More by Steven Pinker on the Larry Summers Brouhaha

From The New Republic:

Pinker Anyone who has fled a cluster of men at a party debating the fine points of flat-screen televisions can appreciate that fewer women than men might choose engineering, even in the absence of arbitrary barriers. (As one female social scientist noted in Science Magazine, “Reinventing the curriculum will not make me more interested in learning how my dishwasher works.”) To what degree these and other differences originate in biology must be determined by research, not fatwa. History tells us that how much we want to believe a proposition is not a reliable guide as to whether it is true. 

Nor is a better understanding of the causes of gender disparities inconsequential. Overestimating the extent of sex discrimination is not without costs. Unprejudiced people of both sexes who are responsible for hiring and promotion decisions may be falsely charged with sexism. Young women may be pressured into choosing lines of work they don’t enjoy. Some proposed cures may do more harm than good; for example, gender quotas for grants could put deserving grantees under a cloud of suspicion, and forcing women onto all university committees would drag them from their labs into endless meetings. An exclusive focus on overt discrimination also diverts attention from policies that penalize women inadvertently because of the fact that, as the legal theorist Susan Estrich has put it, “Waiting for the connection between gender and parenting to be broken is waiting for Godot.” A tenure clock that conflicts with women’s biological clocks, and family-unfriendly demands like evening seminars and weekend retreats, are obvious examples. The regrettably low proportion of women who have received tenured job offers from Harvard during Summers’s presidency may be an unintended consequence of his policy of granting tenure to scholars early in their careers, when women are more likely to be bearing the full burdens of parenthood.

Conservative columnists have had a field day pointing to the Harvard hullabaloo as a sign of runaway political correctness at elite universities. Indeed, the quality of discussion among the nation’s leading scholars and pundits is not a pretty sight. Summers’s critics have repeatedly mangled his suggestion that innate differences might be one cause of gender disparities (a suggestion that he drew partly from a literature review in my book, The Blank Slate) into the claim that they must be the only cause. And they have converted his suggestion that the statistical distributions of men’s and women’s abilities are not identical to the claim that all men are talented and all women are not–as if someone heard that women typically live longer than men and concluded that every woman lives longer than every man. Just as depressing is an apparent unfamiliarity with the rationale behind political equality, as when [Nancy] Hopkins sarcastically remarked that, if Summers were right, Harvard should amend its admissions policy, presumably to accept fewer women. This is a classic confusion between the factual claim that men and women are not indistinguishable and the moral claim that we ought to judge people by their individual merits rather than the statistics of their group.

More here.

Sharks and Other Aesthetic Objects

One virtue of conceptual art is that it doesn’t require you to go out of your way. Painting or sculpture or even video make you interrupt your plans to attend galleries or museums, often in far away places, like the west 20s. Freed from its reliance on the object, conceptual art can achieve its aesthetic effects at quite a distance. I can read or be told that Damien Hirst has decorated an entire room like a pharmacy and I’ve pretty much gotten the concept in my mind. I can then use the time I might have taken to go to the exhibit on other things, like reading eighteenth-century novels or lifting weights. All of which makes the afterlife of Hirst’s notorious shark in a tank of formaldehyde from 1991 slightly amusing. Billionaire hedgefund manager Steven Cohen recently purchased the piece only to find the shark in an advanced state of decomposition. Of course, Hirst had little interest in the permanence of the object, which was after all only a way of conveying an idea. The concept endures even as the object decays. Try to explain that to Mr. Cohen.

John Allen Paulos on the Larry Summers Controversy

In his monthly column at ABC News, John Allen Paulos sheds light on Harvard University president Larry Summers’s remarks about the possibility of innate differences between men and women accounting for the under-representation of women in the mathematical sciences in the academy:

Bigjap …on the math SATs, the average boy’s score is slightly higher than the average girl’s score, but, perhaps more significantly, the variability of boys’ scores is greater than that of girls’ scores…

To appreciate the role of variability, we can imagine 1,000 women taking a math achievement test. Absurdly exaggerating for the sake of clarity, let’s stipulate that 200 of them score around 75 on it, 600 of them score around 100, and 200 of them score around 125. In contrast, we can imagine 1,000 men taking the test, but now we stipulate that 200 of them score around 25 on it, 600 of them score around 100, and 200 of them score around 175.

Both groups’ scores would average 100, but there is no doubt that the men would be disproportionately represented in institutions of higher learning as well as in institutions of other sorts.

…Summers’ remarks (or, rather, crude versions of them) caused an indignant uproar. But there are many biological differences between the sexes, and there is no reason why these should not extend to matters mathematical. In addition to the SAT and other test data, well-known studies have shown that across cultures and on average men do better in navigating through three-dimensional space and visualizing objects therein.

