Is Beauty Truth and Truth Beauty? How Keats’s famous line applies to math and science

From Scientific American:

WHY BEAUTY IS TRUTH: A HISTORY OF SYMMETRY by Ian Stewart.Tiger The title of Ian Stewart’s book (he has written more than 60 others) is, of course, taken from the enigmatic last two lines of John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”–that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. But what on earth did Keats mean? Stewart’s first 10 chapters, written in his usual easygoing style, constitute a veritable history of mathematics, with an emphasis on the concept of symmetry. When you perform an operation on a mathematical object, such that after the operation it looks the same, you have uncovered a symmetry.

Stewart concludes his book with two maxims. The first: “In physics, beauty does not automatically ensure truth, but it helps.” The second: “In mathematics beauty must be true–because anything false is ugly.” I agree with the first statement, but not the second. We have seen how lovely proofs by Kempe and Dudeney were flawed. Moreover, there are simply stated theorems for which ugly proofs may be the only ones possible.

Because symmetry is the glue and tape that binds the pages of Stewart’s admirable history, a stanza from Lewis Carroll’s immortal nonsense ballad The Hunting of the Snark could serve as an epigraph for the book:

You boil it in sawdust: you salt it in glue:
You condense it with locusts and tape:
Still keeping one principal object in view–
To preserve its symmetrical shape.

More here.

kanan makiya: what went wrong?


“I want to look into myself, look at myself, delve into the assumptions I had going into the war,” he said. “Now it seems necessary to reflect on the society that has gotten itself into this mess. A question that looms more and more for me is: just what did 30 years of dictatorship do to 25 million people?”

“It’s not like I didn’t think about this,” he continued. “But nonetheless I allowed myself as an activist to put it aside in the hope that it could be worked through, or managed, or exorcised in a way that’s not as violent as is the case now. That did not work out.”

more from the NY Times here.

Zbigniew Herbert: great


In the early 1970s, the American poet Larry Levis served as chauffeur and guide for Zbigniew Herbert when the Polish poet was teaching at a university in Los Angeles.

Only once, Herbert told Levis, had he ever driven a car, and that was during the war, after a clandestine meeting of the underground. Herbert found his driver shot in the head by the Nazis. To escape the same fate, he pushed the body aside and drove away.

“He said all this without any visible emotion. It was stated as fact only,” Levis wrote. “That was his way or one of his ways. It was all a matter of carving out a style so impermissive of the merely and suspiciously personal, a style so lean and scrupulous and classical, that the poem cast out the poet, and what was said cast out the sayer.”

more from the Philadelphia Inquirer here.

a devious Old Possum


For a good many decades, thick fumes of incense have been wafting from the English literary establishment in the general direction of TS Eliot. The latest offering by the acolytes to the high priest is this study by Craig Raine, which admits that some of Eliot’s drama isn’t up to much but otherwise won’t hear a cross word about the great man. “There is no evidence,” Raine piously remarks, “that Eliot was either a fornicator or a homosexual,” as though being homosexual was a trespass to be vigorously rebutted. Eliot was not, he rashly maintains, a misogynist either, even though the poetry is shot through from end to end with a fear and loathing of women. He even seeks to face down the charge that this ascetic ex-bank clerk was a bit of a dry old stick, although Eliot himself admitted as much.

Why do critics feel a need to defend the authors they write on, like doting parents deaf to all criticism of their obnoxious children?

more from Prospect Magazine here.

it wasn’t; and they didn’t


Madness and Civilization was not just short: it was unhampered by any of the apparatus of modern scholarship. What appeared in 1965 was a truncated text, stripped of several chapters, but also of the thousand and more footnotes that decorated the first French edition. Foucault himself had abbreviated the lengthy volume that constituted his doctoral thesis to produce a small French pocket edition, and it was this version (which contented itself with a small handful of references and a few extra pages from the original text) that appeared in translation. This could be read in a few hours, and if extraordinarily large claims rested on a shaky empirical foundation, this was perhaps not immediately evident. The pleasures of a radical reinterpretation of the place of psychiatry in the modern world (and, by implication, of the whole Enlightenment project to glorify reason) could be absorbed in very little time. Any doubts that might surface about the book’s claims could always be dismissed by gestures towards a French edition far weightier and more solemn – a massive tome that monoglot English readers were highly unlikely, indeed unable, to consult for themselves, even supposing that they could have laid their hands on a copy.

