Do you find it as obvious as I do that Don DeLillo richly deserves to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature? And right away, as in this year?
The inner workings of the Swedish Academy are opaque, but the one thing everybody knows is that their record of choices for the literature prize is spotty at best and in some cases purblind and scandalous (see: Peter Handke). Their sins of commission—when is the last time anyone said or wrote anything about the laureates Rudolf Eucken, Carl Spitteler, Frans Eemil Sillanpää, Pearl S. Buck, Nelly Sachs, or Dario Fo?—are exceeded only by their sins of omission. Writers the Academy have passed over include Leo Tolstoy, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Henrik Ibsen, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, and, most recently and conspicuously, Philip Roth.
Nevertheless the Nobel continues to exceed the Booker, the Pulitzer, and all other literary awards in its prestige, global impact, and ability to tip the scales toward immortality.
Philip W. Anderson speaks in a slow, deliberate growl, pausing between sentences to ponder his next move. His basal expression, too, is deadpan. But like some exotic ceramic in an unstable state, Anderson’s mood can flip in an instant between different modes.
Discussing a conference he just attended, the Nobel laureate and professor of physics at Princeton University recalls a session on cancer with obvious delight. The talks left him marveling at the “layers upon layers upon layers” of error-correction mechanisms that enable genes to replicate with scarcely a mistake. Researchers, he exults, will have to discover profound new principles to account for this phenomenon.
On the other hand, a session on his own specialty, high-temperature superconductors, was “horrible.” Anderson accuses researchers of “looking under the streetlight” instead of venturing away from known territory for solutions to their problems.
When Neil Ferguson visited the heart of British government in London’s Downing Street, he was much closer to the COVID-19 pandemic than he realized. Ferguson, a mathematical epidemiologist at Imperial College London, briefed officials in mid-March on the latest results of his team’s computer models, which simulated the rapid spread of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 through the UK population. Less than 36 hours later, he announced on Twitter that he had a fever and a cough. A positive test followed. The disease-tracking scientist had become a data point in his own project. Ferguson is one of the highest-profile faces in the effort to use mathematical models that predict the spread of the virus — and that show how government actions could alter the course of the outbreak. “It’s been an immensely intensive and exhausting few months,” says Ferguson, who kept working throughout his relatively mild symptoms of COVID-19. “I haven’t really had a day off since mid-January.”
Research does not get much more policy-relevant than this. When updated data in the Imperial team’s model1 indicated that the United Kingdom’s health service would soon be overwhelmed with severe cases of COVID-19, and might face more than 500,000 deaths if the government took no action, Prime Minister Boris Johnson almost immediately announced stringent new restrictions on people’s movements. The same model suggested that, with no action, the United States might face 2.2 million deaths; it was shared with the White House and new guidance on social distancing quickly followed (see ‘Simulation shock’).
Charles Darwin is ever with us. A month seldom passes without new books about the man, his life, his work, and his influence—books by scholars for scholars, by scholars for ordinary readers, and by the many unwashed rest of us nonfiction authors who presume to enter the fray, convinced that there’s one more new way to tell the story of who Darwin was, what he actually said or wrote, why he mattered. This flood of books, accompanied by a constant outpouring of related papers in history journals and other academic outlets, is called the Darwin Industry.
There’s a parallel to this in publishing: the Lincoln Industry, which by one authoritative count had yielded 15,000 books—a towering number—as of 2012, when an actual tower of Lincoln books was constructed in the lobby of the renovated Ford’s Theatre, the site of his assassination, in Washington, D.C. It rose thirty-four feet, measured eight feet around, yet contained less than half the total Lincoln library. You could think of the Darwin library as a similar tower of books three stories high, big around as an oak, festooned with biographies and philosophical treatises and evolutionary textbooks and Creationist tracts and the latest sarcastic volume of The Darwin Awards for suicidal stupidity and books with subtitles such as “Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity.” Janet Browne’s magisterial two-volume life would be included; so would David Dobbs’s Reef Madness, about Darwin’s theory of the formation of coral atolls, and a handful of books on the Scopes trial. Lincoln and Darwin were born on the very same date, February 12, 1809: a good day for the publishing business.
To pull the metal splinter from my palm my father recited a story in a low voice. I watched his lovely face and not the blade. Before the story ended, he’d removed the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.
I can’t remember the tale, but hear his voice still, a well of dark water, a prayer. And I recall his hands, two measures of tenderness he laid against my face, the flames of discipline he raised above my head.
Had you entered that afternoon you would have thought you saw a man planting something in a boy’s palm, a silver tear, a tiny flame. Had you followed that boy you would have arrived here, where I bend over my wife’s right hand.
Being neither alive nor dead, nor even simply inert, a virus makes a bad enemy. How do you confront it? “We are at war,” politicians keep saying. But unlike a political opponent, the viral enemy can’t be banished or killed, or even really defeated. A virus is a vector, a force that we can only amplify or disrupt.
