Particle smasher gets a super-brain

Hazel Muir in New Scientist:

Cern_luftbildSometime in 2007, physicists are going to come closest to seeing what the universe was like a split-second after the big bang. Inside a 27-kilometre-long circular tunnel that straddles the border of France and Switzerland 100 metres underground, the Large Hadron Collider will push protons to almost the speed of light and smash them head-on at energies never before created on Earth.

But it will be a messy business. The torrent of information gushing forth from the LHC each year will be enough to fill a stack of CDs three times as high as Mount Everest. To make sense of it will require some 100,000 of today’s most powerful PCs, so it is little wonder that CERN – the European centre for particle physics near Geneva that is building the collider – is co-opting a worldwide “grid” of computers to help store and analyse the data. Physicists hope that this collective computing power will help them spot exotic new particles, including the elusive Higgs boson, and validate theories that aim to unite three of the four fundamental forces of nature.

More here.

May 21, 2005

A Poet in Winter Relishes Spring in His Garden

Dinitia Smith in the New York Times Book Review:

19kuni1Stanley Kunitz, Pulitzer Prize winner, poet laureate of the United States – twice, the first time from 1974 to 1976, when the title was “consultant in poetry,” the second in 2000 at the age of 95 – will turn 100 this summer. And he is still hard at work, he says, in his office and his garden.

Today W. W. Norton is publishing “The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden,” a collection of essays and conversations about poetry and Mr. Kunitz’s lush garden in Provincetown, Mass., the subject of many of his poems, some of which are in the book.

More here.

The RSS and Bollywood

Eliza Griswold in Slate:

3707061One afternoon in Mumbai, Ramesh Mehta, the former head of the RSS external publicity wing for Africa—specifically Kenya, Uganda, and South Africa—hosted a small tea. He is also a retired film producer and lives in a modest two-bedroom apartment on a quiet, tree-lined street near several prominent Bollywood starlets. Because his son-in-law, an interior decorator, was in the midst of redecorating the living room, his guests sat on Mehta’s bed as he explained India’s history as a Hindu nation. Cleareyed, with tufts of salt-and-pepper hair and a regal nose, Mehta looked like a highly intelligent, 63-year-old ostrich.

“Ours is the most ancient country in the world,” he said, stirring sugar into the glasses of tea with a small spoon. “Thousands of years ago, we were ruled by a Hindu king, and the whole country was one. Even Alexander the Great had to go back from the border because he realized he could not fight us.”

More here.

Oxygen from moondust is worth a mint

Michael Hopkin in Nature:

Bluemoon_fredHow do you fancy winning a cool quarter-of-a-million dollars? That’s the prize on offer for the astronomical alchemist who can create breathable oxygen from moondust.

The competition, unveiled this week by NASA and the Florida Space Research Institute, is an attempt to stimulate research into technologies that might help humans to colonize other worlds. Although the prize won’t quite allow the winner to breathe easily for life, the organizers hope that the hefty sum will tempt some talented chemical engineers.

The rules are simple. Entrants must build a device, within certain weight and power limits, that can extract at least five kilograms of oxygen from a sample of volcanic ash (a substitute for lunar soil) in the space of eight hours. The first team to build and demonstrate such a gadget before 1 June 2008 will claim the cash.

More here.

Math Goes Postmodern

Margaret Wertheim in the Los Angeles Times:

A baker knows when a loaf of bread is done and a builder knows when a house is finished. Yogi Berra told us “it ain’t over till it’s over,” which implies that at some point it is over. But in mathematics things aren’t so simple. Increasingly, mathematicians are confronting problems wherein it is not clear whether it will ever be over.

People are now claiming proofs for two of the most famous problems in mathematics — the Riemann Hypothesis and the Poincare Conjecture — yet it is far from easy to tell whether either claim is valid. In the first case the purported proof is so long and the mathematics so obscure no one wants to spend the time checking through its hundreds of pages for fear they may be wasting their time. In the second case, a small army of experts has spent the last two years poring over the equations and still doesn’t know whether they add up.

