Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

A Big Effing Einstein Deal

February 11, 2016

Just a quick note here as I’m on deadline for a piece on this stuff, but today we got the official announcement of the worst kept recent secret in physics.  Here, via the Guardian, is the TL:DR version of what was said:

On 14 September 2015 at 9:50 GMT, the two detectors of the newly upgraded Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected a signal.

It was unambiguously a gravitational wave signal because it matched the predictions from Einstein’s general theory of relativity almost precisely.

J.M.W._Turner,_R.A._(1775-1851),_Storm_at_Sea.Christie's

This is huge news, as it is, among other things, the latest and most elusive (so far) direct confirmation of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, a theory of gravity that describes what we feel as a force holding our feet to the floor is in fact the local warping of spacetime by matterenergy. (In the case of our feet and our floor — that warping is the dent in spacetime created by the mass of the earth.)

It is as well a triumph of virtuosity in observation and measurement.  The detection of a gravity wave is a simply wondrous an act of human hands and mind.  It is a joy to witness, at least for me.

More after I get the paying work done….

Image:  J. W. M. Turner Storm at Sea 1851 or before.

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.

Radio_King_poster

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.

Y’all Qaeda Pissing You Off? Fire A Phone Call, Not A Glock

January 6, 2016

I’m enraged by the news in Zander’s post over at Balloon Juice.  Happy to let any of seditionists out of the Malheur HQ — but only into the welcoming arms of federal custody.

That’s a legitimate political view — and you know what sane and patriotic people do with such views?  They call their representatives in Washington to let them know how they feel.

'Telephone_Operator'_by_Gerrit_A._Beneker (1)

I just left a message at Senator Warren’s office and spoke to a nice young (I’m guessing) staffer in Rep. Joe Kennedy’s.  Markey is next on my list.  I told them how disgusted I was at the action of the Malheur thugs — stealing our property, yours, mine, and the whole damn American people’s while, many of them, stealing from the public till for years and years.

The key though is that I also made a request:  I want my Congressional representatives to put the question to federal law enforcement as to why they are not enforcing the law, either by denying the radical right wing intimidators their freedom of movement as long as they remain on the people’s property, or by arresting them when they do choose to wander.

It’s not much, but it’s not nothing either.  These folks only succeed because their supporters are vocal and active, while the hundreds of millions whom they rip off, disrespect and aim to intimidate and coerce just want to go about their business.  A little volume on our side of the playground is actually significant.

So call your official peeps!  Takes a minute or two, and it’s worth the effort.  This is also one where the partisan identification of your representatives matters a little less than on some of the calls to action this blog has made.  Armed take-overs of public buildings strikes a little close to home for a lot of Congressfolk.

So call! Be polite; know the message you want to send; thank the kids on the other end of the line for their help; and lets start making the country marginally more sane, one firmly worded dispatch at a time.

The phone numbers:

House and Senate switchboard: 202-224-3121.  Individual senator phone numbers.  Individual representative phone numbers. (Both lists by state.  You can sort by last name as well.)

Have at it, friends.

Image: Gerrit A. Beneker, Telephone Operator (A Weaver of Public Thought) 1921.

A 21st Century Mother-and-Child

December 24, 2015

Thought I’d try one post this year without politics or snark, and this is it.

A couple of weeks ago I put this up at The Boston Globe‘s site — and it is, I believe, behind a pay wall.  The Globe is kind enough to release the material back to me to post after a bit, as long as I credit and link back to the original posting (see what I did there) — so here it is.  If the image has any resonance this time of year for you….good.  And if what its maker has to say about the multiplication of possibilities it embodies adds a little joy to the picture?  So much the better.

_________________________

A mother cradling her infant child.

If the better angels of human nature were to prevail, this picture could become one of those pictures — a single frame that captures an essential piece of the 21st century.

Two human beings, stripped way past bare: two brains, connected in a universal human pose, a mother cradling her infant child.

SaxeTakahashi_MRI_April2015

Rebecca Saxe, a neuroscientist (and my colleague) at MIT, is a maestro of the camera that can make such images, the functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, or fMRI. To create an fMRI portrait, a subject must lie still inside a narrow cylinder, the inside of a giant electromagnet. The artful manipulation of electromagnetic fields catches the brain in the act — not quite the act of thinking, but of working, nerve cells grabbing oxygen to power the action that ultimately adds up to an idea, a gesture, a feeling.

