Pluto loses planet status

From Nature:

Pluto Pluto has been kicked out of our Sun’s planetary family by astronomers who voted today to define a planet by three criteria. It failed on one of them. Astronomers have been battling over the concept of what defines a planet all week at the general assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in Prague. In the end it was decided that to qualify as a planet in orbit around our Sun, a chunk of rock must have been made round by its own gravity; have cleared its neighbourhood of other debris; and not be a satellite of another planetary body.

Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune all fulfil these criteria. But Pluto is just one of many bits of icy debris in orbit at the edge of our Solar System, known as trans-neptunian objects. Pluto’s membership of the trans-neptunians disqualifies it from being a fully fledged planet because it has not ‘cleared its orbit’.

More here.

still the contrarian: hitchens on grass as ‘bloody fool’


Grass’ many defenders have not asked themselves the question that needs to be posed, which is: Has he at last decided to appeal to the new German readership that is, so to say, a bit fed up with hearing about how dreadful the Nazis were? If this admittedly rather cynical suggestion has any merit, then at least his recent boring writings and operatic confessions would, in combination, make perfect sense. But they would also make absolute nonsense of his previous career as a literary policeman and a patroller of the line of taboo. “Let those who want to judge, pass judgment,” Grass said last week in a typically sententious utterance. Very well, then, mein lieber Herr. The first judgment is that you kept quiet about your past until you could win the Nobel Prize for literature. The second judgment is that you are not as important to German or to literary history as you think you are. The third judgment is that you will be remembered neither as a war criminal nor as an anti-Nazi hero, but more as a bit of a bloody fool.

more from Hitchens at Slate here.



When I Showed Him Pictures of Europe

ME: Do you know why people like to travel?

HIM: I’m silly travel! Silly travel!

ME: You’re what?

HIM: I was in the sky then. Watching you in England and France. And the Paris light that fell on a tired literary landmark and made you melancholy is the same light that is fueling me. You stood in gardens where your grandfather stood before hitting that fucking beach at Normandy. But what have you done, really? I can turn you inside out with one phrase: What have you done since 2003? Do you feel the sting of it? The reckoning is coming.

ME: Do you like SpongeBob? Is SpongyBobby silly?

HIM: (Silence.)

more from McSweeney’s here.

rembrandt, scat, blasphemy, etc.


The curious and often contentious relationship between artists and critics has a long, if not always noble, history. That’s as it should be. Friction between practice and opinion is inevitable. Sometimes it can shed light; often it prompts comedy, intentional and otherwise. The critic has been the target of some deliciously caustic works of art. Hell hath no fury—or insight—like an artist scorned. Just ask Honoré Daumier. A collection of artworks in which the critic is the main focus (or the butt of the joke) would make a delightful and, one would think, instructive exhibition. And if an enterprising curator or art historian were to put together such a show, a Rembrandt etching called Satire on Art Criticism would merit a prominent place. Few artists have plumbed the depths of the human animal as sympathetically as Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)—but his sympathy had its limits, at least when it came to art critics. In Satire on Art Criticism (1644), the critic is seen on the street looking at a picture and surrounded by a crowd of onlookers. He has donkey ears, and entwined on his arm is a snake—heavy-handed symbols of stupidity and envy.

more from The Observer here.


In The New York Times:

Evolutionary biology has vanished from the list of acceptable fields of study for recipients of a federal education grant for low-income college students.

The omission is inadvertent, said Katherine McLane, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, which administers the grants. “There is no explanation for it being left off the list,” Ms. McLane said. “It has always been an eligible major.”

Another spokeswoman, Samara Yudof, said evolutionary biology would be restored to the list, but as of last night it was still missing.

If a major is not on the list, students in that major cannot get grants unless they declare another major, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. Mr. Nassirian said students seeking the grants went first to their college registrar, who determined whether they were full-time students majoring in an eligible field.

Ion Pump Cooled Computer Chips Promise Faster Computing

From Eureka Alert:

University of Washington researchers have succeeded in building a cooling device tiny enough to fit on a computer chip that could work reliably and efficiently with the smallest microelectronic components.