Other studies suggest that women are better at quick calculation and subitization, telling at a glance how many objects are lying about. Calling for the issue to be studied further does not make one a benighted sexist, and Summers, although he probably should have realized how his remarks would be taken, is certainly nothing of the sort.

Read the column here.

Darwin Anniversary

1840Charles Darwin Memorial Lecture:            

The distinguished bioethicist Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, will pose the critical question, “Is it Wrong to Try to Improve Human Nature?,” in a lecture honoring Charles Darwin on February 17. This year marks the 196th anniversary of the birth of the man whom many consider the greatest scientist who ever lived. As we move toward the Darwin bicentennial, the theory of evolution is under increasing attack from American fundamentalists determined to replace science teaching in public schools with biblically inspired speculation about the origins of the universe. At this critical juncture, join us for a celebration of science and reason.

More here.

Christopher, Unhitched

COLM TOIBIN in the New York Times:

Hitchens184Like all polemicists, Hitchens is happiest when he has an enemy and least happy when he is most content. Thus the weakest piece in this book is his account of a journey along Route 66, which he seemed to enjoy, despite wearing pink socks. He does rather better in his trip along Sunset Boulevard. ”If you can fake it here,” he writes, ”you can fake it anywhere.” His tastes and his attitudes are complex: he clearly loves American movies and music; he can enjoy the dizzy hilarity of things, being a connoisseur of irony and duplicity; he can also be immensely fair-minded and calmly intelligent; and, on his pet subjects, he can be mean.

He is mean, once more, to Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He is mean, using clear argument and reason, to Michael Moore. (” ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ is a sinister exercise in moral frivolity.”) He is mean to Presidents Kennedy and Clinton. He is mean to Martha Stewart. He is mean to Mayor Bloomberg and, much to his own amusement, sets about flouting all those strange little laws that govern public behavior in New York, a city he loves.

When he is not being mean and when he is not happy, he can write as well as George Orwell.”

More here.

More on the Larry Summers Affair

Katha Pollitt in The Nation:

Do men have an innate edge in math and science? Perhaps someday we will live in a world free of the gender bias and stereotyping we know exists today both in and out of the classroom, and we will be able to answer that question, if anyone is still asking it. But we know we don’t live in a bias-free world now: Girls are steered away from math and science from the moment they are born. The interesting fact is that, thanks partly to antidiscrimination laws that have forced open closed doors, they have steadily increased their performance nonetheless. Most of my Radcliffe classmates remember being firmly discouraged from anything to do with numbers or labs; one was flatly told that women couldn’t be physicians–at her Harvard med school interview. Today women obtain 48 percent of BAs in math, 57 percent in biology and agricultural science, half of all places in med school, and they are steadily increasing their numbers as finalists in the Intel high school science contest (fifteen out of forty this year, and three out of four in New York City).

More here. (Thanks to Setare Farz for bringing this to my attention.)

An Affair to Remember

Simon Sebag Montefiore reviews Love and Conquest: Personal Correspondence of Catherine the Great and Prince Grigory Potemkin edited and translated from the Russian by Douglas Smith, in the New York Review of Books:

The story of Catherine the Great and Prince Grigory Potemkin is not only about the most passionate and intimate royal love affair ever revealed in detail, an affair that places Antony and Cleopatra or Napoleon and Josephine very much in the shade. Taking place between Catherine’s seizure of power in 1762 and Potemkin’s death in 1791, it is a chronicle of one of history’s most successful and equally shared political partnerships between a man and a woman. Both were remarkable not only for their political genius but also for their eccentricities, their culture, their uninhibited sexuality, their openness in relationships, and their wit. Obsessed with power and ambition, they not only expanded their empire by force and guile, they also contrived to be among the more humane rulers ever to reign over Russia, even if we take into account the supposedly democratic leaders of post-Soviet Russia.

Not for nothing did Voltaire call Catherine “The Great.” Not for nothing did Pushkin describe Potemkin as “touched by the hand of history,” while Jeremy Bentham called him “Prince of Princes” and the Prince de Ligne (who knew Frederick the Great and Napoleon) thought him “the most extraordinary man I ever met.” Catherine herself, in making Potemkin her imperial partner, called him a “genius” as well as her “tiger,” her “hero,” her “idol,” and her “dearest friend.” In his superb new work, the distinguished scholar Douglas Smith provides the first carefully edited selection from their hundreds of letters.

More here.

Scholar Who Irked the Hindu Puritans

Edward Rothstein in the New York Times:

Doniger Hindutva, a form of Hindu orthodoxy, was enshrined during the Bharatiya Janata Party’s reign (from 1998 until this May). But even with that party’s fall from power, violence from Hindu groups has grown along with violence from radical Muslims. Scholarship about Hinduism has also come under scrutiny. Books that explore lurid or embarrassing details about deities or saints have been banned. One Western scholar’s Indian researcher was smeared with tar, and the institute in Pune where the scholar had done his research was destroyed. Ms. Doniger said one of her American pupils who was studying Christianity in India had her work disrupted and was being relentlessly followed.

