What is Life? A 21st Century Perspective

Bk_672_venter.dublin630J. Craig Venter on the 70th Anniversary of Schroedinger's Lecture at Trinity College, over at Edge:

As you all know, Schrödinger's book was published in 1944 and it was based on a series of three lectures here, starting in February of 1943. And he had to repeat the lectures, I read, on the following Monday because the room on the other side of campus was too small, and I understand people were turned away tonight, but we're grateful for Internet streaming, so I don't have to do this twice.

Also, due clearly to his historical role, and it's interesting to be sharing this event with Jim Watson, who I've known and had multiple interactions with over the last 25 years, including most recently sharing the Double Helix Prize for Human Genome Sequencing with him from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory a few years ago.

Schrödinger started his lecture with a key question and an interesting insight on it. The question was “How can the events in space and time, which take place within the boundaries of a living organism be accounted for by physics and chemistry?” It's a pretty straightforward, simple question. Then he answered what he could at the time, “The obvious inability of present-day physics and chemistry to account for such events is no reason at all for doubting that they will be accounted for by those sciences.” While I only have around 40 minutes, not three lectures, I hope to convince you that there has been substantial progress in the last nearly 70 years since Schrödinger initially asked that question, to the point where the answer is at least nearly at hand, if not in hand.

I view that we're now in what I'm calling “The Digital Age of Biology”. My teams work on synthesizing genomes based on digital code in the computer, and four bottles of chemicals illustrates the ultimate link between the computer code and the digital code.

Life is code, as you heard in the introduction, was very clearly articulated by Schrodinger as code script. Perhaps even more importantly, and something I missed on the first few readings of his book earlier in my career, was as far as I could tell, it's the first mention that this code could be as simple as a binary code.

Does Infinity Exist?

StringsJohn D. Barrow in +plus magazine (via Bookforum's Omnivore):

[I]nfinities in modern physics have become separate from the study of infinities in mathematics. One area in physics where infinities are sometimes predicted to arise is aerodynamics or fluid mechanics. For example, you might have a wave becoming very, very steep and non-linear and then forming a shock. In the equations that describe the shock wave formation some quantities may become infinite. But when this happens you usually assume that it's just a failure of your model. You might have neglected to take account of friction or viscosity and once you include that into your equations the velocity gradient becomes finite — it might still be very steep, but the viscosity smoothes over the infinity in reality. In most areas of science, if you see an infinity, you assume that it's down to an inaccuracy or incompleteness of your model.

In particle physics there has been a much longer-standing and more subtle problem. Quantum electrodynamics is the best theory in the whole of science, its predictions are more accurate than anything else that we know about the Universe. Yet extracting those predictions presented an awkward problem: when you did a calculation to see what you should observe in an experiment you always seemed to get an infinite answer with an extra finite bit added on. If you then subtracted off the infinity, the finite part that you were left with was the prediction you expected to see in the lab. And this always matched experiment fantastically accurately. This process of removing the infinities was called renormalisation. Many famous physicists found it deeply unsatisfactory. They thought it might just be a symptom of a theory that could be improved.

This is why string theory created great excitement in the 1980s and why it suddenly became investigated by a huge number of physicists. It was the first time that particle physicists found a finite theory, a theory which didn't have these infinities popping up. The way it did it was to replace the traditional notion that the most basic entities in the theory (for example photons or electrons) should be point-like objects that move through space and time and so trace out lines in spacetime. Instead, string theory considers the most basic entities to be lines, or little loops, which trace out tubes as they move. When you have two point-like particles moving through space and interacting, it's like two lines hitting one another and forming a sharp corner at the place where they meet.

Auden: the film, the poem, the murder


Some time ago we wrote about W.H. Auden on stage, in a new Broadway musical. But how many know of his work on film? David Collard writes in England’s Literary Review about Auden’s lifelong fascination with film. For six months from 1935 to 1936, Auden worked for the General Post Office Film Unit (GPO), which included the time that it produced Night Mail, the Citizen Kane, Coal Face, Negroes (released as God’s Chillun), and The Way to the Sea – “all four films featuring brilliant modernist scores by the young Benjamin Britten,” according to Collard. “No artists of comparable stature had collaborated so closely since 1691, when John Dryden and Henry Purcell worked together on the ‘dramatick opera’ King Arthur.” Collard also writes that GPO, “despite its prosaic-sounding title, was for five years the most exciting, innovative and progressive cultural project in Britain, staffed by a dazzling cohort of international talents. In a short-lived flurry of commitment to the cause, Auden also lectured on film, wrote reviews, provided subtitle renderings of Russian peasant folk songs for Dziga Vertov‘s Three Songs of Lenin, and collaborated on various other projects, even appearing in front of the camera (disguised as a department store Father Christmas in Evelyn Spice‘s spirited Calendar of the Year).”

more from Cynthia Haven at The Book Haven here.

can we accept bland existence simply as a given?