The device, which uses an electrical charge to create a cooling air jet right at the surface of the chip, could be critical to advancing computer technology because future chips will be smaller, more tightly packed and are likely to run hotter than today’s chips. As a result, tomorrow’s computers will need cooling systems far more efficient than the fans and heat sinks that are used today.

“With this pump, we are able to integrate the entire cooling system right onto a chip,” said Alexander Mamishev, associate professor of electrical engineering and principal investigator on the project. “That allows for cooling in applications and spaces where it just wasn’t realistic to do before.” The micro-pump also represents the first time that anyone has built a working device at this scale that uses this method, Mamishev added.

Video Gaming Politics

Also in the Bullentin of the Atomic Scientist, Josh Schollmeyer on using video games to instruct about war, peace, genocide, democracy and dictatorship, and political ethics.

[I]n Pax Warrior, a blend of documentary film and game that places high school and college students in the role of the head U.N. peacekeeper during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, “winning” is relative. No player stops the genocide. Hamstrung by the same historical constraints that faced Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, the actual commander of the U.N. peacekeeping mission to Rwanda at the time, the students try to save as many lives as possible given the circumstances. “Pax teaches you how good intentions are not enough,” says Andreas Ua’Siaghail, the game’s co-creator. “It tests an individual’s valor in a historical context.”

That’s partly the value of serious games–to allow users to fail again and again without real-world repercussions–what Rejeski calls “failing softly.” It’s why the U.S. military understands the utility of games so intuitively. The military reasons that if soldiers lose fake lives in simulations, it better hones their ability to survive on the real battlefield. Similar thinking is now taking hold in firehouses, police stations, and hospitals–the frontlines in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist attack.

Figuring Out the Causes of and Conditions for Terrorism

In the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, Scott Atran and Marc Sageman look at the short comings on research into terrorism and discuss a new pilot.

How do terrorists become radicalized? What motivates them? Who supports them? Who among them is most liable to defect? We don’t have reliable answers to these vital questions because of a dearth of relevant data.

Several extensive terrorist databases currently exist. But they are incident-based catalogs of terrorist names and events: who, what, where, and when. Conspicuously absent is the “why.” The records illustrate the geographic distribution and frequency of attacks and focus on operations rather than on what drives the terrorists. The U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, for instance, maintains a central repository of 325,000 names of international suspects and people who allegedly aided them. The names, usually harvested from telephone or e-mail intercepts, are important to collect. But names and numbers alone don’t indicate why an individual turned to terror. We can collect names and numbers endlessly, but until we understand the reasons behind terrorism, we will be underprepared to fight it.

A database that focuses on the complexities of people, rather than incidents, would be the best way to better understand and predict terrorist behavior. To that end, we have piloted a database that now includes more than 500 people involved in global network terrorism (GNT).

Our database comprises two parts. The first is a detailed categorization of basic biographical and socioeconomic information, including nationality, ethnicity, occupation, and religious upbringing. The second addresses the vast network of connections–the glue that holds the diverse array of terrorists together–and includes data on acquaintances, family ties, friendships, and venues for terrorist training. Such an approach is crucial since the growth of GNT is largely a decentralized, evolutionary process. And, as in any natural evolutionary process, individual variation and environmental context are the critical determinants of future directions and paths.

Rethinking the Fall of Easter Island

From American Scientist:Diamond_1

Every year, thousands of tourists from around the world take a long flight across the South Pacific to see the famous stone statues of Easter Island. Since 1722, when the first Europeans arrived, these megalithic figures, or moai, have intrigued visitors. Interest in how these artifacts were built and moved led to another puzzling question: What happened to the people who created them?

