Freeman J. Dyson on Richard P. Feynman

From the New York Review of Books:

Feynman_richard19921217Great scientists come in two varieties, which Isaiah Berlin, quoting the seventh-century-BC poet Archilochus, called foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes know many tricks, hedgehogs only one. Foxes are interested in everything, and move easily from one problem to another. Hedgehogs are interested only in a few problems which they consider fundamental, and stick with the same problems for years or decades. Most of the great discoveries are made by hedgehogs, most of the little discoveries by foxes. Science needs both hedgehogs and foxes for its healthy growth, hedgehogs to dig deep into the nature of things, foxes to explore the complicated details of our marvelous universe. Albert Einstein was a hedgehog; Richard Feynman was a fox.

Many readers of The New York Review of Books are more likely to have encountered Feynman as a story-teller, for example in his book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, than as a scientist. Not many are likely to have read his great textbook The Feynman Lectures on Physics, which was a best seller among physicists but was not intended for the general public. Now we have a collection of his letters, selected and edited by his daughter, Michelle.

More here.

Chronic disease is biggest global killer

Shaoni Bhattacharya in New Scientist:

By the end of 2005, twice as many people will have died from chronic diseases as from all infectious diseases, starvation and pregnancy and birth complications combined, international experts have warned.

The “neglected epidemic” of chronic disease will take 35 million lives in 2005, out of the total 58 million who will die globally. And contrary to popular belief, most of the deaths – 80% – from chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer will be in low to middle-income countries.

The two factors behind this epidemic are smoking and obesity, says Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, in a commentary accompanying four studies published on Wednesday. “These risks and the diseases they engender are not the exclusive preserve of rich nations.”

If action is taken now, 36 million lives could be saved by 2015, says a major World Health Organization (WHO) report on chronic diseases also published on Wednesday.

While the world focuses on tackling the major infectious diseases – HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis – chronic diseases are largely overlooked, warns Horton. “Without concerted and coordinated political action, the gains achieved in reducing the burden of infectious disease will be washed away as a new wave of preventable illness engulfs those least able to protect themselves.”

More here.

The Republican War on Science

Eric Kancler interviews Chris Mooney in Mother Jones:

Mooney_265x365Though no previous U.S. government can match the current one for sheer brazenness, other Republican administrations have proved willing, on occasion, to subordinate science to politics. As Chris Mooney argues in his book, The Republican War on Science, disregard for scientists and the scientific method has grown and ripened with the modern conservative movement. From Barry Goldwater’s anti-intellectualism, through Ronald Reagan’s sympathy for creationism and Newt Gingrich’s passion for science “skeptics,” on through the present day, Republicans have shown a marked preference for politically inspired fringe theories over the findings of long-established and world-renowned scientific bodies.

In his conversation with Mother Jones, Mooney discusses the impact this approach to science has on public policy and the public good, and on the very health of American democracy.

More here.

Diplomat ‘was real Shakespeare’

Also from the BBC:

_39105771_shakespeare203An Elizabethan diplomat named Sir Henry Neville was the real author of William Shakespeare’s plays, a new book claims.

The Truth Will Out: Unmasking the Real Shakespeare says the courtier, nicknamed “Falstaff” by close friends, used Shakespeare as a “front man”.

The book by Brenda James and Professor William Rubinstein contains a foreword by Mark Rylance, artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.

Many experts remain sceptical at claims to have found the “real” Shakespeare.

More here.

Arthur C Clarke still looking forward

Martin Redfern at the BBC:

_40873646_clarke_bbc_203_1It was 60 years ago this month that the popular magazine Wireless World published an article entitled Extra-terrestrial Relays: Can rocket stations give worldwide radio coverage?

The author was a young writer by the name of Arthur C Clarke.

His “rocket stations” are today known as communications satellites.

Eighty-seven years and the after-effects of polio have left Sir Arthur in a wheelchair and somewhat forgetful of past events; but as a science visionary, he is as sharp as ever, looking forward to the time when other predictions he has made come true.

More here.

Self-help gurus might be fakes – but why do so many people fall for them?

Josie Appleton in Spiked:

DrphilbooksIn SHAM: How the gurus of the self-help movement make us helpless, Steve Salerno exposes the pretensions of the Self-Help and Actualisation Movement. Gurus’ degrees are often fake, their personal lives a disaster, their advice wacky.