An appreciation for blandness as a separate category of experience—and not a new one—may help us understand how Murakami has managed to produce an intensely interesting body of fiction around characters, and sentences, that operate in a kind of continuous monotone. He follows a century of Western writers of negation, absence, and “plainness” (Kafka, Hemingway, Camus, Beckett, Pinter, Carver) but the resemblance is—perhaps by design—only superficial. Blandness, for Murakami, is not a symptom of late capitalist culture, the endpoint of cultural disintegration, or a post-apocalyptic end of history, but a condition that precedes those things and, more disturbingly, renders them harmless. Depending on one’s position, his characters’ calm acceptance of wind-up birds, sheep men, and cat towns, their ability to regain emotional homeostasis in the most dire circumstances, might seem the essence of weightless global cool or the soulless literary equivalent of a shrink-wrapped airline meal, but either reading ignores the obvious: every literary sensibility, like every shred of pasta, comes from somewhere.

more from Jess Row at Threepenny Review here.

truth, lies, and modernity


In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift challenges the idea — advanced by his Enlightenment contemporaries — that truth, including the truth about human nature, is best understood as a matter of simple factual claims. Swift’s view, as we shall see, was that dedication to this rising scientific view of truth as synonymous with fact precisely misses the very essence of human nature. But Swift’s recognition of the subtle relationship between our capacity for lying and the essential truth about human nature also sets him apart from another modern opponent of the Enlightenment, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche picked up as a kind of motto a mistranslated line from the Second Pythian Ode, a work by the Ancient Greek poet Pindar: “Become what you are.” In Nietzsche’s existentialist understanding (later appropriated in a similar fashion by Martin Heidegger), the phrase is an injunction to drop the delusion of an ideal you, along with any moral overlay it implies, and simply to identify fully with yourself as a bundle of drives. “Become what you are” means for him “Become what you happen to be, not what you think you should be.” That is, amor fati: love your fate!

more from at The New Atlantis here.

Wednesday Poem


The three-tongued glacier has begun to melt.
What will we do, they ask, when boulder-milt
Comes wallowing across the delta flats

And the miles-deep shag ice makes its move?
I saw it, ridged and rock-set, from above,
Undead grey-gristed earth-pelt, aeon-scruff,

And feared its coldness that still seemed enough
To iceblock the plane window dimmed with breath,
Deepfreeze the seep of adamantine tilth

And every warm, mouthwatering word of mouth.

by Seamus Heaney

An 11”x16” broadside of this poem,
with an original illustration by Barry Moser,
is available from the Poetry Center.)

The Philosophy of the Technology of the Gun

Does the old rallying cry “Guns don't kill people. People kill people” hold up to philosophical scrutiny?

Evan Selinger in The Atlantic:

Gun2The commonsense view of technology is one that some philosophers call the instrumentalist conception. According to the instrumentalist conception, while the ends that technology can be applied to can be cognitively and morally significant, technology itself is value-neutral. Technology, in other words, is subservient to our beliefs and desires; it does not significantly constrain much less determine them. This view is famously touted in the National Rifle Association's maxim: “Guns don't kill people. People kill people.”

To be sure, this statement is more of a slogan than well-formulated argument. But even as a shorthand expression, it captures the widely believed idea that murder is wrong and the appropriate source to blame for committing murder is the person who pulled a gun's trigger. Indeed, the NRA's proposition is not unusual; it aptly expresses the folk psychology that underlies moral and legal norms.

More here.

Character Studies: Lady Brett Ashley

From The Paris Review:

Ava“Damned good-looking” is how Ernest Hemingway—or, rather, his antihero Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises—describes Lady Brett Ashley when she appears at a Parisian club with a mob of pretty boys. “Damned good-looking” is better than pretty. It’s better than the colloquial “hot,” better than beautiful, even.

