3QD Science Prize Semifinalists 2011

Hello,

The voting round of our science prize (details here) is over. A total of 2,018 votes were cast for the 87 nominees (click here for full list of nominees). Thanks to the nominators and the voters for participating.

Carla Goller has designed a “trophy” logo that our top twenty vote-getters may choose to display on their own blogs. So here they are, in descending order from the most voted-for:

  1. Semifinalist_2011_sciene Southern Fried Science: Back from the Brink: Victories in Conservation
  2. Georneys: Word of the Week: O is for Ophiolite
  3. Cosmology Science Blog: International Astronomical Union has no definition for Big Bang
  4. Neutrino Blog: Four Neutrinos? But You Said There Were Just Three!
  5. (((1/f))): A Sunday Afternoon Watching Symmetry Break
  6. Convergence: Ocean Acidifi-WHAT?!
  7. Laelaps: The Pelican's Beak – Success and Evolutionary Stasis
  8. Communicate Science: Is Féidir Linn: Obama was right
  9. Oh, For the Love of Science: Prehistoric Clues Provide Insight into Climate's Future Impact on Oceans
  10. Dr. Carin Bondar: Sacrifice on the Serengeti
  11. Surprising Science: Rare Earth Elements Not Rare, Just Playing Hard to Get
  12. Empirical Zeal: Blind Fish in Dark Caves Shed Light on the Evolution of Sleep
  13. Bering in Mind: One Reason Why Humans Are Special and Unique: We Masturbate. A Lot
  14. Anthropology in Practice: Power, Confidence, and High-Heels
  15. ERV: Barnyard Week: White Chickens Are ERV Mutants
  16. Highly Allochthonous: Levees and the Illusion of Flood Control
  17. Doctor Stu's Blog: The Future of Nuclear Power after Fukushima: Thorium Reactors?
  18. Observations of a Nerd: How Do You ID a Dead Osama Anyway?
  19. Observations of a Nerd: Why do women cry? Obviously it's so they don't get laid
  20. Scientific American Guest Blog: Seratonin and Sexual Preference: Is It Really That Simple?

The editors of 3 Quarks Daily will now pick the top six entries from these, and after possibly adding up to three “wildcard” entries, will send that list of finalists to Professor Lisa Randall for final judging. We will post the shortlist of finalists here on June 13, 2011.

Good luck!

Abbas

Man Is Not Cat Food

Tumblr_lmaox8GjiO1qhwx0o Barbara Ehrenreich in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

In the last decade, human vanity has taken a major hit. Traits once thought to be uniquely, even definingly human have turned up in the repertoire of animal behaviors: tool use, for example, is widespread among non-human primates, at least if a stick counts as a tool. We share moral qualities, such as a capacity for altruism with dolphins, elephants and others; our ability to undertake cooperative ventures, such as hunting, can also be found among lions, chimpanzees and sharks. Chimps are also capable of “culture,” in the sense of socially transmitted skills and behaviors peculiar to a particular group or band. Creatures as unrelated as sea gulls and bonobos indulge in homosexuality and other nonreproductive sexual activities. There are even animal artists: male bowerbirds, who construct complex, obsessively decorated structures to attract females; dolphins who draw dolphin audiences to their elaborately blown sequences of bubbles. Whales have been known to enact what look, to human divers, very much like rituals of gratitude.

The discovery of all these animal talents has contributed to an explosion of human interest in animals — or what, as the human-animal gap continues to narrow, we should properly call “other animals.” We have an animal rights movement that militantly objects to the eating of nonhuman animals as well as their enslavement and captivity. A new field of “animal studies” has sprung up just in the last decade or so, complete with college majors and academic journals. Ever since the philosopher Peter Singer’s groundbreaking 1976 Animal Liberation, one book after another has attempted to explore the inner lives and emotions of nonhuman animals. Bit by bit, we humans have had to cede our time-honored position at the summit of the “great chain of being” and acknowledge that we share the planet — not very equitably or graciously of course — with intelligent, estimable creatures worthy of moral consideration.

But it will take more than a few PETA protests or seasons of the Discovery channel to cut humans down to size. Contempt for animals is built into our languages: think of the word “bestial” or fressen, the German word for the distinctive way animals are thought to eat. In the great monotheistic religions, human superiority is as much taken for granted as the superiority of God over humans. Nonhuman animals were created in the service of humans, as if the deity wanted to leave us with a fully-stocked refrigerator. They offer up their flesh, their pelts and often their labor, and that, as Immanuel Kant saw it, was their mission on earth.

