On Nobel Prizes, diversity and tool-driven scientific revolutions

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

The Nobel Prizes in science will be announced this week. For more than a century the prizes have recognized high achievement in physics, chemistry and medicine. Some scientists crave the prizes so much that they get obsessed with them. A prominent, world-famous chemist once had lunch with my graduate school advisor. After a few minutes he went off on a tirade against the Nobel committee, cursing them for not giving him the prize. He never got it, and he never got over it. The Nobel can bring fame and recognition, but it can also make the lives of those who live for them miserable.

A human prize created by a human committee based on the will of a human who established it to atone for a better method of killing people should not cause people such agony. And yet, in many ways, the prizes reflect all that is good and bad about human nature. The physicist Phillip Lenard later turned out to be a Nazi who denounced Einstein and his relativity. The celebrated Werner Heisenberg wasn’t a Nazi, but he controversially participated in work toward an atomic weapon in Germany during the war. Fritz Haber made an even more damning pact with the devil. Haber and his collaborator Carl Bosch kept alive, by one measure, one third of the world’s population by inventing a process to manufacture ammonia for fertilizers from nitrogen in the air. Haber won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1918, right after he had spent the First World War inventing chemical weapons that led to the deaths of tens of thousands. António Moniz who won the prize in medicine in 1949 pioneered the highly controversial procedure of lobotomy which, even though it seemed like a good idea then, incapacitated thousands. And William Shockley who co-invented the transistor and inaugurated Silicon Valley later became infamous for promoting racist theories of intelligence. The moral landscape of Nobelists even in science is ambiguous, so one can imagine how much worse it would be and in fact is in areas like peace and economics. Read more »

The Nightmare of the Bones

by Thomas O’Dwyer

Yeats grave SligoDrumcliffe churchyard lies in the shadow of a flat-topped mountain, in the western Irish countryside of Sligo county, on the Atlantic coast. There are remains of a round tower and a carved Celtic high cross. It would be the perfect resting place for a country’s greatest poet – especially if the poet himself had chosen it.

“Bury me up there on the mountain, Roquebrune,” W.B. Yeats wrote to his wife Georgie before his death in France in 1939. “And then, after a year or so, after the newspapers have forgotten, plant me in Sligo.” The poet died in the Hôtel Idéal Séjour in the nearby town of Menton. His funeral cortege did indeed wind up a narrow hill to where Roquebrune cemetery looks out over the Mediterranean. But then came World War II, and the repatriation of the remains of one Irish poet was unlikely to be a priority for the Nazi-occupied French, or anybody else.

Seventy years ago this autumn, this last wish of Ireland’s first Nobel Prize winner was finally fulfilled. His family and proud countrymen brought him home for a splendid state funeral in his beloved Sligo. Yeats had written of his desired resting place before his death in one of his last poems, Under Ben Bulben. “Under bare Ben Bulben’s head / In Drumcliffe churchyard Yeats is laid, / An ancestor was rector there / Long years ago; a church stands near, / By the road an ancient Cross.” For good measure, he added an epitaph, the same one carved on his tombstone. In 1948, on a typical Irish September day, half sunshine and half rain, W.B. Yeats was laid in his chosen place to rest in peace forever.

Or was he? Read more »

Gender egalitarianism made us human: the ‘feminist turn’ in human origins

by Camilla Power

A Hadza grandmother in camp with her daughter’s children. The grandmother hypothesis has been instrumental in a feminist turn in human origins research.

Modern Darwinism, neo-darwinism, aka ‘selfish-gene’ theory is often regarded as deeply politically suspect by social scientists. It’s viewed as a Trojan horse for capitalist ideology as soon as any evolutionary anthropologist or, worse, psychologist, tries to say anything about human beings. But the funny thing is that sociobiology, evolutionary ecology, whatever you want to call it (it keeps changing name because social scientists are so rude about it) has taken an extraordinary feminist turn through this century.

