Thursday, June 2, 2005

Drawing uncovered of ‘Nazi nuke’

From the BBC:

LaunHistorians working in Germany and the US claim to have found a 60-year-old diagram showing a Nazi nuclear bomb.

It is the only known drawing of a “nuke” made by Nazi experts and appears in a report held by a private archive.

The researchers who brought it to light say the drawing is a rough schematic and does not imply the Nazis built, or were close to building, an atomic bomb.

But a detail in the report hints some Nazi scientists may have been closer to that goal than was previously believed.

More here.  [Thanks to Alan Koenig.]

Computing and the Cosmos

Mark Trodden at Orange Quark:

BlogpicThe BBC is carrying a nice little story about the “Millenium Run”, a supercomputer simulation of cosmological structure formation, in which the dynamics of 10 billion dark matter particles were tracked over 13 billion years of cosmological evolution. Numerical simulations are a crucial part of modern cosmology, allowing us (where by “us” I mean people like me, but who know how to write huge, complicated N-body codes) to understand how well-defined interaction rules between dark matter particles, acting in an expanding cosmos, lead to the wonderfully rich, complex, and structured universe we see today.

Without the use of computers there are many ways to understand, in broad terms, how structure formation takes place. However, in order to make detailed comparisons between theory and observations, hard-core computational cosmology is a must.

More here.

“Trust” Hormone’s Smell Helps Us Hand Over Cash

From The National Geographic:

Scientists have discovered that the hormone oxytocin, when sniffed, makes people more prone to trust others to look after their money. To test the trusting effect of oxytocin, the researchers studied people who played an investment game. In the game, participants would choose how much money to hand over to a trustee. Investors were far more trusting after inhaling the hormone, researchers found. “This is the first study that can describe the underlying biological mechanism of trust in humans,” said Markus Heinrichs, a clinical psychologist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. Heinrichs co-authored the study, which will appear tomorrow in the journal Nature.

The findings have important implications for the study of conditions in which trust is diminished (as in the mental disorder autism) or augmented. Ongoing research suggests that inhaling oxytocin may help reduce anxiety in people with social phobia, for example, and help them to interact better with others.

More here.

Scientists with disabilities: Access all areas

From Nature:

Universal access to the products of scientific research — from public-health information to data on environmental pollutants — is just one aspect of assistive technology. But for students with disabilities, having access to the right technology can determine whether they choose to enter science at all. That was true for Aqil Sajjad, a physics student from Pakistan, who says that the specialized software WinTriangle, which helps the visually impaired read and write mathematics, was a lifeline.

WinTriangle is ‘open-source’ software, which lets users adapt and rewrite it to meet their needs. It is fairly common for assistive technologies to be modified or enhanced by their users. Gardner recently teamed up with Victor Wong, James Ferwerda and Ankur Moitra at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who have developed software that translates colour pixels on a computer screen into piano notes. The group hopes to combine the audio software with IVEO’s tactile technology to solve a particularly challenging information problem.

Sajjad lost his eyesight in 1996 at the age of 16. Although science had intrigued him from a young age, he couldn’t get the support he needed to study physics in his homeland. He began searching the Internet for educational opportunities in the United States because he knew the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act had opened new doors for students with disabilities. At some point during his search, Sajjad stumbled on the work of Gardner’s Science Access Project and knew that this was where he wanted to pursue his passion for physics.

More here.

Art mobs – awaken your inner art critic

David Gilbert, a professor of communication at Marymount Manhattan College, and a group of his students created iPOD hacks for MoMA’s art collection, in a project called Art Mobs. The project suggests alternative ways of looking (or listening) to the art pieces, with the help of homemade, subversive podcasts.


“But the other day, a college student, Malena Negrao, stood in front of Pollock’s “Echo Number 25,” and her audio guide featured something a little more lively. “Now, let’s talk about this painting sexually,” a man’s deep voice said. “What do you see in this painting?”

A woman, giggling, responded on the audio track: “Oh my God! You’re such a pervert. I can’t even say what that – am I allowed to say what that looks like?”

You can read about it in NY Times, and even add your own DIY art experience to their gallery.

Imran Khan and the Quran Abuse Frenzy

Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker:

The one person most directly responsible for touching off the current frenzy over alleged Koran abuse by American interrogators at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, more than anybody at Newsweek, was a Pakistani politician named Imran Khan. Khan is an Islamic populist, not exactly a rarity in that part of the world, but with a difference. Several differences, in fact. He is, first of all, a wealthy sports celebrity—a global cricket star for two decades—and a national hero not only for that but also because he built his country’s first cancer hospital. He is a graduate of Oxford, and so thoroughly Westernized that his private life is fodder for the tabloids. After he laid down his cricket bat, he became increasingly devout, and in 1996 he founded his own political party. He is its only member of parliament, but his voice is listened to in Pakistan and beyond. Initially a supporter of General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s President, he now attacks him as an “American puppet.” Khan says he wants Pakistanis to be America’s “friends, but not lackeys.” He has no sympathy with terrorism or dictatorship. He has even suggested that only democratically elected governments should be allowed to vote at the United Nations. In other words, he is pretty nearly the beau ideal of the sort of Muslim leader we want, and need, on “our” side.