Pakistan’s General Problem

8407.pak-rot Mohammad Hanif in Open The Magazine:

Pakistan is a society divided at many levels. There are those who insist on tracing our history to a certain September day in 2001, and there are those who insist that this country came into being the day the first Muslim landed on the Subcontinent. There are laptop jihadis, liberal fascist and fair-weather revolutionaries. There are Balochi freedom fighters up in the mountains and bullet-riddled bodies of young political activists in obscure Baloch towns. And, of course, there are the members of civil society with a permanent glow around their faces from all the candle-light vigils. All these factions may not agree on anything but there is consensus on one point: General Zia’s coup was a bad idea. When was the last time anyone heard Nawaz Sharif or any of Zia’s numerous protégés thump their chest and say, yes, we need another Zia? When did you see a Pakistan military commander who stood on Zia’s grave and vowed to continue his mission?

It might have taken Pakistanis 34 years to reach this consensus but we finally agree that General Zia’s domestic and foreign policies didn’t do us any good. It brought us automatic weapons, heroin and sectarianism; it also made fortunes for those who dealt in these commodities. And it turned Pakistan into an international jihadi tourist resort.

And yet, somehow, without ever publicly owning up to it, the Army has continued Zia’s mission. Successive Army commanders, despite their access to vast libraries and regular strategic reviews, have never actually acknowledged that the multinational, multicultural jihadi project they started during the Zia era was a mistake. Late Dr Eqbal Ahmed, the Pakistani teacher and activist, once said that the Pakistan Army is brilliant at collecting information but its ability to analyse this information is non-existent.

Krzhizhanovsky

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In December 1926 the German critic Walter Benjamin arrived in Moscow. Almost ten years after the Communist revolution, he was curious to see what revolution now looked like. It turned out, wrote Benjamin, that revolution was really renovation. Moscow was the city of Do-It-Yourself. Everywhere, he observed, there was this gusto for what the Russians called remont: an endlessly renewable, delighted, fussy passion for fixing, touching up, reupholstering, redecorating. “Each thought, each day, each life lies here as on a laboratory table.” He added: “The country is mobilized day and night.”1 Another inhabitant of this city was Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, a Ukrainian writer with a comically unpronounceable Polish name. Benjamin, of course, was a tourist. Krzhizhanovsky—whose occluded literary career coincided with the era of Stalinist repression—was not.

more from Adam Thirwell at the NYRB here.

the end of violence

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In March 2010, almost twelve months after the hostilities in northern Sri Lanka that had caught the world’s attention had finished, I drove up the road from the town of Vavuniya to Kilinochchi, the former headquarters of the Tamil Tigers. Velupillai Prabhakaran, the violent and dictatorial leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was dead; he had been shot in the last days of the civil war waged for nearly three decades between the Tamil separatists and the Sri Lankan government, which he bore at least some of the blame for perpetuating. The LTTE had been dispersed and, though an army officer told me that some of their fighters still remained at liberty, most had been killed or interned. The conflict was clearly over. It had taken some time to get permission for the drive – my dispatch from Kilinochchi for The Guardian ended up being the first published from the town – and the actual journey from Vavuniya was almost disappointingly straightforward. The road had been resurfaced and was in excellent condition, a rare occurrence anywhere in South Asia, and there was almost no other traffic. The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the populist politician from the south of the island whose power was buttressed by support among rural communities from the Sinhalese majority, had publicly said he was banking on economic development to heal the wounds of war. Except for a large billboard advertising a bank, there was little sign of any obvious wealth generation in the bleak, scrubby, depopulated plains of the Vanni as I drove across them. The military presence was, in contrast, very evident, with small fortified posts, many on stilts, among the half-cleared minefields either side of the road.

more from Jason Burke at Literary Review here.