Damned good-looking, it is.

Imagine Hemingway, the great economist of words, deciding just how he would introduce perhaps his most enduring siren. Original drafts of the novel open with the character Ashley (better known as Brett), though she would eventually come to play a smaller role. Hemingway was bewitched, at the time of writing, by the self-possession of the real-life Lady Duff Twysden, and she—rather than his wife, Hadley—would serve as the partial inspiration for The Sun Also Rises’s heroine. (Indeed, he would dedicate later editions of the novel to her.) Poor Hadley would be left out again when her husband took up with Lady Brett’s other progenitor, Pauline Pfeiffer, who in 1926 came to France to assist Mainbocher at Vogue. In addition to being a fashion writer, Pfeiffer was an accomplished journalist, an intellectual who fit easily into Hemingway’s Paris crew. It seems Hemingway’s rigid conception of a professional, globe-trotting man’s man—a fan of hunting, boxing and bullfighting—shouldn’t settle for pretty; he’d want damn good-looking. “Damn good-looking”—Hemingway’s highest female accolade—is also, in the form of Lady Brett, damn witty, damn intelligent, and damn good in bed.

More here.

Is Mythology Like Facebook?

From Science:

MythHow can you tell if an ancient story is completely fictional or based on reality? One method, says a team of physicists, is to map out the social network of the characters and test whether it looks like a real social network. When they used that method for three ancient myths, they found that the characters have surprisingly realistic relationships. Ancient stories are called myths for a reason. No one believes that Beowulf, the hero of the Anglo-Saxon epic, slew a talking monster named Grendel. Or that the Greek gods described in The Iliad actually appeared on Earth to intervene in the Trojan War. But historians and archaeologists agree that much of those ancient narratives was based on real people and events. The supernatural features of the narrative were then layered onto reality. Ralph Kenna and Pádraig Mac Carron, physicists at Coventry University in the United Kingdom, wondered if reality leaves its mark on mythological narratives through the relationships between characters. So they built social network maps for three ancient texts. Along with Beowulf and The Iliad , they included an Irish epic, Táin Bó Cúailnge. The Irish epic's origins are murky. Most scholars assume that it is completely fictional, but recent archaeological evidence suggests that it could be based in part on a real conflict in Ireland 3200 years ago.

Kenna and Mac Carron started by building a database for each story that captures all the characters—Beowulf, The Iliad, and Táin contained 74, 716, and 404 characters, respectivelyand the interactions between them. (If two characters met or clearly knew each other, that counted as a relationship.) As a control, they also mapped the social networks for modern works of fiction: Les Misérables, Shakespeare's Richard III, The Fellowship of the Ring, and the first book in the Harry Potter series. Once the social webs were mapped, Kenna and Mac Carron applied the standard statistical toolkit used to study real social networks such as Facebook. For example, one universal feature of real social networks is that they are highly clustered, with tight clumps of people who all know each other. These groups are linked to each other by highly social people known as “connectors.” Real social networks also have a property called “small world,” which indicates that there is never more than a few degrees of separation between any two people. Such statistical properties have been found in networks of movie actors, jazz musicians, and even scientific collaborators. If the ancient myths were based on real people, Kenna and Mac Carron expected to find the same patterns.

More here.

The World’s Most Expensive Male Prostitute

Richard Wall in Folio Weekly:

DenhamDenny Fouts (1914-1948) was handsome, charming, witty, entertaining and moody. He didn’t have money himself, but lived luxuriously off the wealth and infatuation of others. He played a starring role in the pre-war aristocratic bohemian scene in Europe, where the fun was extravagant and being gay was just fine. Denny amazed and inspired such literary greats as Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Christopher Isherwood, Somerset Maugham and Gavin Lambert, and his personality sparks the fiction, memoirs, diaries and letters of the most noted authors and artists of his day.

Sixty-four years after his death, Denny Fouts is a cult figure in gay culture, best known by the sensational titles pinned on him. Capote dubbed him “The Best-Kept Boy in the World” (also the title of an upcoming book about Denny by Arthur Vanderbilt II). Isherwood and others repeated Denny’s reputation as “the most expensive male prostitute in the world.”

But this black sheep from Riverside was more than a switch-hitting gigolo, who parlayed his Southern charm and sexual prowess into a succession of glamorous free-rides.

