‘The Hunt for Vulcan’ by Thomas Levenson

9781784973988Tim Radford at The Guardian:

Isaac Newton set it up for Albert Einstein: he calculated a system of heavenly motion that governed the entire measurable cosmos. He then added a challenge: a theory, he wrote “that agrees exactly with exact astronomical observations cannot fail to be true.”

He didn’t live to find out quite how much frustration that claim would give his fellow astronomers, who identified Uranus, and then from the behaviour of Uranus inferred the existence of another planet, and finally identified Neptune. They relied on Newton’s predictions, which were spot on and self-evidently right, all the way to the edge of the solar system – except for one tiny little niggling detail about the planet closest to the sun.

Mercury’s orbit precesses around the sun at a rate that cannot be fully accounted for by Newtonian mechanics. The discrepancy is very small, but it isn’t an observational error. And since Newton’s theory could hardly be wrong, the only answer that made sense was that there must be another small, invisible companion affecting the orbit of Mercury. So sure were astronomers that this companion planet must exist, they even gave it a name: Vulcan.

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Henry-greenDaniel Green at The Quarterly Conversation:

In 1959, Terry Southern conducted (for The Paris Review) the most substantial extant interview with the British novelist Henry Green. Southern actually did most of the talking (almost as if he were a Henry Green character), with Green rather diffidently agreeing with Southern’s remarks, offering some fairly circumspect reflections on his work that are nevertheless revealing enough to make the interview worthwhile. What is most interesting about this interview, however, is that Southern is participating in it. He is not a writer one immediately thinks of as influenced by or particularly sympathetic to a novelist of manners of the sort Henry Green represents. That he clearly admired Green’s work should persuade us to reconsider the perceived practice of both writers, but perhaps especially Green, since the terms and categories that are typically used to assess his fiction have not really done justice to its sustained, if subtle subversions of the form, style, and subjects it ostensibly adopts.

It is understandable that Green’s novels might be regarded as comedies of manners similar to those produced by such writers of Green’s generation as Evelyn Waugh or Elizabeth Bowen. They are by and large novels about groups of people as they interact in a specific social setting, frequently, but not always, an upper middle or upper-class setting, whose habitual behaviors are scrupulously depicted. Formally, they proceed almost entirely through what Henry James called the “scenic method,” narrative progression through scenes, with exposition and description usually subordinated to dialogue.

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‘moonshot’ against cancer

Dylan Scott in STATNews:

The experts are recommending the creation of a new national network that would allow cancer patients across the country to have their tumors genetically profiled and included in a new national database — one of several recommended steps that they say would significantly speed the progress of cancer research in the United States. The panel is also urging the creation of a network to coordinate clinical trials using immunotherapy, the promising new treatment that turns the body’s immune system against the disease. The recommendations are part of a report issued Wednesday by an expert panel advising the White House in its cancer moonshot initiative. It was formally accepted by the National Cancer Advisory Board Wednesday morning. The tumor network would help scientists better identify which treatments work for which cancers in which patients, the panel said. As scientists become more aware of the many different kinds of cancer, and turn increasingly to more personalized treatments, they see the profiling the genetics of individual tumors as crucial. Patients would be connected with the hospitals and cohorts across the country that profile tumors and those institutions would share the collected data. The network would both aid in enrolling specific patients in clinical trials that show promise for their cancer by letting them “pre-register” for trials, the panel said, and allow researchers to make broader observations about the genetic makeup of different cancers and about which treatments are successful in fighting them.Researchers have been clamoring for more tumor profiling since the moonshot was first announced by the White House. There is at least one caveat, however: As the panel itself notes, there is currently limited evidence about whether tumor profiling actually leads to better care, though that is attributed at least in part to the limited ability of researchers to collect the large amounts of data needed to prove its effectiveness.So the experts argue that the proposed network “would have a transformative impact on cancer research and care, potentially leading to precision oncology being integrated into everyday care in doctors’ offices for all patients.”

The second proposed network centers on another area that many researchers believe holds great promise, though the scientific evidence is still catching up: immunotherapy.

More here.

Saturday Poem

The Association of Man and Woman

Whatever badness there was,
was not of us
but between us.

Because there was goodness,
which felt like a sure base.
While badness only felt
like incidents upon it.

The badness was only
the way you and I needed to behave,
Not what we were.

