High-Tech Pictures Reveal How Hummingbirds Hover

From Scientific American:

0002a840b9b912b9b9b983414b7f0000_1Previous investigations into the flight of the hummingbird had suggested that it could be employing the same mechanisms as insects, which often hover and dart in a manner similar to the bird. “But a hummingbird is a bird, with the physical structure of a bird and all of the related capabilities and limitations,” explains Douglas Warrick of Oregon State University. “It is not an insect and it does not fly exactly like an insect.” To unravel the hummingbird’s aerial secrets, Warrick and his colleagues used a technique called digital particle imaging velocimitry (DPIV). Usually employed by engineers, DPIV uses microscopic particles of olive oil that are light enough to be moved to and fro by the slightest changes in air currents. As a pulsing laser illuminates the droplets for short periods of time, a camera captures them on film. From the resulting images, the scientists determined exactly how the bird’s wings move the air around them.

More here.

Sri Lanka leader gambles on tsunami aid

Ethirajan Anbarasan at the BBC:

_40052218_srilanka203body_apSri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s bold decision to push through a deal to share international tsunami aid has restored hopes of a negotiated settlement to the island’s ethnic conflict.

In addition, analysts say, the president has scored a victory over her political rivals by being “firm and decisive” in bringing about the deal with the Tamil Tiger rebels.

Under the agreement, Sinhalas, Tamils and Muslims will share nearly $3bn in aid pledged after the December tsunami.

Representatives from all three communities will be responsible for reconstruction work at different administrative levels in the Tamil-dominated north and east.

The Tsunami Relief Council, as it is called, may not have considerable political or executive powers but in more than two decades of war this is the first time both sides have come together to work in an administrative structure for a common cause.

More here.

The Mysteries of Mass

From Scientific American:Mass

Most people think they know what mass is, but they understand only part of the story. For instance, an elephant is clearly bulkier and weighs more than an ant. Even in the absence of gravity, the elephant would have greater mass–it would be harder to push and set in motion. Obviously the elephant is more massive because it is made of many more atoms than the ant is, but what determines the masses of the individual atoms? What about the elementary particles that make up the atoms–what determines their masses? Indeed, why do they even have mass?

More here.

Historian, Novelist Shelby Foote Dies at 88

Nick Owchar in the Los Angeles Times:

18230851Southern novelist and historian Shelby Foote, who chronicled Mississippi Delta life in his fiction and created a panoramic history of the Civil War, died Monday in Memphis, his wife, Gwyn, said Tuesday. He was 88.

Best known for the courtly eloquence he brought as commentator to Ken Burns’ 1990 PBS documentary, “The Civil War,” Foote belonged to a rich tradition of Mississippi storytellers that included William Faulkner, Walker Percy and Eudora Welty.

It was his appearance in Burns’ film, enthralling its 40 million viewers with his battlefield’s-eye-view of the war, that first gained this singular American storyteller the recognition of a wide audience.

“One of the reasons why that documentary worked itself into the bloodstream of this country is because of Shelby,” Burns said.

Slight of build, his gray beard trimmed close to the jaw, Foote vividly evoked the horrors of 19th century warfare, such as the hail of bullets that cut men down at Shiloh, as well as war’s smaller moments — days when rations ran so low that soldiers ate sloosh, a wretched mixture of cornmeal and bacon grease. And he did it with a charming mellow voice tone that seemed dipped in Delta mud.

More here.  [Thanks to Winfield J. Abbe.]

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

After 2,600 years, the world gains a fourth poem by Sappho

John Ezard in The Guardian:

Sappho1A newly found poem by Sappho, acknowledged as one of the greatest poets of Greek classical antiquity and seen by some as the finest of any era, is published for the first time today.

Written more than 2,600 years ago, the 101 words of verse deal with a theme timeless in both art and soap operas; the stirrings of an ageing body towards the nimbleness, youth and love it once knew.

The poem is the rarest of discoveries. Sappho’s pre-eminent reputation as an artist of lyricism and love is based on only three complete poems, 63 complete single lines and up to 264 fragments.

