Phoenix Descends Onto a Strange Land

From Science:

Mars The countdown was excruciating: 7 minutes to landing–or annihilation. “Altitude 2000 meters.” Falling at more than 200 kilometers per hour with its parachute open, the $420 million Phoenix lander plummeted toward the martian surface. “One thousand meters. Lander separation detected.” One hurdle cleared, but Phoenix’s ill-fated predecessor, Mars Polar Lander (MPL), had passed that one too. “Five hundred meters, 400, 250, … 80, … 40.” Thrusters now blazing, Phoenix was slowing, but MPL had messed up at just this point, prematurely cutting off its thrusters while still 40 meters up, obliterating itself on red terrain. “Thirty meters, 27, 20, 16, … touchdown signal detected.” Cheers and applause erupted at mission control. “The Phoenix has landed! The Phoenix has landed!”

“Our 7 minutes of terror is going to be followed by 3 months of joy,” Phoenix project manager Barry Goldstein of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said at a press briefing yesterday, the day after the landing.

Although the landing was gratifying, it wasn’t quite a perfect 10. Phoenix nearly overshot its targeted landing ellipse, coming down on the edge of the 60-kilometer-long target zone near its far end. That was because, for reasons yet to be determined, its parachute detached 7 seconds later than planned. But the craft still found exactly what scientists had spent years looking for: a parcel of land that is as flat as a tabletop, a rock-littered vista with only a handful of mission-ending boulders in sight, and a crinkling of the surface at the landing site that speaks of the much-sought-after ice just beneath the surface.

The one real surprise in the early hours of the mission came from the icy crinkling, says Phoenix team member Raymond Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. From orbit, the surface of the northern polar landing area appears to have a crazy-quilt patterning. Seasonal temperature cycling creates this “polygonal” design through the expansion and contraction of unseen ice just below the soil surface. Given the average polygon size of 5 meters seen from orbit, researchers had inferred a depth to the ice of about 5 centimeters. But from the landed Phoenix, smaller polygons are evident as well, perhaps 2 to 3 meters in size. That means that the area could be colder–or the ice dirtier or shallower–than expected, says Arvidson.

More here.

Gimme that Old-Time Irreligion

Norman Levitt in Skeptic:

Irreligion_cover_2The very first thing I did in drafting this review was to Google Chester Alan Arthur. I trust my readers will recall the name, if only after a bit of head-scratching, as that of one of the most obscure and unmemorable of American presidents, a run-of-the-mill New York politician who attained to the highest office in the land by virtue of the assassination of his almost equally obscure predecessor, James A. Garfield, who picked the party wheel-horse Arthur as his running mate for reasons now totally forgotten.

What has this to do with John A. Paulos’s recent book Irreligion? It is well known, of course, that some our most eminent presidents—Jefferson, Lincoln, Madison—spurned orthodoxy in religious matters, even to the point of—to use Paulos’s convenient title—irreligion. This, of course, is sufficiently embarrassing to our fundamentalist ayatollahs that they have been furiously rewriting history, chiseling away at the facts with all the fury of the restored priests of Amun hacking off Nefertiti’s heretical nose. What interested me more, however, was the question of whether disdain for religion was purely the province of politicians who where gifted intellectuals as well, or whether it was at one point so widespread and socially acceptable that even routine mediocrities, hacks, and tub-thumpers could espouse such views without being banished from public life and high office.

More here.

Ten years later

Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy in Dawn:

Screenhunter_01_may_28_1122It’s May 1998 and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif congratulates wildly cheering citizens as the Chagai mountain trembles and goes white from multiple nuclear explosions. He declares that Pakistan is now safe and sound forever.

Bomb makers become national heroes. Schoolchildren are handed free badges with mushroom clouds. Bomb and missile replicas are planted in cities up and down the land. Welcome to nuclear Pakistan.

