Filaments of Light

Jerome Kasparian in American Scientist:

Fullimage_2006131153239_307Next time you give a presentation about your research, take a close look at the laser pointer you’re holding in your hand. How big is the beam coming out of it? And how large is the spot that it forms? The answers will, of course, hinge on the particular laser pointer you’re wielding and the distance between podium and screen. Typical values might be a few millimeters for the beam as it exits the aperture of the pointer and a centimeter or so for the circle of light it casts across the auditorium. It takes only a smattering of physical intuition to guess the reason: Diffraction causes the beam to diverge. The actual cause may be a little more complicated, because some laser pointers include a lens that makes the light converge at a fixed distance from the tip, which leads the beam to spread out beyond this focal point—more so than if only diffraction had operated.

Imagine now that your laser pen packed a more powerful punch—say that the intensity of the beam was a whopping 1012 times that of a typical pointer. What then would the beam do as it crossed the room? (It’s clear enough what it’ll do when it hits the screen—quickly burn a hole). The answer, it turns out, is anything but intuitive. A laser of sufficient intensity traveling through air will—all by itself—engineer a narrow channel, one perhaps a tenth of a millimeter wide, over which light will propagate for tens or even hundreds of meters.

More here.

A Nation of Guinea Pigs

“There’s a new outsourcing boom in South Asia – and a billion people are jockeying for the jobs. How India became the global hot spot for drug trials.”

Jennifer Kahn in Wired:

Ff_144_indiadrug2_fThe town of Sevagram in central India has long been known for three things: its heat, which is oppressive even by Indian standards; its snakes, which are abundant; and its ashram, a derelict and increasingly malarial retreat preserved as a tribute to Mohandas Gandhi, who lived here and was known for tenderly relocating the poisonous vipers that slithered into his shack.

Despite this intemperate setting, Sevagram’s hospital has a good reputation. Though the power fails often, forcing medics to use the backlit screens of their cell phones for illumination, the standard of care is higher than at many of the country’s public hospitals, and the facilities are comparatively plush. At the nearby government medical center in Nagpur, for instance, patients sometimes have to sleep on mattresses on the floor.

Last year, Sevagram began garnering even more cachet. A German pharmaceutical company called Boehringer Ingelheim, whose latest stroke-prevention drug was making its way through the clinical pipeline, approved the town’s hospital as a trial site – one of 28 in India recruiting stroke victims to round out the company’s 18,500-person study.

More here.

“Islam versus the West” and the Political Thought of AbdolKarim Soroush

Hassan Abbas in al-Nakhlah (The Fletcher School Online Journal for issues related to Southwest Asia and Islamic Civilization):

Book20event20cspanInteraction between Islam and the West,at various levels and in different forms,is a centuries- old phenomenon.In the post-September 11 context, however,the discourse is increasingly framed in terms of “us versus them,” an “Islam versus the West ” issue.Terrorist attacks in Spain and United Kingdom in the last two years and the recent cartoon controversy have further exacerbated this confrontational discourse.Within the Muslim world today,the conservative elements largely understand interactions with the West as “Muslims versus Christians,” including an element of Jewish conspiracy as well.Most Muslims see America ’s military campaign in Afghanistan in October 2001; its so-called “preemptive attack ” on Iraq in early 2003 and its bloody aftermath;and media disclosures about U.S.police profiling of Muslims as reflective of an American war on Islam rather than as components of a war on terror.Many westerners also view ordinary Muslims as potential terrorists and as adherents of a religion that is orthodox in its approach and violent in its worldview,an excessively sweeping and profoundly incorrect assessment.Tragically,these perceptions have generated a gulf of estrangement between Islam and the West.

This paper represents an effort to understand these trends and shifts in perception and approach of both Muslims and the West (primarily the United States)in the light of how AbdolKarim Soroush,a leading and influential Muslim scholar from Iran,analyzes this matter.

More here.  [Thanks to Samad Khan.]

The Syntax of Whale Song

The syntax of the songs of humpback whales unlocked:

The songs of the humpback whale are among the most complex in the animal kingdom. Researchers have now mathematically confirmed that whales have their own syntax that uses sound units to build phrases that can be combined to form songs that last for hours.