None of this seems to have rendered the book’s claims implausible, at least to a complaisant audience. Here, indeed, is a world turned upside down.

more from the TLS here.

boyish, wide-eyed, gun-toting horsemen


Ingenious, enchanting, and mysterious, and with an underlying note of relentlessness and rigidity, the work of Martìn Ramìrez presents a way of newly seeing a specific physical terrain. In the pictures of this self-taught or “outsider” artist, a Mexican immigrant who spent half his life in American mental institutions, where he made all his art, we are given distillations of a rhythmically rolling, mountainous, and largely sand-colored land. It is crossed with sweeping, serpentine railroad tracks and highways, busy always with the movement of trains, cars, and buses, and it is punctuated here and there with dark entrances to tunnels through the mountains—erotically charged zones, in effect, which swallow up the various vehicles or send them zooming out. We see horsemen brandishing pistols, Madonnas, and the towers of Catholic churches. There are hares, antelopes, and wild dogs as well as glimpses, via images from magazines that Ramìrez collaged onto his drawings, of a more modern western landscape, one marked by the smiling, pert young women in cowgirl gear and the huge new locomotives and automobiles of American advertising of the 1940s and 1950s.

more from the NY Review of Books here.



A BRAZEN shout from long trumpets held high at the angle of a Hitler salute. Cut to medium close-up of young Aryan faces with puffed cheeks. Dolly back as two new biographies of Leni Riefenstahl appear virtually at once. Jürgen Trimborn’s book, well translated from the German by Edna McCown, has the better pictures. Steven Bach’s book, backed up by his deep personal experience as a high-echelon film executive handling dingbat directors, has the better text. Though neither book is precisely adulatory, put them together and they add up to an awful lot of attention. She might be dead, but she won’t lie down.

The same was true for much of the time she was still alive. Born in 1902, she lived for more than a hundred years. In less than half that time, she acquired a brilliant reputation. But she had to spend the rest of her life mounting a posthumous defense of it.

more from the NY Times Book Review here.

shall we microwave the squid?

From Seed magazine:

Squid1A colossal squid weighing nearly half a tonne (ton) and believed to be the biggest ever caught is being kept on ice as scientists ponder whether to put it into a massive microwave oven.

The squid, caught by New Zealand fishermen in Antarctica last month has been measured at the Museum of New Zealand in Wellington at 495 kilograms (1,090 pounds) and 10 metres (33 feet) in length. Its weight had earlier been estimated at 450 kilograms.

But scientists say the frozen squid is so large, by the time the centre of the aquatic giant is defrosted the outer flesh could have rotted.

So they are considering using a massive one tonne (ton) microwave oven to speed up defrosting, said Steve O’Shea, a squid expert at Auckland University of Technology.

“A microwave of this sort of size does exist,” he told Radio New Zealand on Thursday.

No final decision has been made on how to defrost the colossal squid, which has eyes as big as a dinner plate. If anyone made squid rings from the beast, they would be as big as tractor tires.

But there are no plans to eat the beast, partly because the flesh contains so much ammonia it would taste like floor cleaner.

More here.

New spin on capturing the wind

Tylene at Inhabitat:

MICRO WIND TURBINES: Small Size, Big Impact

MicroturbinesConventional wind turbine technology has been a bit out of reach for most residential consumers living in urban areas—until now. Researchers at Hong Kong University and Lucien Gambarota of Motorwave Ltd. have developed Motorwind, a micro-wind turbine technology small enough for private use in both rural and urban environments. Unlike large-scale wind turbines, Motorwave’s micro-wind turbines are light, compact (25 cm rotor diameter), and can generate power with wind speeds as low as 2 meters/second. The gear-like turbines can be linked to fit just about anywhere and a row of eight turbines costs just $150 for now (prices may decrease once the turbines are mass produced). A portion of the revenue raised from the sale of Motorwind turbines (available for purchase here) will be donated to Hong Kong University to continue researching renewable energy technology.

More here.

A tribe of his own

From Bookforum:

Ellison_02 In early April 1968, Ralph Ellison took part in a literary festival hosted by the University of Notre Dame, where he joined the likes of Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, and William F. Buckley Jr. on the program. When he took the stage on the evening of the sixth to deliver his remarks, the moment could not have been more charged. The nation was in crisis: Two days earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated; across the country, cities had exploded in scenes that seemed uncannily to mirror the apocalyptic final sections of Invisible Man, still one of the handful of truly indispensable American novels. But there would be no resounding statement or mournful eulogy; instead, Ellison talked about the function of the novel in American democracy.

It was a signature Ellisonian gesture, perhaps too modest for the hour, but forceful in its way. Fifteen years before, he had put his invisible man down a hole in an attempt, he said in his 1953 National Book Award speech, “to return to the mood of personal moral responsibility for democracy which typified the best of our nineteenth-century fiction.” Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, as intellectuals and writers clenched their fists and took to the barricades, Ellison appealed hopefully to America’s literary past as a way to transcend the country’s racial fractures and ferocious contests of identity.