The badness was only
a small,
like the tiny, instant
from the prick of a rose’s thorn,
taking joy,
for a second,
away from the fragrance of the rose.

by Peggy Freydberg
from Poems from the Pond
Hybrid nation, 2015
—The title is from T.S. Eliot’s “East Coker”

An Unborn Baby Overhears Plans for a Murder

Siddhartha Mukherjee in The New York Times:

IanWe might begin with Hamlet, of course, but we may also begin with Abhimanyu. Locked inside his mother’s womb — as one version of the Mahabharata story runs — Abhimanyu overhears his father, Arjuna, discussing a well-known battle strategy with his wife. It involves a military formation called the “disk”: A murderous rank of enemy soldiers forms around a warrior in a perfect spiral, and seven steps, carried out in precise sequence, can penetrate that deadly labyrinth, permitting escape. Abhimanyu listens intently — at times, the thrumming drone of his mother’s aorta next to his tiny ear is near-deafening — but as Arjuna speaks, his mother dozes off to sleep. The conversation stops. The final route of escape — the seventh step — is left unmentioned.

Ian McEwan’s compact, captivating new novel, “Nutshell,” is also about murderous spirals and lost messages between fathers and unborn sons, although it’s the father’s fate that hangs in the balance here. I promise not to give away the formidable genius of the plot — but the premise, loosely, is this: Trudy, jittery and fragile, lives in a London townhouse as dilapidated as it is valuable, where she spends hot afternoons coldly plotting the murder of her husband, John. She is heavily pregnant with John’s son. They have separated, their love spent; he inspires nothing more in her than a “retinal crust of boredom.” He has moved to Shoreditch (or “sewer-ditch,” as it used to be known), where he scrapes out a living as a poet and publisher. John may or may not be in love with an aspiring poet named Elodie, who writes about owls, and whose name rhymes with “threnody” — a lamentation to the dead. The accomplice to this murder — “clever and dark and calculating” but also “dull to the point of brilliance, vapid beyond invention . . . a man who whistles continually, not songs but TV jingles, ringtones . . . whose repeated remarks are a witless, thrustless dribble” — is Claude, a real estate developer. Claude — Hamlet’s Claudius — needs no literary disguise: He is John’s brother, a prosperous brute of a man with whom Trudy (Gertrude) is having an affair.

More here.

Why Science Should Stay Clear of Metaphysics: An interview with Bas C. van Fraassen

Peter Byrne in Nautilus:

ScreenHunter_2203 Sep. 09 21.50Philosophers of science are not known for agreeing with each other—contrariness is part of the job description. But for thousands of years, from Aristotle to Thomas Kuhn, those who study what science is have roughly categorized themselves into two basic camps: “realists” and “anti-realists.”

In philosophical terms, “anti-realists” or “empiricists” understand science as investigating the properties of observable objects via experiments. Empirical theories are constrained by the experimental results. “Realists,” on the other hand, speculate more freely about the possible shape of the unobservable world, often designing mathematical explanations that cannot (yet) be tested. Isaac Newton was a realist, as are string theorists.

Most scientists do not lose sleep worrying about philosophical divides. But maybe they should; Albert Einstein certainly did, as did Niels Bohr, and Erwin Schrödinger. In the 20th century, Kuhn’s cataloguing of the “paradigmatic” nature of scientific revolutions entered the scientific consciousness. As did Karl Popper’s requirement that only theories that can in principle be determined to be false are scientific. “God exists,” for example, is not falsifiable.

But outside the halls of the academy, the influential works of philosophers of science, such as Rudolf Carnap, Wilfrid Sellars, Paul Feyerabend, and Bas C. van Fraassen, to list but a few, are little known to many scientists and the public.

More here.

Cosmic Neutrinos Detected, Confirming The Big Bang’s Last Great Prediction

Ethan Siegel in Forbes:

NewseventsimagesThe Big Bang, when it was first proposed, seemed like an outlandish story out of a child’s imagination. Sure, the expansion of the Universe, observed by Edwin Hubble, meant that the more distant a galaxy was, the faster it receded from us. As we headed into the future, the great distances between objects would continue to increase. It’s no great extrapolation, then, to imagine that going back in time would lead to a Universe that was not only denser, but thanks to the physics of radiation in an expanding Universe, hotter, too. The discovery of the cosmic microwave background and the cosmic light-element background, both predicted by the Big Bang, led to its confirmation. But last year, a leftover glow unlike any other — of neutrinos — was finally seen. The final, elusive prediction of the Big Bang has finally been confirmed. Here’s how it all unfolded.

More here.