In an interview Ms. Doniger explained that this kind of fundamentalism was not new to Hinduism: the strain has run through the religion for centuries, but now it has a political cast.

More here.

Ernst Mayr, 1904-2005

Michael Hopkin in Nature:

1mayrThe evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr died on 3 February at the age of 100, after a short illness. A hugely prolific writer and researcher, he was instrumental in developing modern ideas in evolutionary theory.

As an ornithologist, Mayr classified many birds, most notably risking the hostile terrain of New Guinea to catalogue the region’s birds of paradise. But he will arguably be best remembered for formulating the concept of species that students still use today.

It was Mayr who defined a species as a group of individuals that are capable of breeding with one another, but not with others outside the group. This led to the idea that new species can arise when an existing species becomes separated into two populations that gradually become too distinct to interbreed; it was an answer to a biological conundrum that had eluded Charles Darwin.

More here. And there is an obituary in the New York Times here.

Seeing the Unseen

Freeman Dyson reviews The Fly in the Cathedral: How a Group of Cambridge Scientists Won the International Race to Split the Atom by Brian Cathcart, and A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit by Alan Lightman, in the New York Review of Books:

Every atom is almost entirely made of empty space, with a tiny object called the nucleus and even tinier objects called electrons flying around inside it. Ernest Rutherford, a young New Zealander working in Manchester, England, discovered this fact about atoms in 1909. He shot fast particles at a thin film of gold and observed the way the particles bounced back. The pattern of the recoiling particles showed directly the internal structure of the atoms in the film. The discovery of the tiny nucleus came as a big surprise to Rutherford as well as to everybody else. The phrase “the fly in the cathedral” described what Rutherford discovered. The fly is the nucleus; the cathedral is the atom. Rutherford’s experiment showed that almost all the mass and almost all the energy of the atom was in the nucleus, although the nucleus occupied less than a trillionth part of the volume.

More here.

Quick Reaction Time May Predict Long Life

From the American Psychological Society:

…researchers learned that those with higher IQ scores lived longer, a result consistent with other studies. The study also showed that characteristics significantly related to death included male gender and smoking. But Deary and Der also found something new – faster reaction times seemed an even better predictor of long life than IQ.

There are different ways the results could be interpreted. Slow reaction times could reflect a degeneration of the brain, which in turn could reflect degenerating physical health (an obvious possible cause of earlier mortality). But in another study the IQs of 11-year-old subjects also were found to predict life span length, just as accurately as it did for the middle-aged participants in Deary and Der’s 14-year study.

More here.

Schiller: The German Shakespeare?

Michael Billington in The Guardian:

Shakespeare is crucial to an understanding of Schiller, and one thing we have come to grasp in the past 20 years is the close kinship between German romanticism and our own dramatic tradition. George Steiner in The Death of Tragedy points out that Goethe and Schiller both adapted Shakespeare’s plays for the Weimar stage. In November 1797 you even find Schiller writing to Goethe: “In the last days I have been reading the plays of Shakespeare which deal with the War of the Roses and now that I have finished Richard III , I am filled with true amazement. No Shakespearean play has so much reminded me of Greek tragedy.” Insofar as Richard III deals with the fulfilment of a curse, Schiller was exactly right.

In fact, Schiller is much closer to us than to the hermetic French classical tradition of Racine and Corneille – a point instinctively understood by a young generation of directors free from the anti-German bias of their predecessors. When Lindsay Posner staged a thrilling version of The Robbers at the Gate in 1995, as part of a Sturm und Drang season, the Shakespearean echoes were loud and strong. In the play, two brothers compete for their father’s trust. The villainous Franz inescapably reminded one of Edmund in Lear ; the heroic Karl debated suicide in the manner of Hamlet; and when their imprisoned father cried out from the cellar, he became an echo of Shakespeare’s Ghost.

More here.

Martin Peretz on Larry Summers and Madame Curie

From The New Republic:

Solvay27I’ve been thinking of Madame Curie ever since Harvard President Lawrence Summers stirred a commotion with his remarks about women in the sciences. It has been 45 years since I came to Harvard as a graduate student and 39 years since I joined the faculty. At that time, there was just one female tenured full professor, Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin, an astronomer who filled the singular Radcliffe chair designated for a woman. An important political theorist (whom I didn’t like and who didn’t like me), Judith Shklar, had to content herself with the title of “lecturer” until quite late in her career. My friend Agnes Mongan, who had probably taught more museum curators than anyone else in the United States, served as acting director of the Fogg for years, an incomprehensible indignity. No one can deny that Harvard has changed, and not only in regard to gender. (When I arrived, more than 10 percent of the freshman class came from Exeter and Andover, with another large cohort from the St. Grottlesex schools nationwide. Today, more than 25 percent come from homes where English is a second language.) Summers doesn’t want to stop that change, he wants to accelerate it: In fact, his current obsession is the inability of growing swaths of the population to afford higher education’s mounting costs, a very worthy obsession indeed.