These are all that have survived of the writings of a woman who the Greek philosopher Plato said should be honoured not merely as a great lyric poet but as one of the Muses, the goddesses who inspire all art.

More here.

Street Diva

Arthur Kempton in the New York Review of Books:

Billie20holiday2In the spring of 1947, Jimmy Fletcher heard from his bosses at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics that it might be a convenient time to visit Billie Holiday at home. Her manager, a former fight-fixer, whoremonger, and running dog in Al Capone’s pack, had offered up the celebrated Negro “torchchanteuse” and notorious dope fiend as grist for Harry Anslinger’s publicity mill.

Anslinger, the bureau’s first and only commissioner, was the public face of America’s war on drugs, and he hustled as hard, if not as well, as his envied rival J. Edgar Hoover. Splashy arrests kept the congressional purse holders mindful of who stood between America’s schoolchildren and the ravening scourge of narcotics. For doers of the commissioner’s bidding, Billie Holiday was “an attractive customer,” a reliable source of repeat business.

More here.

Psychiatrists: Tom Cruise comments ‘irresponsible’

From CNN:

The American Psychiatric Association on Monday sharply criticized actor Tom Cruise for televised remarks in which he called psychiatry a “pseudo science” and disputed the value of antidepressant drugs…

Storycruisetoday “Before I was a Scientologist, I never agreed with psychiatry,” Cruise said. “And when I started studying the history of psychiatry, I understood more and more why I didn’t believe in psychology. … And I know that psychiatry is a pseudo science.” (Full story)

Disputing the effectiveness of antidepressants generally, Cruise said, “all it does is mask the problem.” He added, “There is no such thing as a chemical imbalance.”

Cruise also singled out drugs, such as Ritalin, that are used to treat children for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, calling Ritalin “a street drug.”

As “Today” host Matt Lauer pressed the 42-year-old actor on his views, Cruise said, “Here’s the problem. You don’t know the history of psychiatry. I do.”

More here.

Tell Joe Barton How You Feel

Mark Trodden in a post at Orange Quark:

At the risk of being pedantic (Oh, who am I kidding, I’m going to go on and on about this stuff until it stops), the attack on science in the U.S. is going ahead full steam. Congressman Joe Barton (Republican, of Texas), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is sending intimidating letters to the members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and to Arden Bement, Director of the National Science Foundation. It’s true – take a look! Chris Mooney has some excerpts from the letters, so I won’t reproduce them here, but will just comment that they are of a kind designed to make scientists think twice about undertaking research on such a politically sensitive topic as global warming.

Representative Barton’s tactics are just part of the more wide-ranging assault on scientific evidence that the Bush administration is waging.

More here.  Mark also has other posts on the anti-science activities of the Bush administration.

New Movement in Parkinson’s

From Scientific American:Parkinson

As its 19th-century name suggests–and as many people know from the educational efforts of prominent Parkinson’s sufferers such as Janet Reno, Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox–the disease is characterized by movement disorders. Tremor in the hands, arms and elsewhere, limb rigidity, slowness of movement, and impaired balance and coordination are among the disease’s hallmarks. In addition, some patients have trouble walking, talking, sleeping, urinating and performing sexually.

These impairments result from neurons dying. Because the insights involve molecules whose activity could potentially be altered or mimicked by drugs in ways that would limit cell death, the discoveries could lead to therapies that would do more than ease symptoms–they would actually limit the neuronal degeneration responsible for disease progression. 

More here.

Remembrance of Things Future: The Mystery of Time

From The New York Times:Time_graphic

There was a conference for time travelers at M.I.T. earlier this spring. I’m still hoping to attend, and although the odds are slim, they are apparently not zero despite the efforts and hopes of deterministically minded physicists who would like to eliminate the possibility of your creating a paradox by going back in time and killing your grandfather.

More here.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Patent absurdity

“If patent law had been applied to novels in the 1880s, great books would not have been written. If the EU applies it to software, every computer user will be restricted, says Richard Stallman.”

