I Want Your Hand
Rati Amaghlobeli…………………………………………….
I want your hand to be placed on my heart, and come,
I want the palm of your hand on my heart, for it to be placed on me.
Before you come I shall light a fire and I shall await
Your coming patiently. I want the big fire

To be alight all night, and voices in the silence of this fire
To be heard only as we once heard the sound of the sea,
For your shoulder, hand, arm to be put on my heart,
And for the fire to be alight.

Let it snow outside, let’s not remember anyone outside.
Let the town fall into a heavy sleep, let the town sleep,
Let fathers, brothers sleep sweetly and bitterly.
Let every place, space and area be covered in white snow.

Let factories, stations, the airport sleep in peace,
Let the sky too rest in sleep, let there be no flying,
Let the yard dogs, the tramp, the bird on the wire
Be overcome by slumber, let everything surrender to slow

Sleep and peace. But let me hold your weak
And white hand the whole night and have it on my heart.
Let for a moment an unknown god stop by our windows,
And let us too go to sleep, but let the fire stay alight.

The Voice of the Dolphins and Other Stories

Carol Strum in Department of the Planet Earth:

Book_szilardAfter fleeing Nazi persecution in 1933, Hungarian-born physicist Leo Szilard invented – and patented – the process for neutron chain reaction that would release the power of the atom. He subsequently assigned the patent to the British Admiralty in order to keep it from the Nazis. Later, goaded by fears that Germany would develop its own atomic weapons, Szilard moved to the U.S. and worked feverishly on the secret Manhattan Project, proving that a chain reaction could be initiated and developing the first atomic bombs.

Szilard was more than a physicist, however. With astonishing prescience, he foresaw the deadly political implications of atomic weaponry, the near-certainty of a nuclear arms race, and the threat such weapons posed to humanity and all life. Before the American bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he argued passionately against their use on inhabited targets. Appalled at the results of those bombs, he spent the rest of his life desperately trying to cork the terrible genie his invention had unleashed.

Undeterred by official refusals to take his warnings seriously, the irrepressible Szilard turned to fiction to deliver his message. The Voice of the Dolphins collects stories published between 1949 and 1961 in The University of Chicago Magazine, University of Chicago Law Review, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and other journals. The satire, humor, and serious issues in these stories are as relevant today as they were forty-some years ago – a sorry reflection on our failure to heed the words of the wise.

More here.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Tools of the Brain Trade

Over at Cocktail Party Physics, Jennifer Ouellette on some of the tools of mapping brains.

Last week was the start of a new program on the anatomy, development and evolution of the brain, which means the halls of KITP [Kavil Institute for Theoretical Physics] are now filled not just with particle physicists and cosmologists, but also scientists engaged in various aspects of neuroscience research. Ergo, I call them Brainiacs. That’s one of the great things about the KITP: it’s so very interdisciplinary in its scope, one never knows what sort of scientist one is likely to encounter on any given day, or what topics will be featured in the various scheduled talks. Today, for example, I can learn about gene networks in animal development, or mass determinations in decay chains with missing energy — or both, if I’m feeling especially curious. Good times!

Neuroscience isn’t a subject I cover much, beyond the occasional physics-based imaging technique (functional magnetic resonance imaging, anyone?). So why not have an unofficial “Brainiac Week” here at the cocktail party? We’ll start with a post about the foundations of modern neuroscience. Last week I heard a talk by Winfried Denk of the Max-Planck Institute in Heidelberg, Germany, which was technically about brain circuit reconstruction using sectioning electron microscopy. My magpie mind (ooh! shiny!) got sidetracked early on, however, by the fact that most of major breakthroughs in early neuroscience came about because of the development of two critical technologies: histological staining techniques, and photomicroscopy.

what art looks like these days


The 2008 Whitney Biennial is a deeply transitional, studiously pious, blandly brainy, somewhat compromised exhibition. Call it the Art School Biennial. Not because the art in it is immature or because the artists all went to art school — although I bet they did — but because it centers on a very narrow slice of highly educated artistic activity and features a lot of very thought-out, extremely self-conscious, carefully pieced-together installations, sculpture and earnestly political art. These works often resemble Home Depot displays, architectural fragments, customized found objects, ersatz modernist monuments, graphic design or magazine layouts. The resultant quasi-formalist assemblage-college esthetic, while compelling in the hands of some, is completely beholden to ideas taught in hip academies and featured in hot art magazines. Not only is it the style du jour, it promises to become really annoying in the not too distant future.

more from artnet here.