More here.

Born into Brothels reconsidered

Svati Shah critically looks at some issues in and around last years Oscar winner for Best Documentary, Born into Brothels.

“[T]he prospect of portraying Sonagachi [in Calcutta] as a red light district with no active non-governmental organizations (NGOs), no history of activism regarding HIV/AIDS and trafficking, and no relationship with the local authorities is incredible. While not every sex worker in the area has been part of the success stories of local organizing, Sonagachi, in particular, has earned world renown through organizations like the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC). The DMSC has been working in Sonagachi for more than a decade, and is seen as a model for improving health status and working conditions among sex workers. The HIV infection rate among sex workers in Calcutta is around 5%, which is especially significant in comparison with other red light areas in India. Other organizations working in the district, including Sanlaap, assisted the filmmakers in their project. However, Sanlaap workers were never identified clearly, and were instead portrayed as interpreters, school administrators, and were generally seen as part of the background against the ‘real’ story of the filmmakers mounting their rescue. The audience’s lasting impression is that, without Briski and Kaufmann, the people living in this district are without hope and options.”

There’s Nothing Deep About Depression

Peter Kramer writes in The New York Times:Depression

Shortly after the publication of my book ”Listening to Prozac,” 12 years ago, I became immersed in depression. Not my own. I was contented enough in the slog through midlife. But mood disorder surrounded me, in my contacts with patients and readers. To my mind, my book was never really about depression. Taking the new antidepressants, some of my patients said they found themselves more confident and decisive. I used these claims as a jumping-off point for speculation: what if future medications had the potential to modify personality traits in people who had never experienced mood disorder? If doctors were given access to such drugs, how should they prescribe them? The inquiry moved from medical ethics to social criticism: what does our culture demand of us, in the way of assertiveness?

Invariably, as soon as I had finished my remarks, a hand would shoot up. A hearty, jovial man would rise and ask — always the same question — ”What if Prozac had been available in van Gogh’s time?” I understood what was intended, a joke about a pill that makes people blandly chipper. The New Yorker had run cartoons along these lines — Edgar Allan Poe, on Prozac, making nice to a raven. Below the surface humor were issues I had raised in my own writing. Might a widened use of medication deprive us of insight about our condition? But with repetition, the van Gogh question came to sound strange. Facing a man in great pain, headed for self-mutilation and death, who would withhold a potentially helpful treatment?

More here.

Family of Stephen Jay Gould sues doctors, hospitals

From MSNBC:Gould

BOSTON – The family of the late paleontologist and evolutionary scientist Stephen Jay Gould sued two Boston hospitals and three doctors Friday, alleging that the famed author would still be alive if they had properly diagnosed his cancer four years ago. The doctors all failed to recognize a half-inch (1-centimeter) lesion on a chest X-ray taken of the Harvard professor in February 2001, according to Alex MacDonald, the lawyer for Gould’s survivors. Thirteen months later, when another chest X-ray was taken, the lesion had grown to more than an inch (3 centimeters) and the cancer had spread to Gould’s brain, lungs, liver and spleen, MacDonald said.

More here.

May 20, 2005

Tsunami-quake shook ‘whole planet’

Marsha Walton at CNN:

Dramatic new data from the December 26, 2004, Sumatran-Andaman earthquake that generated deadly tsunamis show the event created the longest fault rupture and the longest duration of faulting ever observed, according to three reports by an international group of seismologists published Thursday in the journal “Science.”

“Normally, a small earthquake might last less than a second; a moderate sized earthquake might last a few seconds. This earthquake lasted between 500 and 600 seconds,” said Charles Ammon, associate professor of geosciences at Penn State University.

The quake released an amount of energy equal to a 100 gigaton bomb, according to Roger Bilham, professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado.

More here.

