250th Anniversary of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary

Beryl Bainbridge in The Guardian:

Samueljohnson190x280In 1746, some months after his 36th birthday, Samuel Johnson, that great literary figure of the 18th century, affectionately referred to as the Good Doctor, began work on his monumental Dictionary of the English Language . It took him nine years. April 15 marks the 250th anniversary of its publication.

Johnson was already an established man of letters, famous for his epitaphs, his parliamentary debates, his translations of the Odes of his favourite poet, Horace, numerous essays written for the Gentleman’s Magazine and for his epic poem, “The Vanity of Human Wishes”. His contemporaries were the giants of the age, Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, Edward Gibbon, Edmund Burke, David Garrick, yet it is his name that resounds the loudest in the 21st century.

Read more here.  And see also Azra’s earlier post about SJ here.

Simon Baron-Cohen on Innate Gender Differences

From “The Assortive Mating Theory,” a talk with Simon Baron-Cohen at Edge.org:

BcMy thesis with regard to sex differences is quite moderate, in that I do not discount environmental factors; I’m just saying, don’t forget about biology. To me that sounds very moderate. But for some people in the field of gender studies, even that is too extreme. They want it to be all environment and no biology. You can understand that politically that was an important position in the 1960s, in an effort to try to change society. But is it a true description, scientifically, of what goes on? It’s time to distinguish politics and science, and just look at the evidence.

Read more here, including responses by Marc D. Hauser and Steven Pinker.

Choosing a Pope in the Internet Age

A reader of this site recently sent me an email bringing up a couple of interesting points about the process by which a new pope will soon be chosen after John Paul II, arguably the most “mediatized” pope ever (see a related post by Joi Ito on his blog here). This is the first time that a new pope is being chosen in the age of the Internet. What might this mean for the process, if anything? She writes:

  • The choice of the next pope–one of the most influential leaders in the world (spiritual leadership and influence over about 1 billion people)–is one of the least transparent processes around.
  • 117 people get together in the Sistine chapel to decide on the new pope.
  • 114 of the 117 were chosen by the just-deceased pope (indicating a lot of value convergence–and also a tendency towards conservatism). [You can read more about the process here at the BBC.]
  • Little is known about the candidates (most of this information is available in scattered local media). No single (as far as is obvious) source exists to share this information with the broader public.
  • The voting mechanism: 2/3 majority required, but under rules brought in by the previous pope, a simple majority can waive this rule and thereby a simple majority can vote in the next pope.
  • Now suppose someone built (a) a wiki to pool information about the candidates and (b) an online and SMS feedback system to register the global point of view.
  • If such a thing were to happen would this be a good thing for (a) the Roman Catholic church, (b) for the Christian community, (c) for the world?

I know very little about Roman Catholicism, but these seem like interesting things. I add some corollary questions below:

  • Even if there is no room for anyone’s opinion but the presumably-divinely-chosen 117 in the actual election of a new pope, would it be possible to influence their opinions with a massive show of popular preference for one of the “papabili” (main candidates)?
  • How can the internet be used (by the 117 themselves) to make the process of pope-selection more transparent to the public? Would they want it to be?
  • Could the 117 make use of the internet to help them make their decision? By taking stock of public opinion, for example, or by inviting objections to a particular candidate’s election?
  • Would more public involvement in the election of a new pope, even if just as spectator to the heretofore secretive processes of selection, contribute to greater commitment to the new pope, or might it have the opposite effect by demystifying the divine in some way?
  • What are the theological details of catholicism which speak to these issues?

The March of Unreason

Review of The March of Unreason: Science, Democracy and the New Fundamentalism by Dick Taverne, from The Economist:

THIS cogent restating of the case for science, reason, optimism and the other values of the Enlightenment is clear about its opponents. They include anyone who uses alternative medicine, or who buys organic food, or worries about genetic modification, or opposes nuclear power, or likes post-modernism, or doesn’t vaccinate their children properly, or distrusts scientists, or believes the Bible, or dislikes global capitalism or thinks that human progress damages the environment. In Dick Taverne’s view, all these wrong-headed beliefs are part of the same batty, sentimental mindset that ultimately threatens democracy.