Making a functional magnetic resonance image demands a lot of its subjects. In a return to the earliest days of photography, you have to lie still for minutes to allow the fMRI machine to complete its tour of your skull. “Moving just a millimeter leaves a blur on the screen,” as Saxe writes at Smithsonian.com. “The mother and baby must hold their pose, as if for a daguerreotype.”

Saxe’s work centers on a fundamental question: How people grapple with the realization that other people have thoughts inside their heads — an area of research called “theory of mind.”

Becoming aware of the fact that people around you are thinking and learning to analyze what those thoughts might be, is a capacity that human beings develop over time — which has led Saxe to attempt to make fMRI images of ever younger children. That allows her to track how growing brains, growing people, form the ability to imagine the reality of other’s minds.

There’s no science in Saxe’s picture of herself with her son — or rather, there’s no data to be used in any formal extension of her theory of mind research. Instead, one reading of the image is simply as a marker, a measure of the current state of a scientific project. Saxe writes that the juxtaposition of her mature brain with the just-getting-started one of her son is the “depiction of one of the hardest problems in neuroscience: How will changes in that specific little organ accomplish the unfolding of a whole human mind?”

That is: This picture captures a key step in the process of discovery — the moment when a human invention extends the reach of human senses into realms that were until then not just unexplored but unreachable. New instruments don’t just reveal more of something, more detail, better precision, or what have you. Often, as here, they open windows onto whole new vistas. We’re a very long way yet from answering Saxe’s question, but in the sight of her and her son’s brains we can recognize that an answer is possible.

That’s reason enough to borrow an afternoon of scanner time — but that’s not the whole story behind this picture. Saxe says she and her colleagues made this particular fMRI image “because we wanted to see it.” She reads in it a specific story, an argument. Mother and Child is an old, old trope, in art and in human experience, and as Saxe writes, there is a reflex to elevate “the maternal values, and the women who embody them” to the exclusion of the possibility (or propriety) of those same women exercising their smarts in any out-of-the-home role.

Mary_Cassat_-_Mothers_Kiss_-_NGC_29879

Saxe with her son, depicted and depicting — as she writes, neuroscientist and mother — collude in the same single frame. That was the goal, to create “an old image made new.” And there it is, in the traditional gesture of a mother kissing her child, and the utterly new view of that caress from the inside out.

To me, for all that Saxe’s gloss is so clearly readable in her picture, there’s a yet broader idea expressed. There’s a lot of loose talk around the so-called two cultures of the humanities and sciences, often presented as two sharply distinct ways of making sense of the world. Saxe’s picture gives the lie to that simplistic framing. Art does many things, but certainly one of them is to give us images that confront us with shards of the strange experience of being human. Science, an artful craft, can do the same — as it does here.

_______________________

Back to regularly scheduled rage, weariness, snark, schadenfreude, celebrations of the discomfiture of our adversaries and random brain bubbles after this.  Happy Saturnalia, all.

Image:  Mary Cassatt, Mother’s Kissbetween 1890 and 1891.

Roberts, Race and Physics

December 23, 2015

I’ve been stewing for a couple of weeks about what was said by Fat Tony and Chief Justice Roberts during oral arguments on Fisher v. University of Texas, the latest attack on affirmative action.

Scalia’s hankering after the good old jurisprudence of Plessey v. Ferguson receive much notice, but I was (perhaps unsurprisingly, given my day job) at least as troubled by Roberts’ musing on the importance of diversity to a physics classroom.

Much of Roberts’ train of thought was no doubt shaped by prior jurisprudence on the criteria by which preferences could be accepted, but his specific choice of the physics classroom as a presumed space in which diversity would not show a particular benefit to the assembled students seemed to me to reflect a common and pernicious mistake, and error about both the practice of science and the ways diversity actually produces its effects.

So I wrote about it — and The Atlantic put it up on their site today.  Here’s a taste:

Roberts’s question about the “benefits” minorities might bring into a physics classroom suggests a classroom in which nothing outside physics may usefully impinge. That is, at best, a fatally narrow view. Roberts is thinking only about the answers, not the process of arriving at them. Actually doing science involves everything about the person doing the work—as, for example, the way Einstein turned his anger and pity for his father, a casualty of the rat race, into the goad that led him to so much of modern physics.