Fast-forward the video 10 years. Pakistan turns into a different country, deeply insecure and afraid for its future. Grim-faced citizens see machine-gun bunkers, soldiers crouched behind sandbags, barbed wire and barricaded streets. In Balochistan and Fata, helicopter gunships and fighter jets swarm the skies.

Today, we are at war on multiple fronts. But the bomb provides no defence. Rather, it has helped bring us to this grievously troubled situation and offers no way out. On this awful anniversary, it is important that we relate the present to the past.

More here.  [Scroll down.]

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Jet Man

This is cool:

See more videos at his website. More from Jennifer over at Cocktail Party Physics:

A couple of weeks ago — May 14, to be exact — a Swiss man named Yves Rossy (a.k.a., “Fusion Man“) made headlines (and secured a little piece of history) when he strapped on an 8-foot jet-powered wing and leaped from an airplane, soaring over the Alps. Rossy spent years developing his device, and successfully flew the first jet-powered wing in November 2006. There’s been a smattering of R&D on jet packs to propel human beings dating as far back as World War II; Rossy’s invention is the first to combine a jet pack with actual wings.

It’s been a big month for would-be aviators. In April, another Swiss man — what is it with the Swiss these days? — jumped from a hovering helicopter and floated to earth using a pyramid-shaped parachute he built himself, based on a design by Leonardo da Vinci. Olivier Vietti-Teppa found the specifications in a da Vinci text dating back to 1485: four equilateral triangles, seven meters on each side, that Vietti-Teppi made from modern parachute fabric, using a square of mosquito netting at the base of the pyramid. Furthermore, later this year, Red Bull will hold three “flugtag” competitions in the US — Tampa Bay, FL, in July, Portland, OR, in August, and Chicago in September — whereby aspiring aviators build their own flying machines and then push them off a 30-foot platform (deliberately built over water) to see how far — or if — they can fly. Most drop like a stone into the water, but generally, a good time is had by all. And some of the whimsical designs can be a lot of fun; there have been machines shaped like Homer Simpson, a pimped-out Cadillac, a giant Oompah-Loompah, and even a big red lobster named Larry. (For those not inclined to build their own machines, there’s now an online game.)

Almost as long as mankind has been sentient, I’d wager we’ve been trying to find some means to fly, with more than a few casualties along the way.

Does Art Redeem Religion?

Tracy_quan_140x140 I’ve never understood why if you respect, love, or admire X, you have to respect, love, or admire the conditions of its origin, or more narrowly, what inspired its creation.  My appreciation of Kipling does not commit me to an appreciation of British colonialism, for example. Tracy Quan makes this strange argument with respect to religion over at Comment is Free:

If you champion the splendors and benefits of Western culture, while claiming to oppose religion entirely, you are, metaphorically speaking, tone deaf.

Whether your preference is Bach, Britten, Palestrina, Kanye West or Earth, Wind and Fire, you’ll find some aspect of Christianity in the details.  But reggae – such as The Melodians doing Rivers of Babylon, based on a psalm of the exiled Jews – can’t easily be separated from religion, either. Run from religion, if you must, but you can’t hide from song, sculpture, poetry, architecture, painting, tourism or food.

Given that the influence of religion over the centuries has made them what they are, I can’t help seeing something crude in the impulse for some to bash it. As a “cafeteria” atheist and secular Catholic, I don’t share that impulse. Religion has given us some rather fabulous architecture, a lot of excellent paintings, a variety of head coverings – from yarmulkes through wimples, veils and turbans – which I , for one, find fascinating.

Iron Man and American Imperialism

Spencer Ackerman in the American Prospect:

[T]he lessons of Vietnam sunk in on the comics juggernaut. Perhaps the idea that all the United States had to do was build bigger gadgets of disaster to use on a complicated world was hopelessly flawed. Perhaps Iron Man was symptomatic of the rot. Perhaps, by holding up a mirror to U.S. policies, Iron Man could become a vehicle for cleansing the country of its Cold War hang-ups. Marvel set to work reworking the character and its themes.

