Category Archives: Favorites

On the Act of Feeding Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls.”

It might have been good advice twenty-some years ago, when a “troll” was a guy who showed up in your newsgroup to argue that he could prove Fermat’s Last Theorem using the power of his perpetual motion machine. Perhaps such an annoyance would fade away if deprived of attention.

Now, though?

The motivations, the methods and the harms that can be wrought are all different. Let’s leave the facile suggestions back with Joel-versus-Mike, where they belong.

Let’s Make This Clear

The acronym TERF—Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist—is not a slur, any more than “fascist” or “convicted pedophile” is. They are all plain, declarative descriptors for deplorable people.

You’re free to pretend that TERF is a slur, if it feeds your inner need to feel persecuted without actually being disadvantaged. However, the rest of us do not need to respect your martyrbation fantasy.

The Strident and The Shrill

BPSDBRichard Dawkins and PZ Myers had a lengthy, informal chat during the 2008 American Atheists conference in Minneapolis, and a recording of their conversation is now available on DVD and in the video tubes. They discuss the fight against pseudoscience as well as several interesting topics in good science.

I did my best to summarize the kin-vs.-group business in this book review. Among the “glimmerings” which suggest there’s a better way to think about some evolutionary processes (name for that better way still to be defined) are, I think, the epidemiological simulations in which fitness of a genotype is clearly a function of ecology and thus strongly time-dependent, and consequently existing analysis techniques are likely to fail. Assuming this kind of thing happens in the real world, it might be better to speak of “extending the evolutionary stable strategies concept” or “temporally extended phenotypes” than to have yet another largely semantic argument over “group selection.”

Also of note:

When Dawkins spoke at the first artificial life conference in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1987, he delivered a paper on “The Evolution of Evolvability.” This essay argues that evolvability is a trait that can be (and has been) selected for in evolution. The ability to be genetically responsive to the environment through such a mechanism as, say, sex, has an enormous impact on one’s evolutionary fitness. Dawkins’s paper has become essential reading in the artificial life community.

Anyway, on with the show.

P-Zed wrote an introduction to allometry a little over a year ago.
Continue reading The Strident and The Shrill

The Necessity of Mathematics

Today, everything from international finance to teenage sexuality flows on a global computer network which depends upon semiconductor technology which, in turn, could not have been developed without knowledge of the quantum principles of solid-state physics. Today, we are damaging our environment in ways which require all our fortitude and ingenuity just to comprehend, let alone resolve. More and more people are becoming convinced that our civilization requires wisdom in order to survive, the sort of wisdom which can only come from scientific literacy; thus, an increasing number of observers are trying to figure out why science has been taught so poorly and how to fix that state of affairs. Charles Simonyi draws a distinction between those who merely “popularize” a science and those who promote the public understanding of it. We might more generously speak of bad popularizers and good ones, but the distinction between superficiality and depth is a real one, and we would do well to consider what criteria separate the two.

Opinions on how to communicate science are as diverse as the communicators. In this Network age, anyone with a Web browser and a little free time can join the conversation and become part of the problem — or part of the solution, if you take an optimistic view of these newfangled media. Certain themes recur, and tend to drive people into one or another loose camp of like-minded fellows: what do you do when scientific discoveries clash with someone’s religious beliefs? Why do news stories sensationalize or distort scientific findings, and what can we do about it? What can we do when the truth, as best we can discern it, is simply not politic?

Rather than trying to find a new and juicy angle on these oft-repeated questions, this essay will attempt to explore another direction, one which I believe has received insufficient attention. We might grandiosely call this a foray into the philosophy of science popularization. The topic I wish to explore is the role mathematics plays in understanding and doing science, and how we disable ourselves if our “explanations” of science do not include mathematics. The fact that too many people don’t know statistics has already been mourned, but the problem runs deeper than that. To make my point clear, I’d like to focus on a specific example, one drawn from classical physics. Once we’ve explored the idea in question, extensions to other fields of inquiry will be easier to make. To make life as easy as possible, we’re going to step back a few centuries and look at a development which occurred when the modern approach to natural science was in its infancy.

Our thesis will be the following: that if one does not understand or refuses to deal with mathematics, one has fatally impaired one’s ability to follow the physics, because not only are the ideas of the physics expressed in mathematical form, but also the relationships among those ideas are established with mathematical reasoning.