What then does a viral pandemic have to do with politics? A few weeks ago, I agreed to write a column surveying the scene of the 2020 presidential election. Since then, the names Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have all but vanished from major newspapers, and Donald Trump appears now not as a politician, but as an emperor who is either clothed or not. All that talk about ideas vs. electability, about choosing between competing visions of the future—that’s done. Now we hear only about flattening the curve, immunizing the herd, turning around the Dow.
Politics, too, can be a vector, and whatever else happens, this pandemic seems likely to accelerate the trend toward the collapse of postwar internationalism, the fortification of borders, and the return of an atavistic politics, grounded in fear.
Imagine you are in a small boat far, far from shore. A surprise storm capsizes the boat and tosses you into the sea. You try to tame your panic, somehow find the boat’s flimsy but still floating life raft, and struggle into it. You catch your breath, look around, and try to think what to do next. Thinking clearly is hard to do after a near-drowning experience.
You do, though, realize two important things: First, the raft is saving your life for the moment and you need to stay in it until you have a better plan. Second, the raft is not a viable long-term option and you need to get to land.
In April 2020, the storm is the Covid-19 pandemic, the life raft is the combination of intense measures we are using to slow the spread of the virus, and dry land is the end to the pandemic.
On autopsy, the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient can weigh as little as 30 percent of a healthy brain. The tissue grows porous. It is a sieve through which the past slips. As her mother loses her grasp on their shared history, Elizabeth Kadetsky sifts through boxes of the snapshots, newspaper clippings, pamphlets, and notebooks that remain, hoping to uncover the memories that her mother is actively losing as her dementia progresses. These remnants offer the false yet beguiling suggestion that the past is easy to reconstruct—easy to hold. At turns lyrical, poignant, and alluring, The Memory Eaters tells the story of a family’s cyclical and intergenerational incidents of trauma, secret-keeping, and forgetting in the context of the 1970s and 1980s New York City. Moving from her parents’ divorce to her mother’s career as a Seventh Avenue fashion model and from her sister’s addiction and homelessness to her own experiences with therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, Kadetsky takes readers on a spiraling trip through memory, consciousness fractured by addiction and dementia, and a compulsion for the past salved by nostalgia.
From our contemporary vantage point, voice mail may seem like a quaint artifact of the ’80s and ’90s. But the answering machine was in fact preceded by a lesser-known era of voice messaging, one which began in the early 1900s and grew out of the phonograph. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, and before he unveiled the device to the public, he spent some time colliding morphemes in a notebook. He thought he might call his invention the “antiphone” (back-talker) or the “liguphone” (clear speaker), or perhaps the “bittakophone” (parrot speaker), “hemerologophone” (speaking almanac), or “trematophone” (sound borer). In the end, Edison settled on the straightforward “phonograph,” meaning “sound writer”—an efficient summary of its mechanism. The phonograph received vibrations from the air and transcribed them as calligraphy. Sound waves would cause a needle to quiver, and the needle would etch a continuous line on a turning cylinder. If you reversed the process, the needle would travel along the groove, mining sound from the uneven topography and playing it back through a horn.
William Desmond at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:
One might amplify the point: it is surprising that Hegel’s aesthetic has suffered neglect in our own postmodern age, so-called, when the preeminence of the aesthetic is so marked, to the diminution of the religious, and the sterilization of the philosophical in its high idealistic ambitions. In the quarrel between the poets and the philosophers, the post-Nietzscheans have decided in favor of the poets, and one might expect the richness of Hegel’s aesthetics to be accorded some honorable place in that context. Perhaps the neglect reflects the fact that in the end Hegel places philosophy in an ultimate position in absolute spirit, and indeed seems to place the absolute spiritual significance of the aesthetic behind us. There is an element of discordance with Hegel’s proclamation of the end of art in a time when art seems to have displaced the religious in the lists of spiritual ultimacy, and philosophy itself has contented itself with being more or less an academic specialty, whether of an analytical or hermeneutical sort. Hegel is discordant in that post-Hegelian culture has tended to place in art high hopes for a suitable replacement of lost religious transcendence. It is notable even among philosophers at least in the continental tradition, that art has assumed unprecedented (sometimes metaphysical) significance: Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Adorno, Merleau-Ponty, Badiou, to name some.
Released less than two weeks ago, the series is already a sensation, immersing viewers in the lives and rivalries of vivid subjects like Bhagavan Antle, known as Doc, the bombastic proprietor of an animal preserve and safari tour in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Carole Baskin, an animal activist and sanctuary owner in Tampa, Fla., whose former husband disappeared in 1997. And then, of course, there’s the Tiger King himself, Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic, a flamboyant Oklahoma zookeeper, political candidate and aspiring celebrity who was sentenced in January to 22 years in prison for his involvement in a failed plot to kill Baskin and for killing five tiger cubs. Goode, who directed “Tiger King” with Rebecca Chaiklin, said that he had been reasonably confident the series would be successful. “How can you not be fascinated with polygamy, drugs, cults, tigers, potential murder?” Goode said in an interview on Tuesday. “It had all the ingredients that one finds salacious. So we knew that there would be an appetite for it.”
