Lee Billings in Seed Magazine:
I’d come to meet Debra Fischer, a professor at San Francisco State University. As a co-discoverer of more than 150 planets, nearly half the known total outside our solar system, she is a prominent figure in astronomy. Her work on this lonely mountaintop could propel her past that, though, into realms of myth and legend. Fischer is using a modest, neglected telescope at CTIO to search for Earth-like planets in Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to our own. If they exist, she should find them in three to five years.
The implications would be timeless, echoing ancient questions of life’s purpose, outlining futures distant yet possible. Against the certainty of another Earth circling one of the closest stars in the sky, the entirety of recorded history would abruptly seem the briefest prelude to an eternal denouement, a fire kindled to be passed on without end. Alpha Centauri could become a beacon illuminating and bringing significance to the accumulated toils of generations. Driven by the spectral hope of another living world unexplored, our own could profoundly change. Or Fischer’s project could simply fail. Many astronomers assume it will.
We were scheduled for lunch in CTIO’s cafeteria, but “lunch” meant “breakfast” there, as most of the mountain’s tenants slept in after spending their nights at telescopes. Over their meals, they discussed their hopes for the next generation of world-class observatories, and the globe-gripping economic turmoil that cast all such plans into question. Giant cathedrals of glass and steel could soon sprout on the nearby peaks to wring deeper secrets from starlight, but only if the powers that be find the money and the drive to build them.
The world of banking, it’s becoming clear, operates according to different norms from those of the rest of the business world. Take the offsite corporate weekend. Normal behavior on these occasions consists of punishing the minibar and nursing consequent hangovers, hitting on long-fancied colleagues, and putting embarrassing items, ideally pornographic videos, on one another’s hotel bills. For form’s sake, a few new ideas are cooked up, and then gradually allowed to die a natural death when everyone is back at work and liver-function levels have stabilized. In June, 1994, when a team from J. P. Morgan went on an off-site weekend to Boca Raton, they conformed to normative behavior in certain respects. Binge drinking occurred; a senior colleague’s nose was broken; somebody charged a trashed Jet Ski and many cheeseburgers to somebody else’s account. Where the J. P. Morgan team broke with tradition was in coming up with a real idea—an idea that changed the entire nature of modern banking, with consequences that are currently rocking the planet.
more from John Lanchester at The New Yorker here.
Soothed by the waters lapping against the swaying gondolas, ravished by the mist-shrouded views of towers and domes, the visitor to Venice is soon ready to accept her nickname, La Serenissima. But the truth is that there is no place on earth whose fate and achievements owe more to fierce hostilities, to bitter competition, to ruthless struggles for survival and supremacy. Venice is the ultimate Darwinian city. Sharp elbows were second nature to its Renaissance patricians, and throughout the society animosities and feuds were endemic. Even a distinguished man of letters and a cardinal, Pietro Bembo, lost the use of a finger in a street fight over a lawsuit. Lower down the social scale, two factions regularly scheduled violent encounters on the city’s bridges. The dark vision of James Fenimore Cooper’s Bravo is no travesty of a quarrelsome, intrigue-ridden republic. And the competitive instinct served Venice well as she swept rivals aside to establish her wealth, dominance of the Aegean, rule of northern Italy, and presence throughout the eastern Mediterranean.
more from Theodore Rabb at the TLS here.
Steven Strogatz in the New York Times:
“In the spring,” wrote Tennyson, “a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” And so in keeping with the spirit of the season, this week’s column looks at love affairs — mathematically. The analysis is offered tongue in cheek, but it does touch on a serious point: that the laws of nature are written as differential equations. It also helps explain why, in the words of another poet, “the course of true love never did run smooth.”
To illustrate the approach, suppose Romeo is in love with Juliet, but in our version of the story, Juliet is a fickle lover. The more Romeo loves her, the more she wants to run away and hide. But when he takes the hint and backs off, she begins to find him strangely attractive. He, on the other hand, tends to echo her: he warms up when she loves him and cools down when she hates him.