Richard Stallman in The Guardian:

A novel and a modern complex programme have certain points in common: each is large and implements many ideas. Suppose patent law had been applied to novels in the 1800s; suppose states such as France had permitted the patenting of literary ideas. How would this have affected Hugo’s writing? How would the effects of literary patents compare with the effects of literary copyright?

Consider the novel Les Misérables, written by Hugo. Because he wrote it, the copyright belonged only to him. He did not have to fear that some stranger could sue him for copyright infringement and win. That was impossible, because copyright covers only the details of a work of authorship, and only restricts copying. Hugo had not copied Les Misérables, so he was not in danger.

Patents work differently. They cover ideas – each patent is a monopoly on practising some idea, which is described in the patent itself.

More here.

Just Plain Cool

000b77f46cf612bcacf683414b7f0000_1“NASA scientists have planned a spectacular celestial show for July 4th. That’s the date on which a probe from the Deep Impact spacecraft is scheduled to slam into the comet Tempel 1 in an attempt to learn more about the comet’s billion-year-old interior. New images snapped by the Hubble Space Telescope are giving researchers a sneak peak at what type of conditions they might find. The pictures show a new jet of dust streaming out of the icy comet.”

more here.

Sex After Fascism

“In no Western country were questions of sexuality more politically central during the second
half of the twentieth century than the Federal Republic of Germany. after the collapse of National Socialism it was, in the slang of the time, Thema 1 (“Topic No. 1″); by 1970 the Nouvel Observateur could claim that the Germans were sex-obsessed—”Sex über alles“—noting that the heavy breathing of orgasm had mercifully replaced the stomping of boots. Nowhere were sexual and political liberation linked more fiercely during the 1960s and ’70s, and nowhere—with the possible exception of the United States—was the backlash in the decades that followed more painful. Even in the German Democratic Republic, where socialism supposedly made matters of personal sexual morality less pressing, Siegfried Schnabl’s 1969 Mann und Frau intim (Man and Woman Intimately) was the biggest-selling title of any book in East German history (the nearest competitor was a book on gardening).”

More from Bookforum.

How the Universe got its hydrogen pairs

From Nature:Stars

A computer model has made progress in solving an astronomical mystery: why is so much hydrogen in the Universe paired up into molecules instead of existing as single atoms? The secret is simple. It comes down to the fact that space dust is probably bumpy rather than smooth. It has long been assumed that hydrogen atoms sticking to these dust particles are jostled together, encouraging hydrogen atoms to pair up into H2. But when one team of researchers tested this theory, it came up short.

More here.

Negotiations: 3: Down the Rabbit-Hole

Eastern Kentucky is one of the most accidentally beautiful places I have ever been. Being there, one feels as though God knocked over his cereal box one morning and Kentucky spilled out. The place is a jumble and a tangle, off-kilter and slightly askew: a world whose axis is tilted a few degrees further than that of the one to which we are accustomed. The land is ravaged by gorges and pock-marked with hollers; mountains make their way across it with jagged, sideways movements, like crabs. The sky seems to be warped in reflection of the terrain, and while I was there I had the distinct sense that one of my legs was longer than the other, which meant that I spent a lot of time leaning against crooked timbers to gain my equilibrium. If I were a Creationist, I would have to argue that eastern Kentucky is evidence not for Intelligent but Cockeyed Design. God had a hangover when He made this place.

The human element expresses a dialectic between this spilled and crushed landscape and the crushing poverty of its inhabitants. (The county I visited has the highest child poverty rate in the nation—40 percent—which means the 5,000 inhabitants of said county are consigned to a nightmare Thoreau never imagined: here men live their lives not in quiet desperation but amidst a desperate quiet.) Still, these are hard men whose families have been on the land for five and six generations; they will not submit to fate, and they keep their land tidy and well-ordered, pulling corn in neat rows from the soil with the same commitment it would take you or I to quarry granite from a mountainside with a pick and a shovel.