No one serious has called Summers a sexist. (Not even Nancy Hopkins, a professor of biology at MIT, who said that, if she hadn’t walked out, she would have fainted or barfed.) Which is appropriate, since sexism had nothing to do with his controversial statements.

More here.

This remarkable photograph is from the 1927 Solvay Conference. Marie Curie is seated in the front row between Planck and Lorentz, who is next to Einstein. Bohr, Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Dirac, Pauli, de Broglie, and Max Born are also present. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Now I Am Become Death, the Shatterer of Worlds

William Lanouette reviews Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma by Jeremy Bernstein, in Issues in Science and Technology:

Oppie_1Imagine spending half a century to write a short book. That’s what Jeremy Bernstein has done, and the wait was worth it. A physics professor and New Yorker writer, Bernstein has watched and studied J. Robert Oppenheimer since the1950s: sitting in his lectures and seminars, riding with him on trains, partying, and picnicking. Bernstein calls this book “the New Yorker profile I never wrote,” and it has that chatty personal style. But it also brims with new stories and scientific explanations, making it an ideal layman’s introduction to this elusive and conflicted 20thcentury giant.

Born in New York in 1904, Oppenheimer grew up in an assimilated Jewish family under the sway of the Ethical Culture Society and its rigorous school. There, nurturing teachers guided him to love literature and poetry but also to discover chemistry and physics, enjoying “the bumpy contingent nature of the way in which you actually find out about something.” He studied chemistry at Harvard, then sailed for England. At Cambridge, Oppenheimer found himself among the pioneers of nuclear physics (including Ernest Rutherford and J. J. Thomson), but without guidance he foundered, missed his supportive family, and suffered an acute nervous breakdown.

More of the book review here.

I have taken the title of this post, of course, from Oppenheimer’s famous quoting of the Baghavad-Gita upon witnessing the first atomic explosion due to mankind, at the Trinity site in the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Here, for the poetic, is the full quote (referring to the god Shiva):

If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once into the sky
That would be like the splendor of the Mighty one…
I am become Death,
The shatterer of Worlds.

Third of European cancer patients use complementary and alternative therapies

Unfortunately, it seems that the hocus-pocus of “alternative medicine” like homeopathy is impossible to eradicate, especially when people are in desperate situations with diseases like cancer. Homeopathic drugs are so diluted, that an average dose of homeopathic medicine is unlikely to contain even a single molecule of the active ingredient. Homeopaths make bizarre claims about how this is okay because the active ingredient leaves some sort of “vibration” behind in the other inert molecules, which has the salutary effect. If this were shown to be true, we would have to revise much of what we know about the universe, and science would change in a fundamental way. Which is just another way of saying: homeopathy is undoubtably a bunch of hogwash; anyone with the least bit of background in science knows this. So is almost all other “alternative” therapy. I realize that, like prayer, it probably makes its irrational practitioners feel better, but I can’t help thinking that it is better to understand and face the truth about disease, even in the worst of circumstances. Billions are spent on things like “crystal healing” every year by the gullible. In fact, Complementary and Alternative Medicine is the second largest growth industry in Europe right now.

More than a third of cancer patients in Europe make use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), according to one of the largest surveys undertaken of CAM in cancer.

In the first Europe-wide study of CAM, a team of international researchers found that its use varied from a low of just under 15% of cancer patients in Greece to a high of nearly three-quarters of patients in Italy.

Writing in Annals of Oncology[1] (Thursday 3 February) lead author Dr Alex Molassiotis said that their survey of nearly 1,000 patients showed that it was vital that health professionals were aware of CAM use and able to educate patients, and that the EU was involved in regulating it more efficiently.

Read more about this depressing trend here.

Musharraf signs book deal

From Al Jazeera:

23_6_2003_pervez20musharrafPakistani President Pervez Musharraf has sold the rights to his political memoirs, which will feature his views on the US war on terror and the Bush administration

Coming to an arrangement with Simon & Schuster Imprint Free Press on Thursday, the company said Musharraf had showed his proposal to several New York publishers before settling for the unit of Viacom Inc.

The military officer who seized power in October 1999 has been a key Bush administration ally as the US pursued wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The book is to be published in the autumn of 2006, according to Free Press Vice President and Senior Editor Bruce Nichols.

More here.