More here.  [Thanks to Atiya B. Khan.]

Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Whither the EU?

The recent no votes about the EU constitution from France and now the Dutch have touched off a new round of debates about the fate of a unified Europe (as if you didn’t know). Here are some thoughts from the TLS about a couple of recent books and their relation to the debate.

As befits a literate nation, the battle of the European Constitution in France was fought out not only on the airwaves, in angry street-corner meetings, and in vast rallies, but also in books and pamphlets whose profusion will have impressed every visitor to a French bookshop over recent weeks. These three works are just a small sample, but they can tell us something about the state of mind of the French intellectual-political class, and also, perhaps, about why France voted Non! and what this resounding negative may signify for the future of European politics.

For the Study of America in a Globalizing World

Sven Steinmo:

SvenAt the turn of the 21st century, the United States remains the preeminent nation in the world. Its military and economic power goes virtually unchallenged, while American culture is felt in even the most remote parts of the globe. At the same time the forces of globalization impinge on the United States in ways unimaginable only a few years ago. The very same forces that have contributed to America’s position in the world make it impossible for America to stand apart from that world.

As such, the Tocqueville Initiative at the University of Colorado at Boulder is premised on the belief that America is best understood in comparative perspective. Under the direction of Professor Sven Steinmo, the Initiative is a new inter-disciplinary effort bringing together scholars, political leaders, students and the general public into a dialogue over the role of the United States in a globalizing world.

More here.


Efraim Karsh in The New Republic:

EuBut in truth, France’s vote against the constitution is an important victory for European unity, because the document posed a serious threat to the great European experiment in peace and prosperity. What began 53 years ago as an idealistic attempt to use economic cooperation to heal a war-torn continent has deteriorated with the passage of time into a gigantic imperial machinery that has largely eroded the democratic values and objectives for which it was originally established.

As the European Coal and Steel Community evolved (in 1957) to the European Economic Community and then (in the mid-1980s) to the European Union, and as its membership expanded from the original six to a staggering 25, the organization’s vision of a confederation of states collaborating on an equal footing was increasingly replaced by the reality of an empire in the making–a consensual empire, yes, but an empire all the same, one in which a metropolitan center run by a new kind of bureaucratic political elite is responsible for more and more European decision-making and increasingly determined to remove control of lawmaking from member state governments.

More here.


Philip H. Gordon in The New Republic:

Eu_1The humiliating political defeat inflicted on French President Jacques Chirac on Sunday–when 55 percent of voters rejected his appeals to support a new constitution for the European Union–has left more than a few Americans beaming with satisfaction. Even before the referendum, The Weekly Standard‘s William Kristol speculated that a no vote could be a “liberating moment” for Europe. After the ballots were counted, the American Enterprise Institute’s Radek Sikorski concluded that the result would be “quite good for transatlantic relations,” because it weakened “the most anti-U.S. politician in Europe.”

American glee at the sight of Chirac with mud on his face is understandable; he was, after all, the leading opponent of the Iraq war and has long championed a Europe capable of serving as a counterweight to U.S. power. But Americans should hold their applause, which they may soon come to regret.

More here.

McNamara Trashes Bush Nuke Policy

‘It is time—well past time, in my view—for the United States to cease its Cold War-style reliance on nuclear weapons as a foreign-policy tool. At the risk of appearing simplistic and provocative, I would characterize current U.S. nuclear weapons policy as immoral, illegal, militarily unnecessary, and dreadfully dangerous…The whole situation seems so bizarre as to be beyond belief.’

Such is the view of Robert McNamara in Foreign Policy.

Occam’s Machete

David Lodge reviews What Good Are the Arts? by John Carey, in the London Times:

Regular readers will know that John Carey is that rare creature, an academic who writes shrewdly, wittily and economically on a wide range of subjects in a style that non-specialists can understand and appreciate. There is a principle, central to the British tradition of philosophical discourse, known as Occam’s Razor, which forbids the unnecessary multiplication of facts. Carey’s favourite argumentative tool is more like a machete. He has a ruthlessly logical mind that cuts through obscurity, pretension, fallacious reasoning and unsupported assertion, and he has a knack of summarising and quoting from writers with whom he disagrees to devastating effect.