John Gray, of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus fame, offers instruction on the hidden meaning of women’s underwear: ‘[when] she wears silky pink or lace, she is ready to surrender to sex as a romantic expression of loving vulnerability’, while a ‘cotton t-shirt with matching panties…may mean she doesn’t need a lot of foreplay’. One ‘life coach’, Hale Dwoskin, instructs his clients to drop pens and throw chairs as ‘”symbolic” ways of letting go of impediments to happiness and power’.

Self-help gurus become famous by hitting on a catchphrase and running with it. Richard Carlson started with Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and It’s All Small Stuff, and graduated to Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff For Women, …At Work, …For Teens, The Don’t Sweat Guide for Couples. Once a guru makes it, they can diversify into pretty much anything: weight-loss products, relationship counselling, business start-ups, moon landings….

More here.

use of magnets to levitate frogs, and the effect of beer, garlic and soured cream on the appetite of leeches

From the AFP:

It is difficult to judge exactly where the scientific world would be without Professor Bernard Vonnegut’s seminal 1975 study on “Chicken Plucking as a Measure of Tornado Wind Speed.”

What is clear is that Vonnegut’s groundbreaking research may have languished in undeserved obscurity but for Marc Abrahams, founder of the annual Ig Nobel Prizes for scientific achievement that “cannot or should not be reproduced.”

A prestigious gathering of genuine Nobel laureates will help present the awards at the 15th Ig Nobel ceremony to be held Thursday amid pomp, mayhem and paper planes at Harvard University.

Along with Vonnegut, previous winners of the increasingly-prized Igs include authors of landmark reports on the impact of country music on suicide, the use of magnets to levitate frogs, and the effect of beer, garlic and soured cream on the appetite of leeches.

The keynote address on Thursday will be given by the 2003 Ig Nobel Biology laureate Kees Moeliker, who won for documenting the first — and so far only — recorded case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck.

More here.

Nobel Literature Prize Date in Limbo

Matt Moore of the AP:

Nobel watchers hoping to find out who will win the 2005 literature prize will have to wait at least a week.

With the other Nobel Prize announcements already in full swing, many expected the Swedish Academy to confirm the date on Tuesday. Instead, it kept silent, suggesting the coveted award will be announced Oct. 13.

By tradition, the 18-member group that makes up the 219-year-old institution, announces on a Tuesday that it will name the winner the following Thursday at 7 a.m. EDT.

It’s also led to speculation that academy members may be locked in fierce debate as to who should take home this year’s prize, which includes a $1.3 million prize, a gold medal and a diploma, along with a guaranteed boost in sales.

More here.

Frances Newton and the Prospects for a New Abolitionism

3 Quarks columnist Justin E. H. Smith writes in CounterPunch:

As I write this, Frances Newton is waiting to be executed in a prison south of Huntsville, Texas, having seen her most recent request for clemency denied by the Supreme Court. If the sentence is carried out, she will be the third woman executed in the state since the Civil War, and the first black woman. By the time anyone has a chance to read this, any call I might make for letters to the relevant power-holders may very well be too late. If she is still alive, by all means, write to them. Overload their inboxes. Call them potential murderers. But if she is dead, perhaps her death might serve as an occasion for those of us who find the death penalty abhorrent and disgraceful to take stock of how miserably we are losing this battle, and to contemplate the efficacy of our strategy.

More here.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2005


The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2005 jointly to

Yves ChauvinNobelchem
Institut Français du Pétrole, Rueil-Malmaison, France,

Robert H. Grubbs
California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Pasadena, CA, USA and 

Richard R. Schrock
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, MA, USA

    “for the development of the metathesis method in organic synthesis”.

This year’s Nobel Prize Laureates in chemistry have made metathesis into one of organic chemistry’s most important reactions. Fantastic opportunities have been created for producing many new molecules – pharmaceuticals, for example. Imagination will soon be the only limit to what molecules can be built!

More here. (Advanced [PDF] and supplementary [PDF] information is also available from the Nobel Prize site.)      

How the provision of social services gets militarized

In These Times discusses the militarization of social services with Eric Klinenberg.

[In These Times] You have examined how police forces in cities like Chicago have usurped functions that were once the responsibility of public social service agencies. Do you see the same thing happening in the wake of Hurricane Katrina?

[Klinenberg] I do. Problems stemming from the militarization of social support programs are at the heart of the failed Katrina response. Beginning with the Crime Bill in 1994, all levels of government have delegated traditional social service responsibilities to paramilitary or military organizations—responsibilities that in many cases they are poorly suited to handle. In Heat Wave I call this an organizational mismatch, and one with serious consequences.