Nature’s Awful Beauty

J. Scott Turner in American Scientist:

Screenhunter_09_mar_27_1430Consider the swallow, which industriously builds its nest by gathering straw and mud and then molding the mixture. Who can watch this process and not wonder, as Aristotle did, whether there is a purposeful intelligence at work? I could offer hundreds of other examples of such behavior. For millennia, structures built by animals have fascinated us in our incarnation as Homo teleologicus—seekers of purpose, design and meaning.

To the Nobel prize-winning ethologist Karl von Frisch, animal-built structures were a source of “awe in the face of the workings of nature.” In his view, biologists “convinced that they, or future generations of scientists, will ultimately find the key of life in all its manifestations” were obvious dullards “to be pitied.” His target when he wrote these words in 1972 was an overconfident reductionism that was promising to provide an ultimate answer to life—but at a Mephistophelian price: abandonment of the quest for purpose and beauty. To von Frisch, to make such a promise was hubris. The living world is rampant with beauty and purpose—a fact that he believed demands an explanation.

There is irony in von Frisch’s challenge, though, for he was speaking as a member of another tribe—Homo darwiniensis, if you will—which claimed to have discovered its own key of life. And so the problem could be put with equal force to Darwinians: How do they account for the living world’s seeming beauty and purposefulness?

More here.

ashbery the great


The great inventor of a style fluid enough to reflect our uncertain times, a helpless symbol of those times, an incomprehensible hoax, a clear-as-glass poet of loneliness and dejection, the greatest living Surrealist, the last Romantic, a frequent influence on poets much younger than he: since 1975, when his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won almost all the awards a book of American poems could win, readers and reviewers have bestowed on John Ashbery all these labels. Meanwhile Ashbery – born in 1927 – has gone on writing his poems, and writing them faster than most of us can read them. A Worldly Country is his eleventh book of new verse in twenty years; Notes from the Air selects from the previous ten, from April Galleons (1987) to Where Shall I Wander (2005), beginning where his last Selected Poems stopped. Together, the new books portray a sad decline – but not, by any means, a decline in Ashbery’s imaginative powers. Rather, their wealth of poems portrays the decline to which all of us are subject, the fact – realized over and over in any life – that we will lose all the people and things we love, that they must, as we must, grow old and die.

more from the TLS here.

That Curious Idea of Resurrection

Larry Hurtado in Slate:

Screenhunter_07_mar_27_1357The idea of a real, personal resurrection—meaning a new bodily existence of individuals after death, in one way or another—did not originate with Christianity or with claims about Jesus. Instead, it seems to be first clearly reflected in Jewish texts dated to sometime in the second century B.C., such as the biblical book of Daniel 12:2. At the time, it was a genuinely innovative idea. (Alan Segal’s book Life After Death gives an expansive discussion of the origins of the idea of resurrection.) Many peoples of the ancient world hoped for one or another sort of eternal life, but it was usually thought of as a kind of bodiless existence of soul or spirit set in realms of the dead that might or might not be happy, pleasant places. In still other expectations, death might bring a merging of individuals with some ocean of being, like a drop of water falling into the sea.

The ancient Jewish and early Christian idea of personal resurrection represented a new emphasis on individuals and the importance of embodied existence beyond the mere survival or enhancement of the soul, although there was debate about the precise nature of the post-resurrection body. Some seem to have supposed it would be a new body of flesh and bones, closely linked to the corpse in the grave but not liable to decay or death. Others imagined a body more like that of an angel. But whatever its precise nature, the hope of resurrection reflected a strongly holistic view of the person as requiring some sort of body to be complete.

More here.

Clinton and Obama in Anthropological Perspective

Our own Justin E. H. Smith in CounterPunch:

ObamahillaryWill there be no end to this tiresome “national conversation” as to whether a black man trumps a white woman, or vice versa, on our nation’s list of the wronged? One possible end might arrive, of course, when another white man is elected in November and American politics returns to business as usual. In the meantime, I would like to join the conversation, if only in order to bring to light the inanity of the relevant comparison, based as it is on a presumption of analogy between two social groups that are distinguished, conceptually and in reality, from the dominant group for entirely different reasons: in the one case, the distinction is based on a relatively short, 500-year history of economic subordination; in the other, it is a consequence of an evidently universal structural feature of human societies.