Turrell, American Monomaniac

I posted something about Michael Heizer and his amazing, if monomaniacal project “City” a few weeks ago. There is something intriguing to me about the impulse in a certain brand of American, roughly ‘modernist’ artist to go out to the desert and make large scale ‘absolute’ works there. It points to a tension between city and country, the lure of raw, sublime nature, the aesthetics of purity and authenticity, and the populism that have been part of the American identity since the beginning.

Images_4James Turrell is another artist in this mold. His decades long still unfinished work Roden Crater is as interesting as “City,” though quite distinct. Turrell’s primary interest is light, and as a kind of minimalist he wants to grab the phenomenon of light at its roots. But the interesting thing is that in doing so, he has ended up trying to reconstruct a mountain toward that vision. One could write a book about that fact alone.

Here is the BBC’s program on the Crater and here’s something from Eyestorm.

Web Logs: A Waste of Time

Those who’ve aren’t sick of hearing about the Flux “Novel” project here at 3Quarks and OTR may have noticed that Ben McGrath, who wrote the New Yorker Talk of the Town piece on the show, described blogging as a “contemporary method of wasting time.” Something about this faux bon mot irritated me – isn’t all writing a waste of time if you look at it that way? (Not if you’re writing for the New Yorker, seems to be the implication.) I’m pretty sure that web logs are here to stay and that most mainstream periodicals have accepted them as an interesting way to spread ideas. Guys, what century is it?

As usual, Gawker noticed this first and had the best response:

‘[McGrath] appears to have survived the ordeal to the “living installation” called “NOVEL” without vomiting once.’

Read “The New Yorker Unlocks Secrets to Blogging” here.

You can sort of hear the culture being upended. Gawker probably leads as many opinions as the New Yorker (maybe more?); the technorati decide what to make of McGrath rather than the other way round. Very interesting.

Iran: Axis of Culture, History, and Geopolitics

From Neutopia:Iran2_1

When I first viewed the breathtaking images of the detailed rock carvings at the tomb of Xerxes near the ancient Persian capital of Persepolis, along with the Zoroastrian fire temple, I wondered how many in the US had any idea about this part of the rich and complex narrative of a civilization that in ancient times reached a cultural level comparable to that of Greece, Rome or Egypt. Within the psychological landscape of most Americans, Iran is a distant place filled with strident Khomeini worshippers and women in chadors, remembered most for a frenzied band of zealots who held the US embassy staff hostage over some little understood animosity towards the shah—a man that the US media, throughout most of his brutal reign, depicted with warmth.

The ancient Persian civilization reached its peak under the leadership of Cyrus the Great who united the various tribes and ethnicities stretching from the Indus Valley to Egypt, and chose Persepolis as his capital in the 5th century B.C.. (6). Cyrus understood that humane rule was the simplest way to maintain loyalty. He preferred persuasion and negotiation over force, never humiliated the vanquished, and allowed his subjects freedom of worship. Cyrus also had genuine respect for the amalgamation of Aryan and Sumerian-derived influences that was Persian culture.

More here.

What Makes Him the Supersleuth?


From The New York Times:

Holmes, described by Conan Doyle as “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen,” isn’t actually a particularly likable character, or even a very fully realized one. Raymond Chandler once remarked that Holmes “is mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue.” He is languid, aloof, arrogant, supercilious and a bipolar druggie who in “The Sign of Four” is shooting up cocaine three times a day to overcome his lassitude. He has no friends other than Watson, and Mr. Lanza notwithstanding, he is almost certainly a virgin. In fact, there is something slightly inhuman about Holmes, though somehow that only adds to his appeal. We’re fascinated by him, it seems, precisely because he is a kind of cipher, unlike anyone else we know or even have read about.

The recent additions to the sagging shelves of Holmesiana suggest some other clues to the mystery of Sherlock’s appeal.

More here.