In the prevailing account of the island’s past, the native inhabitants—who refer to themselves as the Rapanui and to the island as Rapa Nui—once had a large and thriving society, but they doomed themselves by degrading their environment. According to this version of events, a small group of Polynesian settlers arrived around 800 to 900 A.D., and the island’s population grew slowly at first. Around 1200 A.D., their growing numbers and an obsession with building moai led to increased pressure on the environment. By the end of the 17th century, the Rapanui had deforested the island, triggering war, famine and cultural collapse.

Jared Diamond, a geographer and physiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, has used Rapa Nui as a parable of the dangers of environmental destruction. “In just a few centuries,” he wrote in a 1995 article for Discover magazine, “the people of Easter Island wiped out their forest, drove their plants and animals to extinction, and saw their complex society spiral into chaos and cannibalism. Are we about to follow their lead?” In his 2005 book Collapse, Diamond described Rapa Nui as “the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources.”

More here.

‘Ethical’ stem cell lines created

From BBC News:

Stem_cells_1 A US team created the lines by removing single cells from embryos, a process that left them intact, they report in the journal Nature. At present, growing this type of stem cell results in embryo destruction. The researchers say their findings may remove some of the ethical barriers to this field and provide a way of bypassing current US legislation. In 1995, the US Congress passed an amendment stating that the government would not fund research in which human embryos were destroyed.

And in 2001, President George W Bush declared federal funding would only be available for research using the 61 human embryonic stem cells lines already in existence, where a “life or death decision had already been made”. This meant no funding for the creation of new lines – whether from existing embryos or cloned embryos. US stem cell researchers said the funding limits had ensured the US lagged behind in this field of research, limiting new studies to private companies, while pro-lifers hailed the decision. Scientists believe stem cells may one day help to combat a range of diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, or to repair spinal cord injury.

More here.

raymond queneau


Entry 2176 of Raymond Queneau’s journal quotes this dialogue from the comic strip Pogo, and although it is atypical of Queneau’s practice to cite the American English, it is altogether typical and definitive of his journal entries. Condensed in the extreme is the theme of consciousness that shadows the mind in thought, but that’s not the half of it. To say “I’ve been thinking” is to say, in effect, “I’ve been wondering,” but as with so much assumed to be self-evident, the meaning of “think” turns out not to be so and is misinterpreted as “analysis of grounds of concepts.” That Queneau has snagged this gem of semantic slippage allows us to glimpse his dedicated inquiry into the raveling of sense as language makes and unmakes thought.

Linguistic snafus, translation caught in between languages, a dictionary of received ideas to stupefy the reader—these are a few of the demonstrable instrumentalities to be found in Queneau’s fiction and poetry.

more from Boston Review here.

bhutto on dictatorship


To some, the disquieting pattern of the link between Pakistan and terrorist plots against the west may seem irrelevant and coincidental. To me the pattern is a consequence of the west allowing Pakistani military regimes to suppress the democratic aspirations of the people of Pakistan, as long as their dictators ostensibly support the political goals of the international community.

In the late 1970s the democratically elected government of Pakistan was toppled by a coup led by the army chief General Zia ul-Haq. At first the international community demanded a restoration of democracy. But after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan these demands subsided as the US saw an opportunity to hobble the Soviet Union. The US funnelled aid for the fundamentalist mujahideen through Pakistan, specifically through the military intelligence agencies Zia had created to cement his iron rule.

This alliance converted my homeland from a peaceful nation into a violent society of weapons, heroin addiction and a radicalised interpretation of Islam, and the diversion of resources to the military devastated Pakistani society.

more from the Guardian Unlimited here.

Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber on Grigory Perelman

In the New Yorker, Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber have more on Grigory Perelman and the story behind the proof of the Poincar conjecture.