This is a strong assertion, and a rather pessimistic one, so we turn to a concrete example to investigate what it means. Our example comes from the study of planetary motion and begins with Kepler’s Three Laws.


Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) discovered three rules which described the motions of the planets. He distilled them from the years’ worth of data collected by his contemporary, the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546–1601). The story of their professional relationship is one of clashing personalities, set against a backdrop of aristocracy, ruin and war. From that drama, we boil away the biography and extract some items of geometry:
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An Alloy of Pleasures

REVIEW: The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, edited by Richard Dawkins. Oxford University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-19-921680-2. A PDF copy of this review is available here.


During the Christmas holidays last year, my mother and I were visiting a bookshop, and we passed by a display of general-audience science books. As a child, I had devoured such things, and propelled by sentiment mixed with curiosity, I looked over the titles, browsing for ones which I’d seen recommended or were written by authors I knew. Momentarily, however, a harsh edge cut through my sentimental reverie. “Look at this,” I said. “This book props up its thesis with phony numbers and citations which point to papers that don’t even discuss what the book says they do! And this one, here, tells a version of 1990s physics history which, to put it mildly, doesn’t match up with what other physicists remember. Oh, and this author, well, everybody is just astonished at how the clarity of his thinking implodes halfway through, when he stops thinking and starts faith-ing. And what’s this — quantum healing?

If the Gentle Reader were to deduce a “moral” from the story, it might be that I am a cantankerous individual with an acerbic disposition, and the reader would not be gravely in error. Beyond that, one could say that a science education nearly killed the general-interest bookshelf for me, and what University did not do, the science-blogging world definitely tried to finish. Caught up in this electronic tangle of opinions, discoveries and arguments, where new findings and reactions to them are all free for the taking, I’d seen the flaws of a great many books exposed. Precisely because online science writing makes irascible iconoclasm a way of life, though, it teaches the joy of discourse and the admiration of written words which, finally, work. Both of these aspects play into the value of The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, edited by Richard Dawkins.

This book collects passages written by seventy-nine scientists over the previous hundred years; though Dawkins himself has more than proven his talents as an expositor, his own writings are confined to introductory remarks giving context for each selection. Biology is represented quite strongly, and physics makes a good showing. Astronomy, other than the cosmological variety, makes mostly cameo appearances, and chemistry seems rather the poor stepchild. (Max Perutz, a Nobel Laureate, contributes a bit on X-ray crystallography which is largely an admiring biographical sketch of fellow laureate Dorothy Hodgkin, and the well-known neurologist Oliver Sacks is roped in to give a quirky reminiscence about tungsten! Primo Levi‘s tale of a carbon atom, though, is not to be missed.) Truly commendable is Dawkins’s inclusion of mathematics, a subject which provokes an unnatural fear even in literate readers who appreciate science and enjoy reading about the latest fossil or the most newly discovered extra-solar planet. The selections chosen for The Oxford Book are clear, memorable and not infrequently poetic. Upon occasion, they deliver on that great promise of science education: to provoke the learner into seeing the natural world and the products of the human mind in a new and unforgettable light. After reading what Stephen Jay Gould wrote about Charles Darwin‘s take on the humble earthworm, for example, it is difficult to see in the same way such a simple thing as worms coming out on a pavement after the rain.

The Oxford Book would serve as an excellent smörgÃ¥sbord of introductions for the reader who has grown interested in science but doesn’t know where to begin. Likewise, those who catch the biggest headlines and read about the flashiest new breakthroughs will likely benefit from a book about science which has stood the test of time, about discoveries which have kept on inducing breathlessness for several decades. A specialist trained in one scientific field could also enjoy an interlude of lateral thought, poking into a new domain of learning to flex the thought-muscles.

When I’ve heard people talk about a movie or a book being “an unalloyed pleasure,” they mean it to be joy without stopping, all good and nothing bad. Given that an alloy is a mixture of metals, the phrase also carries a trace contamination of the idea that the book or the movie being talked about only offers one kind of goodness — all drama and no comedy, let’s say. Consequently, I find myself describing The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing as an alloyed pleasure, a mixture of different satisfactions, in unequal amounts. The amazing facts, the flashes of wit, the moments of rapturous wonder are all there to be had, but Dawkins has also provided a series of portals to debate. I’m not talking about a nasty kind of political infighting, with accusations and character assassination, but rather the academic version of the same process: the rolling up of sleeves, the setting down of the teacup and the declaration of intellectual combat.

