Archive for the ‘Self-aggrandizement’ 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.


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

Mountains, Stars, Conflict

May 31, 2015

You’ll forgive, I hope, the self promotion here, but I want to draw attention to an essay I have in The Boston Globe today.

It’s about the controversy over the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) that is beginning to be constructed at the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii.  Mauna Kea is one of the world’s most significant sites for optical and near infrared astronomy — it’s already home to thirteen telescopes, including the two largest now in operation in the twin Keck instruments.


The TMT is designed to have a primary mirror three times the diameter of the Keck ten meter light buckets, with nine times the light gathering area.  Over the last century — which covers the era of large, mountaintop optical observatorys, each similar leap in telescope size has produced startling, powerful discoveries, and there’s every reason to expect the same of the TMT and its planned southern hemisphere counterparts.

But there’s a catch — or something more fundamental than a mere glitch.  Mauna Kea is a sacred site within the Hawaiian tradition, and an environmentally sensitive one, and opposition to TMT has grown from a point of tension to one of direct confrontation.  Construction of the TMT has been suspended, and the governor of Hawaii has called for the removal of a quarter of the existing observatories before the TMT itself begins operating.

In the midst of this confrontation, plenty of people have framed the two sides as another battle in the old war between science and religious belief.  I say in the Globe today that’s a mistake.  A taste:

….the TMT dispute shows where the science versus religion trope goes wrong. The Hawaiian protesters haven’t said that Mauna Kea’s telescopes are inherently impious, or that the data they collect is somehow wrong, or that Hawaiian mythology is a better account of the cosmos. Rather, the value, the joy, the need the observatories satisfy may indeed satisfy many, but not those continuing a Hawaiian tradition that allows its heirs to find connection with memory, with history, with nature — to achieve the same transcendence sought by those who find beauty in the measure of the universe.

That is: The TMT defenders and their opponents seek analogous rewards from their presence on Mauna Kea. Their conflict isn’t between the competing worldviews of science and religion, but between desires that are kin to each other — and that require the same physical space.

Check it out, if your Sunday afternoon tends that way.  Let me know what you think.

Image:  Johannes Vermeer,  The Astronomerc. 1668.


Quick Heads Up For Some Spooky Action At A Distance Talk

July 30, 2014

Late, late, late I am in getting this out to you, but I’m doing another webcast/podcast for Virtually Speaking Science today.

I’ll be talking to my MIT colleague, David Kaiser, who is a physicist and a historian of science in our Science Technology and Society program.  He’s also an excellent popular science writer, and we’ll use the hour today (and whenever you might choose to listen) to talk Higgs, Bicep2 and gravitational waves (did the very early universe inflate? Are there butt-loads of universes?  How freaking hard is it to make cosmological measurements?*).  And we’ll talk about his wonderful book How the  Hippies Saved Physics — about the Fundamental Fysics group at Berkeley and their engagement with quantum entanglement, Bell’s theorem, spooky action at a distance and the discovery that yup, the universe does behave that strangely…which is why we are now, almost 50 years later, thinking seriously about quantum computing, encryption and the like:  actual this-world technologies that exploit properties that Albert Einstein thought no properly behaved universe should exhibit.


David’s a great explainer — so the opaque shorthand above will become much clearer very soon.  We go on the air at 6 ET — half an hour from now.  Listen here live or later (also on iTunes — search for Virtually Speaking Science and or Levenson and Kaiser) — or join us as part of the virtual studio audience in Second Life, hosted by my favorite (as in, my childhood) science center, San Franciso’s Exploratorium.

*Spoiler:  Very, very hard.

Image:  Joseph Wright of Derby,  An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump1768

Tonight! ‘Net Radio: Me and Eileen Pollack on “Why Are There Still So Few Women In Science”

March 12, 2014

That’d be my regular monthly gig co-hosting Virtually Speaking Science, tonight, Wednesday March 12, 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT.

Eileen Pollack is now a professor at the University of Michigan, teaching in the creative writing M.F.A. program there.  She’s a celebrated novelist and writer of short fiction, essays, and what is called (alas, in my view — and not her fault) “creative” nonfiction.  You can get hold of her works here.  All in all, hers is an enormously impressive record of a life in letters, of worlds made in words.

Eileen Pollack in 1978 was someone quite different (weren’t we all…) That spring, she graduated from Yale with highest honors in physics — only the second woman in the history of the university to complete that major.  What happened to take someone who was, on the accolades, one of Yale’s most accomplished undergraduate physicists, and turn her to a radically different path?

Pollack answered that question and raised another one in her New York Times Magazine article “Why Are There Still So Few Women In Science?” published last October.  In her case, no one told her she might have a shot at a career in math or physics.  So, as conditioned by her context’s views on female capacity and the maleness of science as any of the male professors who never thought to encourage her, she gave up the joy she found in equations and the ideas they expressed, and moved on.

