Archive for the ‘Self-aggrandizement’ category

For A Good Time In Tucson…And Then Tn Charlottesville.

March 11, 2016

[Obligatory sound track]

Way late with this post, but if any of y’all happen to be in the Tucson, AZ area this weekend, I’ll be doing a bunch of stuff at the excellent Tucson Festival of Books.  It’s truly an all-in event; just an outrageous amount of book love crammed into two days.


My own motes in this maelstrom come at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. both days.  On Saturday, I’ll be participating in a couple of panels, “Genius: Lives in Science” in the morning and “How We Got Here: Histories of Science” in the afternoon.  Sunday morning I’ll be doing a workshop/Q & A on science writing — how that will go will depend on who shows up and what they want to talk about — and in the afternoon we’ll be on to “Our Nearest Neighbors In The Solar System,” a chance to talk Planet Nine, Kuiper Belt Objects, those funky moons that orbit the Pluto-Charon system…and maybe just a bit about our should-be, could-be, never-was friend, Vulcan.

Some come by if you can.  And check out everything else going on — or rather, as that’s more than any one person could manage, check out what you like.

Also — an author’s plea.  If you happen to have read The Hunt for Vulcan (so nice I linked it twice) do tell your friends, and if you’re feeling extra generous, pop up a review on Amazon, or whatever social media venue floats your boat.

Also, also:  for anyone in the Charlottesville, VA vicinity next week, I’ll be talking at the Virginia Festival of the Book as part of a panel on “Mysteries of the Cosmos.”  That’ll be on Friday, March 18 at 4 p.m.  That’s another great celebration of writing, reading and the wondrousness of words; it too has an amazing line up of authors, with only yours-truly mucking up the joint; and a spring weekend spent in sight of the Blue Ridge is never wasted.

And just to broaden out the thread — how about talking about what you’re reading now.  For me, I just finished work in a genre I don’t usually read much: N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogywhich I enjoyed a lot, and to which I turned after being truly wowed by her The Fifth Season — a novel of geophysics, race, love and vengeance. I’m not sure what the next novel will be just yet.

My non-fiction jones is being fed by a dual read of Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature:  Alexander Humboldt’s New World and Humboldt’s own Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of Americaand a nightly, just-before-bed dip into Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson — which is just wonderful, a poet diving into another poet’s life and work in a bravura demonstration of criticism as high art.

What’s on your pile?

Image: Simon Luttichuijs, Vanitas still life with skull, books, prints and paintings by Rembrandt and Jan Lievens, with a reflection of the painter at workbetw. 1635-1640.

Programming Note/Self Aggrandizement — Vulcan/Planet Nine Edition

January 29, 2016

Hey, all:  if you’ve got a moment this afternoon, I’ll be talking with Ira Flatow on Science Friday about The Hunt for Vulcan in the context of last week’s announcement about Planet Nine.


I’ll be on in the second hour, starting at around 3:20 ET, maybe a couple of ticks before, and rabbiting on with Ira until about 3:38.  Some NPR stations fecklessly omit the second hour of Science Friday, so check local listings.  You can always catch it live or later at the Science Friday site.

While there may be better ways to spend 18 minutes of your life…there are surely worse ones too.  Come on down if you’ve time and the inclination.

Image: Poster for the film, The Radio King, 1922.

It Came From Planet Nine

January 26, 2016

There be dragons out there, waaaaay out there, in the dark, off the edge of the map.

Or rather, a virtuoso combination of observation and mathematical modeling has led to an exciting, in some ways joyously old-school prediction. Orbital oddities identified in a handful of distant Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) were subjected to the same kind of inquiry that allowed 19th century astronomers to infer Neptune from Uranus’s behavior, in what was widely understood to be a triumph of Isaac Newton’s “System of the World.”


The new analysis, by two Caltech astronomers, theoretician Konstantin Batygin and the observer and Slayer-of-Pluto Michael Brown, has led to a broad outline of what to expect — a ~10 Earth mass planet travelling a very eccentric orbit that never comes closer to the sun than ~250 Earth-Sun distances, a unit of measure known as the Astronomical Unit.

