Friday, August 23, 2019

Is Science Political?

Michael D. Gordin in the Boston Review:

The word “science” typically evokes epistemic ambitions to explore the fundamental laws of the natural world. This is the stuff of philosophical reflection and documentary specials—and it is unquestionably important. This ethereal vision of science appears starkly divorced from the messy fray of “politics,” however you might want to understand the term.

Yet consider two other central features of today’s science: it is elite, and it is expensive. By elite, I do not mean that only certain sorts of people—the “right sorts”—have the capacity to do science. What I mean is that you cannot just pick up and decide today that you are going to be a scientist. It requires years, even decades, of training in the methods and practices of inquiry; consulting a scientist means that you are obligated to turn to someone who has already undergone that process. You do science with the scientists you have, regardless of whether they are socially or politically agreeable to you.

The expense of science is related. Especially since the end of World War II, research in cutting-edge areas of science consumes vast resources: particle accelerators, satellites, genome sequencers, large-scale field surveys, and all the monies invested in the training of those elite scientists. Someone has to pay for that. In the United States, at first that “someone” was philanthropy (such as the Rockefeller Foundation) or industry (Bell Labs), but during the Cold War it was, increasingly, the state.

More here.

Two centuries before Einstein, Hume recognised that universal time, independent of an observer’s viewpoint, doesn’t exist

Matias Slavov in Aeon:

In 1915, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to the philosopher and physicist Moritz Schlick, who had recently composed an article on the theory of relativity. Einstein praised it: ‘From the philosophical perspective, nothing nearly as clear seems to have been written on the topic.’ Then he went on to express his intellectual debt to ‘Hume, whose Treatise of Human Nature I had studied avidly and with admiration shortly before discovering the theory of relativity. It is very possible that without these philosophical studies I would not have arrived at the solution.’

More than 30 years later, his opinion hadn’t changed, as he recounted in a letter to his friend, the engineer Michele Besso: ‘In so far as I can be aware, the immediate influence of D Hume on me was greater. I read him with Konrad Habicht and Solovine in Bern.’ We know that Einstein studied Hume’s Treatise (1738-40) in a reading circle with the mathematician Conrad Habicht and the philosophy student Maurice Solovine around 1902-03. This was in the process of devising the special theory of relativity, which Einstein eventually published in 1905. It is not clear, however, what it was in Hume’s philosophy that Einstein found useful to his physics. We should therefore take a closer look.

More here.

A journalist reflects on the difficulty of maintaining professional boundaries while covering the Syrian refugee crisis

Nour Malas in Guernica:

Women in loose robes dragged toddlers, babies propped upon their hips. Men carrying parents and grandparents on their shoulders stepped ahead, calling back for assurances as women collapsed in the heat. Flimsy plastic bags, crammed with clothes and other belongings, dangled off shoulders and wrists. In the midday glaze, as light shimmered off the desert like water droplets, the scene at the Syrian-Iraqi border seemed almost biblical. My Iraqi colleague Ali, who had already tasted the wrath of displacement from his own country, squatted in the shade of our car and cried.

I, too, had watched this scene many times already, in Syria and on its borders. Recently, at another crossing into Iraq, thousands of Syrians had trampled over a bridge that all but collapsed into a river, capturing the media’s waning attention of the then three-year-old refugee crisis. From Iraq, I went to Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, aiming to report on the refugee crisis from every border of Syria that I could. I was determined to see every dimension of this war so that I could better understand it. But not just for my reporting. This was a deeply personal assignment for me, and yet one that never quite felt personal enough.

Syria: never the country I called home, but certainly my homeland. I would untangle the many shades of this identity at the very moment the country was coming undone.

More here.

Apollo 11: What It Takes to Boldly Go

Fifty years ago, as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bounced on the moon’s surface below, Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot Michael Collins briefly disappeared behind the lunar disk, becoming the first person to experience space entirely alone. As we set our sights on the stars, space travelers will need to cope with ever longer stretches—months, years, and beyond—in the lonely environs of the cosmos. What will that take? What will that be like? How will it affect who we are? Join Michael Collins and fellow astronauts for a whirlwind journey boldly going where only a handful of humans have gone before.

