Stuart Pivar Sues PZ Myers

Whoa!

Remember that Stuart Pivar fellow who wrote a book called LifeCode (2004), a book which purported to advance a new theory of developmental biology — a theory which would, naturally, overturn everything biologists have figured out so far? Well, here’s a quick refresher:

  • On 7 November 2005, PZ Myers reviewed LifeCode on his old blog. The upshot is that pretty pictures do not a body of evidence make.
  • This past July, on the twelfth to be specific, Myers reposts his review on ScienceBlogs.com, because Pivar started promoting his book again.
  • Down in the comments, my Pharynguloid pals and I started noticing that the laudatory quotes Pivar had stuck on LifeCode couldn’t be traced back to their purported sources. In particular, an endorsement from Neil deGrasse Tyson turned out to be a chimera: the first part from an unrelated NOVA interview, and the second completely fabricated.
  • On the seventeenth, Myers posts his review of Pivar’s new edition. In Pivar’s illustration, a spider has ten legs. The money quote from Myers: “This book is a description of the development and evolution of balloon animals.” Later, Mark Chu-Carroll will agree that, in the end, Pivar’s claim “just doesn’t hold up to the least bit of scrutiny.”
  • The next day, PZ makes note of the puzzling endorsement situation. He says that he’s written several of the people whose names Pivar invoked, and Neil deGrasse Tyson had written back: “Tyson replied, and has said that part of the quote is an out of context reference to a completely different subject, and that another part is a fabrication. He has asked that Pivar remove his name from his website, which he has not done. Tyson’s name is also prominently used on the back cover of his book — I don’t see that going away, either.”
  • Stuart Pivar sends an e-mail to my place of employment, using our generic departmental e-mail address; an administrative assistant eventually notices the message and forwards it to me. The text follows.

    Dear Dr Stacey,

    Thank you for your interest in Lifecode. It presents a solution to the ultimate systems problem, living taxonomy. The model is considered very serious now by many. But it freaks out biologists into cognitive dyfunction.

    Robert Hazen is a prominent NASA scientist in this field . His review recommending publication is appended.

    The review of PZ Myers may be also seen today. Please note that he not an embryologist.

    May I send you a copy of the book?.

    Stuart Pivar

    Note: there were no actual appended items.

OK — followed all that? Now, you better be sitting down for this. Via ERV, I just learned that Stuart Pivar is suing PZ Myers and the Seed Media Group.
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Carnival of Mathematics Research?

Over at Michi’s blog and John Armstrong’s place, there’s lately been some discussion of starting a new carnival devoted to higher-level mathematics. John Armstrong summarizes his view thusly:

The Carnival of Mathematics has become a de facto carnival of lower-level mathematics, brainteasers, and mathematics education. And I’m fine with that. I’m leaning towards letting it be and just starting a new carnival for actual mathematics. There are certainly many more mathematics weblogs than there were when CoM began, and they could support at least a monthly carnival on their own now. Or maybe this more academic community is inclined to disdain the carnival approach entirely.

Other people have suggested that there’s something to be gained by mixing the levels, and while I agree that something could be gained, I don’t think anything is being gained. People coming from the lower-level and dilettantish weblogs are not reading the higher-level material. And higher-level people can still read the Carnival posts and find what’s new in sudoku-land if they want, whether high-level blatherers submit to CoM or not.

Alon Levy suggests that the composition of the CoM could be changed by a host soliciting posts from a different set of blog- um, blatherers. I wonder if this could be sustained over multiple editions.

Head on over and discuss!

The Book of Numbers Erratum

Among the fun math books I have on my overburdened bookshelves is John Conway and Richard Guy’s fascinating volume, The Book of Numbers (1996). In following up one of the topics discussed in its very last chapter, I discovered that Conway and Guy had made a bibliographic error, which in the interests of scholarship should be publicly noted. While I could give the correction in a line and be done with it, the topic and its background are curious enough to merit a few paragraphs. To wit:

Anybody who has had a brush with calculus is familiar with taking derivatives of a function. The derivative of a function is a whole new function which gives the rate of change of the original; plug a function into the machine, and out comes a new one, which is also just as “complicated” as the one you started with. If your initial function was something like

[tex]f(x) = x^2,[/tex]

which maps each real number to a real number, then the derivative will be something like

[tex]f^\prime(x) = 2x,[/tex]

which also maps elements of [tex]\mathbb{R}[/tex] to elements of [tex]\mathbb{R}[/tex]. That’s a whole lot of mappings! If we were so inclined, we could also represent the “growth rate” of functions by numbers, instead of by functions. The operation of “finding the growth rate” would then be a functional, mapping functions to numbers — though the sort of numbers we find ourselves using are a little out of the ordinary.
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Link-Love

In the brief interlude between my morning of debugging PHP code — Semantic MediaWiki isn’t compatible with Cite.php, the bastards! — and my afternoon of category theory, I’d like to call attention to a few items.

First, an observation: for some reason I can’t quite fathom, I was able to adapt myself to using HTML entities for punctuation marks, writing — for — and the like, but my brain didn’t process the fact that HTML entities also exist for accented letters. Instead of typing, say, à to get à, I would hit Ctrl+T to open a new Firefox tab, hit the Tab key to move to the Search bar, type a French phrase which I knew had the accented characters in question, copy the characters I needed from the search-result summaries, and paste them where I needed them.