I’m sure many of you saw the news about this last week.  Alexandra Witze in Nature had a  good write-up, as did Alan Burdick in The New Yorker.  (For those (quite a few) on the blog with the urge to read the original Batygin-Brown paper — go here.)

I couldn’t be more excited by the news.  I sometimes forget what an extraordinary run of solar system exploration I’ve been privileged to witness.  The variety we’ve found exists in our near-environment has leapt unbelievably, just in the last two or  three decades, and the richness and complexity of our own solar system is allowing us to make more sense of the process of planet and planetary system formation as more and more data emerges about exo-systems.

But for all that excitement, there’s something special about a new major planet.  As I write in The Hunt for Vulcan [Shameless Plug Here], the idea of a whole new world joining the neighborhood had enormous romantic power in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.  Arguably, given our present immersion in the imagined reality of multiple worlds, that romance cuts deeper still today.

But. ButButButButBut….it’s important to remember that a prediction, no matter how well supported, how seemingly necessary, isn’t the same thing as proof, as the discovery itself.  That’s what I tried to say in this essay on the subject.  A sample:

In 1846, the discovery of Neptune turned Le Verrier into a celebrity; for a time, he was the most famous man of science in the world. He went on an international tour and seized the moment to rise to the top of power in the highly contentious and hierarchical world of French astronomy. Batygin and Brown are taking a much more measured tack with Planet Nineand for good reason.  “We felt quite cautious about making the statement we made,” Batygin says.  Why such concern? Because, he says, “immediately after the detection of Neptune spurious claims of planets in outer solar system began to surface. We didn’t want to be another red herring.”

It wasn’t just the distant reaches of the solar system that tripped people up: 


The only problem being, of course, that Vulcan was never there.

I’m much more hopeful for Batygin and Brown’s Planet Nine, but hopeful don’t pay the rent — or, as Batygin told me:

“If Newton is right, then I think we’re in pretty good shape,” says Batyagin. “We’re after a real physical effect that needs explanation. The dynamics of our model are persuasive.” And yet, he adds, that’s not enough. “Until Planet Nine is caught on camera it does not count as being real. All we have now is an echo.”

There’s a surfeit of terrestrial crazy to weigh us down.  It’s a relief, I find, to look up and out, and contemplate the ordered mysteries that so thoroughly dwarf Comrade Trump’s Yuuuuuggggge self conceit.

Images:  William Blake, Isaac Newton1795

Johannes Vermeer, The Astronomerc. 1668

For Good Times in Brookline And Cambridge

November 11, 2015

A few events tomorrow and Friday for your infotainment pleasure.

First, I’ll be doing a reading/book talk on The Hunt for Vulcan at Brookline Booksmith, a fine indy bookstore in scenic Coolidge Corner.  (279 Harvard St., to be precise). That would be tomorrow, Thursday November 12 at 7 p.m.  Books to be signed, of course.

I have to add that Tikka’s grown tired of waiting for his:

Tikka and HUnt

For some background on the book and the events that drove me to it, here’s a Boston Globe piece I published a few weeks ago on Einstein’s general relativity at 100; here’s a piece that went up yesterday at The Atlantic‘s joint that gives a taste of the story the book tells; and here’s a similar piece at Gizmodo that adds a little background into how and why I actually got off my ass and wrote the damn thing. (Spoiler alert:  I blame someone often discussed on this site.

Next, in semi-direct competition with my gig at the bookstore…(See! I can rise above shameless self-promotion on rare occasions) my department at MIT is putting on what looks to be a really interesting event:  an MIT Communication Forum presentation on “Women in Politics: Representation and Reality”


Think Veep comes to Washington.  That’ll take place at 5 p.m., tomorrow, November 12, so I guess if you were a glutton for punishment you could take that one in, dash across the river, and still get in on some planet Vulcan action.  Shameless I am.  The forum is free and open to the public, and will take place in MIT Building 3, room 270. (That link takes you to the MIT interactive map. Basically Building 3 is the second hallway on your right off the long (Infinite!) corridor that starts at the main entrance to campus at 77 Massachusetts Ave. Go upstairs and wander down — towards the river —  till you find room number 270.

