Jim Holt in The New York Times:
On seeing the Alps for the first time, Dorothy Parker is reputed to have said, “They’re beautiful, but they’re dumb.” Near the foot of Mont Blanc, the greatest of the Alpine peaks, another sizable object is taking shape, also quite beautiful in its way, yet not at all dumb. In fact, its pristine geometries may be instrumental in revealing what have hitherto been some of nature’s deepest secrets.
Photographs by Simon Norfolk.
“I’m the father of two robins,” E. B. White writes to his stepson in 1964 from his farm in Maine. The baby birds had been orphaned, “and without really thinking about what I was doing I casually dropped a couple of marinated worms into their throats as I walked by. … This did it. They took me on with open hearts and open mouths, and my schedule became extremely tight.” He has fed these robins a formula of “hamburg, chicken mash, kibbled worm and orange juice” for several days from a “yellow bamboo stick, split at one end, like a robin’s bill.” And now the birds “come streaming at me from bush and tree, trying for a landing on shoulder or cap, usually overshooting me in the fog and bringing up against a wall. This exhausts them and me.” Next, says White, he will have to “hop about on the lawn with my head cocked to one side, to show them how to get their own living.” That’s pretty good. It’s not twee or just whimsical, is it? No, it’s pretty good.
more from the NY Times here.
How do you like your contemporary art? A quick hit of juicy mischief, a larky take on mortality, binful of bluebottles, pocketful of glitter, everything you never wanted to know and more about the artist’s entrails? Right then, give Anselm Kiefer a very wide berth – because, as the show about to open at White Cube, London, will confirm, he doesn’t do droll, he does the big embarrassing stuff, the stuff that matters: the epic slaughters of the world, the incineration of the planet, apocalypse then, apocalypse often; the fragile endurance of the sacred amid the cauterised ruins of the earth.
more from The Guardian here.
Mairi Beautyman in Interior Design:
Steven Holl Architects Wins AIA Honor Award
The University of Iowa School of Art & Art History building opened in September 2006.
… The design team needed to incorporate an existing 1937 brick building and weave new construction with the area’s limestone bluffs, river, and lagoon.
Holl, the jury praised, “fought for the site and created something that has become a grounding point for the university.”
In September 2006, the building opened to international acclaim. According to architecture critic Blair Kamin, “Holl hasn’t just made a knock-your-eyes-out building…He’s made a real place, one that painters carting around their canvases actually seem to like.”
Among Holl’s additional arts projects are the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art (Helsinki, Finland) and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, slated to open in June.
More here and here.
Simon Garfield in The Observer:
More than 100 years after ‘word blindness’ was first discovered, thousands of children with great potential are still marginalised by an education system unable to cope with a common but silent disorder. Simon Garfield investigates the symptoms, treatment and prognosis of dyslexia
In a small room at the physiology department of the University of Oxford a man is being tested for dyslexia. This is an elaborate, detailed and standardised process, and the tests get harder as the session unfolds. There are words to read: box, water, babies, cough, curiosity, tyrannical and catastrophe. There are words to spell, read aloud by the assessor: light, advice, anxiety, camouflage and acquiesce. There are red and white plastic cubes to be arranged in the same pattern as a diagram. There are dancing dots on a computer screen to be distinguished from dots that move in a different pattern. And then there is the Verbal Similarities test, which also begins simply. What do the following three things have in common? Shirt, socks, coat. Then this: clock, thermometer, ruler. And finally: uncertainly, hesitantly, irregularly.
Julian Barnes in The New Yorker:
I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him. That’s what I say when the question is put. I once asked my brother, who has taught philosophy at Oxford, Geneva, and the Sorbonne, what he thought of such a statement, without revealing that it was my own. He replied with a single word: “Soppy.”