This dialectic between land and human life achieved its material synthesis, in my eyes, in a series of barns I passed on Route 191, between Grassy Creek and Campton. Still functioning, they had become torqued and twisted with age and environmental punishment, their metal roofs sliding off into the dirt like ice cream slipping from a cone in the sun. Their walls had shifted without giving way, and structures that had once been square had gone feral, turning rhomboid and parallelogram. Most were engaged in an agon with a riotous vine that held them in a death grip while waiting for a nearby tree to drop a limb and deliver the coup-de-grace.

My curiosity was piqued at first, but by the sixth of these barns my aesthetic sensibility was fully aroused and I began naming them as I passed: “Entropy: 1, 2 and 3.” “Time’s Arrow.” Squaring the Circle.” “Elvis Has Left the Building.” “A Practical Application of Non-Euclidean Geometry.” “In Advance of a Broken Neck.” “Waiting for Damocles.” “Unintentional Consequence.”

It was as though I had tumbled down a rabbit-hole to find myself in a world that was the result of a collaboration between Marcel Duchamp and Robert Smithson. These barns were Found Installations, pure and simple. In reality, of course, they were the result of a collaboration between an extreme environment and extreme poverty; but if one makes the effort to shear off one’s social conscience and experience them as accidental art objects, they are beautiful, haunting and tragic.

When Duchamp went to an International Industrial Exposition in the early part of the 20th century, he is said to have declared to his companions while standing before an airplane propeller that painting was dead. Pointing at it, he asked them, “Could anyone make a thing so perfect by hand?” Looking at these barns in Kentucky, I found myself asking a similar question: Could any intent produce these objects? A dainty little work in a precious Chelsea gallery is like a bit of Art Kitsch in comparison, dry and dessicated and dreadfully weak. Duchamp would have loved these barns; but as he knew, being an artist has less to do with what one manufactures than with how one sees.

Monday Musing: The Man With Qualities

Sahabzada_yaqub_bw_plain_backgroundSahabzada Yaqub Khan is the father of one of my closest friends, Samad Khan. He is also probably the most remarkable man I have ever met. All Pakistanis know who he is, as do many others, especially world leaders and diplomats, but to those of you for whom his name is new, I would like to take this Monday Musing as an opportunity to introduce him.

The first time that I met Sahabzada Yaqub Khan about six years ago, he was in Washington and New York as part of a tour of four or five countries (America, Russia, China, Japan, etc.) relations with which are especially important to Pakistan. He had come as President Musharraf‘s special envoy to reassure these governments in the wake of the fall of the kleptocratic shambles that was Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif‘s so-called democratic government. Samad Khan, or Sammy K as he is affectionately known to friends, invited me over to his apartment to meet his Dad. I had heard and read much about Sahabzada Yaqub and knew his reputation for fierce intellect and even more intimidating, had heard reports of his impatience with and inability to suffer fools, so I was nervous when I walked in. Over the next couple of hours I was blown away: Sahabzada Yaqub was not much interested in talking about politics, and instead, asked about my doctoral studies in philosophy. It was soon apparent that he had read widely and deeply in the subject, and knew quite a bit about the Anglo-American analytic philosophy I had spent the previous five years reading. He even asked some pointed questions about aspects of philosophy which even some graduate students in the field might not know about, much less laymen. Though we were interrupted by a series of phone calls from the likes of Henry Kissinger wanting to pay their respects while Sahabzada Yaqub was in town, we managed to talk not just about philosophy, but also physics (he wanted to know more about string theory), Goethe (SYK explained some of his little-known scientific work, in addition to quoting and then explicating some difficult passages from Faust), the implications of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, and Urdu literature, of which Sahabzada Yaqub has been a lifelong devotee.

Syk_sask_sar_1I left late that night dazzled by his brilliance, and elated by his warmth and generosity. Sahabzada Yaqub listens more than he speaks, but when he does speak, he is a raconteur extraordinaire. Since then, I have been fortunate enough to get to know him well, and have spent many a rapt hour in his company. On my last trip to Islamabad, he and his wife and Sammy K had me and my wife Margit over for dinner, where upon learning that Margit is from Italy, Sahabzada Yaqub spoke with her in Italian. Then, realizing that she is from the South Tyrol (the German-speaking part of Italy near the Austrian border), he spoke to her in German, giving us a fascinating mini-lecture on German translations of Shakespeare. I can picture him now, emphatically declaiming “Sein oder nicht sein. Das ist hier die frage.” (The picture on the right with Sammy K and me is from that night.)

