A Beautiful Quest: The Search for a Unified Theory

The search for a single overarching theory of nature that describes all the fundamental physical forces and particles has been the major thrust of modern physics. Are we about to reach this elusive goal, or is it turning into a quixotic quest that needs to be abandoned?

Jalees Rehman at the website of Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings:

ScreenHunter_2082 Jul. 07 19.14How will the 20th century be remembered by the historians in the year 2525 – if man is still alive? Will the annals of history label it as the century of human suffering, in light of the millions of lives that were prematurely claimed by two world wars, countless cases of large-scale atrocities, ethnic cleansing and genocide? Or perhaps as the century in which hygiene, vaccinations and antibiotics helped save millions of lives, subjugated colonies gained independence from their oppressors and in which the majority of countries finally recognized women as full citizens, granting them the right to vote and reproductive control over their own bodies?

Considering that the 20th century ended less than two decades ago, any attempt to ascertain what will be deemed significant in the coming centuries would be pure speculation. Nevertheless, when we reflect on what we believe most important about centuries past, it becomes rather obvious what aspects of history leave a long-lasting imprint on the collective consciousness of subsequent generations: expressions of human ingenuity. In school, we may have memorized the dates of when wars started and ended, but we are enthralled by the beauty and insights emanating from the great works of art, music, literature, philosophy and science of centuries past. Testaments to human ingenuity, tenacity and the pursuit of beauty and justice include the development of vaccines and antibiotics, abandoning colonialism and granting equality to women. But there is another, far less known front-runner for the most important intellectual accomplishment in the 20th century: The Standard Model. It is also a shoo-in for the “Most Understated-Name-Ever Award.” What is the Standard Model, and why is it a pinnacle of human achievement?

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The measure of success

Melanie Blanchette in Science:

GirlWhen I was a Ph.D. student, a respected professor at our school had a heart attack in his office and died. As he was whisked away to the ambulance, I numbly watched familiar faces in the department succumb to shock. I didn't know it at the time, but this deeply troubling experience would shape my thinking about how to craft my academic career after I faced my own life-changing illness. While I was a postdoc, a sudden neurological disorder left me unable to walk, took my vision, and held me in the grip of vertigo and crushing migraines. With the help of a small army of health professionals, I began to improve. My brain started compensating for the lost neurons, and my muscles learned to fire again, but I don't know whether I will ever recover completely. This harsh reality check has made me think seriously about why academia promotes unhealthy work habits and how I can pursue the research I love while also taking care of myself.

Prior to my illness, I worked extremely long hours, sometimes even sleeping in my office if I faced a deadline. I hoped that my hard-won achievements would eventually be judged worthy of tenure. When I returned to work after my illness—despite its severity, I took just 2 months of because of dwindling sick leave, increasing medical bills, and no certainty of ongoing employment—I fell back into the academic achievement trap. I spent all my time working and worrying, and my health began to decline again. But fear of a relapse made me question my actions and, ultimately, the trajectory of my career. I thought about the professor who died. I thought about a friend who left academia because the pace and environment had negative mental and physical effects. I realized that my years in academia had eroded my mental health. I didn't want to hurt myself permanently by pursuing career advancement at all costs, but I didn't want to leave either. So I decided to accept my physical limitations and—an even more diffcult task—shed my prejudices about what a successful career looks like.

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Angela Carter’s monsters

The-company-of-wolves-1984Kate Webb at the Times Literary Supplement:

In the “pubescent years” of the twentieth century, a young Englishman, handsome and virginal, bicycles into Transylvania. He meets an old crone who leads him to a castle, feeds him bread and stew, then ushers him to the darkened boudoir of an ageless vampire, hungry for her own dinner. But our reasonable Hero (for that is his only name) dismisses his foreboding, deciding what he sees before him is a beautiful girl whose photophobia and pointed teeth might soon be cured by an eye doctor and good dentist. That night something unexpected happens: the innocent boy awakens unprecedented feelings of love in the vampire and she leaves him unmolested. The following morning Hero discovers that his companion – now older and infinitely more human – is dead. Saved from his fate by rationalism, coupled with a chronic lack of imagination, Hero cycles away to the First World War, where the unsusceptible boy who could not shiver finally becomes a man who can.