His stubborn faith in that tradition was breathtaking. Some were baffled by what they saw as his scholarly aloofness; others were outraged.

More here.

The Science of Lasting Happiness

From Scientific American:

Sonja Hedonic adaptation helps to explain why even changes in major life circumstances–such as income, marriage, physical health and where we live–do so little to boost our overall happiness. Lyubomirsky, Sheldon and another psychologist, David A. Schkade of the University of California, San Diego, put the existing findings together into a simple pie chart showing what determines happiness. Half the pie is the genetic set point. The smallest slice is circumstances, which explain only about 10 percent of people’s differences in happiness. So what is the remaining 40 percent? Lyubomirsky started with three promising strategies: kindness, gratitude and optimism–all of which past research had linked with happiness.

Conventional wisdom suggests keeping a daily gratitude journal. But one study revealed that those who had been assigned to do that ended up less happy than those who had to count their blessings only once a week. Lyubomirsky therefore confirmed her hunch that timing is important. So is variety, it turned out: a kindness intervention found that participants told to vary their good deeds ended up happier than those forced into a kindness rut. Why does acting kind make you happier?

More here.

Liberalism, Islam and Multiculturalism in Europe

In The Nation, Richard Wolin reviews some new books on Islam in Europe.

Following the November 2004 murder of filmmaker and provocateur Theo van Gogh–who was fond of referring to Muslims as “goat fuckers”–by a Moroccan Dutchman with Islamist leanings, Dutch patience with multiculturalism, already strained in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, seems to have reached a tipping point. In 1999 immigrants made up 45 percent of Amsterdam’s population. Projections suggest that the percentage will increase to 52 percent by 2015. The authors of When Ways of Life Collide: Multiculturalism and Its Discontents in the Netherlands deem the Dutch multicultural experiment to be a grand and unequivocal failure. In their view, multiculturalism and liberal democracy are fundamentally incompatible. Their argument is a relatively simple one: By encouraging “difference” among ethnic subgroups, multiculturalism ends up turning these groups into targets of resentment and thereby insuring their rejection by the majority culture. As the authors remark in mock astonishment: “No one anticipated that liberal values would be used to legitimize illiberal practices. But so they have. What other reaction could the majority have but to reject Muslim immigrants? What other conclusion could they draw but to oppose cultural pluralism and to press for assimilation?”

Yet behind such claims lies an additional, unsupported insinuation or suspicion: that Islam and liberal democracy are incompatible. As others have noted, this perspective, rather than encouraging tolerance and openness among citizens, ends up blaming the victims and pandering to majority prejudice. Moreover, it conveniently overlooks the many highly successful instances of European Muslim integration. In France, for example, it has become fashionable to speak of the rise of a successful and prosperous beurgoisie French slang for second- generation North African immigrants.)

Zimbabwe and The Limits of “Something Must Be Done”

Over at Crooked Timber, Daniel Davies has an interesting post on responses to the crisis in Zimbabwe and Mugabe’s descent into greater thuggery.

Amnesty International certainly thinks that Thabo Mbeki and his government could be more unequivocal in condemning the human rights abuses in Zimbabwe; there is a case that could be made for actual economic sanctions of the “individually targeted” kind – cutting Mugabe off from international travel, luxury goods imports and so on. However I do think that people need to remember that however bad things are in Zimbabwe, a civil war will mean that they get much, much worse, and that it is not surprising that the South African government see this possibility a lot more vividly than anyone else does[1], since not only will they be seeing the worst of the refugee problem, they already have strong indications[2] that a Zimbabwean civil war could spill over into their country.

However, whatever South Africa does is only going to have a marginal effect, and it is really unfair to pretend that they have a magic wand that they could wave to get rid of Mugabe painlessly, and they are only failing to wave it out of misplaced loyalty for Mugabe’s support to the ANC back in the apartheid era. This kind of magical thinking is one of the defining characteristics of the Decent Left – from Iraq to Darfur to Afghanistan, their version of “internationalism” is always predicated on a totally unrealistic view of what it is possible to achieve by foreign intervention, diplomatic or otherwise. (Alex de Waal, in a LRB article linked in the AW comments, sets out exactly how complicated, difficult and prone to failure the whole process really is). I’ve argued before that it just isn’t on to demand that “something must be done” without saying specifically what, and I think a lot of people are doing exactly this in the case of Zimbabwe – either that or they’ve forgotten just how horrific an African civil war can be.