A problem confronted the company, though. Iron Man is a superhero. Cold-War product or not, Marvel couldn’t very well turn him into a villain. Writers in the 1970s and 1980s solved the problem in two creative ways. First, the comic adopted the New Left’s structural critique of Vietnam — the war was the inevitable product of a systemic belief in unrestricted capitalism, American exceptionalism, and racism — by making Stark Industries an enemy of poor Tony Stark, who had unleashed malevolent forces he couldn’t control. Thus Iron Man’s nemesis became a black-mirror version of himself: the ruthless metal juggernaut (another metal-suit weapon) subtly named Iron Monger, controlled by rival defense-industry bloodsucker Obadiah Stane. More cleverly, Stark’s best friend Jim Rhodes became a second Iron Man — but one sent into a paranoid frenzy of destruction by the armor’s inability to interface properly with his brain. Rhodes’s secret identity? War Machine.

The second way Marvel subtly readjusted Iron Man for America’s post-Vietnam sensibilities was to reveal that the reason Stark could control neither his company nor his relationships was that he couldn’t control himself.

Doughnut-shaped Universe bites back

From Nature:

Universe The doughnut is making a comeback – at least as a possible shape for our Universe.

The idea that the universe is finite and relatively small, rather than infinitely large, first became popular in 2003, when cosmologists noticed unexpected patterns in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) – the relic radiation left behind by the Big Bang. The CMB is made up of hot and cold spots that represent ripples in the density of the infant Universe, like waves in the sea. An infinite Universe should contain waves of all sizes, but cosmologists were surprised to find that longer wavelengths were missing from measurements of the CMB made by NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe.

One explanation for the missing waves was that the universe is finite. “You can think of the Universe as a musical instrument – it cannot sustain vibrations that have a wavelength that is bigger than the length of the instrument itself,” explains Frank Steiner, a physicist at Ulm University in Germany. Cosmologists have suggested various ‘wrap-around’ shapes for the Universe: it might be shaped like a football or even a weird ‘doughnut’. In each case, the Universe would appear to be infinite, because you would never physically reach its edge – if you travelled far enough in any direction you would end up back where you started, just as if you were circumnavigating the globe.

More here.

The Painter from Shanghai

Sarah Towers in the New York Times Book Review:

Screenhunter_02_may_27_1224In this age of memoir and thinly veiled autobiographical fiction, writers who take high dives into deeply imagined waters have become increasingly rare — and valuable. What a pleasure, then, to discover that Jennifer Cody Epstein, whose luminous first novel, “The Painter From Shanghai,” is based on the actual life of Pan Yuliang, a former child prostitute turned celebrated painter, also happens to be one such writer.

It doesn’t hurt that Yuliang’s life — buffeted by the seismic cultural and political shifts in China during the first half of the 20th century — makes for an irresistible story: born in 1895 and orphaned as a child, Yuliang was sold into sexual slavery at 14 by her opium-addicted uncle. After seven years in the brothel, she was bought out by Pan Zanhua, a progressive official who made her his concubine, then his second wife, and encouraged her painting. One of a handful of women accepted into the Shanghai Art School, she went on to win fellowships for study in Paris and Rome. After several years abroad, she returned to China, where success and scandal — thanks to her Western-influenced nude self-portraits — followed. In 1937, with Shanghai and Nanking under bloody assault by the Japanese, Yuliang fled China for good, settling alone in Paris, where she died, impoverished, in 1977.

More here. You can read an interview with Jennifer Cody Epstein here. Her official website, with a lot more information, is here. And you can look at some paintings by Yuliang here. We are happy that Jennifer will right a guest column at 3QD soon.