Until now, only humans have demonstrated the ability to use such a hierarchical structure of communication. The research, published online in the March 2006 issue of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, offers a new approach to studying animal communication, although the authors do not claim that humpback whale songs meet the linguistic rigor necessary for a true language.

“Humpback songs are not like human language, but elements of language are seen in their songs,” said Ryuji Suzuki, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) predoctoral fellow in neuroscience at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and first author of the paper.

The Controversy over the Marketing of Brokeback Mountain

The marketing strategy behind Brokeback Mountain has been subject to some criticism. James Schamus, producer of Brokeback Mountain, responds to Daniel Mendelsohn’s in The New York Review of Books.

Daniel Mendelsohn, in his finely observed review of Brokeback Mountain [“An Affair to Remember,” NYR, February 23], sets up a false dichotomy between the essentially “gay” nature of the film and the erasure of this gay identity through the marketing and reception of the film as a “universal” love story. As one of the film’s producers, I am grateful for his understanding of the unapologetic and unvarnished treatment of the specifically gay story we set out to tell; but as the co-president of Focus Features, the studio that is marketing and distributing the film, I take umbrage at some of the rhetorical shortcuts Mendelsohn takes in his depiction of our work.

Mendelsohn is rightly nervous about what happens when a gay text is so widely and enthusiastically embraced by mainstream hetero-dominated culture; and it is true that many reviewers contextualize their investment in the gay aspects of the romance by claiming that the characters’ homosexuality is incidental to the film’s achievements. Many reviewers indeed have gone out of their way to denounce the “gay cowboy movie” label (although, to be fair, they are mainly objecting to the fact that the label was used as a derogatory joke, a point I wish Mendelsohn had more fully considered).

Edward Said’s posthumous book on “lateness,” in art and criticism

Paul Griffiths in Bookforum:

Griffiths1_037542105x_1In considering here how the work of writers and composers comes to change as their lives near an end, Edward Said has little to say about the abandoned fragment—the achievement cut off by death, as Mozart’s Requiem was. Yet that is precisely the condition of the present book, which, as the author’s widow, Mariam Said, explains in the foreword, was left far from complete when Said died, in 2003. While incorporating material written long before (as Said seems to have intended), this volume comes to us as a last work, drafted by one who knew his time was limited. It therefore exemplifies its own subject matter, manifesting some of the qualities Said discerns in “late style,” including penetration and breadth of reference, and yet, inevitably, leaving much in outline or unstated.

Said’s reflection starts out from the notion of timeliness in human doings, and so of how certain things become possible, or available, in later years. One of time’s gifts is widely held to be wisdom, but Said is attracted much more by lateness “as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction.” The wise elders—Shakespeare, Verdi, Rembrandt, Matisse, Bach, Wagner—are saluted, then dismissed. Kept for later and longer scrutiny are those who, like ancient trees, grew ever more gnarled.

More here.  [Thanks to Andrew N. Rubin.]

Charles Tilly Remembers Barrington Moore

The great sociologist Barrington Moore Jr.’s death last October passed largely unnoticed, to the shame of the era. Charles Tilly remembers Moore in the Canadian Journal of Sociology Online, via Political Theory Daily Review.

Moore graduated from Williams, went on to a Yale Ph.D. and service in the wartime Office of Strategic Services, then taught at Chicago for two years before taking up a post as research associate at Harvard’s Russian Research Center. At Harvard, Moore was reluctant to take on the routine administration and petty politics of university departments; only late in his career did he move from lecturer to professor. Meanwhile he spent most of most summers on his yacht, sailing out of Bar Harbor, and significant parts of his winters skiing near his lodge in Alta, Utah.

Despite this life of relative ease, Moore maintained a fierce commitment to democracy, a contempt for intolerance and injustice, a hatred for tyrannies of all persuasions, and a conviction that changing material conditions shape human political action. His closest friends (and most frequent guests on his yacht) were typically intellectual radicals such as Herbert Marcuse and Robert Paul Wolff. When Moore worked, he went at it with ferocious energy, never publishing until he had gotten the argument more or less right. For his students, he became a model of intellectual commitment and rigor.