The strategies of females have now become central to models of human origins. Forget ‘man the hunter’, it’s hardworking grandmothers, babysitting apes, children with more than one daddy, who are the new fairytale heroes. Man the mighty hunter comes as a late afterthought. And these are not just lean-in alpha females but collectives in increasingly complex female coalitions, with the idea that the ‘social brain is for females’ extrapolated from primate studies.

Taken together, these models add up to a broad view that gender egalitarianism was not just part of the package but a fundamental aspect of what made us modern humans. They include Kristen Hawkes and colleagues ‘grandmother hypothesis’; Sarah Hrdy’s model of cooperative childcare as matrix of emotional modernity; Steven Beckerman and Paul Valentine’s ‘partible paternity’ model; the rejection of patrilocality as standard for hunter-gatherers by Frank Marlowe, Helen Alvarez, Mark Dyble and colleagues; and the ‘Female cosmetic coalitions’ hypothesis for the emergence of symbolic culture, by myself, Chris Knight and Ian Watts.

Responding to the seminal conference on ‘Man the Hunter’ in the mid-1960s, feminist anthropology of the 1970s began to examine critically whether women’s oppression was a true universal resulting from the sexual division of labour. Read more »

A Potency Of Life

by Mary Hrovat

Every October there’s a huge book fair in my town, where used books donated by the community are put up for sale in a large hall at the fairgrounds. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s a high point of my year.

When I walk in and see table after table laden with books and inhale the unmistakable smell of the printed page, I almost always get a sense of the richness of the world and a feeling of optimism about my opportunities for learning about it. Even though I know that in addition to many treasures, the tables also hold things like the 1979 edition of What Color Is Your Parachute?, I still feel the thrill. It reminds me of when I was a teenager and didn’t realize how finite my life is. I was in love with history in particular, and with archaeology, with music and art and astronomy. But I also wanted to learn how to do things: draw, paint, play chess, grow vegetables. Growing up in a family where my mother was often too busy and my father was too distant to teach any of us much beyond the fundamentals of their religion, I thought books could teach me those things too.

The layout at the book fair is always pretty much the same. There are certain tables I visit first, and some I rarely check. I usually have a few specific titles or subject areas in mind: There’s an author I’ve become interested in, or a historical period I’m reading about. I always look for Paul Theroux on the Travel table. Over the better part of a decade, I slowly assembled all eleven volumes of Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization and the Norton Anthologies of English and American literature. Read more »

The World as It Was: The World as It Is

by Adele A Wilby

As the first African American president of the United States (US), Barack Obama is a uniquely historical personality. Each of us has our opinions, or will formulate opinions, as to the success or limitations of his eight years in office as a Democratic president from 2009-2017, and as to the person who is Obama. Helping us in the formulation of our views on Obama and his presidency, is Ben Rhodes book, The World As It Is: Inside the Obama White House.

Rhodes autobiography operates on two levels of analysis. On the one hand, Rhodes tells the story of his journey to becoming Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor and speech writer, amongst other positions, and the impact this experience had on his personal development. Plucked from relative obscurity while working in the offices of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre in 2007, Rhodes narrates the challenges, and indeed sacrifices, required of the individual who assumes such an important position in a president’s trusted inner circle. In particular, Rhodes’ story of his work with Obama highlights how, as a speech writer, he was an important figure in communicating Obama’s thoughts and policies to a national and global audience, and his book can be seen as a continuation of that role.

Arguably however, the more significant aspect of Rhodes’ experience was the opportunity his position afforded him to observe the workings, thinking and character of the decision-maker of US foreign and domestic policy, Barack Obama. Consequently, Rhodes provides us with deeper insights into the nuanced thinking and administrative style of Obama. Thus, his book makes an important contribution to many academic disciplines, and furthers our understanding of the personal and political dynamics that underpinned US foreign and domestic decision-making when Obama was at the helm of the US political establishment. Read more »

History of Science and the ‘Conflict Thesis’

by Jeroen Bouterse

One of the most simple, elegant and powerful formulations of the conflict between science and religion is the following bit of reasoning. ‘Faith’ is belief in the absence of evidence; science demands that beliefs are always grounded in evidence. Therefore, the two are mutually exclusive. This is an oft-repeated argument by modern atheists, and it connects different aspects of what is usually called the ‘Conflict Thesis’: the idea that science and religion are opposed to each other not just now, but always and necessarily.

