course) set in motion.  I’m confident, that is, not angry — and I remember that we have not been inside this world view for any length of time at all.  One hundred and fifty years?  The lives my uncle’s life has touched — mine and those before me — stretch back before then.  Easily.

*Here from the Wikipedia entry on Leonard Darwin linked above, is John Maynard Keynes take on Charles’s son, who proves to have just a hint of the wasp about him in his turn:

Keynes explained the decision to publish the niece’s “very personal account”: “Leonard Darwin’s life covered so vast an epoch of change in men’s ideas, his own attitudes towards the problems of his age were so characteristic of the best and noblest intelligences of his time, and he grew up in the environment of a family of so immortal a renown …” (p. 439) Darwin expressed his feelings about Keynes in a letter to Fisher (Correspondence p. 141), “I neither like him nor trust him … But he’s very clever …”

Image: Auguste Renoir:  “La danse à la campagne,” 1883.

Quote for the Day: Jacob Burckhardt hearts him some science writing dept.

November 25, 2008

Jacob Burckhardt is hardly a household name anymore, outside certain rather specialized houses, but it would be not too great an exaggeration to say that he “discovered” the Italian Renaissance, establishing the notion of a distinct period, a time and place in which fundamental changes took place that rung out the end of the ideas and culture of the middle ages, laying the foundations of for habits of mind and the concrete history of that time we think of as modern.

Perhaps most significantly, he was an early historian, perhaps the seminal one, who focused on the history of art in particular and “culture” more generally as essential approachs to “history,” full stop.  That attitude led him to think about the history of science in the Renaissance as something other than simply a chain of discoveries that form individual sequences within particular disciplines…which in turn led him to just about the earliest praise of science writing I’ve been able to find.

If it is a little back-handed, Burkhardt’s compliment still captures what I think of as a critical truth:  science is not self-contained;  it is an expression of culture, and its survival as a living human enterprise depends on culture at large remaining aware of its claim on the public’s understanding and emotion alike.  In his landmark work, The Civilization of the Renaissance, Burkhardt writes:

Even the simple dilletante of a science — if in the present case we should assign to Aeneas Sylvius so low a rank — can diffuse just that sort of general interest in the subject which prepares for new pioneers the indispensable groundwork of a favourable predisposition in the public mind.  True discoveres in any science know well what they owe to such mediation.

(Part Four.  The translation above comes from the Penguin Classics edition of 1990.)

I’d argue that science writing and science writers have more ambition than simply acting as cultural diffusers.  The ones I admire most think of themselves as writers whose subject is science, and not simply science writers; that is they (and I, in the privacy of my own thoughts) are trying to use language to the limits of capacity for expression, to move readers and not simply to inform them.  That said, Burkhardt is right:  a civilized culture, a civilized time manages to communicate some version of its most sophisticated thinking to every interested citizen.

Image:  Studies of Embryos by Leonardo da Vinci (Pen over red chalk 1510-1513).