The person to begin with is my maternal grandmother, Nellie Louisa Scoltock, née Machin, who was a schoolteacher in Shropshire until she married my grandfather Bert Scoltock. Not Bertram, not Albert, just Bert: so christened, so called, so buried. He was a headmaster with a certain mechanical dash to him: a motorcycle-and-sidecar man, then the owner of a Lanchester, then, in retirement, the driver of a rather pompously sportif Triumph Roadster, with a three-person bench seat in front and two bucket seats when the top was down. By the time I knew my grandparents, they had retired and come south to be near their daughter. My grandmother went to the Women’s Institute: she pickled and bottled; she plucked and roasted the chickens and geese my grandfather raised. She was petite, outwardly unopinionated, with the thickened knuckles of old age; she needed soap to get her wedding ring off. Their wardrobe was full of home-knitted cardigans, Grandpa’s tending to feature more masculine cable-stitch. They were of that generation advised by dentists to have all their teeth out in one go. This was a normal rite of passage then: from being rickety-gnashered to fully porcelained in one leap, to all that buccal sliding and clacking, to social embarrassment and the foaming glass on the bedside table.
Samir S. Patel in Columbia Magazine:
I 1955, Eric Kandel, a New York University medical student training as a psychiatrist, told Columbia University neurophysiologist Harry Grundfest, with whom he was taking a course, that he wanted to find where the id, ego, and superego live in the gelatinous folds of the brain. In Kandel’s recent book, In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (W.W. Norton, 2006), he recounts Grundfest’s patient response. “He explained that my hope of understanding the biological basis of Freud’s structural theory was far beyond the grasp of contemporary brain science,” Kandel writes. “Rather, he told me, to understand the mind we needed to look at the brain one cell at a time.”
“From this place, and from this day forth begins a new era in the history of the world, and you can all say that you were present at its birth,” Goethe claimed to have told a group of Prussian soldiers after they were routed by France’s revolutionary forces at Valmy on September 20, 1792, and his pronouncement duly features in David Bell’s The First Total War. But Bell does not swoon, as plenty have, at the poet’s clairvoyance. Instead he notes calmly that Goethe wrote his account of Valmy decades later and with some borrowing from the testimonials of others. Nevertheless, there was insight in Goethe’s histrionics; in 1792 the London Times had reported, “The army marching from Paris exhibits a very motley group. There are almost as many women as men, many without arms, and very little provision.” Here was “a people’s war,” with the new French Republic rising to defend itself any which way it could. Bell’s book is an impressively steady, poetically unembellished, evocation of the nativity that awed Goethe.
more from The Nation here.
If you want to know what God thinks of money,” said Dorothy Parker, “just look at the people he gave it to.” Well, God’s still on the job. The wealthy of our period are a great disappointment. Narcissism, greed, pride, self-indulgence, vulgarity, hypocrisy, and arrogance are not the problem; those come with the bank account. The problem is that today’s rich are doing too little with their narcissism, greed, pride, self-indulgence, vulgarity, hypocrisy, and arrogance. A great fortune provides its holder with that rarest of luxuries, a chance to bring outlandish dreams to life. To astonish.
The failure of the contemporary rich to bedazzle—to open, for a moment, a window on paradise—came home with special force at the Louis Comfort Tiffany and Josef Hoffmann shows now at, respectively, the Met and the Neue Galerie.
more from New York Magazine here.
From Scientific American:
What took us so long? Only in 1998 did astronomers discover we had been missing nearly three quarters of the contents of the universe, the so-called dark energy–an unknown form of energy that surrounds each of us, tugging at us ever so slightly, holding the fate of the cosmos in its grip, but to which we are almost totally blind. Some researchers, to be sure, had anticipated that such energy existed, but even they will tell you that its detection ranks among the most revolutionary discoveries in 20th-century cosmology. Not only does dark energy appear to make up the bulk of the universe, but its existence, if it stands the test of time, will probably require the development of new theories of physics.
Scientists are just starting the long process of figuring out what dark energy is and what its implications are. One realization has already sunk in: although dark energy betrayed its existence through its effect on the universe as a whole, it may also shape the evolution of the universe’s inhabitants–stars, galaxies, galaxy clusters. Astronomers may have been staring at its handiwork for decades without realizing it.