The Conflict Thesis spills over into historical, cultural, and psychological ideas. This is precisely why it is ideologically relevant: the argument that religious faith engenders a habit of slavish unreason and deference to authority is a way of demonstrating that religion is incompatible with modern enlightened citizenship. Though atheists sometimes broaden the argument to say that faith in human despots counts as a ‘religion’ as well, the modern Conflict Thesis usually defines religion in terms of belief in God. God doesn’t exist, so belief in him is the paradigmatic case of belief in the absence of evidence. This distinguishes the modern Conflict Thesis from the classical 19th-century arguments to which historians often trace it: John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, and Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. These works were not anti-theistic but anti-Catholic (Draper) or intended as an attack on religious sectarianism and a defense of proper religion (White).

The Conflict Thesis is, in all its forms, widely discredited among historians. One reason for this, no doubt, is simply the complexity of the history of both science and religion. Another reason is the fact that the birth of modern science took place in a world where everyone (almost literally everyone) was a theist. How could science, taken as the opposite of religion, have developed at all if virtually everyone in Europe was infected with what is by definition the most anti-scientific form of religiosity? Read more »

Loneliness, and What Could Have Been

by Niall Chithelen

In the Mood for Love is an acclaimed film about unrealized romance, a film taking place mostly in those moments when two people cannot quite convince themselves to give in to the tension that exists between them. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Su are neighbors, their spouses are having an affair (with each other), they find themselves spending increasing amounts of time together, and soon they realize they are nearing an affair of their own. We watch them brush past one another, glance at each other, try a conversation, and, eventually, strike up a friendship. We also watch them pause outside one another’s doors, pause when the other picks up the phone, and pause in response to difficult questions.

In its focus on this near-romance, the film reveals lives controlled by work and loneliness. Chow and Su and their spouses all have good jobs, but they still have to rent out single rooms from a landlord, and thus they end up neighbors. It is not clear how their spouses began their affair, but they cover for it throughout with business trips—at times even to the same place—and calls home about being late from work tonight. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Su confirm the relationship between their spouses through gifts their spouses brought back while abroad for work (Mr. Su seems to have brought a similar handbag back both for his wife and his mistress; Mrs. Chow did the same with a tie). Their relationship comes to an end after Mr. Chow accepts a posting in Singapore and invites Mrs. Su along but she shows up too late. At every turn, a job is waiting to turn relationships, to entwine the sexual and the professional, just as it does when we learn that part of Su’s job is arranging the gifts her boss buys for his mistress, and when business trips and affairs become synonymous. Somewhat counterintuitively, as their relationship grows more serious, Chow and Su calling one another at work feels inappropriate precisely because they are not having an affair.  Read more »

An Inconvenient Democracy

by Joshua Wilbur

This past Tuesday—September 25th 2018—was “National Voter Registration Day” in the United States. I didn’t register to vote on September 25th, and I’m not registered to vote as I write this now.

I’m not proud of the fact. Far from it, I feel intensely guilty when I imagine some upstanding acquaintance asking me, “Are you registered to vote yet?”, so that I am forced to stammer through an explanation as to why not. (The alternative in this scenario would be to lie, to simply say “Yes,” which many people do when questioned about voting habits.  It is shameful to have done nothing on election day, but, even still, our society imparts no immediate negative consequences on non-voters, and no one knows who actually voted and who did not.)

But I’ll admit it openly: I’m not registered to vote because my printer is out of ink.

You see, I recently moved to a new address in a different state. The county must be made aware of my presence here if I am to be added to the electoral roll. Thirty-seven states allow online voter registration, but, unfortunately, my new home state is not one of them. This means that I must print, complete, and mail a form to the “County Commissioner of Registration” at least twenty-one days prior to Election Day on November 6th.