So far hers is a sorrowful but not unfamiliar story.  The history of barriers to entry in science is a miserable one, but not unknown.  But Pollack’s curiosity — and more — flared in 2005, when then Harvard president Larry Summers mused about a possible biological deficit — at least when it comes to the extremes of mathematical capacity — might explain why men so outnumber women in the physical sciences.  Pollack is gentle with Summers himself, whom she’s known for decades , but the controversy created a need to know the answer to the underlying issue.  It’s a fact that there are many more men than women hold positions in the upper echelons of scientific research.  But why?


Pollack’s article, and the book that will emerge from her enquiry, engage that question, and the explanations she’s coming to are at once depressingly reminiscent of her own story, and extend them, to account for the persistence of cultural and social bias even when (a) formal discrimination is prohibited by law and (b) members of a community — like physics departments — pride themselves on their ability to separate emotion and unconscious impulses from the exercise of reason.

In other words:  being smart is no protection against hidden biases, or even against accepting the evidence of bias when rigorously documented…and the revolution isn’t won yet, not by a long shot.

Pollack and I will be talking about all that, the whys the wherefores, and some thought as to what it will take to turn formal commitments to gender equity (and by extension, equity for the whole host of relevant modifiers) into actual practice, the simple fabric of society.

Join us!  Live or later here.  Or, if you are virtually real, at the Exploratorium’s Second Life joint — 6 p.m. this evening, March 12, 2014.

Image:  Joseph Wright of Derby, Experiment with the Air Pumpc. 1768

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: March Mammal Madness Edition

February 18, 2014

That time of the month again:  tomorrow being the third Wednesday of February, I’ll be going on the ‘tubes at my usual gig with Virtually Speaking Science for a conversation with Katie Hinde — biologist at Harvard and major-domo of the world-class awesome blog, Mammals Suck…Milk!

You can listen live or as a podcast later here.  If you’re virtually real, you can join us in the live studio audience at the Exploratorium’s joint in Second Life.  (I’ll get the SLURL up in an update and/or tomorrow’s reminder. We kick off at 6 p.m. ET.

Hinde is just a treat of an interview — fast, funny, and with incredibly rich and interesting science to discuss.  Here’s what she’s about:

Mother’s milk has an organizational effect on infant outcomes, not just by providing the energy that sustains growth, but by also contributing to immunological, neurobiological, and behavioral development.

Guided by evolutionary theory, we investigate how variation in mother’s milk and behavioral care influences infant outcomes from post-natal life into adulthood and subsequent generations.

Her research has centered on primates, but as Ed Yong discusses here, she’s a marvelously agile opportunist, and in one sweet move she managed to turn what has been a field developed on the back of very labor intensive, small sample size studies into something approaching big milk data.  Her trick?   Taking advantage of the detailed record keeping American dairy farmers perform for obvious reasons to acquire 2.4 million lactatation records from 1.4 million cows.  Now that’s some statistical power!


Technique is one thing — asking good questions of data is another, and that’s what makes Hinde such an interesting scholar.  She’s been looking at differences by gender of the offspring in the composition and delivery of milk.  The answer is (a) the details are all in all; different species with different evolutionary histories and behavioral landscapes exhibit different lactation patterns in the context of different behaviors exhibited by daughters and sons, and (b) seemingly obvious evolutionary stories often fail to fit what actually happens at the udder or the breast — and after, through the life of the nourished children.  You can get a sense of the field and a whiff of Hinde’s own work in her review chapter here. [PDF]

We’ll talk about all that — what the story is for cows, as compared with rhesus macaques, for example, and then we’ll talk about that research as it hits the wider world.    That’s in Hinde’s mind because of a very recent encounter with the inimitable (thankfully) Daily Mail.  We’ll talk about that monument to crap science writing, but with this twist:  a look at the importance of social media for contemporary scientists.  Hinde was able to mobilize correctives to the disastrous reporting on her research only because she has a robust presence across a number of networks — and we’ll use her experience over the last week to think about the shifting power structure in media.  A long way — but not really — from the milking shed.

And last, burying the lede as usual, we’ll get to Hinde’s annual mammalian extravaganza — her own bracket of mammals taking on each other in a nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw competition that makes the NCAAs look like toddlers in sandboxes.  Just to give you a taste, last year she pitted (inter much alia) the honey badgers against the wolverines.  Now, there is simply no mammal around that matches the wolverine for sheer, incomprehensible bad-assery (see, e.g., the tale of M3 Hinde often cites).  But Hinde is an honest bracket-builder, so home field matters.  Wolverine could wreck Honey Badger on any neutral field, but in HB’s home turf — Africa — the heat and  humidity negated the advantages of stamina and ferocity, leaving one of the  pre-tourney favorites a loser as the Madness played out.

Hinde will be running a new Mammal Madness this coming March — and that’s where the conversation tomorrow will come to rest.