A more complex Fouts can be found in the literature, and in the insights of his living relatives, which have never before been published. Alice Denham, Denny’s 79-year-old cousin who lives in New York City and is working on a book about her family and Denny, insists: “He wasn’t a male prostitute. Denny had arrangements. You couldn’t say I’ll give you this much money and he’d go with you.” He wasn’t just a hustler; he was an icon of and an influence on the acceptance of gay culture.

“Fouts was not walking the street. He had longtime lovers whose attraction for him went far beyond the sexual,” says Nick Harvill, an expert on literary references to Fouts who also assembles content-based libraries for private individuals, many in Hollywood. “Denham Fouts was a male version of the courtesan. He is one of the greatest enigmas of the 20th Century.”

Read the rest here.

The Politics of Cynicism

Image.phpGreg Afinogenov in n+1:

It is a commonplace, at least in the West, that the current regime in Russia is authoritarian, if not totalitarian. A line can be drawn—with caveats about scale and severity—from Putin straight back to Stalin, while others can be drawn sideways from Putin to the dictators he has befriended and supported: Assad, Qaddafi, Chavez, and Saddam Hussein. (If nothing else, Putin seems to have an oddly consistent and unlucky way of choosing his friends.) The recent protests against him only confirm the neatness of this symmetry.

We think we know what authoritarianism is and why it survives, but our notions about it have not changed much since the 18th century, when Montesquieu contrasted the capricious rule of a despot, who holds power through fear, with the bounded governance of a monarch, held in check by law. In our political language, monarchy has evolved into democracy, but despotism remains despotism (or authoritarianism). In comparison to monarchies and democracies, each in their own time, despotism has always seemed archaic. The gleaming military uniforms, Tolkienesque titles, and Orientalized imperial paraphernalia of modern dictators like Idi Amin, Pinochet, and Qaddafi evoke the 19th century; leaders who are truly modern are supposed to wear self-effacing suits.

If authoritarianism is a relic of a pre-democratic age, Putinism, like the late regime of Putin’s friend Silvio Berlusconi, is not authoritarian. Regimes that see themselves as successors to democracy are not rare—fascists and communists were equally convinced that liberal democracy belonged in the dustbin of history. The difference is that Putinism is partly right in seeing itself as post-democratic, which is why the problems it poses are so vexing. It represents one answer to a set of contradictions that exist not just in Russian democracy but also in contemporary democracy in general.

The Whole Thing is Tragic

Woody-Allen-01An interview with Woody Allen in The Talks:

Mr. Allen, do you truly believe that happiness in life is impossible?

This is my perspective and has always been my perspective on life. I have a very grim, pessimistic view of it. I always have since I was a little boy; it hasn’t gotten worse with age or anything. I do feel that’s it’s a grim, painful, nightmarish, meaningless experience and that the only way that you can be happy is if you tell yourself some lies and deceive yourself.

I think it’s safe to say that most people would disagree.

But I am not the first person to say this or even the most articulate person. It was said by Nietzsche, it was said by Freud, it was said by Eugene O’Neill. One must have one’s delusions to live. If you look at life too honestly and clearly, life becomes unbearable because it’s a pretty grim enterprise, you will admit.

I have a hard time imagining Woody Allen having such a hard life…

I have been very lucky and I have made my talent a very productive life for me, but everything else I am not good at. I am not good getting through life, even the simplest things. These things that are a child’s play for most people are a trauma for me.

A Bigger Victory Than We Knew

Dworkin_1-081612_jpg_470x420_q85Ronald Dworkin in the NYRB:

Just before the decision was announced, the betting public believed, by more than three to one, that the Court would declare the act unconstitutional.1 They could not have formed that expectation by reflecting on constitutional law; almost all academic constitutional lawyers were agreed that the act is plainly constitutional. The public was expecting the act’s defeat largely because it had grown used to the five conservative justices ignoring argument and overruling precedent to remake the Constitution to fit their far-right template.