The book club meetings for this volume can, and should, be. . . volatile places.
Continue reading An Alloy of Pleasures

Creation, Power and Violence

The amount of hatred one can earn simply by speaking one’s mind and doing one’s job never fails to astonish me. All the more remarkable is how the people who hate so viciously are the very ones you’d expect to be tolerant, or at least quietly begrudging — people whose ancestors, both familial and ideological, were themselves the targets of bigotry in generations past, when different powers were the oppressors. Yet today, even in a country which prides itself on a long list of freedoms, speaking the plain, factual truth of the world is a sure way to win oneself ire, derision and abuse.

Both history and current events teach us that forces of prejudice and inequity oppose the dissemination of truth to certain sectors of society. As recently as 2006, the Afghan schoolteacher Mohammed Halim was drawn and quartered by motorbikes, the remains of his body put on display so that others would think twice before defying Taliban law and committing the unforgivable crime of teaching female children. I doubt the Taliban thugs who beat the algebra teachers of Ghazni have any particular animosity towards the mathematics; given a moment’s reflection, they might wholeheartedly support the math lessons necessary to train engineers who then build weapons to be used against the United States. The crime in their eyes, I’d wager, is not the material, but the audience.

In the country where I grew up and am writing now, the story is a little different: most of the time, hatred against educators does not escalate to physical violence, although threats of violence are common enough, and most of the time, the factor provoking abuse is not the audience, but the lesson itself.

The plain truth I’m talking about is the biological principle of evolution. The single most powerful idea in biology, this discovery has withstood decades of criticism to emerge triumphant as one of the most well-checked propositions in human history. Learn about evolution, and you can go to work on diseases, or help find out where species both living and extinct fit into the family tree of life. You can understand the living world, and help preserve human life within it.

Open your mouth about evolution around the wrong people, though, and you can find yourself harassed, ejected from your job and even beaten in the street.

Just ask these people.
Continue reading Creation, Power and Violence

Dawkins and the D-Word

I’ve written before about the different ways people define the word Darwinism and its close relatives. The short version is that American biologists and other academics don’t seem too likely to use the word: they just like to say “evolutionary biology” and be done with it. In the U. S. and A., hearing the word “Darwinism” is a pretty sure sign you’re dealing with a creationist, or at least a person whose knowledge of science derives too much from creationist misinformation. Over in Britain, serious academics still use the word, as do people who appear fairly pro-science (maybe there’s some kind of national pride thing going on?). One can still see negative uses of the D-word over in the UK, of course, particularly from people who confuse “social Darwinism” with actual biology or radically misinterpret kin selection and the “selfish gene” idea, but sorting out all their problems would require a book of its own.

Occasionally, people here in the land of motherhood and sport-utility apple pies get upset with Richard Dawkins for using the D-word himself. I mean, here we are, trying to make the point that science is not dogma and Darwin was not a prophet, and then this furriner comes along to screw up the lexicon. So, an event which transpired during a recent Q&A session is rather noteworthy. Both H. H. and Jackie Stone attended Dawkins’s talk at Manhattan’s Ethical Culture Society on Saturday, 15 March; I’ll quote H. H.’s account:
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Physics on the Brain, Part 1

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchCan physics tell us about ourselves?

To phrase the question more narrowly: can the statistical tools which physicists have developed to understand the collective motion of large agglutinations of particles help us figure out what our brains are doing?

If Jack Cowan and his colleagues are correct, ideas from statistical physics can tell us important facts about our own brains. By studying the recurring motifs of hallucinations, we can construct a geometry of the mind.