The piece turns on two stories: that told by Einstein in what he called “Notes for an Autobiography” and another, by the physicist Kaća Bradonjić, whose history I learned last week at a Story Collider performance.  She talked about childhood, war, exile and general relativity — and it was both wonderful, and the crystallizing narrative that captured, for me, the difference between thinking about physics (any inquiry) as a body of results, and physics (any inquiry) as it’s being done, contingent in time, space, and the individual minds and lives of the people doing it.

Wright_of_Derby,_The_Orrery

Anyway — y’all might enjoy, and if you’re interested, now you know where to go.

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby, The Orrery, c. 1766

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Gas Up Your Tumbrels

December 22, 2015

I think that this has already been discussed in a comment thread or two, but today (a) The New York Times reminded us that it can do essential, truly top-notch journalism and (b) exposed truly grotesque practices within a “justice” system that offers scant justice to anyone that doesn’t sport “Inc.” as a last name:

Encore and rival debt buyers are using the courts to sue consumers and collect debt, then preventing those same consumers from using the courts to challenge the companies’ tactics. Consumer lawyers said this strategy was the legal equivalent of debt collectors having their cake and eating it, too.

The use of arbitration by the companies is the latest frontier in a legal strategy orchestrated by corporations in recent years. By insertingarbitration clauses into the fine print of consumer contracts, they have found a way to block access to the courts and ban class-action lawsuits, the only realistic way to bring a case against a deep-pocketed corporation.

Their strategy traces to a pair of Supreme Court decisions in 2011 and 2013 that enshrined the use of class-action bans in arbitration clauses.

The result, The New York Times found in an investigation last month, is that banks, car dealers, online retailers, cellphone service providers and scores of other companies have insulated themselves from challenges to illegal or deceptive business practices. Once a class action was dismantled, court and arbitration records showed, few if any of the individual plaintiffs pursued arbitration.

Bottom feeders buy old debt.  They sue to collect.  Doesn’t matter if the debt is too old legally to collect.  Doesn’t matter if the sharks don’t have proper documentation. Doesn’t matter if they string up little old ladies by their big toes.  (Hyperbole alert).

Rembrandt_Christ_Driving_the_Money_Changers_from_the_Temple (1)

Crappy judges at the trial court level, insulated — guided — by crappy justices with robes, lifetime appointments, and no moral compasses whatsoever, make sure the Man gets his cash:

In the cases that The Times examined, judges routinely sided with debt collectors on forcing the disputes into arbitration.

In Mr. Cain’s case, Midland Funding, the unit of Encore Capital, persevered despite originally lacking a copy of a Citibank arbitration agreement they said he signed in 2003. Instead, the debt collector presented as evidence a Citibank contract that one of Encore’s lawyers signed when he opened an account.

In Mississippi, Midland Funding won a court judgment to compel Wanda Thompson to pay more than $4,700 on a debt that was too old to be collected under state law, court records show.

When Ms. Thompson filed a class-action suit on behalf of other state residents, Encore invoked an arbitration clause to have the lawsuit dismissed. Ms. Thompson’s lawyers argued that the company had clearly chosen court over arbitration when it sued her to collect the debt. By going to court, the lawyers said, Encore waived its right to compel arbitration.

Unpersuaded, the judge ruled that Encore’s lawsuit to collect the debt was separate from Ms. Thompson’s case accusing the company of violating the law.

I can’t put into words my revulsion for the people who steal from the weakest in our system, except to note that my loathing of those who enable these pen-armed robbers is far greater.  The GOP  hopes most people will be too scared of Syrians, gun-grabbers, and the Kenyan in the White House to notice who’s doing what to whom.  There’s an opening here for our side — and an obligation to take it.

Image:  Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ driving the money changers from the temple, 1626.

Some Happy News

December 6, 2015

This:

Former President Jimmy Carter announced Sunday that his brain cancer is gone, NBC News reported.

Carter, 91, said an MRI earlier this week revealed the good news, which he broke to a Sunday school class he teaches in his home state of Georgia, according to NBC News.

Masolino_Brancacci_Chapel_01

Not even remotely a cancer doc, me, but I do know that while a clear scan does not mean one is cancer free forever — it sure as hell is better news than the alternative.

Jimmy Carter is a great human being, the best ex-President in history (and much maligned, and under-valued in his presidency as well, IMHO).  It has to count as very good news to know we’ll have him on the planet with us longer than might have been expected after the news of the summer.

Image: Masolino, The Healing of Tabitha, c. 1420s.


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