A former lawyer and centre-left politician who was ennobled in 1996, Lord Taverne presents a useful compendium of facts and arguments that are often drowned out by media scare stories and green propaganda. Alternative medicine is at best a placebo, and at worst outright harmful; if it worked reliably, it would not be alternative. Organic food is often worse for the environment than conventional farming. GM crops, by contrast, are hugely promising and rich western nations’ antipathy towards them is a mystifying bit of self-indulgence.

More here.

Pulitzer Prizes for Letters, Drama and Music

In the New York Times:

The 89th annual Pulitzer Prizes were announced on Monday. Following are the winners in Letters, Drama and Music.

FICTION: ‘Gilead,’ by Marilynne Robinson
This grave, lucid, luminously spiritual novel about fathers and sons reaches back to the abolitionist movement and into the 1950’s.
Review (November 28, 2004)
Excerpt
Profile (New York Times Magazine, October 24, 2005)

GENERAL NONFICTION: ‘Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001,’ by Steve Coll
A journalist’s history of how the anti-Soviet jihadist movement in Afghanistan evolved into the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Review
(April 11, 2004)
First Chapter

Reading Group Discussion of ‘Ghost Wars’

More here.

Monica [Lewinsky] is pregnant by Bush

From the BBC News:

A Pakistani newspaper vendor in Paris with a unique selling style has won a book deal to have his life story published.

Ali Akbar, who sells copies of Le Monde on the streets of the French capital’s fashionable St Germain des Pres district, arrived in the country as an illegal immigrant more than 30 years ago – leaving behind a tough childhood in Pakistan.

He then made a name for himself by the way he sold the newspapers, shouting amusing slogans, or making up headlines, such as “Monica [Lewinsky] is pregnant by Bush” or “Le Pen assassinated.”

His fame became such that a publisher picked up on his life story – now to be published as Je Fais Rire Le Monde, Mais Le Monde Me Fait Pleurer – I Make The World Laugh, But The World Makes Me Cry.

More here.

First photograph of a planet beyond our solar system

Robert Roy Britt in Space.com, via CNN:

PlanetAfter a few close calls, astronomers have finally obtained the first photograph of a planet beyond our solar system, SPACE.com has learned. The planet is thought to be one to two times as massive as Jupiter. It orbits a star similar to a young version of our sun. The star, GQ Lupi, has been observed by a team of European astronomers since 1999. They have made three images using the Very Large Telescope (VLT) of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile. The Hubble Space Telescope and the Japanese Subaru Telescope each contributed an image, too. The work was led by Ralph Neuhaeuser of the Astrophysical Institute & University Observatory (AIU). “The detection of the faint object near the bright star is certain,” Neuhaeuser told SPACE.com on Friday.

More here.

‘I give off sparks’

Emma Brockes interviews Jane Fonda for The Guardian:

Fonda53257Her memoir, My Life So Far, has been seized on in pre-publicity for its chapter about her marriage to Roger Vadim, the French film director, who, she reveals, coerced her into having threesomes with prostitutes when they lived in Paris in the 1960s. It was not her intention to be salacious. The book is honest and humorous, but the memories are couched in a language you don’t hear much these days. The reason she went along with Vadim’s demands, she says, is that “when I met him, I was on a search for womanhood. I was terrified of being a woman because it meant being a victim and being destroyed like my mother was.”

Fonda’s discursive style was forged in the late 60s and early 70s, during those huge waves of activism when “paradigms of hierarchical patriarchy” were all the rage. Although she wryly observes in the book that she might have toned it down a bit – that she made herself unlikeable by banging her drum so loudly – there is nevertheless something affecting about her refusal to soften, to flirt with neo-feminism’s more digestible language. When I suggest that the word patriarchy is an anachronism – that, while no one would deny inequality exists, lots of women would bridle at the suggestion they are victims of a patriarchal system – she fires back: “Part of what my book delineates is how misogyny is internalised: the need to be perfect, to please, to be malleable. And that this is true for otherwise strong, successful women like me. No, Emma, patriarchy is very much alive and well, and we have to do something about that.”

Read more here.