indefensibly happy

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G. K. Chesterton once said that he had been “indefensibly” happy for most of his life. There is a note, not simply of happiness, but of joy, in much of what he wrote; but what meaning should one give to this happiness? Is there a self-delighting, whimsical, even wilful obliviousness in the merriness of Chesterton? Was he just a bit silly? T. S. Eliot once said that he found the cheerfulness of Chesterton entirely “depressing”. Yet Chesterton claimed that his levity came from his deepest beliefs: “Christianity is itself so jolly a thing that it fills the possessor of it with a certain silly exuberance, which sad and high-minded Rationalists might reasonably mistake for mere buffoonery and blasphemy; just as their prototypes, the sad and high-minded Stoics of old Rome, did mistake the Christian joyousness for buffoonery and blasphemy”. That is, of course, the sort of thing that Chesterton often said, the sort of thing not likely to satisfy anyone in a captious mood. (T. S. Eliot had been a Christian for just under a year when he said that he found Chesterton depressing; but then it is difficult to imagine Eliot ever being wholly in sympathy with the high spirits of Chesterton.) It could be that Chesterton saw Christianity as “jolly” because he was temperamentally inclined to be cheerful; but it could also be that this made him responsive to something essential in Christianity.

More from Bernard Manzo at the TLS here.

On How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, by Stanley Fish

Joseph Epstein in The New Criterion:

How_to_Write_a_Sentence After thirty years of teaching a university course in something called advanced prose style, my accumulated wisdom on the subject, inspissated into a single thought, is that writing cannot be taught, though it can be learned—and that, friends, is the sound of one hand clapping. A. J. Liebling offers a complementary view, more concise and stripped of paradox, which runs: “The only way to write is well, and how you do it is your own damn business.”

Learning to write sound, interesting, sometimes elegant prose is the work of a lifetime. The only way I know to do it is to read a vast deal of the best writing available, prose and poetry, with keen attention, and find a way to make use of this reading in one’s own writing. The first step is to become a slow reader. No good writer is a fast reader, at least not of work with the standing of literature. Writers perforce read differently from everyone else. Most people ask three questions of what they read: (1) What is being said? (2) Does it interest me? (3) Is it well constructed? Writers also ask these questions, but two others along with them: (4) How did the author achieve the effects he has? And (5) What can I steal, properly camouflaged of course, from the best of what I am reading for my own writing? This can slow things down a good bit.

More here.

Love and loathing in Mumbai: Booker prize-winner Aravind Adiga’s love affair with the Indian city

From The Independent:

Loath In my first year at Columbia University in New York, I met Sudeep, the only other Indian in my batch. This was in 1994. He told me he lived in a place called Churchgate, which I recognised from the Monopoly boardgame marked with Bombay names that I had owned as a boy (“Lower Parel” was right next to “Jail”: the association lingers). Sudeep and I went to Satyajit Ray films at the Lincoln Centre Theatre; he claimed his Bengali grandmother had been involved in the making of Pather Panchali.From him I formed my idea of the Bombay elite. Though he had been to Cathedral, apparently a posh school, his grades at Columbia were not particularly good; I thought they were disgraceful for an Indian. But he knew what he wanted in life; he had balance and moderation, rarer gifts of culture that were not part of my nervous small-town upbringing. I sensed that he would be a happier man than I ever would.

At Oxford University, where I studied from 1997 to 1999, I met another man from Mumbai, a rich lawyer's son who had a chipped tooth and nasty, winning ways with women: we took an instant dislike to each other. Boastful, proud of his status, obscenely well-connected, he seemed to me the incarnation of old money, old privilege, and old stupidity – the living reason that people like me from small towns had to leave India. There must be a whole caste of men like this in Mumbai, I thought, sipping gin-and-tonic and sucking the country dry. The two of them, the balanced Bengali boy and the lawyer's son with the broken tooth, haunted me for years; and I think I returned to India in 2003 to find these two men here. Make me a gentler, happier person like Sudeep, I used to pray to God, and let me also give that lawyer's son a good thump on the head. Contradictory goals, but both were somehow connected to the idea of living in Mumbai.

More here.

Colin Firth: Actor. Writer. Academy Award Winner. Scientist?

From Smithsonian:

Colin-Firth-Kings-Speech Ideas for scientific experiments come from all sorts of places (and fewer of them originate in the lab than you might think). A study on political orientation and brain structure, published in Current Biology, for example, got its start when the actor Colin Firth—credited as a co-author on the paper—was guest-editing a BBC Radio 4 program called “Today.” “This struck me as an opportunity to explore things which compel me…but about which I’m perhaps not sufficiently informed,” he told host Justin Webb. “I…decided to find out what was biologically wrong with people who don’t agree with me and see what scientists had to say about it.” Or to put it a bit more nicely, to see if the brains of people with different political leanings were truly different.