Curriculum Designed to Unite Art and Science

Natalie Angier in The New York Times:

Arts_2 It’s been some 50 years since the physicist-turned-novelist C.P. Snow delivered his famous “Two Cultures” lecture at the University of Cambridge, in which he decried the “gulf of mutual incomprehension,” the “hostility and dislike” that divided the world’s “natural scientists,” its chemists, engineers, physicists and biologists, from its “literary intellectuals,” a group that, by Snow’s reckoning, included pretty much everyone who wasn’t a scientist. His critique set off a frenzy of hand-wringing that continues to this day, particularly in the United States, as educators, policymakers and other observers bemoan the Balkanization of knowledge, the scientific illiteracy of the general public and the chronic academic turf wars that are all too easily lampooned.

Yet a few scholars of thick dermis and pep-rally vigor believe that the cultural chasm can be bridged and the sciences and the humanities united into a powerful new discipline that would apply the strengths of both mindsets, the quantitative and qualitative, to a wide array of problems. Among the most ambitious of these exercises in fusion thinking is a program under development at Binghamton University in New York called the New Humanities Initiative.

Jointly conceived by David Sloan Wilson, a professor of biology, and Leslie Heywood, a professor of English, the program is intended to build on some of the themes explored in Dr. Wilson’s evolutionary studies program, which has proved enormously popular with science and nonscience majors alike, and which he describes in the recently published “Evolution for Everybody.” In Dr. Wilson’s view, evolutionary biology is a discipline that, to be done right, demands a crossover approach, the capacity to think in narrative and abstract terms simultaneously, so why not use it as a template for emulsifying the two cultures generally?

More here.

US academic deported and banned for criticising Israel

Toni O’Loughlin in The Guardian:

FinkelsteinNorman Finkelstein, the controversial Jewish American academic and fierce critic of Israel, has been deported from the country and banned from the Jewish state for 10 years, it emerged yesterday.

Finkelstein, the son of a Holocaust survivor who has accused Israel of using the genocidal Nazi campaign against Jews to justify its actions against the Palestinians, was detained by the Israeli security service, Shin Bet, when he landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport on Friday.

Shin Bet interrogated him for around 24 hours about his contact with the Lebanese Islamic militia, Hizbullah, when he travelled to Lebanon earlier this year and expressed solidarity with the group which waged war against Israel in 2006. He was also accused of having contact with al-Qaida. But Finkelstein rejected the accusations, saying he had travelled to Israel to visit an old friend.

“I did my best to provide absolutely candid and comprehensive answers to all the questions put to me,” he told an Israeli newspaper in an email exchange.

More here.

Can science and God ever get along?

Tim Hames in The Telegraph:

ScienceA brilliant series of 13 short essays published by the John Templeton Foundation (at offers different responses to the question: “Does science make belief in God obsolete?” The appeal of this slender volume is threefold.

The first part of its charm is the unexpected nature of many of the answers. Although about half of the contributors are in the “Yesish” camp, only one (Professor Victor Stenger) is willing to state unambiguously that: “Science has not only made belief in God obsolete. It has made it incoherent.”

Some of those whose opinions might have been considered predictable turn out not to be. Professor Robert Sapolsky is an outright “No”, because: “Despite the fact that I am an atheist, I recognise that belief offers something that science does not.”

Yet Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, answers both “No, and Yes”, because although he contends that the knowledge acquired by science makes belief in God “more reasonable than ever”, a reductive “scientific mentality” has, he says, “helped push the concept of God into the hazy twilight of agnosticism”. This is a brave concession from him.

The second element of the book’s appeal is the data that comes with some of the responses. Thanks to Christopher Hitchens (his answer was “No, but it should”)…

More here.  Original debate here.  [Thanks to Bilal Siddiqi.]

Monday, May 26, 2008

3QD Wins Editors’ Award from The Morning News

2008editorsawardsAlong with The Atlantic Monthly and New York magazines and twelve others, we have won an award from the editors of The Morning News:

Favorite Blog to Embrace All That’s Smart

You try combining gossip stories with contemporary poetry with thought pieces on Chris Farley. Three Quarks Daily apparently took the same classes as us in college, subscribes to the same obscure science magazines, obsesses about Top Chef at similar pitch. Hell, if Stephen Pinker and David Byrne—and TMN—all love it, why say no?

More here.