As you may have gathered, I’m looking forward to this one.  Join in the conversation tomorrow.

Image:  Winslow Homer, Milking Time1875.


For A Good Time On The Intertubes: Deborah Blum, Poison, Murder, Chemical Ignorance Edition

January 15, 2014

Hey, everyone.

It’s that season again — third Wednesday of the month (what, already?) at at 6 p.m. ET, I’ll be talking on that old Intertube Radio Machine with science writer extraordinaire Deborah Blum.  Live and later here, and/or in Second Life at San Francisco’s Exploratorium in-world theater, should you be minded to join our virtually live studio audience.

Deborah is probably known to you as the author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, a really elegant book on the birth of forensic chemistry in the Prohibition-era investigations of New York City’s nascent chemical crime investigative laboratory.  It’s just a fabulous read — noir true crime with a solid steel core of great science running through every misdeed.


The PBS series The American Experience just broadcast an adaptation of the book, by the way, which can be viewed here.

There’s a lot more to Deborah’s career than simply this most recent success.  She won a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for The Sacramento Bee for reporting on ethical issues in  primate research, work contained and extended in her first book The Monkey Wars.  She’s published five previous books in total, all great — my favorite is Love At Goon Park, but there’s not a dud in the bunch. Far from it.  Her day job now is teaching science and investigative journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her students are lucky ducks (or badgers).

We’ll be talking about the new stuff:  poison, the emergence of systematic chemistry as a tool, the issues we face of our ignorance of so much of the chemical universe — the West Virginia spill will be our proof text there — and more.  We’ll also continue the extended conversation I’m having with several colleagues about the constraints and worse affecting the work of women in science writing.  Deborah has been a leader in organizing public thinking and discussion on these matters, so that’ll be on tap as well.

I should add what you may have guessed: Deborah is a good friend as well as a professional colleague.  So I’ve got the experience to assure you she’s a great conversationalist.  It will be an interesting hour.  Come on down!

Image:  Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates1787.

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics*

November 20, 2013

It’s that time of the month again.

This afternoon at 5 ET I’ll be doing my internet science radio gig as one of three hosts on Virtually Speaking Science.  The others, btw, are Alan Boyle and Jennifer Ouellette.

My guest will by my MIT colleague Allan Adams.  Allan is a physicist — a string theorist, AKA someone who works on problems that have been famously twitted as having no rea world test or validation.


That’s a misleading claim on a bunch of levels, some of which are implicated in some recent work Allan and several colleagues have done.  The latest, reported in a paper in Science last summer, uses math derived from string theory that’s been applied to the study of black hole dynamics to investigate what happens as a superfluid — a frictionless fluid whose behavior is described by quantum mechanics — displays turbulence.

That’s a mouthful, to be sure.  Here’s the nub:  a mathematical description of one kind of physical system — a black hole — turns out to explicate the behavior of a very different one, that, as it happens, can be produced, observed and analyzed right here at home.

Think on that for a second.

This is an instance of the most …

…miraculous is the wrong word for it, so perhaps better, astonishing fact about modern science:  it really, really works, and it does so through a path that mathematics opens up.  We can make sense of our surroundings because of what seems to be an invention of the human mind, a system of logic rigorously expressed that can describe and evolve the relations between ideas, concepts and things in the world.  But here’s the weird bit:   that tool, that invention of thousands of years of human culture, does so across every more disparate, ever more encompassing domains — from the lab bench to a collapsed star, for example.  Mathematics as a creation of fallible humans seems to be in some sense an intrinsic property of the universe, which is a much more banal statement than it appears, in one sense, since what it really says is that  mathematical accounts do what people were trying to do with the stuff:  find ways to construct   arguments in forms that can be checked for accuracy and internal consistency that satisfactorily describe, say, the flight of a cannonball or the path of a planet.

So Allan and I are going to talk about all that:  his recent work as an example of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics; about how physicists actually use math — what kind of thinking actually goes into doing this kind of work;  and about why string theory, for any paucity of new prediction or unique evidence in its favor is still such a fertile field of inquiry — and what that fact tells you about how science actually advances.

Heady stuff, I know, but I, with my physics degree from the school of having things fall on my head, will keep the conversation working as a way to see into what (a) physicist does.  Allan, you’ll find, is great value, that most fortunate of human who finds nothing but joy in the work he does. That’ll come through — the great pleasure of my work is to get to spend time with people who know cool stuff, find out more, and can’t stop talking about it. That’s what you’ll get in just a little while.

Tune in if you have a chance, or stop by the Second Life live studio experience, or catch it later as  a podcast.

*The phrase “The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” was the title of an essay by Nobel laureate physicist Eugene Wigner.  Highly recommended.  It’s concluding thought:

The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning.

Image: Jan van Bijlert, Musical Companybefore 1671.


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