Ryota Kanai and Geraint Rees of University College London took that idea and ran with it. They performed MRI scans of 90 college students who had been asked about their political attitudes, and then looked at various structures in the brain. They found that a greater amount of gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex was associated with liberalism and a greater amount in the amygdala was associated with conservatism. They confirmed the finding in a second set of 28 participants. These findings are consistent with previous studies showing greater brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex of liberals. One of the jobs of that area of the brain is to monitor uncertainty and conflicts. “Thus, it is conceivable that individuals with a larger ACC have a higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts, allowing them to accept more liberal views,” the scientists write.

More here.

Friday Poem

Ezra Pound's Proposition

Beauty is sexual, and sexuality
Is the fertility of the earth and the fertility
Of the earth is economics. Though he is no recommendation
For poets on the subject of finance,
I thought of him in the thick heat
Of the Bangkok night. Not more than fourteen, she saunters up to you
Outside the Shangri-la Hotel
And says, in plausible English,
“How about a party, big guy?”

Here is more or less how it works:
The World Bank arranges the credit and the dam
Floods three hundred villages, and the villagers find their way
To the city where their daughters melt into the teeming streets,
And the dam’s great turbines, beautifully tooled
In Lund or Dresden or Detroit, financed
By Lazard Frères in Paris or the Morgan Bank in New York,
Enabled by judicious gifts from Bechtel of San Francisco
Or Halliburton of Houston to the local political elite,
Spun by the force of rushing water,
Have become hives of shimmering silver
And, down river, they throw that bluish throb of light
Across her cheekbones and her lovely skin.

by Robert Hass
from Time and Materials. Poems 1997-2005
Ecco (HarperCollins Publishers), New York, © 2007

From Abbottabad to Worse

Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair:

L-hitchens-bin-laden Salman Rushdie’s upsettingly brilliant psycho-profile of Pakistan, in his 1983 novel, Shame, rightly laid emphasis on the crucial part played by sexual repression in the Islamic republic. And that was before the Talibanization of Afghanistan, and of much of Pakistan, too. Let me try to summarize and update the situation like this: Here is a society where rape is not a crime. It is a punishment. Women can be sentenced to be raped, by tribal and religious kangaroo courts, if even a rumor of their immodesty brings shame on their menfolk. In such an obscenely distorted context, the counterpart term to shame—which is the noble word “honor”—becomes most commonly associated with the word “killing.” Moral courage consists of the willingness to butcher your own daughter.

If the most elemental of human instincts becomes warped in this bizarre manner, other morbid symptoms will disclose themselves as well. Thus, President Asif Ali Zardari cringes daily in front of the forces who openly murdered his wife, Benazir Bhutto, and who then contemptuously ordered the crime scene cleansed with fire hoses, as if to spit even on the pretense of an investigation. A man so lacking in pride—indeed lacking in manliness—will seek desperately to compensate in other ways. Swelling his puny chest even more, he promises to resist the mighty United States, and to defend Pakistan’s holy “sovereignty.” This puffery and posing might perhaps possess a rag of credibility if he and his fellow middlemen were not avidly ingesting $3 billion worth of American subsidies every year.

More here.

Physics is not always the seamless subject that it pretends to be

Tony Rothman in American Scientist:

ScreenHunter_03 Jun. 10 05.52 Physics is the most fundamental of the natural sciences; it explains Nature at its deepest level; the edifice it strives to construct is all-encompassing, free of internal contradictions, conceptually compelling and—above all—beautiful. The range of phenomena physics has explained is more than impressive; it underlies the whole of modern civilization. Nevertheless, as a physicist travels along his (in this case) career, the hairline cracks in the edifice become more apparent, as does the dirt swept under the rug, the fudges and the wholesale swindles, with the disconcerting result that the totality occasionally appears more like Bruegel’s Tower of Babel as dreamt by a modern slumlord, a ramshackle structure of compartmentalized models soldered together into a skewed heap of explanations as the whole jury-rigged monstrosity tumbles skyward.