PARTICIPANTS: Michael Collins, Leland Melvin, Scott Kelly, and Ariane Cornell

Sex, Flesh, God: Towards a Theology of Carnal Life

Wesley Hill at Marginalia Review:

To put it mildly, Christianity has a complicated relationship with flesh. The same Paul who declared the Lord’s ownership of the body also bequeathed to subsequent Christian history a disdain for physicality through his—misunderstood, as most interpreters now think, but no less influential for being so—sharp contrast between the life of the flesh and the new life bestowed by and in the Spirit of Jesus. Stark affirmations such as the one he wrote to the Corinthians—“flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”—at minimum lent confidence to later Christian denigrators of the body who imagined salvation as an escape from fleshly imprisonment and, at maximum, convinced generations of Christians that following Jesus ought to entail hating the body.

So it should come as no surprise that one of our most brilliantly creative theologians currently writing in English has turned his attention to the topic of the flesh. That phrase “writing in English” is one I’m intentionally foregrounding, because Paul Griffiths in Christian Flesh tells us at the outset that that is his aim. “Most Catholic theologians,” he laments, “aren’t very good at theology and aren’t very good at English.”

more here.

Peter Fonda: Six Great Performances

David Parkinson at BFI:

For a brief moment, Peter Fonda was one of the most important people in American cinema. Not because he was the son of Hollywood stalwart Henry Fonda or the younger brother of activist actress Jane Fonda. But because he had made $60 million on a $384,000 road movie. Moreover, in producing, co-writing and starring in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider(1969), Fonda had shattered the studio system’s shackles and made himself a countercultural icon in the process. His performance as Wyatt (aka Captain America) prompted the Village Voice to declare him “a combination of Clint Eastwood and James Dean”. Yet, somehow, to paraphrase his famous campfire line, he blew it.

Having impressed with his directorial debut, The Hired Hand (1971), Fonda drew less praise for Idaho Transfer (1973) and Wanda Nevada (1979), the only film in which he appeared with his famous father, whose distant strictness after the 10-year-old’s mother had committed suicide shaped an unhappy childhood that included a near fatal incident with an antique gun (mention of which during a 1965 LSD party prompted John Lennon to write ‘She Said She Said’).

more here.

What Is Literary Impressionism?

Sarah Cole at Public Books:

The eminent art historian Michael Fried has set out, in his own energetic and independent style, to answer this question—what was literary impressionism?—and to do so unencumbered by the general principles that have so far cohered around the term in the work of literary critics and art historians. This may bother some readers who expect a more direct engagement with the critical history of the term. Fried’s approach is to start the inquiry afresh, using detailed readings of passages in individual works to derive his own answer to his title’s question. “If my specific readings and my overall argument cumulatively gain traction on their own terms,” he writes, “I shall consider this book a success.”

Included in Fried’s analyses, in addition to books by the novelists listed above, are works by W. H. Hudson, Rudyard Kipling, Frank Norris, H. G. Wells, R. B. Cunninghame Graham, Jack London, Erskine Childers, and Edgar Rice Burroughs (author of the Tarzan books), among others. His list, made up both of well-studied writers and those almost never discussed by literary critics, is refreshing, cutting across categories of canonicity and style.

more here.

Address Unknown: the great, forgotten anti-Nazi book everyone must read

Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian:

It consists of nothing more than an intermittent correspondence between two friends. Yet the epistolary form is deceptively efficient, supplying backstory, plot, character, dialogue and more than one narrative voice before a conventional novel might have cleared its throat. Within a page or two, we are in the world of Martin and Max, both German, the latter a Jew now living in San Francisco, the former now back in Munich – two men who have been business partners, friends and whose families have, as we shall discover, been intimately connected.