A discussion about Science in the Age of Certainty with JOHN BROCKMAN, DANIEL C. DENNETT AND OTHERS

From Edge:

Dennett_4 On Wednesday, April 12th Harvard Book Store and Seed Magazine will cosponsor a discussion on Science in the Age of Certainty with John Brockman, Daniel C. Dennett, Daniel Gilbert, Marc D. Hauser, Elizabeth Spelke and Seth Lloyd. This event coincides with the publication of the new book What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today’s Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty, edited by Mr. Brockman.

Brockman_1 Eminent cultural impresario, editor, and publisher of Edge (, John Brockman asked a group of leading scientists and thinkers to answer the question: What do you believe to be true even though you cannot prove it? This book brings together the very best answers from the most distinguished contributors. This collection of bite-size thought-experiments is a fascinating insight into the instinctive beliefs of some of the most brilliant minds today.

More here.

High-Speed Surprise for Lying Eyes

From Science:

Eyes_1 The next time you drive in the fog, check your speedometer. You may be speeding and not know it. That’s because–when the visual landscape lacks contrast–people perceive objects moving much slower than they actually are. A new study debuts the first convincing, quantitative explanation for this potentially dangerous visual mistake.

In 1982, psychologist Peter Thompson of York University, United Kingdom, first noticed that when two objects of different contrast are moving at the same speed, people always say the higher contrast object is moving faster. Researchers brushed off this misperception, dubbed “the Thompson effect,” as a kink in an otherwise precisely tuned visual machine. But a few years ago, Eero Simoncelli, a computational neuroscientist at New York University in New York City, and his colleagues wondered if they could explain this phenomenon using basic principles of human vision.

More here.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Fight Over California’s Textbooks and Their Representation of India

Also in Samar, a look at the battle over the discussion of India in California’s 6th grade social science textbooks.

A months-long struggle over the California sixth-grade history and social science textbook content on India, Indian history, and Hinduism culminated at a contentious public hearing in California’s state capitol, Sacramento, on February 27, 2006. A special committee to the State Board of Education (SBE) voted on whether to recommend approved edits and corrections, the content of which had resulted in various opposing mobilizations in the diasporic Indian community in the Bay Area and across the United States.

I had become deeply concerned when I heard in November of 2005 that two Hindu Nationalist Indian American groups, the Vedic Foundation (VF) and Hindu Education Foundation (HEF), backed by the Hindu American Foundation, had marshaled to intervene in the editing process of these sections. (See History Hungama: The California Textbook Debate for in-depth elaborations on the significance of these relationships.) Through their lobbying and unsubstantiated claims of representing the largest population of Hindus, they succeeded in pushing through 131 of their 153 proposed revisions between September-December 2005. These adoptions were met with great opposition and resulted in the investigation of the special committee that decided to overturn the 2005 edits. But the claims that these revisions were necessary because they perpetuate misrepresentations about India and Hinduism and proliferate discriminatory stereotypes need to be challenged.

The Illegal Immigration Control Act

My sister, Linta Varghese, on the Sensenbrenner bill, in Samar Magazine:

LintaUnder current US law, being in the country without status is a civil violation. HR 4437 proposes to change this to a criminal act through the creation of a new federal crime: unlawful presence. This in effect will criminalize the entire undocumented population of the United States, and would permanently bar them from re-entry. HR 4437 not only proposes to criminalize undocumented immigrants, but through a preposterously expanded definition of alien smuggling it also criminalizes organizations and individuals that work with this population. Under the new definition, alien smuggling includes helping someone that is known to be undocumented. Thus, organizations that provide services, refugee groups, churches, legal service providers and other charitable organizations are on par with criminal organizations that exploit desperate people and smuggle them into the United States.

In keeping with the expansion of criminality, the bill changes minor crimes into aggravated felonies which are grounds for deportation. Under this, newly considered aggravated felonies include driving under the influence, being undocumented, assisting someone who is undocumented, and minor roles in other people’s criminal activity. This provision would apply to both undocumented immigrants and documented immigrants who have lived here for decades.

