I was in the basement of Building 14 several weeks ago, where MIT hides the “humanities” books, and I found the following:
The notion of Shakespeare entertained by an age affords an index to thought in general. If men re-create God in their own image, they are constantly remodelling their effigy of him whom they insist on regarding as the most God-like of men. Après Dieu, il créa le plus.
— Hazelton Spencer, Shakespeare Improved (1927)
Most of the things I’m seeing on the Internet these days have been making me go all stabby. I want to find press agents and revoke their science licenses. I want to smack George Lakoff for spreading neurophrenology and mainlining stupid into what should have been academic discourse. I want to make Ben Goldacre release the photos. . . yeah, he and PZ know what I’m talking about.
But I can’t do any of those things, so I’m driving them out of my mind with Chimes at Midnight (1965). Damn, but that soundtrack is catchy.
My aged and broken laptop is still broken and has not grown any younger. Moreover, the USB key on which I had a decently recent backup of my work appears to have died as well. Furthermoreover, the server on which I also had my work backed up is suffering from a bum RAID array. Mission for today is to extract the drive from the old laptop and wire it directly into the dilithium recrystallization coils — er, I mean, connect it to my new Sony VAIO C420. I note that Micro Center sold me a laptop with Windows Vista on it, but I forgive them, since Ubuntu gutsy (the installation disc I had on hand) installed without any trouble. Audio, wireless and all those goodies worked without extra effort; I haven’t yet had much success with the Bluetooth support it automagically detected, but the only device I’ve had to test it with has been a cell phone which doesn’t play well with anything else, either. I found a status-bar tool which displays the current weather conditions as reported on the Intertubes, and unlike the previous version I’d used, this one can display temperature in kelvins. A year in Lyon followed by a change to my laptop settings went a long way to making me “internally metric”; this may be the logical next step.
(By the way, I booted into Vista just once — so I could say I knew the enemy, and all — and it sucked. It took the duration of an entire Pinky and the Brain episode just to decide how best to phone in to the mothership and report the music library I hadn’t yet put on the blasted thing because I’d just taken it out of the box. Neil Gaiman was right to consider XP an upgrade.)
All that aside, it is now Friday afternoon in Cambridge, Mass. (which is across and down the river from Newton, Mass. — there’s gotta be a physics joke in that). Outside, it’s a partly cloudy 302 kelvins. Inside, it’s time for the Dandy Warhols, with “I am a Scientist.”
Incidentally, we like to have music playing while we cook dinner here at Château Sunclipse, and this was the song we had going when we discovered that enchilada sauce with a dash of hoisin made an excellent base for beef soup.
After getting himself all grumpy about the ways in which statistics are abused, Joshua Hall decided to relax with a little Carl Sagan.
Fun fact: the philosopher Poseidonios of Apameia (c. 135–51 BCE) repeated Eratosthenes’s experiment about a century and a half later. He observed that on the island of Rhodes, the bright star Canopus was just touching the horizon, while at the same time in Alexandria, the star was a few degrees above the horizon. Because the Earth curves between the two places, the star was seen from different vantage points, and thus the angle between Rhodes and Alexandria could be found. Poseidonios was luckier than he knew: both his figure for the distance between Rhodes and Alexandria and his measurement of Canopus’s position were wrong, but the two wrongnesses canceled each other out, giving a reasonable final answer.
Still working on diagrams. . . Cairochemist, who has just recently started co-blogging at Skulls in the Stars, presents us a video showing hydrogen atoms migrating across a copper-palladium surface. Yes, understanding how catalysts work might help in arranging reactions for new energy sources, but even if it didn’t, being able to watch atoms move has a certain appeal of its own.
Oh, and Skulls in the Stars also points us to The Giant’s Shoulders, which we’re all hoping will become a new monthly event.
PZ Myers, doyen of science blogging, was recently at Berkeley to attend the IEDG 2008 symposium (the letters stand for “Integrating Evolution, Development, & Genomics”). Now, the conclusion of his talk, which capped off the conference, is available on the ‘tubes:
Sometimes, all I can do is sigh and think, “Oh, Poseidon. These are my people.” If the caption is to be trusted, this was filmed during the 2007 Campus Preview Weekend, the occasion in the springtime when overachieving high-school students the world over come visit MIT to decide if they can make the Institvte their home. It’s rather Darwinian: the ones who can’t handle the idea of electrocuting pickles and detonating soda cans as a form of recreation go somewhere else. (Or at least they live in a sterile, prison-like West Campus dormitory where I never noticed them.)