Their exchange, spanning just 16 months between 1932 and 1934, illuminates not just the specific texture of the early Nazi period, but something more timeless. It serves as a guide to the way any politics of identity – especially one that invokes “the people”, rooting that idea in blood and soil – eventually, and often very rapidly, divides and polarises. Max and Martin have shared “the fireside”, there finding “warmth and understanding, where small selfishnesses are impossible and where wine and books and talk give a different meaning to existence”. But even the very best of friends can be rent apart. Once a dividing line is drawn, it’s astonishing how swiftly people can break from those who stand on the other side of it. In that sense, Address Unknown is a warning. We tell ourselves, as these characters do, that friendship is eternal, that some bonds will never be broken. This short story warns us that ideology, once it has turned to fever, is stronger than friendship.

More here.

CRISPR cuts turn gels into biological watchdogs

Ewen Callaway in Nature:

Is there anything CRISPR can’t do? Scientists have wielded the gene-editing tool to make scores of genetically modified organisms, as well as to track animal developmentdetect diseases and control pests. Now, they have found yet another application for it: using CRISPR to create smart materials that change their form on command. The shape-shifting materials could be used to deliver drugs, and to create sentinels for almost any biological signal, researchers report in Science on 22 August1. The study was led by James Collins, a bioengineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Collins’ team worked with water-filled polymers that are held together by strands of DNA, known as DNA hydrogels. To alter the properties of these materials, Collins and his team turned to a form of CRISPR that uses a DNA-snipping enzyme called Cas12a. (The gene-editor CRISPR–Cas9 uses the Cas9 enzyme to snip a DNA sequence at the desired point.) The Cas12a enzyme can be programmed to recognize a specific DNA sequence. The enzyme cuts its target DNA strand, then severs single strands of DNA nearby. This property allowed the researchers to build a series of CRISPR-controlled hydrogels containing a target DNA sequence and single strands of DNA, which break up after Cas12a recognizes the target sequence in a stimulus. The break-up of the single DNA strands triggers the hydrogels to change shape or, in some cases, completely dissolve, releasing a payload (see ‘CRISPR-controlled gels’).

More here.

Friday Poem

Master Class, Tosca

—for Maria Callas
Her voice and life a “bare, ruined choir,”
so now, the act.  A young tenor asks,
“What advice do you have for me?”
He has a voice, knows the notes,
wants answers, but she does not answer.
Instead, she takes him,  beyond his clumsy,
boyish wish to be liked, to the church
where his song lives.  She puts a brush
in his hand, a canvas before him.
She makes him remember the way
Tosca’s body sang to him all the long
night before, the rousing chorus
of his own flesh .  And the music
comes – in his own body and throat.
Awed, silent, but then he asks again,
“What advice do you have for me?”

“Remember, remember the spring.”

by Nils Peterson
and here

Thursday, August 22, 2019

How the misadventures of Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson shaped anthropology

Charles King in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

A living room in Grantwood, N.J., has a good claim to being the birthplace, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, of a new science of humankind. Amid the demands of advising and fund-raising, the chair of the Columbia University anthropology department, Franz Boas, had decided to host regular Tuesday evening seminars at his suburban home. His students, passing plates of oatmeal cookies, were elaborating a way of seeing the world. They called it cultural relativity. Their essential finding was that societies did not come rank-ordered as civilized or primitive, moral or deviant. Each culture was only a sampling taken from the vast inventory of possible human beliefs and practices.

Graduate students, established scholars, and visiting academics exchanged reports from the field. Ruth Benedict, a junior professor, had been recasting her earlier work on the American Southwest and editing articles for the Journal of American Folklore. Most of a recent issue had been taken up with a hundred-page study of folk religion on the Gulf Coast, written by the Boas student — and sometime novelist — Zora Neale Hurston. Margaret Mead, another of Boas’s advisees, was going through the field notes on the Omaha nation that she had compiled with her husband, Reo Fortune. Her Coming of Age in Samoa, a publishing phenomenon when it appeared in 1928, was still selling briskly in Manhattan bookshops.

The venerable Bronislaw Malinowski, one of the founders of modern fieldwork methods, would occasionally make an appearance on a visit from London, perhaps angling for a job were Boas ever to vacate his professorship.

More here.

Using the principles of evolution to treat and prevent cancer

James DeGregori in Stat News:

Just about everything we know that decreases the risk of developing cancer — exercise, healthful eating, not smoking, and the like — is associated with healthier tissues, which favor normal cell types.