Paul Berman on Daniel Bell and the American Left

“In modern America, an amazing number of people have thrown themselves into the work of researching and writing the history of the American Left—many more than are justified by the relative importance of the topic. These scholars have taken up the subject in order to understand something about their own lives—to explain how and why they came to feel so alienated from the mainstream of American politics, and what their alienation was like, and what uses might be drawn from their experiences. Books on these themes—on the history of the Communist Party USA, on the old Socialists, on the New Left, and so on—make up a main current of the modern historical literature. Yet none of these books has ever managed to eclipse Marxian Socialism in the United States—the classic of classics in this particular field. In any case, as I glance back at Bell’s book today, I see in it one of the inspirations for my own adult life and work.

My transition from once-born to twice-born turned me into someone who was curious and eager to write about the history of the Left—sometimes in order to promote a political agenda, but mostly for another reason: I wanted to discover truths, if I possibly could—about America and other parts of the world; about political movements; about social theory; about human nature. This is a gloomier project than merely advancing a political agenda. Agendas tend to be hopeful; truths, not so hopeful. A triumphal spirit runs through a great deal of American history, but not through the particular subset of American history that contains the political Left.

A shadow fell across my dinner with Dan when we reminisced about the strike of 1968—the shadow of what had happened to him at Columbia; what had happened to the left-wing movement that emerged from the strike; and what had happened to our common friend, his fondly remembered student and my SDS “brother,” who had concentrated in his own person all the disasters of the era. But it is in the nature of the second-born to live in the shadows. The blue sky, in Emerson’s phrase, belongs to the first-born, and afterward comes the lifting of the veil and the gazing at Medusa’s face.”

From Bookforum.

Crocheting Non-Euclidean Space

“Until the 19th century, mathematicians knew about only two kinds of geometry: the Euclidean plane and the sphere. It was therefore a deep shock to their community to find that there existed in principle a completely other spatial structure whose existence was discerned only by overturning a 2000-year-old prejudice about “parallel” lines. The discovery of hyperbolic space in the 1820s and 1830s by the Hungarian mathematician Janos Bolyai and the Russian mathematician Nicholay Lobatchevsky marked a turning point in mathematics and initiated the formal field of non-Euclidean geometry. For more than a century, mathematicians searched in vain for a physical surface with hyperbolic geometry. CrochetgreenStarting in the 1950s, they began to suggest possibilities for constructing such surfaces. Eventually, in 1997, Daina Taimina, a mathematician at Cornell University, made the first useable physical model of the hyperbolic — a feat many mathematicians had believed was impossible — using, of all things, crochet. Taimina and her husband, David Henderson, a geometer at Cornell, are the co-authors of Experiencing Geometry, a widely used textbook on both Euclidean and non-Euclidean spaces. Margaret Wertheim, founder of the Institute for Figuring and a new regular contributor to Cabinet, spoke to them about crocheting and non-Euclidean geometry.”

More here.

The mathematician’s lament

Carolyn Y. Johnson in The Boston Globe:

Godel IN HER NEW BOOK, ”Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel,” Rebecca Goldstein, a novelist and currently visiting professor of philosophy at Trinity College, brings all her skills to bear on a difficult man and his difficult math. As she explained in a recent interview at her Cambridge apartment, she set out to correct misinterpretations of Gödel’s work, which transformed the philosophical underpinnings of mathematics, but ended up ”inhabiting his mind.”

When Gödel, born in 1906 in what is now the Czech Republic, was formulating his ideas in Vienna in the 1920s, mathematicians across the world theorized that arithmetic was a human construction. They were sure that math arose from a set of man-made rules (like a modern-day computer program), or was ”like a higher form of chess.”

That went against everything Gödel believed: For him, math was a description of an abstract reality, transcending human rules and inventions. In 1930, the 23-year-old Gödel thought he had proved that such an abstract world did exist. With his first Incompleteness theorem, he demonstrated that in a mathematical system there are things that are true that cannot be proved. He followed with a second Incompleteness theorem, which said it was impossible to prove the consistency of a mathematical system when you are working within that system.

The proofs transformed logic and branches of math, but Gödel was tragically misunderstood. Far from what he intended, many took ”incompleteness” to mean that philosophical uncertainty had spread from the humanities and arts to the most logical human enterprise – math.