Angela Carter’s story, “The Lady of the House of Love”, from her 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber, is one of her most brilliant deconstructions of the Gothic, historicizing both rationalism and the imagination (bicycle meets vampire) in a way that is typical of her oeuvre. “Sex comes to us out of history”, as she reminded us inThe Sadeian Woman, which was published in the same year, while her good friend, the critic Lorna Sage described the combination of fantasy and materialism in her fiction as “monsters marinated in being”. Today Carter is well known, widely taught in schools and universities, and much of what she presaged – in terms of recycling and updating (“old wine in new bottles”, she called it), or gender role play and reversal – has become commonplace in the culture.

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Housman Country: Into the Heart of England

Methode-times-prod-web-bin-ad25e4de-2bd8-11e6-bb4a-bf8353b79a10Seamus Perry at Literary Review:

A E Housman remains the best advertisement in English literature for the enabling power of repression. He was, as his brother Laurence said, ‘provokingly reserved’, though from beneath the lid he kept so firmly screwed down emerged rare fleeting glimpses of the tempestuous stuff that was always going on inside. Housman was, as Auden put it in his fine, admiring poem, the ‘Latin Scholar of his generation’, but his approach to classical literature was ostentatiously arid, as though deliberately to keep anything like feeling at arm’s length. He wrote about minute matters of textual scholarship with brilliant precision and utter authority, regarding the efforts of less adequate scholars with devastating contempt. He did not suffer fools, let alone gladly. You could not imagine higher ground to occupy. Take, for example, his account of the abject failure of generations of earlier editors to figure out the relationship between the manuscripts of Juvenal: ‘Three minutes’ thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time.’ The whole performance was one of testy brilliance, the artful cultivation of the persona of an ‘odious editor’ with a ‘deplorable reputation’, showing, Swift-like, his worst face to the world. When the mask slipped the effect was naturally astonishing. One memoirist recalled the last talk in a long, dry-sounding lecture series in Cambridge about Horace, at the end of which, to everyone’s surprise, Housman said, ‘I should like to spend the last few minutes considering this ode simply as poetry.’ He read it both in Latin and in his own translation, and then commented, ‘almost like a man betraying a secret, “I regard [that] as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature,” and walked quickly out of the room’. The effect was terrific: one student said to another, ‘I was afraid the old fellow was going to cry.’

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Responses to the Referendum

EU-referendum-vote-to-stay-says-Greencore-boss_medium_vgaDavid Runciman at The London Review of Books:

So who is to blame? Please don’t say the voters: 17,410,742 is an awful lot of people to be wrong on a question of this magnitude. They are not simply suckers and/or closet racists – in fact, relatively few of them are – and they are not plain ignorant. You can’t fool that many people, even for a relatively short period of time. And yes it was close, but it wasn’t that close. The margin between the two sides – 3.8 per cent – was roughly the same as the margin by which Obama defeated Romney in the 2012 presidential election (3.9 per cent), and you don’t hear a lot of people complaining about the legitimacy of that, not even Republicans (well, not that many). Plus, turnout in the referendum, at 72.2 per cent, was nearly 18 per cent higher than in the last presidential election. The difference, of course, is that a general election is a constitutional necessity whereas the EU referendum was a political choice. If you don’t like the outcome, don’t say it was the wrong answer to the question. It was the wrong question, put at the wrong time, in the wrong way. And that’s the fault of the politicians.

Cameron must shoulder the lion’s share of the responsibility. It was a reckless gamble, given that the stakes were so high. No one can say how this will play out, but it has already put enormous pressure on the basic functioning of the British state, something that Conservatives are meant to value above all else. As Scotland pushes for independence, Irish nationalists agitate for unification, Wales explores its relationship with England, Labour faces a split that may lead some of the party to an explicit embrace of extra-parliamentary politics, and Farage stirs the pot, the situation is unlikely to resolve itself any time soon. This has the makings of a full-blown constitutional crisis that the Conservative Party, no matter who becomes its next leader, may struggle to contain.