Searching was easier than typing. Now, that’s either a sign of advanced Internet-induced brain rot, or an indication that our interconnected world has definitively left TwenCen far behind.

OK, it could be both.

Next, interesting items recently spotted on the Weboblagospherenet:
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PZ Myers: No Ghosts in Your Brain

Recently, the Web’s very own PZ Myers gave an introductory talk on the human brain, the cells which make it up and the odd behaviors its owners demonstrate. The video comes in two parts, the first covering fairly well-established science and the second giving an overview of currently reasonable speculations.

If you expected the doyen of science blogging to breathe fire and advance the slides in his presentation by slamming his laptop keyboard with a tentacle, well, you’ll be disappointed. Otherwise, enjoy.
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Dr. Shock on Extra Dimensions

Jonathan Shock has been working with the SciTalks people to make their site a repository of high-quality, informative physics material. At the SciTalks blag, Dr. Shock provides an introduction to the idea of “extra dimensions.” These aren’t woo-tastic flights of fancy like some “dimensions of the spirit,” but rather ideas we can explore with mathematical rigor in order to understand both their properties as abstract concepts and, perhaps, some features of the physical world.

We’re treated to a description of how to build a four-dimensional hypercube by shifting a cube at right angles to itself, along a fourth direction perpendicular to the cube’s three axes. That’s a hard idea to fit into a brain! However, by projecting the process down — essentially “casting shadows” of the higher-dimensional shapes — we can make a video of it.

As always, the math matters:
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Quantum Flapdoodle, Part N

Somebody just found my site by Googling for quantum model in social studies. I’m the ninth hit, one notch below Stuart Hameroff himself; leading the hit parade was a conference presentation abstract by a certain A. Wendt, entitled “Quantum Mind and Social Science.” The abstract itself follows below the fold. It’s not quantum feminism, but it does have a certain charm.
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Peace On Earth, Purity of Essence

In the “light and inconsequential” category of posts goes this remark about the Dr. Strangelove (1964) trailer:

The piano plonking accompaniment to the words flashing one at a time upon the screen is reminiscent of the opening to Eyes Wide Shut (1999), in which the words are “CRUISE,” “KIDMAN” and “KUBRICK,” while the music is György Ligeti‘s “Musica Ricercata” (1951–53).

Fair Warning

I’m juggling several metaphorical chainsaws at the moment. Each task currently demanding my time carries overtones of extreme “peril, subversion and ideological danger.” Therefore, sadly, my blag posts will for a while be either light and inconsequential or abstrusely technical, since I lack the time to aim for that magical pop-science median. Most of what I have in the drafts pile is recycled and revamped older stuff, and the new material I plan to hack together will actually be pieces of larger works.

In the meantime, check out our prototype MathSciJournalWiki, a site with a good heart and an ungainly name! Among the topics we will definitely have to cover are web spamming by academic publishers and plagiarism in the open-access age. The latter is, in particular, a serious topic (though not without its humorous aspects) about which I should write in greater depth, Real Soon Now.

Five Days Till Intellect Sushi

Scott Hatfield, my colleague in the Order of the Molly, will be debating the creationist Theodore “Vox Day” Beale beginning next Wednesday. Vox declares,

Since biology is entirely outside my areas of both interest and expertise, I think this should be an interesting experiment as to whether decades of science is enough to trump raw intellect.

Excuse me while I clean up the beverage my spit-take just sent across my desk.
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My Alien Abduction Story

I’ve set a simulation to crunching away in the background, so for a little while, I can tell myself that I’m being “productive” whilst in fact tossing up a quick blag post. An interesting experience which used to happen to me fairly often recurred a few days ago, so I figured I should resuscitate some old thoughts about it. You see, I enjoyed the privilege of an alien abduction every few weeks during my junior year of MIT.

Let me elaborate on that:
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Dangerous Ideas

I must admit that when I hear somebody talking about “dangerous ideas,” one of my eyebrows will — without voluntary intervention on my part — lift upwards, Spock-style. Such talk invariably reminds me of my old film-studies professor, David Thorburn, who said, paraphrasing the acerbic Gerald Graff, “if the self-preening metaphors of peril, subversion and ideological danger in the literary theorists’ account of their work were taken seriously, their insurance costs would match those for firefighters, Grand Prix drivers and war correspondents.”

Still, when Bee at Backreaction says something is interesting, I take a look. Today’s topic is the Edge annual question for 2006, “What is your Dangerous Idea?” Up goes the eyebrow. I don’t want to go near the Susskind/Greene spat about “anthropic” reasoning; frankly, without technical details far beyond the level of an Edge essay, “anthropic” talk rapidly devolves into inanities which resemble the assertion, “Hitler had to lose the war, because otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting around talking about why Hitler lost the war.” Suffice to say that neither Susskind nor Greene mentions NP-complete problems or proton decay.

So, moving on, let’s get to what Bee calls “the more bizarre pieces.” I was particularly drawn to and repelled from (yeah, it was a weird feeling) the essays of Rupert Sheldrake and Rudy Rucker. The latter goes off about “panpsychism,” which sounds like a fantastic opportunity to ramble about quantum mechanics, the inner lives of seashells and the dictionary of Humpty Dumpty, in which words mean exactly what the speaker wants them to mean, reason and usage notwithstanding.

Hey, “consciousness” is just one tiny part of what living things do, and life is a teensy fraction of what the Universe does. Why not give the rest of the biosphere a little attention and support “panphotosynthesism” instead?
Continue reading Dangerous Ideas