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani wants gays killed in “most severe way”

From The Advocate (via One Good Move):

Sistani2In the midst of sectarian violence that threatens to drag Iraq into civil war, the country’s influential Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has issued a violent death order against gays and lesbians on his Web site, according to London-based LGBT human rights groups OutRage.

Written in Arabic, the fatwa comes from a press conference with the powerful religious cleric, where he was asked about the judgment on sodomy and lesbianism. “Forbidden,” Sistani answered, according to OutRage, “Punished, in fact, killed. The people involved should be killed in the worst, most severe way of killing.”

More here.

end of history?

(drawing by Nicola Jennings)

On February 10, 2004, the columnist Charles Krauthammer gave the annual Irving Kristol address at the American Enterprise Institute, in Washington. The lecture was called “Democratic Realism: An American Foreign Policy for a Unipolar World.” It defended the Bush Administration’s policies of unilateralism and preëmption, and proposed that their application be defined by means of a doctrine: “We will support democracy everywhere, but we will commit blood and treasure only in places where there is a strategic necessity—meaning, places central to the larger war against the existential enemy, the enemy that poses a global mortal threat to freedom.” The new “existential enemy,” Krauthammer said, is “Arab-Islamic totalitarianism,” and he compared the war that the United States should fight against this entity to the war against Fascist Germany and Japan—a war committed to the eradication of a deadly and evil culture.

Francis Fukuyama was in the audience, and he could not believe the approval with which Krauthammer’s speech was greeted. It seemed to Fukuyama that by the winter of 2004 the policies of unilateralism and preëmption might have been ripe for some reconsideration—they clearly had not performed well in Iraq—but, all around him, people were applauding enthusiastically.

more from Louis Menand at The New Yorker here.

dead cities


In some contexts, the good, decent humanist approach seems more callous than sheer bloody-mindedness. Here’s how A.C. Grayling, a professor of philosophy at the University of London and nothing if not a good, decent humanist, defines his objective in Among the Dead Cities: “[D]id the Allies commit a moral crime in their area bombing of German and Japanese cities? This is the question I seek to answer definitively in this book.” He thereby declares himself inadequate to the task. The question of what is permissible to defeat a barbarous enemy is one that resists moral definitiveness; it requires a capacity for ambiguity, uncertainty, irony.

more from the NY Observer here.

contemporary african photography


A land mass 10 times the size of Europe, divided into 52 countries, inhabited by people speaking over 800 languages and with innumerable ethnic, religious, and political differences, “Africa,” the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote, “is a ‘multiple existence.’ ” So it’s fitting that “Snap Judgments” is a wildly diverse, cacophonous affair. This sprawling show presents the work of 35 photographers, from locales as varied as Egypt, Uganda, Mozambique, and South Africa, and whose approaches to the medium range from the austerely documentary to the resolutely fabulist.

more from the Village Voice here.

The Beauty Academy of Kabul

The Beauty Academy of Kabul, a documentary made by the very talented and insightful Liz Mermin (also co-director of the intelligent and moving documentary, On Hostile Ground) opens at the Angelika Film Center (New York) on March 24th. (Here’s the trailer.) There will be a filmmaker Q&A after the 7:00 screenings on March 24 and March 25. On March 29 Amnesty International will lead a post-screening discussion with the director.


What happens when a group of hairdressers from America travel to Kabul with the intention of telling Afghan women how to do hair and makeup? This engaging, optimistic documentary tracks a unique development project: a shiny new beauty school, funded in part by beauty-industry mainstays, which sets out to teach the latest cutting, coloring, and perming techniques to practicing and aspiring Afghan hairdressers and beauticians. The American teachers, all volunteers, include three Afghan-Americans returning home for the first time in over twenty years. The Beauty Academy of Kabul offers a rare glimpse into Afghan women’s lives, and documents the poignant and often humorous process through which women with very different experiences of life come to learn about one another.

Here is a BBC Four interview with Liz about The Beauty Academy of Kabul from a while ago.

BBC Four: Was it the fact that it was New Yorkers going over to Kabul that attracted you, or the beauty school project itself?