Mystic Rivers

From The Village Voice:

Abstract“3 x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing,” the unbelievably intriguing exhibition at the Drawing Center, proves that abstraction has always been more than art historians said it was. To see why, consider a question posed by artist Robert Irwin: How did art go from the hyper-realism of David to the total abstraction of Malevich in less than 100 years? As scientific knowledge increased, multiplicity replaced certainty, relativism grew, our experience of our world became more unknown and unstable, and the hierarchical way we pictured the world no longer seemed adequ ate or accurate. Single-point perspective and realism were originally devised to present a kind of double-positive: Things were rendered realistically in order to be known. This worked visual wonders for several hundred years. However, by the mid 19th century it became evident that there was a latent negative lurking in the double-positive: Things were bein g named but they weren’t being known. A hole formed in the ozone of representation. Technique was only leading to more technique, perspectival space unraveled, and representation began to feel suppressive and deficient.

A visual analog for indefiniteness and instability had to be devised. A space for intuition was needed. Ab straction was one antidote.

More here.

Updike on Ernst

John Updike discusses three books related to Max Ernst and his retrospective at the Met, in the New York Review of Books:

Babymax_1Not only is Max Ernst the subject of an extensive and eye-challenging retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he is winning retrospective publicity as a romantic principal in a shameless, artistically high-powered ménage à trois in the early 1920s, lyrically and speculatively described by the documentary filmmaker Robert McNab in his Ghost Ships. The known facts are not numerous: Ernst, born in the town of Brühl, Germany, near the Rhine between Bonn and Cologne, into a large, middle-class, Catholic family, whose father was a teacher of deaf and mute children and an amateur painter, studied philosophy and abnormal psychology at the University of Bonn. At the age of twenty he decided to become a painter and joined August Macke’s Rhine Expressionist group. In 1919, having served four years in the Kaiser’s army and risen to the rank of lieutenant, he helped found, with Johannes Theodor Baargeld, the Cologne Dada movement. Increasingly well-known in art circles, and acquainted with such prominent German-speaking artists as Paul Klee, Hans Arp, George Grosz, John Heartfield, and Otto Dix, he experimented with collage.

More here.  See also this on Ernst.

ESP, Telekinesis, and Other Pseudoscience

James Randi reviews Debunked! ESP, Telekinesis, and Other Pseudoscience by Georges Charpak and Henri Broch (translated from French by Bart K. Holland), in Physics Today:

Debunked! ESP, Telekinesis, and Other Pseudoscience by Georges Charpak and Henri Broch is one of those books I wish I’d written. Charpak is a physicist at CERN who won the 1992 Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention of several particle detectors, and Henri Broch is a physics professor at the University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis in France who also teaches zetetics, the scientific investigation of paranormal phenomena. The authors approach the subjects as dedicated and qualified scientists. I, on the other hand, have to do it from a different direction. My expertise lies in the art of deception. I come from the conjuring profession, and I apply my knowledge of trickery to unravel the deceptions that cunning fakers use to deceive and swindle their victims. Charpak and Broch use their academic training to examine the logic and rationality of each case they dissect. I’m pleased to see the excellent book they’ve written.

More here.

Benjamin Franklin’s dramatic role in American history

Rachel Cohen reviews, as part of History Week at Slate, A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America by Stacy Schiff:

FranklinThe avid reader of biographies has of late plunged into so many studies that begin, like certain realist novels, with the subject’s grandparents and their immigration, followed inevitably by chapters on “initial obstacles” and “first successes,” and then by wearying passages on “maturity” and “flaws,” that Schiff’s choice to present her biography not as if it were a novel, but with a sense of theater, comes as a welcome change. Schiff has thought through the form carefully and creatively, deciding on a version of the Aristotelian dramatic principle that there should be a unity of time and place in the unfolding of her story. The setting, then, is Paris in the years between 1776 and 1785, and each chapter of the book traces a year or 18 months of that period.

More here.