This is mildly annoying, a minor inconvenience.  It doesn’t deserve mention alongside the history of American voter suppression in all its contemptible forms, beginning with poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and literacy tests in the Jim Crow South and persisting in the guises of photo ID laws, district realignment, felony disenfranchisement, and voter purges, to name just a few contemporary tactics.

No one is actively trying to suppress my vote. I have a problem with my printer. I just need to order some ink (and I guess a box of envelopes), print the form, fill out the form, put it in the envelope, seal the envelope, walk a few blocks, and drop it in a mailbox. It really isn’t that difficult. Read more »

Halting the Drug Overdose Crisis: A Doctor’s Prescription

by Carol A Westbrook

“Take two aspirin and call me in the morning” has been replaced by “Here’s a bottle of oxycodone. Don’t call me for a month.”

Two million Americans are addicted or dependent on opioid drugs. Last year, 72,000 of them died of overdoses, usually by accidentally taking too high a dose of an illicit drug. What has caught our attention is that these deaths are not the down-and-out, indigent drug addicts sprawled in dirty crack houses that are pictured on TV crime shows. They are our friends and family, teenagers and adults who unwittingly became addicted to medication that was legitimately prescribed to them by doctors.

Drug overdose deaths are rapidly increasing, as is apparent from the chart below, and are now the leading cause of deaths in adults under age 50. The cause of this epidemic is not drug pushers, or dirty needles, but the health care industry itself. It is the result of a series of well-meaning but misguided policy changes that appeared over the last twenty years that physicians such as myself were asked to implement in caring for patients with pain. Let me explain. Read more »

Hitting The Reset Button

by Max Sirak

One of the things I love about sports is they’re a low-stakes environment in which to practice high-stakes skills. For most people, most of the time, the results of a sporting match don’t affect the long-term quality of their lives. This is what I mean by “low-stakes.” In the grand scheme and scope of our lives, the outcomes of games rarely matter. Which is what makes sports such a great place to practice skills that really can and do impact our lives for the better. This is what I mean by “high-stakes.”

There are things we can all learn and hone in and through the context of playing or watching sports to help us build happier and healthier lives. Teamwork is one of them. Learning what it means to be part of a team, play well with others, and sacrifice individual accolades for the greater good are all lessons which can be gained and groomed via sports but apply to the larger fields of life.

The graceful handling of victory and defeat is another. Play or watch sports long enough, and you’ll eventually be given opportunities to encounter both ends of this spectrum. You’ll feel what it’s like to win and what sort of behaviors that warm feeling motivates. Likewise, you’ll also brush up against limitations and defeat and be given a chance to explore these colder consolations and the behaviors they motivate.

Working together, getting your way, or not are pretty obvious places where sports mirror life. No revelations here. Which is why I’d like to step away from the surface (whether hardwood, grass, water, ice, or clay…) and take some time to explore a more subtle realm, that of thought. Specifically, how the thoughts you think make you feel. Read more »

Where I’m from

by Christopher Bacas

In the fall of 1970, I brought a Bundy tenor saxophone home from school. I was nine and in Mrs Farrar’s 5th grade class. To celebrate, my father slid an LP called “Soultrane”out of a blue and white cardboard jacket. The first sounds from the record player’s single speaker: a muscular folk song with rippling connective tissue that quickly spun free into endless cascades. Dad explained that it was my new horn, in the hands of John Coltrane. I didn’t know his name and nothing that day seemed possible, anyway.

In the weeks before lessons began, I played. The mouthpiece looked better with the reed on top, tickling my upper lip, so it stayed that way. With the “Breeze Easy Method” book, I figured out the names and fingerings of most notes. I sounded out some songs. Certain combinations sounded good-a,c,d,e,g, adding d# and g# for seasoning. That became “my scale”.

In the first lesson, Holmes Royer, a man as elegant as his name, saw my set up and heard the squawks, he reached over and rotated my mouthpiece.

“Try this” he said, chuckling.

My pattern was set for life. I’d teach myself in marathon sessions and show up over-prepared but lacking some key skill; intonation, correct rhythms, steady tempo. My teachers must have chuckled often. Or cringed. Read more »