New Letters from Percy Bysshe Shelley, Atheist

From the BBC News:

Shelley_pA newly discovered set of letters written by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley are to go on sale after being found in a trunk at a house in London.

The correspondence, written by Shelley and his friend and biographer Thomas Jefferson Hogg, was destined for a car boot sale before being identified.

The letters could fetch £30,000 when they go on sale at Christie’s in June.

Shelley and Hogg were expelled from Oxford University in 1811 for writing a pamphlet about atheism.

Both men were summoned before the authorities when the article was circulated. Shelley refused to co-operate and Hogg protested.

More here.

SDSS J090745.0+24507 Leaves the Galaxy

Dennis Overbye in the New York Times:

Was it something we said?

A star has been spotted flying out of the Milky Way. And it apparently won’t be back.

22starAstronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics recently clocked the star’s velocity at 1.5 million miles an hour, twice as much as it needs to escape the galaxy’s gravitational field, making this the first galactic runaway to be discovered.

The runaway is a blue star about three times as massive as the Sun in the constellation Hydra. It is known formally and numbingly as SDSS J090745.0+24507, based on its coordinates in the sky, but Dr. Warren Brown of the center, the leader of the team that discovered it, also refers to it simply as “the outcast.”

More here.

The Strenuous Effort of Ijtihad: Who Owns Islamic Law?

David Glenn in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Sistani …a few prominent liberal scholars are aggressively promoting a concept that they believe can nurture democracy and allow an authentic Islam to thrive in the modern world. Islam can regenerate itself, these scholars say, if it returns to the principle of ijtihad.

The Arabic term — which literally means “strenuous effort” — has historically referred to the practice of systematically interpreting Islamic religious texts in order to resolve difficult points of law. (In an oft-cited example, early Muslim jurists strove to interpret an ambiguously phrased Koranic verse about how long a divorced woman must wait before remarrying.) In the early centuries of Islam, ijtihad was confined to an elite set of scholars and jurists (mujtahidin) with rigorous training in the religion’s texts and laws. Beginning around the 12th century, most Muslim communities restricted the practice even further: Some juridical schools declared outright that “the gates of ijtihad have been closed,” while other regions limited the practice of ijtihad to questions of the family and everyday life.

Today’s proponents of ijtihad take a far more expansive view. “There will be no Islamic democracy unless jurists permit the democratization of interpretation,” wrote M.A. Muqtedar Khan, a professor of political science at Adrian College, in a 2003 essay. In Mr. Khan’s view, political elites in the Muslim world have for centuries restricted the development of democracy and political accountability by hiding behind religious principles that they proclaim to be fixed in stone. Mr. Khan argues, in effect, for an end run around the entire traditional apparatus of Muslim jurisprudence. Believers should instead, he suggests, look directly to the Koran and to the practices of Muhammad and his companions, and use their own efforts at interpretation to build ethical communities.

More here.

Bissell Lives

A friend to some of us here at 3quarks, Tom Bissell, has garnered himself a very nice write-up indeed for his excellent new book of short stories, God Lives in St. Petersburg. Bissell co-wrote (with Jeff Alexander) what is one of the funniest and cleverest pieces in recent McSweeney’s history (barring our own rather brilliant J.M.Tyree’s essay about the implausability of the trash compactor in Start Wars) about Chomsky and Zinn giving their commentary to The Fellowship of the Ring. Here’s a fragment:

Zinn: Of course. “The world has changed.” I would argue that the main thing one learns when one watches this film is that the world hasn’t changed. Not at all.

Chomsky: We should examine carefully what’s being established here in the prologue. For one, the point is clearly made that the “master ring,” the so-called “one ring to rule them all,” is actually a rather elaborate justification for preemptive war on Mordor.

About God Lives In St. Petersburg, Pankaj Mishra writes:

Bissell184“Bissell writes prose here as vivid and forceful as anything in his first book. The short story seems to be the right form for him; he artfully expresses the emotions stirred up by his own forays into the world outside America. The narrator of “Chasing the Sea” was edhy and garrulous, if always engaging. In “God Lives in St. Petersburg,” Bissell reveals himself to be not only a subtle craftsman but also a mordant observer of a new generation lost in a complex world.”

Understanding Pol Pot?

Philip Short has a new book on Pol Pot. Through some interesting arrangement of the stars, William T. Vollmann is reviewing it. As to understanding Pol Pot, Vollmann poses an interesting question:

Could it be that because Pol Pot identified himself so thoroughly with his revolution, there was no him for us to know? Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Stalin, and Alan Bullock’s of Hitler, manage to ”bring alive” tyrants whose personal lives were banal. Perhaps the problem is that Pol Pot was mediocre in almost every sphere: a failed technical student, an uninspired military leader who wasted the lives of his troops in badly planned offensives and ignored emergencies, a misguided ruler. In sum, Pol Pot would exert little claim on our attention were it not for the fact that millions died through his cruelty and incompetence. In ”Brother Number One,” Chandler admits defeat at the outset: ”I was able to build up a consistent, but rather two-dimensional picture. . . . As a person, he defies analysis.”