Even buried as I am under a stack of PDFs talking about PDEs, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out some juicy videos describing actual, factual cutting-edge science, namely the talks from Rockefeller’s recent evolution symposium. I’m currently in the middle of Bruce T. Lahn’s (U Chicago) talk, “Probing Human Brain Evolution at the Genetic Level.” Click here and scroll down to find the link. What could be more appropriate for an elitist bastard than an explanation of genes which control brain size?
Via Imaginary Potential comes Sidney Coleman’s lecture on how quantum mechanics differs from classical and what that whole “collapsing the wave function” business is all about. The lecture is geared to those who have a working familiarity with first-term quantum physics: the Schrödinger Equation, spin operators and such.
The video quality is not always quite good enough to capture what’s written on the transparencies, but the audio makes up for it.
EDIT TO ADD: I don’t actually agree with the final thesis of Coleman’s lecture (I’ve gone too far in my reading of Appleby, Barnum, Caves, Fuchs, Kent, Leifer, Peres, Schack, Spekkens, Unruh, Zeilinger and so on to make that retreat). However, I would say that (a) the GHZ story is easier to remember than the Bell story, and (b) “vernacular” quantum mechanics is a good term to have on hand, as the mishmash we get from several generations of skipping-past-the-weird-bits shouldn’t necessarily be called a “school of thought” in its own right.
I have serious stuff to talk about — honest! I mean, I’ve got, like, two book reviews in the pipeline, three essays addressing points that didn’t quite fit into those reviews, and the follow-ups to my “Physics and the Brain” post. But it’s the weekend, so instead of any of that, here’s “An Engineer’s Guide to Cats.”
At the most recent Boston meeting of Skeptics in the Pub, after Mike the Mad Biologist had given his talk, the conversation split up into different corners of the room. Over at my end, I recall, we were having a chill discussion about cartoons and the strange people one can find beside Los Angeles freeways, while across the way, the far side of the Asgard’s backroom developed into a fierce argument over something-or-other. When we chanced to look in their direction, our impression was that our fellow skeptics had staged an impromptu performance of Richard III. The fellow sitting in the throne-like chair surveying the debate with interest and cool decision no doubt added to the effect.
Whenever you get a bunch of science enthusiasts together in a bar, they start talking Shakespeare. It’s happened twice already, so it must be a rule. And it was with this rule on my mind that I happened to search the Internet today, looking for something else and finding this video instead. Now, we no longer need to imagine what Peter Sellers would sound like doing Laurence Olivier doing Richard III doing “A Hard Day’s Night.”
“In all seriousness folks, let’s face it: we are at an abyss, as an industry and as a country. And I know that saying we are at an abyss is not the stuff of keynote addresses, but all sarcasm and irony and rude pithiness aside, we are at a critical juncture in this nation’s history. This is a nation divided, and reeling from betrayal and economic hardship. . . .”
A few days ago, I was having lunch with a few people from the skeptical and scientific blogging world — Rebecca, Joshua and Jared were there, along with a few others — and I mentioned that I’d twice had nightmares about science blogging. “Bad Astronomy had been taken over by lawyers. There were libel suits everywhere, and all the comment threads were full of trolls. . . . I woke up sweating. . . then I realized what I had been dreaming about and I really panicked.”
Normally, when the infighting and the boundless despair about American society which keep cropping up in science blogging start to get to me, I just write something abstrusely technical and take refuge in my own, private ivory tower. However, this week my technical-writing circuits will be occupied by a paper I need to finish for a book of conference proceedings. With all this to contend with, I’ll be taking off for a few days. If I make good progress on other stuff, I should be able to return in time to have an entry in the blogswarm about the Expelled movie.
Anyway, it goes against my nature to vanish without leaving some food for thought, so here is a video of Hector Avalos speaking to the Minnesota Atheists last October. The talk, “How Archaeology Killed Biblical History,” summarizes chapter 3 of his recent book, The End of Biblical Studies (2007). I personally found this chapter the toughest material in the book, so an informal exposition which identifies the high points was rather valuable.