Mysterious Noises on 46th Street

This is amazing. I’ve stood at the center of Times Square hundreds of times, and lived in NYC for over a decade, but I never noticed the sounds of Times Square, an auditory art installation beneath the subway grates on the island between 7th Avenue and Broadway, just below 46th Street. Nor have I ever heard about it, from anyone, until today when my wife, Margit, came across this. (We went and checked it out, and sure enough, it’s there.) Emma Steinh at

Times_squareIn the midst of Times Square, the bustling, light filled, people-packed, center of New York City, there is a secret. As many as one thousand people in an hour cross the pedestrian island that runs between 45th and 46th Street where Broadway and 7th Avenue intersect, not noticing that there is anything that differentiates this island from all the others in Manhattan. However those people with particularly open ears, or those who happen to be walking slightly below the average New York pace, may notice a mysterious humming noise, rather like the clanking of a distant machine. If any of these people were to pause and stand still for a moment, the machine noise would begin to merge with a sound like church bells, seeming to emanate from some unseen place in the sky. They would look up, searching for the origin of the sound, but what they would see are the lights, buildings and advertisements of Times Square backed not by traffic, hollering, and rushing, but by strangely beautiful tones: gongs, bells and drones. The pedestrian island becomes enveloped in a block of sound, as the noise from the surrounding environment fades into the background.

Although no plaque can be found, no explanatory text to accompany this unique experience, it is, in fact, a work of art, entitled Times Square, and its artist is Max Neuhaus. The work was originally installed at the same site from 1977-1992, at which point Neuhaus dismantled it because he had to return to Europe and the piece required constant monitoring. However, Times Square was missed, and during 2001 and 2002, the Times Square Street Business Improvement District (BID), Christine Burgin, the MTA Arts for Transit, and the Dia Art Foundation collaborated to reinstate Neuhaus’s project. The block of sound returned to 46th Street on 22 May 2002, where it has remained for the public to experience twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

More here.  Thanks Margit!

Giant plane raises fear of medical emergencies

Mick Hamer in New Scientist:

A380_1WHEN the giant Airbus A380 made its maiden flight on 27 April, the airlines’ publicity focused on plans to install bars, beauty salons, gymnasiums and even double beds on board. But there was little mention of one less glamorous fact. The A380’s ability to carry twice the number of passengers as many of today’s planes will almost double the chances that on any given flight someone will need urgent medical attention. Yet the air transport industry appears unprepared for this, New Scientist has discovered.

Medical emergencies are the most common reason for diverting aircraft (see Graphic). And as more elderly people take to the air, the frequency of medical emergencies and consequently the number of diversions is likely to increase. Though airlines are not required to report the number of medical incidents on board, a 2000 UK government report showed that the number can be as high as 1 in 1400 passengers flown. And a recent US study of one airline showed that 8 per cent of on-board medical incidents resulted in the aircraft being diverted to the nearest airport.

More here.


Michelle Cottle in The New Republic:

…the right’s dominance of the values debate has been aided by the left’s policy of disengagement (not to mention Democratic pols’ distaste for, as a certain 2004 presidential candidate sniffed, “wear[ing] my religion on my sleeve”), the connection between evangelical religion and conservative politics in this country has deep and tangled roots. For reasons as much theological as political, white evangelicals (which is what people invariably mean when they talk about American evangelicalism) turned against systemic attempts to combat poverty and other societal ills long before anyone had ever heard of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, or Ronald Reagan. More specifically, the right’s fixation on personal piety, while arguably unbiblically narrow, nonetheless draws its resonance from a powerful combination of factors–evangelicalism’s emphasis on personal redemption, the political realities of how to galvanize and sustain a mass movement, and the basic human fascination with sex–that aren’t as easily applied to issues like tax policy and Social Security reform. As a result, although American evangelicals personally may be broadening their policy interests, the community’s political activism, particularly on the domestic front, is unlikely to budge much beyond the same old “core issues” involving sex and school prayer. So, while it’s tempting for those unnerved by the right’s politicking to latch onto the idea that the moral high ground can be reclaimed–that poverty and pollution can be turned into the defining values issues of 2008–Democrats would be wise not to bet their political future on any divine, or even divinely inspired, intervention.

More here.