Lunch with Albert

Niccolo Tucci wrote in the November 22, 1947 issue of the New Yorker about his lunch with Einstein in Princeton:

Albert“You read the Greeks?” I said.

“But of course,” he replied, slightly surprised at my amazement. And so I heard, partly from him and partly from Miss Dukas, that he reads the Greeks to Maja every night for an hour or so, even if he has had a very tiring day. Empedocles, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Thucydides receive the tribute of the most advanced and abstract modern science every night, in the calm voice of this affectionate brother who keeps his sister company.

“You know,” I said, “that is great news. Young Americans, who have an idea of the pure scientist worthy of the comics, should be told that Einstein reads the Greeks. All those who relish the idiotic and dangerous myth of the scientist as a kind of Superman, free from all bonds of responsibility, should know this and draw their conclusions from it. Many people in our day go back to the Greeks out of sheer despair. So you too, Herr Professor, have gone back to the Greeks.”

He seemed a little hurt. “But I have never gone away from them,” he said. “How can an educated person stay away from the Greeks? I have always been far more interested in them than in science.”

More here.

The End Is Near

Alex Beam in the Boston Globe:

KurzweilInventor/entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil has become the high-tech version of the cartoon character carrying the sign: “The End Is Near.” With dogged consistency, the founder of eight different technology companies has been proselytizing an end-of-humantime event called the Singularity, a Buck Rogers vision of the hypothetical Christian Rapture.

Like everything, the term was first coined by mathematician John von Neumann, who spoke a half-century ago of “the ever accelerating progress of technology . . . approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race.” More recently, San Diego State computer scientist Vernor Vinge has predicted that man-made “entities with greater than human intelligence” would dominate the planet.

In his forthcoming book, “The Singularity Is Near,” Kurzweil calls the Singularity “the inevitable next step in the evolutionary process.” Already, human activity is enhanced by technological substitutes, e.g., robotic prostheses, artificial skin, blood plasma, etc. The Singularity, which Kurzweil says will occur at mid-century, is the moment when biological material ceases to exist, and we become products of the revolution in “GNR”: genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics.

More here.

Gore Vidal on James Purdy

From the New York Times Book Review:

On Purdy’s latest book jackets I hail him as ”an authentic American genius”; emphasis on the two adjectives. Purdy’s prose is often reminiscent of the century before last when nouns were apt to do double duty as verbs, like ”funning,” which an editor once told Purdy was not authentic American speech even though any student of W. C. Fields’s early movies knows that it is: ”I was just funning, dear,” says Fields to the inimitable Gloria Jean. Purdy was born and raised in New England’s most authentic annex, the Western Reserve, whose crown jewel is the state of Ohio, or, as Dawn Powell once sweepingly put it, ”All Americans come from Ohio originally, if only briefly.” That was then, of course. Frontiers have since shut down, and true blue is often mistaken by twilight’s last gleaming for red.

More here.

Your unconscious is making your everyday decisions

Marianne Szegedy-Maszak in U.S. News & World Report:

The snap judgment. The song that constantly runs through your head whenever you close your office door. The desire to drink Coke rather than Pepsi or to drive a Mustang rather than a Prius. The expression on your spouse’s face that inexplicably makes you feel either amorous or enraged. Or how about the now incomprehensible reasons you married your spouse in the first place?

Welcome to evidence of your robust unconscious at work.

More here.

The Larry Summers Affair: Enough Already!

Michelle Cottle in The New Republic:

It’s been well over a month now since Harvard’s Larry Summers offered some, shall we say, controversial, theories as to the disparity in gender achievement within the upper echelons of math and science. And still the Cambridge contretemps rages, covered in excruciating detail by a salivating media. It’s getting so a gal can’t enjoy her morning muffin without another breathless installment in the Summers saga leaping out from the A section of The New York Times or The Washington Post: Summers apologizes for eleventh time! Harvard faculty remains offended! Remarks said to be indicative of Summers’s total boorishness! Cornel West claims vindication!

Sweet Jesus, some days it’s hard to believe what a pack of pathetic, self-involved losers we the media have become. Honestly. For anyone remotely interested in why much of America disdains the national media as a bunch of liberal, pointy-headed elitists out of touch with the concerns of regular folk, look no further than the bizarre media obsession with L’Affaire Larry.

Yeah, yeah. The guy is president of the most prestigious university in the country. And whatever your thoughts on “nature v. nurture,” you’ve got to wonder what in the hell possessed Summers to plunge into this minefield, period, much less in the presence of a gaggle of academics–a famously touchy, politically correct, self-important lot. Even so, why couldn’t we have simply chewed over the juicier points of this issue for, say, two or maybe even three weeks and then moved on?

I’ll tell you why.

More here.

Prehistoric ‘Bear-Dog’ Fossil Unearthed

From Wired:

Scientists are marveling at a fossil find in California’s San Joaquin Valley that has produced the remains of a never-before-seen badger-like creature and a monstrous predator that looks like a cross between a bear and a pit bull.