What happens to our star-crossed lovers? How does their love ebb and flow over time? That’s where the math comes in. By writing equations that summarize how Romeo and Juliet respond to each other’s affections and then solving those equations with calculus, we can predict the course of their affair. The resulting forecast for this couple is, tragically, a never-ending cycle of love and hate. At least they manage to achieve simultaneous love a quarter of the time.
What can be learned from the death of a young biochemist at UCLA?
Beryl Lieff Benderly in Slate:
A few days after Christmas of 2008, a young technician in a biochemistry laboratory at the University of California-Los Angeles began to transfer a tablespoon of t-butyl lithium from one container to another. T-butyl lithium is pyrophoric, meaning it ignites on contact with air, but Sheri Sangji wasn't wearing a protective lab coat—instead, she had on a flammable synthetic sweatshirt. Somehow the stuff spilled onto her clothing, and she was engulfed in flames. Sangji died from her burns 18 days later, and UCLA officials bemoaned the “tragic accident” that killed her.
According to a recently completed government investigation, the fire could have been foreseen. On May 4, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health cited the university for multiple “serious”—i.e., potentially life-threatening—violations, including its inability to show that Sangji had been trained to handle the dangerous substance and the lack of proper protective attire. UCLA's own safety officials had already faulted the lab on the latter issue back in October, but the problem went uncorrected. All told, Cal/OSHA imposed $31,875 in fines, which the university did not contest.
Clive Hamilton in CounterPunch:
In 2003 while lobbying leaders to put together the Coalition of the Willing, President Bush spoke to France’s President Jacques Chirac. Bush wove a story about how the Biblical creatures Gog and Magog were at work in the Middle East and how they must be defeated.
In Genesis and Ezekiel Gog and Magog are forces of the Apocalypse who are prophesied to come out of the north and destroy Israel unless stopped. The Book of Revelation took up the Old Testament prophesy:
“And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle … and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them.”
Bush believed the time had now come for that battle, telling Chirac:
“This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins”.
The story of the conversation emerged only because the Elysée Palace, baffled by Bush’s words, sought advice from Thomas Römer, a professor of theology at the University of Lausanne. Four years later, Römer gave an account in the September 2007 issue of the university’s review, Allez savoir. The article apparently went unnoticed, although it was referred to in a French newspaper.
The story has now been confirmed by Chirac himself in a new book, published in France in March, by journalist Jean Claude Maurice. Chirac is said to have been stupefied and disturbed by Bush’s invocation of Biblical prophesy to justify the war in Iraq and “wondered how someone could be so superficial and fanatical in their beliefs”.
From Scientific American:
About a month ago I was invited to give a brief talk to my nephew Gianni’s first grade class—nothing too deep, mind you, rather simply about what it’s like living in a foreign place such as Belfast. The highlight of my presentation was the uproarious laughter that erupted when I mentioned that people on this side of the Atlantic refer to diapers as “nappies” and cookies as “biscuits.” But one must play to the audience.
Now, my sister resides in a small town in central Ohio, so perhaps there’s something about the mid-West which breeds especially endearing and affectionate six-year-olds, but I should be forgiven for momentarily siding with Rousseau that afternoon on his overly simplistic view that society corrupts and turns such naïve, innocent cherubs into monstrous adults. To give an example, one little girl waved at me in so kind a manner that it seemed, in that instant, I was in the presence of a better species of humankind, one that naturally regards other people as benevolent curiosities and the contrivances of social etiquette haven’t tarnished and brutally tamed genuine emotions.
What punctured this rose-tinted illusion of mine was the knowledge that these diminutive figures giggling and sitting Indian-style on the carpet before me might also be viewed as incubating adolescents. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’d swear the world knows not an eviler soul than an angry, angst-ridden, hormonally intoxicated teen. And if this little pigtailed girl is anything like the rest of her gender, in just a few years’ time she will unfortunately morph into an eye-rolling, gossiping, ostracizing, sarcastic, dismissive, cliquish ninth-grader, embroiled in the classic cafeteria style bitchery of adolescent female social politics.