A few disclaimers. First, disciples of the Robin Morgan-school of feminism will probably fail to appreciate that the disanalogy between race and gender may be acknowledged without abandoning one’s feminist principles, even if these principles inform a feminism of a very different stripe: one that does not seek to justify masculine domination on normative grounds, but that nonetheless is genuinely concerned to take it seriously as a deep-rooted, rather than recent and superficial, phenomenon. Second, I confess I will be doing what, at least since Simone de Beauvoir, we have been told we must never do: conflating sex and gender. Of course, “male” and “female” are not just biological categories. They are also social categories, and they have vastly different connotations from culture to culture. They do not always correspond to the biological categories they are presumed to denote.

More here.

Dan Drinker endorses Barack Obama

Will Drinker at Dan Drinker’s blog:

Dan has been following the presidential campaign with great passion.  He has been talking my ear off recently about Senator Obama and I decided, after his speech in our native Philadelphia, that it was time to ask Dan to share his thoughts.  I have always thought my brother to be an excellent judge of character and I feel his opinion is as valuable as the most famous or respected political authority because he speaks the truth and adds nothing more.

Dan Drinker Endorses Barack Obama from WDrinker on Vimeo.

[Thanks to Will Drinker.]

Thursday Poem

The Death of the Hired Man
Robert Frost

Mary sat musing on the lamp-flame at the table 
Waiting for Warren. When she heard his step,
She ran on tip-toe down the darkened passage
To meet him in the doorway with the news
And put him on his guard. “Silas is back.”
She pushed him outward with her through the door
And shut it after her. “Be kind,” she said.
She took the market things from Warren’s arms
And set them on the porch, then drew him down
To sit beside her on the wooden steps.

“When was I ever anything but kind to him?
But I’ll not have the fellow back,” he said.
“I told him so last haying, didn’t I?
‘If he left then,’ I said, ‘that ended it.’
What good is he? Who else will harbour him
At his age for the little he can do?
What help he is there’s no depending on.
Off he goes always when I need him most.
‘He thinks he ought to earn a little pay,
Enough at least to buy tobacco with,
So he won’t have to beg and be beholden.’
‘All right,’ I say, ‘I can’t afford to pay
Any fixed wages, though I wish I could.’
‘Someone else can.’ ‘Then someone else will have to.’
I shouldn’t mind his bettering himself
If that was what it was. You can be certain,
When he begins like that, there’s someone at him
Trying to coax him off with pocket-money,–
In haying time, when any help is scarce.
In winter he comes back to us. I’m done.”

“Sh! not so loud: he’ll hear you,” Mary said.

“I want him to: he’ll have to soon or late.”

Read more »

The appeal of sugar goes beyond taste

From Nature:

Sweets Crave sweets? Well, stop blaming your sweet tooth. Researchers have found that mice prefer sugary water even if they lack a gene needed to taste it. Although the mice could not taste sweets, reward centres in the brain reacted when the mice drank water spiked with sucrose, but not when they drank water mixed with a low-calorie artificial sweetener. The results, published this week in Neuron 1, suggest that mice can detect calories without relying on their taste buds — a finding that could change our understanding of the sugar cravings that can plague dieters and contribute to obesity.

The presence of a calorie-sensing pathway makes evolutionary sense, says study author Ivan de Araujo, now at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. “The taste system evolved to allow animals to quickly detect what is worth eating versus what is not,” says de Araujo. “But the real reward that they need is not the taste itself but the calories.”

More here.

Meditate on This: You Can Learn to Be More Compassionate

From Scientific American:

Compassion Like athletes or musicians, people who practice meditation can enhance their ability to concentrate—or even lower their blood pressure. They can also cultivate compassion, according to a new study. Specifically, concentrating on the loving kindness one feels toward one’s family (and expanding that to include strangers) physically affects brain regions that play a role in empathy. “There is such a thing as expertise when it comes to complex emotions or emotional skills, such as the one of cultivating benevolence,” says Antoine Lutz, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who led the study. “That raises the possibility that you can train someone to cultivate this positive emotion.”