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When Black Lives Stop Mattering

Roxane Gay in The New York Times:

AltonI watched the cellphone video, shot by a bystander and widely available online, of the final moments of a black man’s life. I watched Alton Sterling’s killing, despite my better judgment. I watched even though it was voyeuristic, and in doing so I made myself complicit in the spectacle of black death. The video is a mere 48 seconds long, and it is interminable. To watch another human being shot to death is grotesque. It is horrifying, and even though I feel so resigned, so hopeless, so out of words in the face of such brutal injustice, I take some small comfort in still being able to be horrified and brought to tears. We know what happens now because this brand of tragedy has become routine. The video of Mr. Sterling’s death allows us to bear witness, but it will not necessarily bring justice. There will be protest as his family and community try to find something productive to do with sorrow and rage. Mr. Sterling’s past will be laid bare, every misdeed brought to light and used as justification for police officers choosing to act as judge, jury and executioner — due process in a parking lot.

…The video that truly haunts me is from a news conference with Quinyetta McMillon, the mother of Alton Sterling’s oldest child, a 15-year-old boy, who sobbed and cried out for his father as his mother read her statement. The grief and the magnitude of loss I heard in that boy’s crying reminds me that we cannot indulge in the luxuries of apathy and resignation. If the video of his father’s death feels too familiar, the video of this child’s raw and enormous grief must not. We have to bear witness and resist numbness and help the children of the black people who lose their lives to police brutality shoulder their unnatural burden.

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There Is No Scientific Method

James Blachowicz in the New York Times:

04STONE-web-master768In 1970, I had the chance to attend a lecture by Stephen Spender. He described in some detail the stages through which he would pass in crafting a poem. He jotted on a blackboard some lines of verse from successive drafts of one of his poems, asking whether these lines (a) expressed what he wanted to express and (b) did so in the desired form. He then amended the lines to bring them closer either to the meaning he wanted to communicate or to the poetic form of that communication.

I was immediately struck by the similarities between his editing process and those associated with scientific investigation and began to wonder whether there was such a thing as a scientific method. Maybe the method on which science relies exists wherever we find systematic investigation. In saying there is no scientific method, what I mean, more precisely, is that there is no distinctly scientific method.

There is meaning, which we can grasp and anchor in a short phrase, and then there is the expression of that meaning that accounts for it, whether in a literal explanation or in poetry or in some other way. Our knowledge separates into layers: Experience provides a base for a higher layer of more conceptual understanding. This is as true for poetry as for science.

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Brexit as Destructive Creation

Peter Turchin in Cliodynamica:

Charlemagnes-empireA year ago, as the “Greek Tragedy” was unfolding, I posted on my blog, Is this the Beginning of the End for the European Union? The outcome of the EU membership referendum in UK suggests that the break-up process is gathering steam. I didn’t predict a vote of “yes” in the “Brexit” referendum (I thought it would be narrowly defeated). But as I pointed out in last week’s post, Will the European Union Survive its 60th Anniversary?, written the day before the referendum, Brexit is only one of many signs of how the political landscape within Europe has been tilting. A disintegrative tendency has been gathering steam over the last 5-10 years, well before UK Prime Minister David Cameron had rashly decided on the referendum on whether UK should leave the EU in motion.

Now, in the aftermath of the referendum, the main question is, what’s next? In the following I propose some answers suggested by the new discipline of Cultural Evolution and my research on historical dynamics (Cliodynamics). My proposal is quite radical. Rather than trying to fight the disintegrative trend, we should allow it to run its course, destroying the EU as it is now. But we need a European Union. Thus, what I hope will happen is another integrative project within Europe, one that will learn from the mistakes of the last one.

In other words, the EU is dead; long live a new and better EU.

More here. [Thanks to Omar Ali.]