Suketu Mehta has written a new story, and it’s a frenetic mixture of memory and desire

Arunava Sinha in Scroll.in:

40808-locghllhfc-1473098190Jorge Luis Borges had once said, roughly, that there was no idea so big that he could not convey through a short story. He was explaining why he never wrote a novel. Suketu Mehta needs no such explanation for his story What Is Remembered, but the conceit contained in this story hammers at the boundaries created by its 14,000-and-odd words, clamouring to be allowed to expand into a larger narrative.

I cannot reveal that conceit. That wouldn’t just be a spoiler, it would kill the need to read this story.

A work of fiction by Mehta, who is still remembered and revered for his Bombay book Maximum City, the title having become a descriptor of the metropolis, is obviously something of an event. Publishing it is, arguably, a minor coup (more so since Juggernaut Books, which is looking to turn conventional publishing upside down with its app, has convinced Mehta to let it debut as a digital edition alone). Expectations are high, and, let it be said, the breathless prose, so American in its energy, doesn’t let you down.

More here.

Friday Poem

Those Images

What if I bade you leave
The cavern of the mind?
There's better exercise
In the sunlight and wind.
I never bade you go
To Moscow or to Rome.
Renounce that drudgery,
Call the Muses home.
Seek those images
That constitute the wild,
The lion and the virgin,
The harlot and the child
Find in middle air
An eagle on the wing,
Recognise the five
That make the Muses sing.

by William Butler Yeats

What Muslims Do on Hajj, and Why

Diaa Hadid in The New York Times:

It is incumbent upon every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so to travel to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Islam’s holiest site, at least once in his or her lifetime. The annual pilgrimage is known as the hajj, and it is one of the five pillars of Islam, prescribed in the Quran:

And proclaim to mankind the hajj. They will come to you on foot, on very lean camel, they will come from every deep and distant mountain highway.

This year, 1437 according to the Islamic calendar, I am making my first hajj. I will be joining two million Muslims from around the world — though the writer Abu Muneer Ismail Davids joked that it may feel more like 10 million people. During the hajj, we must not swear, cut our hair or nails, have sex or crush a plant. I will be chronicling my journey for The New York Times and on social media. To better follow along, here’s a glossary of terms, names and places that help explain the rites and rituals Muslims will participate in during the six days of the hajj, which begins Saturday.

Prophets and Forebears

Ibrahim, the prophet who, following God’s commandment, left his wife, Hajar, and their son Ismail in the Arabian desert. (I am using the Islamic spellings for these figures that also appear in the Judeo-Christian Bible as Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael.) It is with Ibrahim that one of the stories of the origin of Islam begins. For Muslims, like Jews, he is considered a patriarch of our faith. Hajar was Ibrahim’s second wife. After she and Ismail were left in the desert, Hajar ran seven times between two hills, Safa and Marwa, searching for water for her thirsty son. Ismail is said to have kicked his leg in the sand, causing water to trickle out. This became the spring of Zamzam, from which we’ll drink during the hajj. Ismail is considered the ancestor of the Arabs. He was reunited with his father after many years when Ibrahim returned to the desert. Ismail is said to have helped his father build a temple, called the Kaaba, or cube, to honor his one God. To test Ibrahim’s faith, God commanded him to sacrifice Ismail. Three times the devil tried to tempt Ibrahim to abandon his mission, and each time Ibrahim hurled seven stones at the devil to ward him off. We’ll re-enact the stone throwing during the hajj.

More here.

Much of Noam Chomsky’s revolution in linguistics—including its account of the way we learn languages—is being overturned

Paul Ibbotson and Michael Tomasello in Scientific American:

ScreenHunter_2201 Sep. 08 21.57The idea that we have brains hardwired with a mental template for learning grammar—famously espoused by Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—has dominated linguistics for almost half a century. Recently, though, cognitive scientists and linguists have abandoned Chomsky’s “universal grammar” theory in droves because of new research examining many different languages—and the way young children learn to understand and speak the tongues of their communities. That work fails to support Chomsky’s assertions.

The research suggests a radically different view, in which learning of a child’s first language does not rely on an innate grammar module. Instead the new research shows that young children use various types of thinking that may not be specific to language at all—such as the ability to classify the world into categories (people or objects, for instance) and to understand the relations among things. These capabilities, coupled with a unique hu­­­man ability to grasp what others intend to communicate, allow language to happen. The new findings indicate that if researchers truly want to understand how children, and others, learn languages, they need to look outside of Chomsky’s theory for guidance.