Sahabzada Yaqub Khan has done and been so many things, that it is hard to know where to begin describing his career in the short space that I have. An aristocrat from the royal family of Rampur, he has served as a soldier, statesman, diplomat, and chairman of the board of trustees of Pakistan’s finest university, among other things, and has excelled in each of these roles. Maj_gen6365In 1970, he was a Lieutenant General in the Pakistan army, and governor of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) when he was ordered by the military dictator of Pakistan at the time, General Yahya Khan, to have troops forcibly put down the mutiny there, which had spilled out into the streets. It is a testament to Sahabzada Yaqub’s moral courage that he refused, and resigned instead. Yahya, of course, found less-conscientious generals to do his dirty work, and the result was a massacre of Bengali civilians before a humiliating defeat in war when India stepped in on the side of the insurgents, and ultimately the dismemberment of Pakistan. This is a dark chapter in Pakistani history for which the government has yet to apologize to the Bangladeshi people. Sahabzada Yaqub Khan is, however, still celebrated as a hero in Bangladesh. (His moral convictions haven’t changed, either. The last time Sahabzada Yaqub visited New York in July, 2004 he came over for drinks and pizza–he is a man of sophisticated tastes who still enjoys simple things–and more than anything else, that day he repeatedly expressed his shock and dismay at the behavior of U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib. What particularly galled and appalled him was that the troops took such delight and pride in their torturous abuse that they felt compelled to record it on film–as if they wanted to be able to relive it. The lack of shame was what disturbed him the most.)

Syk_at_unSoon after the debacle of 1971, when a properly-elected civilian government had taken power in Pakistan, Sahabzada Yaqub was offered, and accepted, several diplomatic appointments, serving as Pakistan’s ambassador to France, the Soviet Union, and the United States. Let me illustrate his reputation as a cold-war strategist with a quick anecdote: one day Sammy K and I were searching through some old packed boxes of Sammy K’s for a 70s punk rock record, when I came upon an official looking document, with the seal of the President of the United States on it. On examination, it turned out to be a letter from Nixon to Sahabzada Yaqub, written while Nixon was president, and (I am quoting from memory) this is roughly what Nixon had to say: “It was a pleasure meeting you and spending some time talking to you. Alexander Haig had told me that you are probably the most astute geopolitical thinker alive today. Having met you, I believe this was an understatement. Call me anytime.” Or words to that effect.

From 1982 onwards, Sahabzada Yaqub Khan served as Pakistan’s foreign minister in various governments. He was a central figure in the UN negotiations to end Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. From 1992 to 1994, Sahabzada Yaqub was also the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative for the Western Sahara. And in November 1999, as I have already mentioned, Sahabzada Yaqub traveled to various countries as President Musharraf’s special envoy. While Sahabzada Yaqub was in America as part of that tour, William Safire wrote an editorial in the New York Times in which, amongst much else, he said that for clarification about the situation in Pakistan he turned to “the most skillful diplomat in the world today: Sahabzada Yaqub Khan.”

Syk_lecturingThough he has always been fiercely protective of his privacy, politely refusing to write his memoirs despite great public demand (including entreaties over the last few years from me), Sahabzada Yaqub Khan has recently allowed some of his writings to be collected into book form: Strategy, Diplomacy, Humanity, compiled and edited by Dr. Anwar Dil, had its launch earlier this month at a ceremony at the Agha Khan University in Karachi. Here is a description of the book from the AKU website:

…the book Strategy, Diplomacy, Humanity contains Sahabzada Yaqub-Khan’s selected writings, with photos spanning his entire life, culled from his lectures, articles and speeches between 1980s and the present day. They describe his thoughts on national strategy, diplomacy, world affairs, education and his vision of a world of dialogue and peace for all of humanity. In the foreword, Shaharyar M. Khan, former foreign secretary of Pakistan, describes the book as “essential reading for the student of modern history, diplomatic strategy, and the art and craft of negotiations. They reflect the outpourings of a brilliant analyst whose immense talent was applied towards achieving pragmatic objectives in Pakistan’s national interest.”