Of course many grand issues remain unresolved at the frontiers of physics: What is the origin of inertia? Are there extra dimensions? Can a Theory of Everything exist? But even at the undergraduate level, far back from the front lines, deep holes exist; yet the subject is presented as one of completeness while the holes—let us say abysses—are planked over in order to camouflage the danger. It seems to me that such an approach is both intellectually dishonest and fails to stimulate the habits of inquiry and skepticism that science is meant to engender.

More here.

Sentences Can Save Us

0061840548.01.MZZZZZZZ Amitava Kumar in bookslut:

I’m not much of a sentence man myself, although I wish I were, but I have a notion that those who are usually express their fetish by quoting first sentences from novels. (“Call me Ishmael.” “ It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” “A screaming comes across the sky.” “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” Etc.) In his new book, How to Write A Sentence, literary critic Stanley Fish devotes a chapter to first sentences and another to last sentences, but his taste isn’t reducible to a vulgar fetishism.

Like all academics, Fish also wants to understand. Part formalist, part forensic reader, he is interested in drawing our attention to a wide range of sentences and then explaining to us why they work. Here’s an early example from Fish: John Updike’s sentence telling us of the home run hit by Ted Williams in his last at bat in Fenway Park in September, 1960: “It was in the books while it was still in the sky.” This is part of what Fish has to say about what makes the depiction of that instant so effective in this sentence:

…he confers that mythical status on the moment before it is completed, before the ball actually goes out of the park. Indeed, in his sentence the ball never gets out of the park. It is “still in the sky,” a phrase that has multiple meanings; the ball is still in the sky in the sense that it has not yet landed; it is still in the sky in the sense that its motion is arrested; and it is still in the sky in the sense that it is, and will remain forever, in the sky of the books, in the record of the game’s highest, most soaring achievements. On the surface, “in the book” and “in the sky” are in distinct registers, one referring to the monumentality the home run will acquire in history, the other describing the ball’s actual physical arc; but the registers are finally, and indeed immediately (this sentence goes fast), the same: the physical act and its transformation into myth occur simultaneously; or rather, that is what Updike makes us feel as we glide through this deceptively simple sentence composed entirely of monosyllables.

You, dear teacher, could use the above passage to teach your undergrad to slow down and appreciate what he or she had just read. But Fish’s aim is more specific and goes further: he wants your student try to write a perfect sentence. To write a sentence like Updike’s, your student will have to take note of the form and imitate it by “arranging clauses in somewhat the same way.” Fish is upbeat about the results, including his own, and quite encouraging: “And once you get the hang of it — of zeroing in on a form that can then be filled with any number of contents — you can do it forever.”

You Left Out the Part About … On X-Men: First Class

MV5BMTg5OTMxNzk4Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTk1MjAwNQ@@._V1._SY317_CR0,0,214,317_ Ta-Nehisi Coates on the new X-Men movie in the NYT:

My son and I represent two generations of X-fans. I came of age in the ’80s and ’90s and can still recall when Xavier’s students were lords of the Underground, and the phrase “comic book movie” conjured absurd images of David Hasselhoff donning an eye patch. The boy is of the present era, where the geeks and nerds throne and Hollywood is compelled to seriously contemplate the cinematic potential of B-listers Namor, Luke Cage and Ant-Man. Still, we were united across the ages in our love for the X-Men — patron-saints of the persecuted and the champions of freaks and pariahs across the globe.

In print, the X-Men are an elite team culled from a superpowered species of human. The mutants, as they are dubbed, are generally handled roughly by the rest of humanity and singled out for everything from enslavement to internment camps to genocide. As if to ram the allegory home, the X-Men, for much of their history, have hailed from across the spectrum of human existence. Over the decades, there have been gay X-Men, patrician X-Men, Jewish X-Men, Aboriginal X-Men, black X-Men with silver mohawks, X-Men hailing from Russia, Kentucky coal country, orphanages and a nightmarish future.

But as “First Class” roars to its final climatic scene, it appeals to an insidious suspension of disbelief; the heroic mutants of America, bravely opposing bigotry and fear, are revealed as not so much a spectrum of humankind, but as Eagle Scouts from Mayfield. Thus, “First Class” proves itself not merely an incredible film, but an incredible work of American historical fiction. Here is a period piece for our postracial times — in the era of Ella Baker and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the most powerful adversaries of spectacular apartheid are a team of enlightened white dudes.