Unfortunately, youthful, healthy tissues aren’t maintained forever. Aging and various behaviors or external insults, think cigarette smoking or radiation, modify tissues, and rarely for the better. Such changes favor cells with genetic changes that foster their ability to adapt to the altered environment. Damaged or degraded tissue favors undesirable (at least from our point of view) cell types — deviant cells that no longer play by the rules.

My lab has shown that the combination of changes in tissue environments and cells’ evolutionary responses to them can promote cancer.

This evolution-based theory doesn’t apply only to the origin of cancer. It is also relevant to treatment: Anti-cancer therapies that damage healthy tissues, like chemotherapy and radiation therapy, can promote the emergence of more aggressive cancer cells and even new types of cancer.

More here.


Data Leviathan: China’s Burgeoning Surveillance State

Ken Roth and Maya Wang in the New York Review of Books:

Classical totalitarianism, in which the state controls all institutions and most aspects of public life, largely died with the Soviet Union, apart from a few holdouts such as North Korea. The Chinese Communist Party retained a state monopoly in the political realm but allowed a significant private economy to flourish. Yet today, in Xinjiang, a region in Chinas northwest, a new totalitarianism is emerging—one built not on state ownership of enterprises or property but on the states intrusive collection and analysis of information about the people there. Xinjiang shows us what a surveillance state looks like under a government that brooks no dissent and seeks to preclude the ability to fight back. And it demonstrates the power of personal information as a tool of social control.

Xinjiang covers 16 percent of Chinas landmass but includes only a tiny fraction of its population—22 million people, roughly 13 million of whom are Uighur and other Turkic Muslims, out of nearly 1.4 billion people in China. Hardly lax about security anywhere in the country, the Chinese government is especially preoccupied with it in Xinjiang, justifying the resulting repression as a fight against the Three Evils” of separatism, terrorism, and extremism.

Yet far from targeting bona fide criminals, Beijings actions in Xinjiang have been extraordinarily indiscriminate. As is now generally known, Chinese authorities have detained one million or more Turkic Muslims for political re-education.

More here.

A Strange Antiquation: T.W. Adorno’s Aesthetics in 1968

Lewis Hodder at Art Critical:

Academic, stuffy, German – Theodor W. Adorno has become emblematic of a certain sense of unfeeling in art. He was critical of TV, partial to Schoenberg, and aggrieved by the crassness of life in exile in 1940s America. Some of his students, infatuated with the youthful spontaneity of 1968, supposed that Adorno represented the old institutions that continued into post-war Europe, seeing his criticisms of mass culture being ‘pre-digested’ as identical to the conservative dismissal of contemporary art, culture, and even values. Determined to take action, they scrawled ‘If Adorno is left in peace, capitalism will never cease’ on the blackboard. Three of them surrounded him and exposed their breasts as others handed out leaflets proclaiming, ‘Adorno as an institution is dead.’ Adorno would confide in Max Horkheimer, writing: ‘To have picked me of all people, I who have always spoken out against every type of erotic repression and sexual taboo!’

It is here, then, that we arrive at Aesthetics, a book that immediately appears to confirm this suspicion of conservatism; with lectures on Kantian and Hegelian aesthetics, the enlightenment, Bach, beauty, ‘sensual immediacy’, Jugendstil, they hardly relay the sense of urgency felt in Europe in 1968.

more here.

How Cultural Anthropologists Redefined Humanity

Louis Menand at The New Yorker:

And yet the issues on which Boas and Mead made their interventions, issues around race and gender, are now at the center of public life, and they bring all the nature-nurture confusion back with them. The focus of the conversation today is identity, and identity seems to be a concept that lies beyond both culture and biology. Is identity innate, or is it socially constructed? Is it fated, or can it be chosen or performed? Are our identities defined by the existing state of social relations, or do we carry them with us wherever we go?

These questions suggest that the nature-culture debate was always misconceived. As Geertz pointed out years ago, it is human nature to have culture. Other species are programmed to “know” how to cope with the world, but our biological endowment evolved to allow us to choose how to respond to our environment. We can’t rely on our instincts; we need an instruction manual. And culture is the manual.

more here.