Among the discoveries was the skull of an animal that appears to be an entirely new genus within the same family as otters, skunks and weasels.

“It just blew me out of my mind,” Xiaoming Wang, associate curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, said after seeing the fossil of the badger-like animal. “It looks like it was very ferocious.”

More here.

The Crackers

If you liked the “Anti-Christo” post, you should check this out:

The_crackersGift to the City — is it Art or for the Birds? “The Crackers” is as much a public happening as it is a tasty snack, defying the domino theory. Peanut butter or cheddar cheese. They poured their hearts and souls into the project for over 26 minutes. It required three dozen crackers and spanned over nearly 23 inches along a footbridge in the park at a cost (borne exclusively by the artists) of $2.50. Is it art? You decide. The installation was completed with no permits or bureaucracy, and fed to the ducks after about a half hour. “The Crackers” is entirely for profit.

More here.

Reviews: Top Science Books of the Year

String theory, lobster sex, climate catastrophe, the beauty of life beneath the Antarctic ice: Discover digs through the great stacks of science books published in 2004 and selects 20 of the best by Josie Glausiusz:

Einstein's CosmosEinstein’s Cosmos: How Albert Einsteins Vision Transformed Our Understanding of Space and Time

Michio Kaku (W. W. Norton, $22.95). Seamlessly weaving together Einstein’s life and science, Kaku presents an engaging biography of the man and his theories, which were framed around questions a child might ask and duly gave rise to the great discoveries of modern physics, from gravity waves to black holes.

Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist
Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist

Edited by John Brockman (Pantheon Books, $23.95). Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux first encountered the brain’s “soft mushy mass” while extracting bullets from cows’ brains in his father’s butcher shop. Ethnographer Sherry Turkle imagined herself at age 8 as a daring Nancy Drew on roller skates. Physicist Lee Smolin found solace from heartbreak in Einstein’s autobiographical notes. In an eclectic collection of essays, 27 scientists recall the early influences that funneled them into their careers.

The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram
The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram

Thomas Blass (Basic Books, $26). By turns both moving and chilling, Blass’s biography profiles psychologist Stanley Milgram, who conducted the notorious 1960s obedience experiments in which compliant subjects inflicted what seemed to be electric shocks on a screaming victim (in fact an actor) on orders from an authority figure.

The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle
The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle

Eric Lax (Henry Holt, $25). Alexander Fleming discovered the antibacterial qualities of what he called “mould juice,” but the paper he published in 1929 went unnoticed for nearly 10 years. Lax pays a long-overdue tribute to three scientists—Howard Florey, Ernst Chain, and Norman Heatley—who in 1940s Britain raced to create a usable drug from mold—penicillin—and produce it in quantities large enough to treat soldiers suffering from gangrene and other infected war wounds.

For a complete list, click here.

A Galaxy with No Stars

Mark Peplow in Nature:

Dark_1A galaxy that is made almost entirely of dark matter has been discovered. It’s the first galaxy found to have no stars at all, but it fits well with predictions made by astrophysicists about where the Universe’s missing mass should be.

“We’ve thrown as many tests at it as we can, and it looks like a dark galaxy,” says Robert Minchin from Cardiff University, UK, one of an international team of astronomers that made the find.

Dark matter betrays its presence by its gravitational pull: without dark matter to hold them together, rapidly rotating galaxies would simply fly apart. Scientists estimate that dark matter must be five times more abundant than normal matter in our Universe. It is likely to be made of relatively large subatomic particles that rarely interact with their surroundings, although these particles have never been identified.

More here.

Letter from Baghdad: Tales from a Broken Lab

Christopher Allbritton in Seed Magazine:

Dr. ’Asaam al-Raawi, a sedimentary geologist at Baghdad University, sweeps his hand across a set of dog-eared journals, the arc of his gesture revealing a bare laboratory with a few slices of rock samples strewn around, a sagging chair, a dripping sink. The room is long and narrow. There’s barely enough space for a colleague, carrying a tray of glasses filled to their chipped rims, to squeeze past al-Raawi. Returning to his meager collection of journals and books, al-Raawi gestures in frustration.

“I am a university professor,” he says. “I need books!”

We sit and sweat as he tells me what has come of his work in the closed-off laboratories and classrooms of Baghdad University. Perspiration rolls from his bald pate into his close-cropped white beard as he flicks a set of prayer beads back and forth and tells me how his life’s work has come to this.

More here.

Science Goes Tabloid

Iain Murray writes in the National Review:

In the United Kingdom, most of the respected broadsheet newspapers have cut costs and increased circulation by adding a tabloid edition. Some argue that this downsizing has led to a dumbing down of the papers’ content. But, in both Britain and America, it is not just the news industry that is shifting to a more sensationalistic attitude. Some scientific journals are abandoning scientific neutrality in favor of policy stances and headline-grabbing scare stories, favoring style over substance.

More here.