Take Chicago: During the ’90s the city asked the Chicago Police Department’s CAPS (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy) program to take on a range of traditional caring functions—holding community meetings, checking in on elderly residents, helping to clean streets—effectively using the punishing branch of government to do what the giving branch had done before.

A Look at a fake 1938 Soviet Lunar Expedition

In The Moscow Times, a look at the director Alexei Fedorchenko and his ‘mockumentary’ about a forgotten 1938 Soviet lunar expedition, “Perviye na Lune” (“First on the Moon”).

“Working around the idea that the Soviet Union developed a space program in the 1930s, a project that culminated in a 1938 rocket launch, Fedorchenko mixed a range of material into ‘First on the Moon,’ from actual period newsreels to episodes scrupulously shot in the style of that time. Weaving between them are contemporary scenes, shot in color, which provide a linking strand in the form of a documentary investigation into the fates of the program’s participants. Screenings at Venice blurred the differences by bringing up the house lights before the film’s closing credits — which confirm that all roles were played by actors.

The result is stylish, sometimes very funny and ultimately affectionate toward its chosen subject. ‘The element of irony is very small, perhaps around 5 percent,’ Fedorchenko said in an interview this week. ‘The rest is something of an homage to the generation of our fathers or grandfathers, including their honesty, their genuine belief in an ideal.'”

35-year-old mystery solved in a flash of light

From NASA:Ssatellite_1

Scientists have solved a 35-year-old mystery of the origin of powerful, split-second flashes of light called short gamma-ray bursts. These flashes, brighter than a billion suns yet lasting only a few milliseconds, have been simply too fast to catch… until now.

If you guessed that a black hole is involved, you are at least half right. Short gamma-ray bursts arise from collisions between a black hole and a neutron star or between two neutron stars. In the first scenario, the black hole gulps down the neutron star and grows bigger. In the second scenario, the two neutron stars create a black hole.

More here.

Other Opiates of the Middle Classes

In Edge, Naseem Taleb suggests that we also turn a skeptical eye to other opiates of the middle class.

“As a practitioner of science, I am opposed to teaching religious ideas in schools. But, it seems to me somewhat misplaced energy — more of a fight for principles than for any bottom line. As an empirical skeptic, I would like to introduce a dimension to the debates: relevance, consequence, and our ability to correct a situation — in other words the impact on our daily lives.

My portrait of the perfect fool of randomness is as follows: he does not believe in religion, providing entirely rational reasons for such disbelief. He opposes scientific method to superstition and blind faith. But alas, human skepticism appears to be quite domain-specific and relegated to the classroom. Somehow the skepticism of my fool undergoes a severe atrophy outside of these intellectual debates . . .”

goethe and science


The journal Janus Head dedicates an issue to Goethe’s approach to science. Here’s what the editorial has to say about it. We’ll see how the harder headed 3Quarks science readers respond.

Although Goethe is often portrayed in opposition to science, he viewed his efforts as a further refinement of scientific method. What has made this Goethe-inspired evolution of science both enticing and forbidding is that it involves, in Frederick Amrine’s words, “the metamorphosis of the scientist.” Goethe knew that his delicate empiricism entailed “an enhancement of our mental powers” and for that very reason it still remains in its infancy. It entails becoming aware of the “object” view of the world that so strongly informs both our everyday and scientific thinking. When we leave this “natural attitude” (Husserl) behind, we can begin to see how we participate within the world and then work to gain new bearings for our thinking and perceiving. This is the path—both arduous and exhilarating—that Goethe trod.



A discussion at between Stephen Metcalf and New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman around his new book The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa.

Along the way, you treat a wide variety of artists, from Bonnard, in his own time the démodé impressionist, to Matthew Barney, now an à la mode multimedia superstar. But you seem (correct me if I’m wrong) most attuned to that artist whose life is an intense and often self-consciously unworldly devotion to his or her own tightly circumscribed routine; so that when the signature of that artist finally emerges, it doesn’t appear as something sudden, cheap, and public, as the commanding gesture of naughty self-branding that many people now associate with modern and postmodern art, but as something worthy of a similarly intense devotion on our part. Unschooled as I am, we seem to share a taste for: Bonnard, Charlotte Salomon, and Ray Johnson. Not coincidentally, these were my favorite chapters in the book. The essay on Bonnard is simply narcotic, as it lovingly describes Bonnard’s marriage to Marthe as the tender prisonhouse that became his universe. I won’t spoil it for the reader, but that last sentence, and that last image, are—well, what is the word when pathos is completely earned?