"Honeycomb" form constant generated by marijuana
“Honeycomb” form constant,
from Bresloff, Cowan et al. (2002)
It’s hard to imagine any sort of regularity in a phenomenon as eccentric as visual hallucinations. Our culture is brimming with psychedelia, music and art produced “under the influence” of one or another infamous chemical. Yet the very fact that we can label artwork as “psychedelic” suggests that the effects of those mind-bending substances have a certain predictability. In the 1920s, long before the days of review boards and modern regulations for human experimentation, the neurologist Heinrich Klüwer ingested mescaline and recorded his observations. He reported visual hallucinations of four distinct types, which he called “form constants.” These form constants included tunnels and funnels, spirals, honeycomb-like lattices and cobweb patterns. Similar structures have been reported with other drugs, like LSD; these same form constants also appear during migraines, in “hypnogogic” (falling asleep) and “hypnopompic” (waking up) states, when pressure is applied to closed eyes, and even in ancient cave paintings.

If the same hallucinatory images appear from many causes, might they be indicative of some more general property of brain structure?
Continue reading Physics on the Brain, Part 1

Physics versus Fear

In the Channel 4 programme Breaking the Science Barrier (1996), Richard Dawkins faces down a pendulum:

This is a classic example of a “put your money (or nose) where your mouth is” physics demonstration. It also appears in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact (1985), for example, and Feynman did it during the freshman physics lectures he gave at Caltech.

Later in the same show, Dawkins interviews Douglas Adams, and gives a few comparisons to help understand the depths of evolutionary time:
Continue reading Physics versus Fear

Weekend Fluff: Luke As A Girl

I’ve been reading through Podblack Blog ever since the Podblack Cat hosted the Skeptic’s Circle (and kindly included an entry of mine). This is how I discovered that the Internets have a Carnival of Feminist SF, dedicated to feminist perspectives on science fiction. This is undeniably a good thing to have, although stumbling across it like this gives me an eerie feeling: for a kid who spent most of his teenage years reading SF, watching SF on the Tube or trying to write it himself, I know astonishingly little about SFnal happenings on the Internets. I fail at fandom.

(Or is that, in more modern parlance, “FANDOM: UR DOIN IT RONG”?)

Anyway, one of the entries in the carnival is Lisa Paitz Spindler‘s note on a new series of Star Wars merchandise based on Ralph McQuarrie’s early concept art. In one revision of the story which eventually became the first Star Wars movie, Luke Skywalker was a girl named Luka Starkiller. First, I should note, “Starkiller” is an impossibly corny name, even for a movie about samurai in space. Second, Spindler asks,

how might it have influenced Hollywood if the most popular sci-fi adventure flick ever had starred a kick-arse female protagonist?

I can’t give an optimistic response. The portrayal of women in the Star Wars saga is perpetually dismal, varied only by slight interruptions which make the missed opportunities in the rest all the more unbearable. Speculating about how the series would have turned out if, say, the sexes of Luke and Leia had been swapped is rather beside the point: why not ask how the movies would have developed if an entirely different creator had been the driving force?
Continue reading Weekend Fluff: Luke As A Girl


When the bus is stuck in traffic, or when I’m curled restlessly in bed during the darkest hours of morning when sleep will not come and all the old wounds on my heart ache like they were newly made, I sometimes think back over my education and add up all the time my teachers wasted. The worst, perhaps, was the mathematics, for which entire years of schooling went for naught. “Pre-Calculus”? Pfft. AP Computer Science? Pfft++. All in all, I’d say that upwards of a third of my mathematics schooling before university was a waste of time, and another third was so incompetently done that any student who hadn’t already been hooked on science and learning would have been completely sunk.

So, I find it easy to sympathize with people who say that math education needs a severe overhaul. I’m willing to contemplate big curriculum changes, but of course, you have to convince me that the specific changes you have in mind will actually do any good. When a proposal comes down the wire to eliminate fractions, I reserve the right to chortle and guffaw.
Continue reading Fractions

Spraying Habits of Pop Science

OK, my fellow specimens, it’s time for a rant. This subject came up at lunch today, and I noticed it again at Terra Sigillata; the second occurrence managed to ruin the good mood I’d achieved by reading Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish (2008), which is a great book that everybody should buy.