Brian Hayes in American Scientist:
Timothy Gowers, a distinguished mathematician at the University of Cambridge, recently conducted an experiment in collaborative mathematics. He was puzzling over an interesting problem, and rather than go off to work on it in solitude, he posted a note on his blog, inviting others to join him in seeking a solution. There have been hundreds of responses, and the voluminous discussion has spread to other blogs as well as a wiki where participants coordinate efforts and summarize progress.
If Blaise Pascal had had a blog or a wiki, perhaps he would have tried the same strategy when he took up a mathematical challenge in 1654—a problem concerned with figuring the odds in a gambling game. Instead, Pascal wrote a letter to an older colleague, Pierre de Fermat, and the two of them batted the problem back and forth in a correspondence that went on for several weeks, with occasional input from a few others. Most of the letters were later published—after the deaths of both authors—and they became foundation documents in the theory of probability. Keith Devlin now gives us a helpful guidebook to this famous episode of epistolary mathematics.
Here is the essence of the wagering problem that caused all the fuss, as Devlin presents it in a slightly simplified form:
The players, Blaise and Pierre, place equal bets on who will win the best of five tosses of a fair coin. We’ll suppose that on each round, Blaise chooses heads, Pierre tails. Now suppose they have to abandon the game after three tosses, with Blaise ahead 2 to 1. How do they divide the pot?
Since Blaise is leading, it seems he deserves a larger share of the wager. But how much larger? Gamblers and scholars had taken up this question before, at least as far back as Luca Pacioli and Girolamo Cardano a century earlier, but they had failed to settle it. Pascal and Fermat not only got the answer; they also set forth with reasonable clarity how they derived it and why it’s right.
Surprisingly, in the WSJ:
I COULD NOT SEE THE STREET or much of the estate. We were enclosed by dirt-coloured blocks, from windows out of which leaned vested men and women with morning hair and mugs of drink, eating breakfast and watching us. This open ground between the buildings had once been sculpted. It pitched like a golf course—a child's mimicking of geography. Maybe they had been going to wood it and put in a pond. There was a copse but the saplings were dead.
The grass was weedy, threaded with paths footwalked between rubbish, rutted by wheel tracks. There were police at various tasks. I wasn't the first detective there—I saw Bardo Naustin and a couple of others—but I was the most senior. I followed the sergeant to where most of my colleagues clustered, between a low derelict tower and a skateboard park ringed by big drum- shaped trash bins. Just beyond it we could hear the docks. A bunch of kids sat on a wall before standing officers. The gulls coiled over the gathering.
“Inspector.” I nodded at whomever that was. Someone offered a coffee but I shook my head and looked at the woman I had come to see.
When the Bronx Zoo recently called lights out on the World of Darkness, I was disappointed. That’s not to say I was surprised: It’s news to nobody that the Bronx — like almost every other zoo, aquarium, museum, college, industry, company, household, individual — isn’t exactly flush right now, and something had to give. But though the loss of the nocturnal animals is a significant one, the exhibit’s closing was noteworthy for another reason. When it comes to zoo buildings, the World of Darkness is one of the most fascinating. The World of Darkness was built in 1969. It has no windows, and from above looks like a giant letter C; the exterior is made up of tall, narrow gray stone panels of varying heights, which pitch inward. Unlike a lot of the other things you find in zoos, there’s nothing goofy or frenetic about it. It is not austere or staid or “classic” in any historic way. You would actually never expect to stumble upon a building like the World of Darkness in a zoo. It’s the kind of structure you’d expect to find in a zoo on, say, the Krypton of 1978’s Superman. But this element of surprise is exactly what makes the building so compelling, its closing a loss. As a field, the architecture of zoos is a funny thing.
more from Jesse Smith at The Smart Set here.