Cy Twombly’s favorite letter

This is one of the essays from Morgan Meis and Stefany Anne Golberg's book Dead People. From The Easel:

ScreenHunter_2079 Jul. 06 23.59In the early 1950s Cy Twombly worked for the army as a cryptologist. That fact seems hugely significant since Twombly (who died on July 5th at 83 years old) was one of the more elusive artists of his generation. That is what the conventional wisdom says. In this case, the conventional wisdom is probably correct.

Cy Twombly’s art first acquired its distinctively elusive characteristics when he started using letters and words in his paintings. In a number of his paintings can be found the letter ‘e’. Twombly painted his ‘e’s in a cursive style most of the time, drawn with a freehand nonchalance. The ‘e’s in Twombly’s paintings often look like something you would find in the notebook of a young person first learning to write in cursive. This person is drawing the same letter over and over again in loops in the attempt to get the form of the letter right. Perhaps the child has learned how to make one word and is copying that word over and over again with varying degrees of success.

Letters, in general, are meant to make up words and words are meant to make up sentences and sentences are meant to convey meaning. Breaking sentences back down into individual words and words back down into individual letters has the opposite effect. Meaning is reduced, taken apart, decomposed. Still, the letters and the words contain a lingering residue of the meaning they are meant to lead toward even if they never get there. In Twombly’s paintings, the individual ‘e’s looping off one another across the canvas contain a lot of promise. There is something tantalizing about the fact that they might mean something.

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William Faulkner, The Art of Fiction

Jean Stein in The Paris Revview:


Carl_Van_Vechten_-_William_FaulknerAll of us failed to match our dream of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible. In my opinion, if I could write all my work again, I am convinced that I would do it better, which is the healthiest condition for an artist. That’s why he keeps on working, trying again; he believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off. Of course he won’t, which is why this condition is healthy. Once he did it, once he matched the work to the image, the dream, nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection into suicide. I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.


Is there any possible formula to follow in order to be a good novelist?


Ninety-nine percent talent … ninety-nine percent discipline … ninety-nine percent work. He must never be satisfied with what he does. It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself. An artist is a creature driven by demons. He don’t know why they choose him and he’s usually too busy to wonder why. He is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.


Do you mean the writer should be completely ruthless?


The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.

More here.

a case for the enduring power of Theodore Rousseau

La-1467069168-snap-photoChristopher Knight at the LA Times:

Is there a fate worse for a painter than being remembered primarily as a “precursor” to a later, very major development in the history of Western art?

Take Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867), the subject of a fine, newly opened survey exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Once he had been celebrated for textured landscape paintings of the French countryside, especially the fabled forest of Fontainebleau 40 miles southeast of Paris. Now he is mostly extolled for a leading role in opening the door on Impressionism, which blossomed after his death.

Precursor to Monet! And Cezanne!

More than Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, more than Charles-Francois Daubigny, both of whom also worked in Fontainebleau, Rousseau ranks as perhaps Western art history’s Precursor in Chief. The title doesn’t merely damn with faint praise, it misrepresents his achievement.

Yes, the implication is that the extravagantly talented painter was forward-looking — on to something fresh that escaped most of his colleagues. Better than being retrograde.

more here.


D9fe8852-2ef7-4570-baa7-cf510044b5bbRoger Luckhurst at Public Books:

Matt Ruff’s novel Lovecraft Country drops into the world of science-fiction and horror publishing at an interesting time. The fandom around this culture is arcane and probably irremediably nerdy to outsiders, but even “mundanes” (non-fans) must have registered something of the huge boom in Lovecraftian horror that has plumed out through film, TV, and video games into the general culture. You can’t move for cosmic pessimism (True Detective), visceral horror (Hannibal, The Walking Dead), or tentacular, slimy horrors (The Strain, the recent monster movie10 Cloverfield Lane). Leading director Guillermo Del Toro’s whole career has been coiled around Lovecraft—and it is no surprise that he has long harbored the ambition to make a film of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. Meanwhile, you can buy cute plushies of Lovecraft’s tentacled god Cthulhu and even get your Cthulhu 2016 presidential campaign T-shirt, bearing the legend NO LIVES MATTER. As this dubious last joke suggests, in the last few years this fandom has become a microcosm of the American public sphere and its fractured politics.