More here.

Tax Breaks for Rich Murderers

David Runciman reviews Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Fight over Taxing Inherited Wealth by Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro, in the London Review of Books:

What makes it so fascinating is that it is a mystery story. The mystery is this: how did the repeal of a tax that applies only to the richest 2 per cent of American families become a cause so popular and so powerful that it steamrollered all the opposition placed in its way? The estate tax was the most progressive part of the American tax system, because it rested on the principle that the wealthy few, if they were not willing to bequeath their money to charity, should not be permitted to pass it all directly to their heirs. It had been on the statute book for nearly a hundred years, and throughout that time it had been generally assumed that there was widespread support for the idea that unearned wealth passed between the generations, creating pockets of aristocratic privilege, was not part of the American dream. Because it was a tax that so obviously took from the relatively few to relieve the burden on the very many, there seemed no possibility that a sufficiently large or durable coalition of interests could ever be formed to get rid of it. Yet during the 1990s just such a coalition came into being, and not only did it hold together, it grew to the point where the clamour for estate tax repeal seemed irresistible.

More here.

How male or female is your brain? Some tests to take…

From The Guardian:

DivinelinkThe following tests were developed by Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge.

Take the interactive empathy quotient test.

Take the interactive systemising quotient test.

Baron-Cohen’s theory is that the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, and that the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems. He calls it the empathising-systemising (E-S) theory.

Empathising is the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion. The empathiser intuitively figures out how people are feeling, and how to treat people with care and sensitivity.

Systemising is the drive to analyse and explore a system, to extract underlying rules that govern the behaviour of a system; and the drive to construct systems.

Read the full article here.

The tests work out your empathising quotient (EQ) and systemising quotient (SQ). The interactive version, which will calculate your results for you, requires Flash (version 5). Alternatively, the plain HTML version allows you to print off the questionnaire and calculate your own scores.

In either case, do both the SQ and EQ questionnaires then click on the link at the end for “your brain type”. This will tell you whether you have a male brain, a female brain or if you’re perfectly balanced.

Report your results as a comment on this post.

Comet put on list of potential Earth impactors

David L. Chandler in New Scientist:

A comet has been added to the list of potentially threatening near-Earth objects maintained by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Comet Catalina 2005 JQ5 is the largest – and therefore most potentially devastating – of the 70 objects now being tracked. However, the chances of a collision are very low.

The listing of Comet Catalina underscores the uncertainty in the knowledge of whether comets or asteroids pose a greater threat to Earth. Previous estimates of the proportion of the impact risk posed by comets have varied widely, from 1% to 50%, with most recent estimates at the lower end.

But comets are larger and faster-moving, on average, so their impacts could be a significant part of the overall risk to human life. And, unlike asteroids, they lie on randomly-oriented and usually highly elongated orbits. This makes them much more likely to remain undiscovered until they are very close to Earth.

More here.

Obesity: An Overblown Epidemic?

W. Wayt Gibbs in Scientific American:

000e50652345128a9e1583414b7f0000_1A growing number of dissenting researchers accuse government and medical authorities–as well as the media–of misleading the public about the health consequences of rising body weights.

Could it be that excess fat is not, by itself, a serious health risk for the vast majority of people who are overweight or obese–categories that in the U.S. include about six of every 10 adults? Is it possible that urging the overweight or mildly obese to cut calories and lose weight may actually do more harm than good?

Such notions defy conventional wisdom that excess adiposity kills more than 300,000 Americans a year and that the gradual fattening of nations since the 1980s presages coming epidemics of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and a host of other medical consequences…

More here.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

A continuous vibrato of brushstrokes

Jed Perl in The New Republic:

053105image_perlGoing through “Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits,” the extraordinary exhibition that was at the National Gallery in Washington this winter and is now at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles until August 28, I found myself drawn deeper and deeper into the daunting and sometimes baffling variety of Rembrandt’s painterly approach, which involves not only the brush bristles but also the palette knife and the wooden end of the brush and perhaps fingers as well. When the art historian Otto Benesch wrote about these canvases half a century ago, he described “a continuous vibrato of brushstrokes, flecks and scratches with the brush stick, nervous and utterly alive.” The secret of this aliveness has everything to do with Rembrandt’s unwillingness to settle on a method or a system. The protagonists in his late paintings–figures from the Bible or the classical past, or his contemporaries, or family members, or the artist himself–live in a world where all the old Renaissance oppositions between light and shade or volume and void, which had been set in a finely plotted perspectival space, have dissolved. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that this dissolution and the revolution that it provokes have taken place at once, for we can feel a simultaneous thinning and thickening of the atmosphere, a fading of all fixed or known structures followed swiftly by the emergence of a new, shocking concreteness.

More here.