Grigory Perelman is indeed reclusive. He lef his job as a researcher at the Steklov Institute o Mathematics, in St. Petersburg, last December he has few friends; and he lives with his mothe in an apartment on the outskirts of the city Although he had never granted an intervie before, he was cordial and frank when w visited him, in late June, shortly after Yau’ conference in Beijing, taking us on a lon walking tour of the city. “I’m looking for som friends, and they don’t have to b mathematicians,” he said. The week before th conference, Perelman had spent hour discussing the Poincaré conjecture with Si John M. Ball, the fifty-eight-year-old presiden of the International Mathematical Union, th discipline’s influential professional association The meeting, which took place at a conferenc center in a stately mansion overlooking th Neva River, was highly unusual. At the end o May, a committee of nine prominen mathematicians had voted to award Perelman Fields Medal for his work on the Poincaré, an Ball had gone to St. Petersburg to persuade hi to accept the prize in a public ceremony at th I.M.U.’s quadrennial congress, in Madrid, on August 22nd

The Fields Medal, like the Nobel Prize, grew, in part, out of a desire to elevate science above national animosities. German mathematicians were excluded from the first I.M.U. congress, in 1924, and, though the ban was lifted before the next one, the trauma it caused led, in 1936, to the establishment of the Fields, a prize intended to be “as purely international and impersonal as possible.”

However, the Fields Medal, which is awarded every four years, to between two and four mathematicians, is supposed not only to reward past achievements but also to stimulate future research; for this reason, it is given only to mathematicians aged forty and younger. In recent decades, as the number of professional mathematicians has grown, the Fields Medal has become increasingly prestigious. Only forty-four medals have been awarded in nearly seventy years—including three for work closely related to the Poincaré conjecture—and no mathematician has ever refused the prize. Nevertheless, Perelman told Ball that he had no intention of accepting it. “I refuse,” he said simply.

[Hat tip: Anna Hall.]

Differences in Reading Habits of the Modern American Male and Female

Lakshmi Chaudhry unpacks explanations of why women read more fiction than men, in In These Times.

In recent years, various pundits have used this so-called “fiction gap” as an opportunity to trot out their pet theories on what makes men and women tick. The most recent is New York Times columnist David Brooks, who jumped at the chance to peddle his special brand of gender essentialism. His June 11 column arbitrarily divided all books into neat boy/girl categories—”In the men’s sections of the bookstore, there are books describing masterly men conquering evil. In the women’s sections there are novels about … well, I guess feelings and stuff.” His sweeping assertion flies in the face of publishing industry research, which shows that if “chick-lit” were defined as what women read, the term would have to include most novels, including those considered macho territory. A 2000 survey found that women comprised a greater percentage of readers than men across all genres: Espionage/thriller (69 percent); General (88 percent); Mystery/Detective (86 percent); and even Science Fiction (52 percent).

Brooks’ real agenda, however, is not to deride women’s fiction, but to promote the latest conservative talking point: blaming politically correct liberals for a “feminized” school curriculum that turns young boys “into high school and college dropouts who hate reading.” According to Brooks, we have burdened little boys with “new-wave” novels about “introspectively morose young women,” when they would be better served by suitably masculine writers like Ernest Hemingway. “It could be, in short, that biological factors influence reading tastes, even after accounting for culture,” Brooks claims. “The problem is that even after the recent flurry of attention about why boys are falling behind, there is still intense social pressure not to talk about biological differences between boys and girls (ask Larry Summers).”

Europe vs. the US on Israel

The Economist tries to explain differences in European and American attitudes to Israel.

Why has Europe become so reflexively anti-Israel, just when America has become so reflexively pro-Israel? Europe has no equivalent of America’s powerful AIPAC Israeli lobby, and it also has a disgruntled (and growing) Muslim population. But neither is enough to explain all the difference in attitude. Indeed, many Muslims in Europe now feel beleaguered and can only dream of wielding AIPAC’s clout.

Some Americans blame rising anti-Semitism in Europe, which they also attribute in part to its growing Muslim population. But there is a difference between being anti-Semitic and being anti-Israel. And in any case, it is not obvious that anti-Semitism is a big factor. In central Europe, for example, there seems to be both greater anti-Semitism and more support for Israel. And some polls suggest that more Americans think Jews have “too much influence” in their country than do Europeans.

Family Symposium

In Three Penny Review, Stephen Greenblatt reflects on a familial comedy of errors.