This conclusion is important because the study of language plays a central role in diverse disciplines—from poetry to artificial intelligence to linguistics itself; misguided methods lead to questionable results. Further, language is used by humans in ways no animal can match; if you understand what language is, you comprehend a little bit more about human nature.

More here.

When will New York City sink?

Andrew Rice in New York Magazine:

ScreenHunter_2200 Sep. 08 18.28Klaus Jacob, a German professor affiliated with Columbia’s University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, is a geophysicist by profession and a doomsayer by disposition. I’ve gotten to know him over the past few years, as I’ve sought to understand the greatest threat to life in New York as we know it. Jacob has a white beard and a ponderous accent: Imagine if Werner Herzog happened to be a renowned expert on disaster risk. Jacob believes most people live in an irrational state of “risk denial,” and he takes delight in dispelling their blissful ignorance. “If you want to survive an earthquake, don’t buy a brownstone,” he once cautioned me, citing the catastrophic potential of a long-dormant fault line that runs under the city. When Mayor Bloomberg announced nine years ago an initiative to plant a million trees, Jacob thought, That’s nice — but what about tornadoes?

For the past 15 years or so, Jacob has been primarily preoccupied with a more existential danger: the rising sea. The latest scientific findings suggest that a child born today in this island metropolis may live to see the waters around it swell by six feet, as the previously hypothetical consequences of global warming take on an escalating — and unstoppable — force. “I have made it my mission,” Jacob says, “to think long term.” The life span of a city is measured in centuries, and New York, which is approaching its fifth, probably doesn’t have another five to go, at least in any presently recognizable form. Instead, Jacob has said, the city will become a “gradual Atlantis.”

The deluge will begin slowly, and irregularly, and so it will confound human perceptions of change. Areas that never had flash floods will start to experience them, in part because global warming will also increase precipitation. High tides will spill over old bulkheads when there is a full moon. People will start carrying galoshes to work. All the commercial skyscrapers, housing, cultural institutions that currently sit near the waterline will be forced to contend with routine inundation.

More here.

The Scientific Search for Alien Life

All-these-worlds-cover-199x300Steve Donoghue at Open Letters Monthly:

Named after physicist Enrico Fermi, the paradox asks a simple question: where are the aliens? If the Milky Way has hundreds of billions of stars, millions of them millions of years older than Earth’s, and if even a tiny fraction of those stars have life-bearing planets, and if even a fraction of those planets developed sophisticated technology, even the most severe mathematical parsing should result in parking lots full of aliens, or at least museums full of their ancient relics. Even hobbled by the limitation of light speed, this paradox complains, there should be at least hundreds of alien civilizations that proved out the L in the Drake Equation and either came visiting – to conquer, colonize, or just sightsee – or sent mechanical probes to do it for them.

Instead, nothing. Entire arrays of gigantic radio telescopes have been probing the night sky for decades, spacecraft have been launched, and yet, as of this writing, there’s been no hint of life anywhere, and no hint that life has ever been anywhere in the past. The Drake Equation makes such life all but inevitable; the Fermi Paradox points out its resounding absence; the questing human spirit is caught somewhere in between.

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The mystery of the Voynich Manuscript

Voynich_Manuscript_32-595x800Kevin Jackson at Prospect Magazine:

In the middle of August—traditionally the “Silly Season” for reporting—several British newspapers ran the story of a small publishing house which had just secured the rights to produce a limited edition of “the most mysterious book in the world”: the Voynich Manuscript. As all lovers of curious lore will know, this is a richly and strangely illustrated text, written in a language that has never been translated, or a code that has never been cracked. Carbon-dating has shown that it was created some time in the early fifteenth century, thus exploding the legend that it was the work of the thirteenth-century English occultist Roger Bacon, but otherwise its origin and purpose are entirely obscure.

The book had been lost to history until 1912, when a Polish collector, Wilfred Voynich, bought it from a Jesuit monastery in Italy. Since 1969, it has been housed in Yale University’s Beinecke Library, where it goes by the less glamorous name of “MS 408.” In recent years, the library has received thousands of emails about it every month, both from a few serious academics and from hordes of obsessive types who believe it to possess the Key to All Mythologies or evidence of extra-terrestrial life. It is partly in the hope of stemming this electronic tide that Yale has finally agreed to allow its publication.