Sci-fi/horror fandom has displayed this contention nowhere more publicly than at the Hugo Awards, handed out at the annual World Science Fiction Convention. Since 2013, these awards have been hijacked by right-wingers angry at the liberal diversity that (they say) has ruined everything. The Award used to go to proper, virile, technophiliac science fiction: the right stuff. Now, so the argument goes, science fiction has been contaminated by all that awful race-blending, gender-blending stuff favored by liberals and pinkos. A tactical vote to ensure that the traditional values of rabid militaristic science fiction always get represented has skewed the democratic principles of the award, prompting flame wars, resignations, withdrawals, denunciations, and general chaos. Just Google “Sad Puppies” if you want a face full of vitriol.

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Burn after Reading: On Writerly Self-Immolation

BurningNick Ripatrazone at The Millions:

Gerard Manley Hopkins burned all of his poems before becoming a priest. He called his act the “slaughter of the innocents.” Jesuits begin their study with a two-year novitiate period, during which Hopkins did not write a single line of verse — in fact, he would only write fragments for the next seven years.

Hopkins struggled with the divergent pulls of poetry and prayer. That tension coaxed his best and most unique material. A sensitive ascetic with a wild soul and progressive syntax, he praised God by finding the divine in all things. The burning of his verse was not the end of his poetic life, but a cleansing and rebirth by fire: the start of a long, imperfect struggle.

We burn old love letters and photographs to be reborn. The action of burning is often a process. Find a match or a lighter. Put the papers in a container or can or shove them in a fireplace. There are so many moments along the way when we can have second thoughts, when we can decide to put memories in a drawer rather than reduce them to ash, but it is so tempting and comforting to watch the flames swallow our pain.

Hopkins is not the only writer to set fire to his creations. According to his biographers, Franz Kafka burned nearly 90 percent of his life’s work—and requested that more be burned upon his death (it wasn’t).

more here.

The visualizations transforming biology

Ewen Callaway in Nature:

Mycoplasma2A smart visualization can transform biologists' understanding of their data. And now that it's possible to sequence every RNA molecule in a cell or fill a hard drive in a day with microscopy images, life scientists are increasingly seeking inventive visual ways of making sense of the glut of raw data that they collect. Some of the visualizations that are currently exciting biologists were presented at a conference at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, in March. Called Visualizing Biological Data (VIZBI), the meeting was co-organized by Seán O'Donoghue, a bioinformatician at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, Australia. The gathering attracts an eclectic mix of lab researchers, computer scientists and designers and is now in its seventh year.

…To make cellular model-making more systematic, Johnson developed a tool called cellPACK. To use it, researchers use experimental data to create a series of physical rules (a 'recipe') by which defined cellular components such as proteins, lipids and nucleic acids (the 'ingredients') fill a space. Johnson would like to create a platform such that the models are automatically updated when new data are generated. But despite lots of interest from other researchers, most life scientists find that the tool requires too much time and effort to be very practical. “It's months of research to generate a recipe from scratch,” says Johnson, who plans to release a more streamlined web version of the software later this year. The tool isn't just for making visually striking models, he emphasizes. It can also help scientists to come up with testable hypotheses. His team created a model of the internal structure of HIV and used it to predict how the protein that forms the outer shell interacts with an internal protein.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

In the Leupold Scope

With a 40X60mm spotting scope
I traverse the Halabjah skyline,
scanning rooftops two thousand meters out
to find a woman in sparkling green, standing
among antennas and satellite dishes,
hanging laundry on an invisible line.

She is dressing the dead, clothing them
as they wait in silence, the pigeons circling
as fumestacks billow a noxious black smoke.
She is welcoming them back to the dry earth,
giving them dresses in tangerine and teal,
woven cotton shirts dyed blue.

She waits for them to lean forward
into the breeze, for the wind’s breath
to return the bodies they once had,
women with breasts swollen by milk,
men with shepherd-thin bodies, children
running hard into the horizon’s curving lens.

by Brian Turner
from Here Bullet
Alice James Books, 2005