Selling Out Afghanistan

How could the US not deliver something as simple as this in Kandahar? Sarah Chayes in the Boston Review:

Ask a Kandahari what he wants from his government and you’ll get a familiar answer: not vast ideas but practical solutions to everyday problems. Most Kandaharis would put basic law and order at the top of their list, then public utilities and infrastructure, education, timely performance of administrative functions (such as delivery of driver’s licenses and title deeds), freedom from arbitrary shakedowns by public officials, and some mechanism to afford them a voice in their collective destiny.

But in more than five years in Afghanistan, the American government, which considers its presence here a part of its broad effort to “bring democracy to the Middle East,” has achieved none of these things.

Mice made to see a rainbow of colours

From Nature:Mice

Simply by inserting a piece of DNA that codes for a human eye pigment into the genome of a mouse, scientists have introduced a rainbow array of colour to the dull mix of yellows, blues and greys that normally make up a mouse’s visual world. This suggests that the mammalian brain is very flexible and can interpret signals not normally encountered. It also hints that just a single genetic mutation could have added reds and greens to the visual palette of our ancestors tens of millions of years ago.

Gerald Jacobs from the University of California in Santa Barbara and his colleagues have genetically engineered mice with a human pigment in their eye as well as the normal mouse pigments and shown that this does appear to give the mice the ability to see colours they could not see before. “The implications are astounding,” says David Williams, an expert in vision at the University of Rochester in New York state. “It’s stunning to think the rest of the nervous system in the mouse has developed to be able to process the new information.”

More here.

Elegant physicist makes string theory sexy



If you’re trying to impress the geeks, being a professional string theorist would have to put you pretty high up on the coolness scale. And if you’re a string theorist with books, movies and TV shows to your credit, so much the better. By those measures, Columbia University physicist Brian Greene has already achieved superstring stardom: His book about string theory, “The Elegant Universe” broke onto bestseller lists and spawned a “Nova” documentary series by the same name. He has consulted with — and taken cameo roles in — movies ranging from “Frequency” to “Deja Vu” to “The Last Mimzy” (which opens Friday). He’s made the talk-show circuit, from “Nightline” and Letterman to “The Colbert Report.” And as if all that wasn’t enough, he’s also organizing a World Science Festival in New York City.

In fact, the biggest knock against Greene is that he’s so busy with public outreach that scientists wonder whether he actually has time for string theory. Last year, for example, he was the subject of a meticulously plotted April Fool’s joke having to do with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

More here.

The Auden Centenary

Richard King:

Auden1sizedAfter 1940, Auden’s poetry became more conceptual and less inspired. Nevertheless, he still wrote great poems. ‘If I Could Tell You’ is, in my view, one of the finest villanelles in the language, while ‘August 1968’ (on the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia) is political poetry at its most effective. Only eight lines long, it is especially notable for the way its wonderful final line restores the word ‘drivel’ to its original meaning – such that it both describes and denounces:

The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech.
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.

Perhaps it is how we choose to quote Auden that gives us a clue as to the nature of his greatness. Larkin once said that ‘This Be The Verse’ (‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’) would end up being his ‘Innisfree’ – the mediocre poem everyone remembers. Notwithstanding ‘Funeral Blues’ (popularised by Four Weddings and a Funeral), Auden has suffered no such fate…

More here.

Tightwads and Spendthrifts: Which are you?

John Tierney in the New York Times:

As promised in my column today, here’s a survey you can take to see where you fall on the Tightwad-Spendthrift scale developed by economists at Carnegie Mellon University. I took it, and the result independently confirms the shopping brain-scan experiment I describe in the Science Times column: I’m a spendthrift.

I’m not proud of that, but I don’t yearn to be a tightwad, either, not as it’s defined by the economists. They find that tightwads aren’t any happier than spendthrifts, and suffer more in some ways. “It’s like the old line about a hero dying once and a coward dying a thousand deaths,” says George Loewenstein, one of the CMU economists. “A spendthrift suffers after he buys something. A tightwad suffers while he buys it and then again afterwards.”

Loewenstein and his colleagues, Scott Rick and Cynthia Cryder, distinguish “tightwadism” from “frugality,” which is measured (naturally) on a whole separate scale developed by other social scientists. Being frugal means you enjoy saving money, and people who are more frugal tend to be happier than average. Tightwads are less happy. They pass up purchases not because they enjoy saving money or are sensibly calculating the benefits, but because they hate to part with cash. They do without things they could afford that would genuinely improve their lives.

The happiest people are the “unconflicted” consumers who fall in the middle of the the scale…

More here.