Liam Lacey in the Globe and Mail:
A sworn enemy of Hollywood formulas, the Sundance Film Festival, in its 13th year, seems to have worked out its own recipe for getting attention: If you want to get people worked up, you can’t beat the combination of incendiary politics and twisted sex.
First, the politics. Chicago 10, a movie about one of the more inflammatory trials in American history, the 1968 conspiracy trial of the Chicago Seven, will open the 13th Sundance Film Festival tonight. Created by Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture), the film uses music, animation, contemporary actors and archival footage to look back at the anti-war protesters accused of conspiring to incite a riot at the Democratic Party convention.
The film marks just the second time the festival has opened with a documentary. Festival director Geoff Gilmore describes Chicago 10 as a film that “pushes the boundaries of many of the traditional aspects of documentary filmmaking” in recalling a significant moment in the American counterculture.
The festival will also be pushing boundaries in another way, with sexually transgressive films that seem bound to raise protests…
Physics Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg in the Times Literary Supplement:
Much of the weakening of religious certitude in the Christian West can be laid at the door of science; even people whose religion might incline them to hostility to the pretensions of science generally understand that they have to rely on science rather than religion to get things done. But this has not happened to anything like the same extent in the world of Islam. One finds in Islamic countries not only religious opposition to specific scientific theories, as occasionally in the West, but a widespread religious hostility to science itself. My late friend, the distinguished Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam, tried to convince the rulers of the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf to invest in scientific education and research, but he found that though they were enthusiastic about technology, they felt that pure science presented too great a challenge to faith. In 1981, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt called for an end to scientific education. In the areas of science I know best, though there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West, for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or astronomer working in a Muslim country that was worth reading. This is despite the fact that in the ninth century, when science barely existed in Europe, the greatest centre of scientific research in the world was the House of Wisdom in Baghdad.
Alas, Islam turned against science in the twelfth century. The most influential figure was the philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, who argued in The Incoherence of the Philosophers against the very idea of laws of nature, on the ground that any such laws would put God’s hands in chains. According to al-Ghazzali, a piece of cotton placed in a flame does not darken and smoulder because of the heat, but because God wants it to darken and smoulder. After al-Ghazzali, there was no more science worth mentioning in Islamic countries.
Once installed in the presidency, Putin has cultivated two attributes that have given him an aura capable of outlasting it. The first is the image of firm, where necessary ruthless authority. Historically, the brutal imposition of order has been more often admired than feared in Russia. Rather than his portrait suffering from the shadow of the KGB, Putin has converted it into a halo of austere discipline. In what remains in many ways a macho society, toughness – prowess in judo and drops into criminal slang are part of Putin’s kit – continues to be valued, and not only by men: polls report that Putin’s most enthusiastic fans are often women. But there is another, less obvious side to his charisma. Part of his chilly magnetism is cultural. He is widely admired for his command of the language. Here, too, contrast is everything. Lenin was the last ruler of the country who could speak an educated Russian. Stalin’s Georgian accent was so thick he rarely risked speaking in public. Khrushchev’s vocabulary was crude and his grammar barbaric. Brezhnev could scarcely put two sentences together. Gorbachev spoke with a provincial southern accent. The less said of Yeltsin’s slurred diction the better. To hear a leader of the country capable once again of expressing himself with clarity, accuracy and fluency, in a more or less correct idiom, comes as music to many Russians.
more from Perry Anderson at the LRB here.
From Scientific American:
Since the mid-1990s scientists have floated the idea that representations of numeric quantities, whether expressed as digits or as written words, are codified by the parietal cortex, a higher-processing region in the brain located just above the forehead. The notion is supported by calculation deficits observed in patients with damage to that brain region and in low birth weight children who exhibit reduced gray matter in adulthood.
Still, it is unknown whether the parietal cortex—specifically its left hemisphere—processes numeric value independent of notation. New research indicates that the brain region may prefer symbolic notation to other numeric representations—a finding that could open the door to helping kids plagued by dyscalculia, a learning disability characterized by severely impaired mathematical ability.