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Poetry is what makes Roald Dahl’s characters come alive

Roald_DahlAdrienne Raphel at Poetry Magazine:

It is his poetry, as embedded in his prose, that brings out the quintessence of Dahl. His early novels burst with original poems. In James and the Giant Peach, first published in 1961, the Centipede celebrates the discovery that the Peach they inhabit is edible by bursting into an extemporaneous ode to the fruit. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which first appeared in 1964, is even thicker with poems than James. The prose itself is high octane, charged with alliteration and anaphora. When Wonka takes the Golden Ticket winners on a boat ride down the Chocolate River, the parents cry out:

He’s balmy!
He’s nutty!
He’s batty!
He’s dippy!
He’s dotty!
He’s daffy!
He’s goofy!
He’s beany!
He’s buggy!
He’s wacky!
He’s loony!

The monometer list, full of slant rhyme, becomes incantatory. The repetition of He’s is hypnotic, a string of unstressed syllables that create a singsong effect as we read down the column. Dahl has an incredible facility for putting words in our mouths: putting this poem into the voices of the nervous parents forces readers to vocalize the adjectives too.

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Thursday Poem

The Clothes Shrine

It was a whole new sweetness
In the early days to find
Light white muslin blouses
On a see-through nylon line
Drip-drying in the bathroom
Or a nylon slip in the shine
Of its own electricity-
As if St. Brigid once more
Had rigged up a ray of sun
Like the one she’d strung on air
To dry her own cloak on
(Hard-pressed Brigid, so
Unstoppably on the go)-
The damp and slump and unfair
Drag of the workday
Made light of and got through
As usual, brilliantly.

by Seamus Heaney
from Electric Light
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001

The Kingdom of Speech

Steven Poole in The Guardian:

WoolfWhat separates us from the other animals? The list of proposed answers is as long as your arm: rationality; cooking; religion; pointless games; making stuff; and so forth. But one popular answer has always been our power of language. The exact process by which we acquired it is mysterious. So here is Tom Wolfe to tell us why everyone to date has got it wrong. The book tells the story of two little guys up against two establishment bullies. The hard-grafting Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently co-discovered the principle of evolution by natural selection, didn’t stand a chance against Charles Darwin, who enjoyed “the eternally Daddy-paid-for life of a British Gentleman”. Darwin imagined his theory could explain everything, but Wallace eventually decided that it couldn’t explain language, which must after all have been God-given. A century later comes Noam Chomsky, revolutionising linguistics by suggesting that humans have an innate (therefore evolved) capacity to acquire languages: a built-in “deep grammar” or “universal grammar” or “language acquisition device” which explains, for example, how toddlers can easily construct novel well-formed sentences. (See also Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct.) “Nothing about Chomsky’s charisma was elegant,” Wolfe complains, perhaps wishing the object of his abuse had worn a white suit, and yet, he says, Chomsky ruthlessly dominated the field. Until, that is, a plucky, outdoorsy underdog called Daniel Everett spent some time with an Amazon tribe called the Pirahã and reported that their language lacks a certain feature (recursion, or nesting of ideas) that Chomsky had suggested might be universal, and so proved Chomsky wrong. The smoke cleared and the origin of language remained as elusive as ever.

Wolfe tells these stories with the kind of free-wheeling vim familiar from his brilliant books such as The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanities. Particularly in the way he ventriloquises the thoughts and worries of his protagonists, the book is superbly written, when it doesn’t tip over into a kind of self-parodic babble. (Darwin, we are assured, “was also a slick operator … smooth … smooth … smooth and then some”.) The only problem with Wolfe’s tales, really, is that they are irresponsibly partial accounts, riddled with elementary falsehoods.

More here.

Imaging specific cells and molecules deeper in the body

From KurzweilAI:

Protein-Shelled-Gas-Vesicles-Used-in-Ultrasound-ImagingThe next step in ultrasound imaging will let doctors view specific cells and molecules deeper in the body, such as those associated with tumors or bacteria in our gut. A new study from Caltech outlines how protein engineering techniques might help achieve this milestone. The researchers engineered protein-shelled nanostructures called gas vesicles (which reflect sound waves) to exhibit new properties useful for ultrasound technologies. In the future, these gas vesicles could be administered to a patient to visualize tissues of interest. The modified gas vesicles were shown to give off more distinct signals (making them easier to image), target specific cell types, and help create color ultrasound images.

…In another set of experiments, the researchers demonstrated how the gas vesicles could be made to target certain tissues in the body. They genetically engineered the vesicles to display various cellular targets, such as an amino acid sequence that recognizes proteins called integrins that are overproduced in tumor cells.

More here.