I have been unable to obtain the book, but even without having seen it yet, I can safely urge you to get a copy and read it if you can. I also hope that Sahabzada Yaqub overcomes his reticence soon and writes the detailed memoirs that history demands of him.

Among other things, Sahabzada Yaqub Khan is a true polyglot: he can speak, read and write somewhere between 6 and 10 languages. While he was governor of East Pakistan, he learned Bengali and delivered public addresses in it, which went a long way toward assuaging their concerns of cultural dominance by West Pakistan. He is also a stylishly impeccable dresser (he was voted best-dressed several years in a row by the Washington diplomatic corps). My greatest joy in his company, however, remains his inimitable explications of the deeper philosophical implications buried in Ghalib‘s couplets, of which he has been a longtime and enthusiastic student. In short, he is a man with many and diverse qualities.

Have a good week!

My other recent Monday Musings:
Special Relativity Turns 100
Vladimir Nabokov, Lepidopterist
Stevinus, Galileo, and Thought Experiments
Cake Theory and Sri Lanka’s President

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Climate and the Collapse of Maya Civilization

From American Scientist:

Maya1_1 With their magnificent architecture and sophisticated knowledge of astronomy and mathematics, the Maya boasted one of the great cultures of the ancient world. Although they had not discovered the wheel and were without metal tools, the Maya constructed massive pyramids, temples and monuments of hewn stone both in large cities and in smaller ceremonial centers throughout the lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula, which covers parts of what are now southern Mexico and Guatemala and essentially all of Belize. From celestial observatories, such as the one at Chichén Itzá, they tracked the progress of Venus and developed a calendar based on a solar year of 365 days. They created their own system of mathematics, using a base number of 20 with a concept of zero. And they developed a hieroglyphic scheme for writing, one that used hundreds of elaborate signs. The demise of Maya civilization (which archaeologists call “the terminal Classic collapse”) has been one of the great anthropological mysteries of modern times. What could have happened?

More here.

Lewis Museum captures the soaring spirit of African-Americans

Edward Gunts in the Baltimore Sun:

18155064With 82,000 square feet of space on five levels, the Lewis museum is the second-largest African-American heritage museum in the United States, after Detroit’s. At its heart are permanent and temporary exhibits that tell stories about African-Americans in Maryland – the obstacles they’ve overcome and the contributions they’ve made. There are also gathering spaces for conferences and receptions, an auditorium, cafe, interactive learning center, oral history recording center, staff offices, classrooms and a store.

The land finally chosen for the museum is a corner parcel within easy walking distance of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the state’s most-visited tourist district. The architects’ challenge was to create a building that fits into the urban context but stands out enough to convey how unusual it is.

They responded with a boldly modern building that makes the most of its tight but prominent site. Then they imbued the building with layers of meaning that help tell what’s inside. The design doesn’t make literal references to African architecture. Its strength lies in the use of architectural symbolism – through colors, forms and materials – to create a building that avoids cliches but is undeniably African-American in spirit.

More here.

Billy K.

An interesting assessment from a man not usually considered particularly Left Wing.

ChinakristolNO ONE EVER THOUGHT IT would be easy to conquer the outposts of tyranny or to destroy the sponsors of terror. But it shouldn’t be that hard, most of the time, to hold American foreign policy to some minimum standards: no rewards for gross acts of dictatorial oppression; no blind eye to facilitation of terrorism; no benign neglect for nuclear proliferation; no free passes for aiders and abettors of tyrants. Are we meeting those standards?

Not as much as we should be, and not as much as we could be.

And as an extra-special Sunday bonus here at 3Quarks, here are a couple of pictures of Mr. Kristol getting pied at Earlham College.