But he could hardly have suspected that “Tiger King” would arrive during the coronavirus pandemic, during which audiences have had ample time to pore over its jaw-dropping plot twists while they shelter in their homes. For some viewers, “Tiger King” has also been an introduction to Goode, 62, a founder of the fabled 1980s-era New York nightspot Area who is now an owner of downtown Manhattan establishments like the Bowery Hotel and the Waverly Inn. In an interview, Chaiklin said she first worked for Goode in the mid 1990s as a door girl and manager at the Bowery Bar and Grill. More recently, over a “crazy posh dinner,” Goode first told her about the wild kingdoms they would end up traveling together.
In the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage, a team of scientists is shrunk to fit into a tiny submarine so that they can navigate their colleague’s vasculature and rid him of a deadly blood clot in his brain. This classic film is one of many such imaginative biological journeys that have made it to the big screen over the past several decades. At the same time, scientists have been working to make a similar vision a reality: tiny robots roaming the human body to detect and treat disease.
Although systems with nanomotors and onboard computation for autonomous navigation remain fodder for fiction, researchers have designed and built a multitude of micro- and nanoscale systems for diagnostic and therapeutic applications, especially in the context of cancer, that could be considered early prototypes of nanorobots. Since 1995, more than 50 nanopharmaceuticals, basically some sort of nanoscale device incorporating a drug, have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. If a drug of this class possesses one or more robotic characteristics, such as sensing, onboard computation, navigation, or a way to power itself, scientists may call it a nanorobot. It could be a nanovehicle that carries a drug, navigates to or preferentially aggregates at a tumor site, and opens up to release a drug only upon a certain trigger. The first approved nanopharmaceutical was DOXIL, a liposomal nanoshell carrying the chemotherapeutic drug doxorubicin, which nonselectively kills cells and is commonly used to treat a range of cancers. The intravenously administered nanoshells preferentially accumulate in tumors, thanks to a leaky vasculature and inadequate drainage by the lymphatic system. There, the nanoparticles slowly release the drug over time. In that sense, basic forms of nanorobots are already in clinical use.
For authoritarian-minded leaders, the coronavirus crisis is offering a convenient pretext to silence critics and consolidate power. Censorship in China and elsewhere has fed the pandemic, helping to turn a potentially containable threat into a global calamity. The health crisis will inevitably subside, but autocratic governments’ dangerous expansion of power may be one of the pandemic’s most enduring legacies.
In times of crisis, people’s health depends at minimum on free access to timely, accurate information. The Chinese government illustrated the disastrous consequence of ignoring that reality. When doctors in Wuhan tried to sound the alarm in December about the new coronavirus, authorities silenced and reprimanded them. The failure to heed their warnings gave Covid-19 a devastating three-week head start. As millions of travelers left or passed through Wuhan, the virus spread across China and around the world.
Even now, the Chinese government is placing its political goals above public health. It claims that the coronavirus has been tamed but won’t allow independent verification. It is expelling journalists from several leading US publications, including those that have produced incisive reporting, and has detained independent Chinese reporters who venture to Wuhan. Meanwhile, Beijing is pushing wild conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus, hoping to deflect attention from the tragic results of its early cover-up.
Science costs money. And for a brief, glorious period between the start of the Manhattan Project in 1939 and the cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider in 1993, physics was awash in it, largely sustained by the Cold War. Things are now different, as physics — and science more broadly — has entered a funding crunch. David Kaiser, who is both a working physicist and an historian of science, talks with me about the fraught relationship between scientists and their funding sources throughout history, from Galileo and his patrons to the current rise of private foundations. It’s an interesting listen for anyone who wonders about the messy reality of how science gets done.
Mohammad Memarian in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
On Friday, March 20, I called my father to congratulate him on the Persian New Year. It felt gloomy, to put it mildly. We used to do it in person, shaking hands, hugging, and the three traditional kisses on the cheeks. As we are in self-quarantine, 300 miles away from each other, he acquired his very first smartphone just a week ago, rapidly catching up with technology to keep in touch with me. I watched him as he tried to turn on the selfie camera. He kept the phone so close that I could only see him with difficulty. But I could observe parts of him that usually go unnoticed: details of the wrinkles on his face, the tears he was struggling to hold back, a bruise on his left cheek, speckles I hadn’t seen before. We talked for a while, five minutes maybe, the longest routine call we had in years, and then we retreated into solitude, each into his own. The whole episode reminded me of stories of families torn apart by immigration. We are now torn apart by another, equally invisible force.
This invisible force, otherwise known as COVID-19, intruded into our lives in pretty much the same way it did into the lives of countless other people elsewhere. Except, perhaps, the context. For us Iranians, the disease came as the culmination of a long streak of unfortunate events, which inflicted upon many here a deep sense of helplessness.