Lutz and his colleagues, including Neuroscientist Richard Davidson, director of the university’s Waisman Center for Brain Imaging where the study was conducted, took fMRI scans of the brains of 16 veteran meditators as well as 16 others who had started with no meditation experience but received cursory training before they carried out a series of tests. During these tests, the researchers measured the flow of blood in the brains of both the veterans (some of them Tibetan monks) and the American novices as the subjects did or did not meditate on compassionate feelings while being subjected to various sounds with positive and negative connotations.

More here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Revolutionary Simpleton

Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic Monthly:

Book Ezra Pound: Poet Volume I: The Young Genius 1885-1920
by A David Moody.

Pound’s early life story is in some respects not unlike that of T. S. Eliot, the man who in his dedication to The Waste Land called Pound “il miglior fabbro” (which can mean either “the better writer” or “the better craftsman”). They shared the same desire to escape from provincial gentility in America to Europe and perhaps especially to England, the same struggle to convince parents and family that the effort was one worth endorsing and financing, the same quixotic belief that poetry could be made to yield a living and that poets were a special class, and the same register of annihilating shock when in the summer of 1914 the roof of the over-admired European civilization simply fell in.

It is always impressive to read of the sheer dedication and conviction with which Pound approached poetry, and of the immense hopes he entertained for its regenerative powers. In a single season between 1912 and 1913 in London, we find him taking up the Bengali master Rabindranath Tagore and advising the Irish genius Yeats. Moody writes:

The measures, melodies and modulations of the songs in their original Bengali, which he had Tagore sing and explain to him, interested him as a seeker after ‘fundamental laws in word music’ and seemed to correspond to the sort of metric he was working for in English. He went on to wax enthusiastic about the prospect of Bengali culture providing ‘the balance and corrective’ to a Western humanism which had lost touch with ‘the whole and the flowing’. ‘We have found our new Greece’, he declared. ‘In the midst of our clangor of mechanisms’.

More here.

The Nation and the Covenant

Over at The Immanent Frame, Philip Gorski on Obama’s speech and civil religion:

In the context of Western, democratic, nation-states, there have been three main solutions to the “church-state problem”: liberal secularism, civil religion and religious nationalism. By liberal secularism, I mean a juridico-legal system that disestablishes churches and privatizes religion. (For purposes of the present analysis, I am treating republican secularism, such as one finds in France or Turkey, as an extreme variant of liberal secularism, of the sort that exists within the Atlantic world.) By civil religion, I mean a sacralization of the democratic polity and a celebration of the sovereign people that borrows heavily from theistic language and ritual. By religious nationalism, finally, I mean a sacralization of the national state and the election of the common people that glorifies blood sacrifice and rejects the restraints of the covenant…

The history of the democratic experiment in the United States can be narrated as an oscillation between these three “solutions” or, more precisely, as an ongoing competition between them waged by an ever-changing cast of politicians, parties and movements. These three solutions are, in fact, one way of defining left and right in American politics. The Democratic Party has typically embraced liberal secularism (Jefferson) or civil religion (Kennedy). The Republican Party has typically embraced civil religion (Lincoln) or religious nationalism, Bush the Lesser). Civil religion, then, is the “vital center” of the American tradition.

Insofar as the present political conjuncture involves a choice between civil religion and religious nationalism – I would like to dwell on them further and say a few words about the particular form that they have taken in the American context.

Evolving the Wow! Factor

Judson Over at the NYT, Oliva Judson’s third piece on mutations:

There are several reasons for this neglect of the benign [mutations]. One — dare I say it — is fashion. In the late 1960s, the geneticist Motoo Kimura proposed the neutral theory of molecular evolution. According to this idea, most mutations are either harmful (and will quickly disappear from the population because those bearing them die) or irrelevant. If this is the case, most genetic variation has no impact on fitness — the technical term for how good an organism is at surviving and reproducing. Kimura’s development of the neutral theory was enormously influential, and prompted a flurry of work investigating whether most genetic variation is irrelevant.

Then it was the turn of deleterious mutations, which became trendy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Deleterious mutations have been hypothesized to play a central role in a variety of evolutionary phenomena, including (and most prominently) sex. The argument is that organisms with a deleterious mutation rate above a certain threshold must reproduce sexually.

The reason is that sex purges deleterious mutations from the population: sex generates new gene combinations, and thus in each generation it creates some individuals with relatively few deleterious mutations and some with lots.