The surprise lay not just in the fact that one of the conservatives voted for the legally correct result, but which of them did that. Everyone assumed that if, unexpectedly, the Court sustained the act it would be because Justice Anthony Kennedy, the least doctrinaire of the conservative justices, had decided to vote with the four more liberal justices, Justices Ruth Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. After all, since 2005, Kennedy had joined the liberals in twenty-five cases to create 5–4 decisions they favored, rather than joining his fellow conservatives to provide five votes for their side. Two of the other conservative justices—Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas—had done that only twice, and the two others—Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito—had never done so. So most commentators thought, from the moment the Court agreed to rule on the act, that the decision would turn, one way or the other, on Kennedy’s vote, and a great many of the hundreds of briefs submitted on both sides offered arguments designed mainly to appeal to him.

the last critic at 100


The modernist critic T.E. Hulme famously, and insultingly, described Romanticism as “spilt religion.” Natural Supernaturalism can be thought of as an extended proof of Hulme’s dictum, and simultaneously as a refutation of it. The energy that Christianity once devoted to imagining the end of the world and the redemption of mankind, Abrams shows, was not simply and chaotically “spilled” in Romantic literature. On the contrary, it was transformed in wonderfully complex ways. “In the increasingly secular period since the Renaissance,” Abrams writes, “we have continued to live in an intellectual milieu” shaped by the millennialism of Christianity. This shaping is “so deep and pervasive, and often so transformed from its Biblical prototype, that it has been easy to overlook both its distinctiveness and its source.” In writing about this theme, Abrams delves deeply into the Christian theological tradition, paying particular attention to the Book of Revelation, with its vision of destruction and renewal, and the Confessions of Saint Augustine, with their revolutionary analysis of human motive and guilt.

more from Adam Kirsch at Tablet here.

Ksenia Sobchak: The Jane Fonda of Russia’s Dissident Movement

Sarah A. Topol in Vice:

ScreenHunter_09 Jul. 24 13.32The American press calls her Russia’s Paris Hilton, but Sobchak is a far more prominent figure in Russia than Hilton ever was in America. She herself points out, 97 percent of Russians know who she is, even if most of them don’t like her. Only two living Russians enjoy better name recognition: Three-term president Vladimir Putin and one-term president Dmitri Medvedev.

Her father, Anatoly Sobchak, an early champion of democracy and capitalism, was the first elected mayor of St. Petersburg. He singlehandedly launched Putin’s political career, and Ksenia is rumored to be Putin’s goddaughter. In 1996, her father spiraled spectacularly to disgrace. He faced imprisonment on corruption charges, which he evaded with Putin’s help, by going into exile. When Boris Yeltsin turned Russia over to Putin, the charges disappeared and Anatoly Sobchak returned to Russia. He died in 2000 on the campaign trail for Putin. Ksenia, meanwhile, made a name for herself hosting a reality show called Dom-2 about a group of young people tasked with building a house on the outskirts of Moscow. The content combined the worst ofJersey Shore, The Real OC, and Tila Tequila. It was scandalous, deliciously addictive, and intellectually bankrupt programming. She posed for Russian Playboy, Maxim, and FHM; co-wrote Philosophy in the Boudoirand How to Marry a Millionaire. She hosted decadent parties, dated oligarchs, and wrote a column for RussianGQ. In short, she came to embody Russia’s new heady, careless, apolitical glamour.

Then, last year, she underwent a mystifying transformation. She traded her reality show for a political talk show. She broke up with her boyfriend, a government official, and started dating an opposition leader. She climbed on stages and addressed massive street rallies. Russia’s Paris Hilton had turned into a Russian Jane Fonda, or so it seemed.

More here.

Ōe on Barney Rosset


Barney Rosset to me represents the literary world of the latter half of the 20th century. Two hefty books—the oldest of autographed books in my library—attest to this fact. The books are The Complete Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom and Other Writings and The Olympia Reader: Selections from the Traveler’s Companion Series, both published by Grove Press, Inc. The autographs are Barney Rosset’s dated 1965. I was then a writer aged 30, a complete unknown outside of Japan, visiting the New York publishing houses to receive a publication contract for my novel A Personal Matter. The owner of the company, knowing that I had started writing as a student majoring in French literature, asked me who, in contemporary literature, I found interesting. A soft smile spread across his face at the mention of each of my favorite French, English, and American writers and poets. He then kindly gave me the two books saying that although the work by Marquis de Sade required no comment from him, the “Olympia Reader” contained works—obtainable only in Paris—by writers whom I admired. The clear-thinking, soft-spoken man, from whose countenance exuded a youthful vigor, said: “Among the writers in this selection, the most talented is Samuel Beckett, and this book carries a brief story of how Watt came to be published. I will most likely publish all of his works.”

more from Kenzaburō Ōe at Evergreen Review here.