The subject of this rant is the role economics plays in debates on science education, and more broadly, on a meta-level of rantery, the way people are deciding the roles which different tactics should have in science education. To illustrate the problem, let’s have a story. You’re a scientist, I’m a concerned parent, and we’re at a PTA meeting. You say, “We have to teach evolution in our schools, because evolution is the central concept in biology, and the biotech sector is a big part of our economy.” You’ve got my attention — that’s step zero! Job well done. Isn’t the appeal to the pocketbook — and the “think of the children” ploy — an effective tactic?
Continue reading Spraying Habits of Pop Science

Sneak Preview: GIF of Life

As luck would have it, my day job will require me to teach a mini-class on writing computer simulations for scientific purposes next week, and one of the examples I thought I’d include turned out to be just the thing I needed to provide an illustration for the review of John Allen Paulos’ Irreligion (2007) I’ve got in the works. Since the details are a little beyond the scope of that review, I might as well make another post out of them.

First, the punchline:

This is a fifty-frame animation of Conway’s Game of Life which begins with a 32×32 grid of random values and successively advances by applying the transition rules of that famous automaton. The purpose of the exercise is twofold: first, to demonstrate some basic programming techniques and show how much you can do in Python with half an hour of free time; and second, to see how persistent and cyclic features arise from random configurations.
Continue reading Sneak Preview: GIF of Life

Down-Home Cyber-Pulp Baggage

The following is the first chapter of a novel my father began about fifteen years ago. He never finished it, and thanks to the way the Endless are, he never will — but at least it provides evidence that I come by my expository style naturally.

Reading it now, after all this time, I can’t help but feel that Joe Bob worked for the Discovery Institute.


BAMM!!! Then, again, BAAAAMMMMM!!

Then, one more time, hard, BAAAAAMMMMMMMMMM!

The echo pounded back and forth off the walls of the dingy little hotel room. And damn near made my ears bleed.

Finally, I’d done it. That asshole Joe Bob was downright dead. But it wasn’t over.

I smelled as much as heard the other one, off to my right. I didn’t think. I just dropped down on my right knee and swung the barrel over on a shape hunkered in the corner…. But — even in the evening shadow — I could see the body language didn’t say “ambush.” It was more like cowering.

I know. I shoulda just blown that other muther away, too. Those two lowlifes had given me every reason to blow them both straight into dogshit heaven.

There were four rounds left in my fist. And the sick hate boiling up in my gut — and the adrenaline rush — wanted to flat out kill the other one too.

But she just looked so damn pathetic.

So, I’d regret it later. That’s how it always seems to go.

She just moaned: “Ohhhh, shit! Ahhhhh… heeeey…. whyja havta do that fo’ … Whoa…. ”

Like I say. Pretty pathetic. Right?

I’ll grant you, that cheap little room was quite a sight. Impressive ugliness. Well, $12.50 a night doesn’t buy much to begin with. A 10-foot by 12-foot worn-carpet space with a saggy twin bed, a beyond-scuffy dresser and a dirty two-foot-wide window view of the brick across the street. And now…
Continue reading Down-Home Cyber-Pulp Baggage

Paid to Lack a Sense of Humor

The Associated Press has an article on the wire about “leading religious scholars” discussing the Flying Spaghetti Monster. And in other news, the American Physical Society has decided to pay me to write about YouTube videos!

No, not really, but that’s about how silly this looks. I mean, you can get money for standing in front of a room o’ greybeards and showing them this picture?

The story itself is surprisingly sympathetic to the rationalist cause:
Continue reading Paid to Lack a Sense of Humor

I Get E-Mail

BPSDBBelow the fold is an e-mail I received this morning from Victor Senchenko, human space navigator, and his “Media Team.” According to his website, Senchenko can explain why homosexual humans exist (OK), why God doesn’t exist (not clear whether this is the Abrahamic tantrum-tosser or something more sophisticated) and why time also does not exist (and right there, we hear the fuses blow).

Greetings Blake,

Considering your involvement with science, the following Press Release may be of interest to you.

As an astute person, you probably would agree that for a long while humans – especially the scientists – had been claiming that they wanted to solve all the mysteries of physical existence. They have also repeatedly indicated that they wanted to understand the causes of human behavior.

I don’t know many scientists who’ve claimed they want to solve all the “mysteries of physical existence.” We’ll settle for solving one mystery big enough to get us tenure; the others are left as an exercise to the interested reader.
Continue reading I Get E-Mail