Gödel immigrated to the United States in 1940 and took up residence at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, where he found a conversation partner and confidant in Albert Einstein, but felt increasingly alienated by a world that did not understand his breakthrough. After Einstein’s death, Gödel descended into ever deeper paranoia and madness.

Read more here.

Beloved and Brave: Priest, evangelist, poet. Protector of the poor and defender of the faith. John Paul II’s legend and legacy.

Kenneth L. Woodward in Newsweek:

Popeyouth_hu  John Paul II held the chair of Saint Peter for more than 26 years—leading his flock longer than almost any other pope. For nearly a decade, he persevered in office despite a slow and painfully public deterioration from Parkinson’s disease. This avid outdoor athlete who spent many a papal vacation skiing and hiking in the mountains, this former actor who made all the world his stage, this relentless global traveler who bent and kissed the tarmac in tiny countries never before visited by a pope, aged, suffered and physically declined before our eyes. And so we watched as he lost the ability to walk, as he slurred when he tried to talk, as his head dropped and saliva fell from his lips during church ceremonies. Those who follow Christ must welcome suffering, he firmly believed, and he would not hide his own from public view.

Future historians seem certain to record that John Paul personalized the papacy in ways that none of the cardinals who elected him (with 103 of 109 votes after 10 ballots) could have foreseen. He transformed the See of Peter into a fulcrum of world politics—his politics. The papal voice—his voice—was heard and often heeded in major capitals like Moscow and Washington. Above all, he took the papacy—which only a century earlier was locked inside the ecclesiastical confines of Vatican City—on the road. He visited Africa four times, Latin America five, managing altogether an astounding 104 pilgrimages to 129 countries around the globe. In doing so, he transformed the figure of the pope from distant icon to familiar face. His face.

Read more here.

How to Make People Feel Awkward

Adam Cohen in the New York Times:

When a young person visits, you should throw him off balance by saying, “You want a wash, I expect,” in a way that suggests he has not quite mastered personal hygiene. An older man should be told how fine it is that his wife is still “moving very briskly about.” And visitors of all ages should be encouraged to talk about their friends, after which you should say that you “wished B. was here” because you never tell “stories behind people’s backs.”

These pointers come from “Lifemanship,” one of a series of acerbic life guides written by Stephen Potter in the 1940’s and 1950’s. “Lifemanship,” which has just been reissued by Moyer Bell, wryly mocked Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” and other self-help manuals of its day. Potter’s books do not focus on friendship or success, but on less exalted goals: “winning without actually cheating” (“Gamesmanship”); “creative intimidation” (“One-Upmanship”); and making “the other man feel that something has gone wrong, however slightly” (“Lifemanship”).

The absurdist “Monty Python’s Spamalot” may be the toast of Broadway, but it is Potter’s caustic brand of British humor that is especially in step with our times. His targets – wine snobs, literary poseurs and weekend athletes – are more numerous today than a half-century ago. His major themes – the drive for self-improvement, competitiveness, faking it and sheer malice – are a virtual checklist of modern culture.

More here.

Did the Vikings make a telescope?

David Whitehouse at the BBC News:

_702478_lens150_1The Vikings could have been using a telescope hundreds of years before Dutch spectacle makers supposedly invented the device in the late 16th century.

This remarkable possibility has emerged from a study of sophisticated lenses just recognised from a Viking site on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. They were initially thought to be merely ornaments.

“It seems that the elliptical lens design was invented much earlier that we thought and then the knowledge was lost,” says Dr Olaf Schmidt, of Aalen University in Germany.

More here.

The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time

David Mehegan writes about Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time by Michael Downing, in The Boston Globe:

Downing, a 46-year-old novelist and writing teacher at Tufts University, had never given daylight saving much thought, until one recent October. ”I was turning back my clock,” he said, ”and for the first time in my life, I thought, ‘I have no idea what I’m doing.’ I asked friends: ‘Why do we do it?’ And the more I asked, the more preposterous it seemed — believing that I was actually getting rid of an hour, or adding an hour, to a day.”

He looked into it and, to his delight and amazement, discovered that while ”most people have an immediate answer or two about who did it and why, almost to a person we are wrong.”

More here.