About six months ago, out of the blue, I received an email from a stranger:

I am a resident of Montclair in Oakland, California, and recently found a box of family pictures in the parking lot of a local Home Depot store. The box (Columbia sportswear) has the names ‘Corbin and Greenblatt’ on its top. Inside are many old photographs of an H. and Ida (?) Greenblatt, as well as a graduation booklet of Carol Corbin from UT, Dallas. Please let me know if this box belongs to you, and if so, we can arrange shipping.

I thought that the phrase “we can arrange shipping” had a suspicious ring, vaguely akin to those pestiferous emails that begin, “I am the widow of the former strongman of Nigeria who left me $27,000,000 in cash and securities.” No doubt I would soon be told that all I had to do to get the family pictures was to provide my bank account and PIN number. But wait: this suspicion was clearly absurd. Though I had no idea who Carol Corbin was, the rest of it made sense: Harry was my father’s name, and Ida my grandmother’s. It was remotely possible, I briefly considered, that some immensely clever con-man could have picked up the mention of my father in the preface to Will in the World, but it would have taken serious archival labor to dredge up Ida, whom I scarcely knew. In any case, it was almost clinical narcissism to imagine a thief poring over one of my books. Besides, before moving to Massachusetts, I lived for many years in the Bay Area, and it was entirely possible that, in the uprooting of my life, I had left behind a box of old pictures. But that uprooting occurred a decade ago; why should this particular piece of domestic flotsam and jetsam only bob up now?

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

From The Christian Science Monitor:

Darwin_7 Books about Darwin are on the rise as his 200th birthday looms in 2008. What award-winning science journalist Quammen sets out to explain in this biography of Darwin’s life after his voyage on the Beagle in 1836 is twofold: What did Darwin really discover? And why did he take so long to tell anyone about it? (Darwin waited more than two decades to publish Origins after his return from the South Pacific and Galápagos Islands.) In the end, Quammen doesn’t answer the second question, perhaps not wanting to put the English naturalist on the psychiatrist’s couch or lose the brevity that helps make his book so readable.

Was Darwin afraid his ideas would shock Victorian society? Incur the wrath of the political or religious establishment? Hurt the feelings of his beloved wife, a devout Christian? Was he just too busy caring for his big family? Or did he have too many other interests? Or it could be that he delayed simply for good scientific reasons, being a careful self-taught scientist who wanted to refine his arguments, run more experiments, and double-check his assumptions?

More here.

The modern make-over

From Nature:

Man_1 So what kinds of enhancement are people thinking about?

There was a talk at this conference on ‘virtue engineering’ by James Hughes of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies in Hartford, Connecticut. He spoke about the idea of using technology to enhance moral behaviour. A lot of people have trouble with impulse control, for example, and they might benefit from pharmaceutical help.

In the context of marriage, an interesting possibility is the use of pharmaceuticals to regulate the pair-bonding mechanism. There are a small number of hormones, such as vasopressin and oxytocin, that might help us form bonds with others. It could be possible to prevent the levels of these chemicals from trailing off, and to infuse romance into fading marriages — like a technological form of counselling.

More here.

The curse of free love

“Robert Hughes, the celebrated art critic reveals how his life was deeply scarred by the dark side of the Swinging Sixties.”

From the London Times:

When I was 28, an Australian living in late Sixties London, I launched into a marriage that brought me, along with early episodes of great delight and even a small ration of enlightenment, the most extreme and durable misery I had ever felt.

Her name was Danne: Danne Patricia Emerson. For a long time I believed I could not possibly exist without her; that there was no other woman on earth who could offer me the same sexual and emotional intensity. Erratically and episodically, she cherished the same fantasy about me.

And it was just that: a mutual fantasy. If there was ever a misalliance between two emotionally hypercharged and wolfishly immature people, it was our marriage. I was as unsuited to her as she was to me. The result was a disaster so complete that even now, 40 years and two marriages later, I shudder inwardly when I think about it, though I can’t and wouldn’t deny that we had some good times together — at first.

More here.