Finally, on Friday, November 13, the MIT Program in Science Technology and Society and the Physics Department are hosting a sneak preview of the NOVA film “Inside Einstein’s Mind.”


The screening will be followed by a panel discussion on the film and on the centennial of the discovery of the General Theory of Relativity.

That part of the evening’s festivities will be moderated by your humble blogger and will feature my colleague, physicist and historian of science David Kaiser, joined by two of David’s physics colleagues, Tracy Slayter and Scott Hughes, science writer Amanda Gefter, and NOVA’s Chris Schmidt.  It all happens between 7 and 9 p.m., in room 32-123 — which is the big auditorium on the ground floor of the Stata Center, the great big honker of a Gehry building at the intersection of Vasser and Main Streets.  Interactive map advice here.

Come to some, come to all, and if you can’t (or won’t) you can still get your hands on the book, online* and/or at the local bookstore I thoroughly encourage you to support — and then watch the film on Wednesday, November 25th at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).

Images: Tikka, of course, photographed by yours truly.

Henry Gillard Glindoni, John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth I, by 1913.

Thomas Bartholin, Head transect from Anatome ex omnium veterum recentiorumque observationibus, 1673.

Barnes and Noble/Nook here; iBooks here.

For A Good Time In Cambridge…Tonight!c

November 3, 2015

So it’s here — Publication Day! The Hunt for Vulcan is now live.

There’s a bit of backstory on how the book came to be over at Gizmodo. Spoiler alert: Ta-Nehisi Coates bears part of the blame.

More backstory on Einstein’s role in all this here.

And last, tonight (in an hour and a half actually) this:


If that doesn’t read too well: I’ll be talking about the book with my colleague, the wonderful physicist and historian of science David Kaiser at 6 p.m. We’ll be at the MIT Museum — free and open to the public.

If you can’t make it, there will be alternatives.

And with that: shameless self promotion at least temporarily brought to a halt.

For A Good Time In Cambridge…Next Week!

October 27, 2015

Hey all,

Shameless self promotion coming up.  Leave now if you want…

A reminder: I’ll be talking Vulcan, gravity, Einstein, and General Relativity at 100 with my quite wonderful colleague, David Kaiser, one week from today.


It will all happen on Tuesday, November 3, starting at 6 p.m. at the MIT Museum.  Free and open to the public of course.  We’ll be done by 7:30, and, yes, there will be books to buy (and have signed)>

The occasion, as you may have guessed, is the publication of my new book, The Hunt for Vulcan.  Early reviews have been kind.  Here’s Kirkus, and here are the results from the Amazon Vine program — new to me — in which prolific Amazon reviewers get a pre-publication crack at the book.

Shortest form, David and I will talk both about the story of the planet Vulcan, which really should have existed; how Einstein disposed of it when he invented his truly radical new conception of gravity; and what Vulcan’s repeated discovery tells us about the difference between how we think science works, and how it really does in the hands of the human beings who do the labor.  It should be fun.

If you want a little more background on the Einstein part, by the way, you can take a look at a piece I published in The Boston Globe on Sunday.  A taste:

Einstein’s gift for mental imagery showed itself when he tried to explain to his son how mere geometry could produce what we feel as the tug of gravity. Imagine, he said (at least so the story goes) a blind beetle. When it “crawls over the surface of a curved branch, it doesn’t notice that the track it has covered is indeed curved.”

Or imagine living on a vast, seemingly featureless plain, so flat that you know only two dimensions, length and width. Out for a walk one day, you find that your steps are coming harder. You begin to puff and labor. You sense that you’re being pulled by something — a force you could call gravity. It tugs you back as you walk along what you’re sure is a straight line. To anyone able to perceive three dimensions, not two, there is a simpler explanation — or as Einstein told his son, “I was lucky enough to notice what the beetle didn’t notice.”

I can promise you that the evening will beat rearranging your sock drawer.  By what margin?  Only time will tell.

PS:  If you’re interested by conflicted next week, I’ll be doing an event at Brookline Booksmith at 7 p.m. on November 12.  Much the same stuff to be discussed.  And support for a good local bookstore thrown in!

Image:  Benjamin Cole, The Copernican or Solar System, 1759

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