LM: I read a story about the project in the New York Times. The reason it jumped out at me was that at that point, 2002, the news was all so dire from that part of the world. This was such a bizarre human interest story and it seemed like such naive idealism. The idea of a group of well-intentioned Americans popping into Kabul and teaching woman about hair styles seemed irresistible. But when I started talking to them I saw the other side of it, the business development angle, and it seemed like less of a joke.

Life’s diversity ‘being depleted’

From BBC News:

Panda Forests continue to be lost at a rate of six million hectares a year – that’s about four times the size of the English county of Yorkshire – and similar trends are noted for marine and coastal ecosystems such as coral reefs, kelp beds and mangrove forests. The abundance and variety of species continue to fall across the planet, according to an index measuring the percentage of species with good prospects for survival; bird variety is on the decline in every ecosystem type from the oceans to the forests. Less complete indications are available for other groups of animals and plants, but it is feared they would show a similar picture.

More here.

Heads up: the dinosaur with the longest neck

From Nature:

Dino_1 Talk about sticking your neck out: palaeontologists working in Mongolia have discovered a dinosaur that was far ahead of its peers. The creature had one of the longest necks of all time, measuring a staggering eight metres. Relative to body size, the creature is a contender for the most impressive neck ever, say its discoverers. Although smaller overall than the famous Diplodocus, the new dinosaur is even more outlandishly proportioned – more than a third of its body length was in front of its shoulders. Fossil-hunters dug up bones from the new species, called Erketu ellisoni, at Bor Guvé in the Gobi Desert in 2002. The haul consisted of several leg bones, part of a breastbone, and six vertebrae, each twice the size of a loaf of bread.

More here.

The literary dark horse

Meghan O’Rourke in Slate:

060317_hb_vqrcover2006l01Over the past two days, New York media gossip turned away from its usual concerns—like Graydon Carter’s latest hairdo—to consider an improbable question: What is the Virginia Quarterly Review? On March 15, the nominations for the annual National Magazine Awards—the Oscars, if you will, of the magazine world—were announced. To the astonishment of glossy magazine types everywhere, a small journal in Virginia garnered not one nomination, as is sometimes politely handed down to such journals, but six. This made the Virginia Quarterly Review the second-most-nominated magazine, behind the Atlantic, which received eight, and ahead of The New Yorker, Harper’s, New York, and National Geographic, all of which received five. It was as if a scrappy farm team had demolished the Yankees in an exhibition game.

More here.  Some of you may remember that 3 Quarks Daily editor Morgan Meis published an essay about his adventures in Vietnam last year, in the last issue of VQR, so we at 3QD were already well aware of the quality of this journal! See Morgan’s essay in VQR here. Still, we congratulate them!

Confessions of a Darwinist

Niles Eldredge in the Virginia Quarterly Review:

5644_eldredge_nilesI came to evolution in a roundabout way. Sure, as a kid I had seen the dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History—and had heard a bit about evolution in high school. But I was intent on studying Latin and maybe going to law school.

But evolution got in the way. I was dating my now wife, and through her getting to know members of the Columbia anthropology faculty. At the time (early 1960s), anthropology to me meant Louis Leakey and his adventures collecting human fossils at Olduvai Gorge—rather than, say, Margaret Mead and her adventures studying cultures of the South Pacific. A summer spent asking embarrassing personal questions in my halting Portuguese in a small village in northeastern Brazil ended my quest to study evolution through anthropology. I was far more taken with the Pleistocene fossils embedded in the sandstone that formed the protective cove for the fishing boats. By summer’s end I was determined to become a paleontologist.

Little did I know that paleontologists (with a few exceptions) had had virtually nothing to do with the development of evolutionary biology since Darwin’s day. Vertebrate paleontologists, to be sure, tended to be trained in zoology departments and to have at least a passing interest in evolution. But the undergraduate courses in paleontology at Columbia were in the Geology Department. I took my undergraduate degree in geology at Columbia, staying on for a PhD and writing my dissertation on the evolutionary career of the Devonian trilobite Phacops rana.

More here.