The Consolations of Physics

Graham Farmelo at The Guardian:

Why do wealthy societies spend good money on projects such as this? Higgs bosons and images from the Voyager spacecraft don’t do anything useful and don’t make any of us richer, as Radford acknowledges, though he has no time for such philistinism. His heart and his mind are with the Roman thinker Boethius, who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy, from which Radford takes several of his cues. He stands shoulder to shoulder with Boethius: philosophy can be consoling “even if it is limited to just thinking about thinking”. Beneath his jocularity, Radford is an unapologetic intellectual.

He glories in telling the remarkable story of the first direct observation of gravitational waves in 2015, almost a century after Einstein foresaw them. A huge team of astronomers detected the waves via a signal that lasted 20 milliseconds and caused a disturbance smaller than a millionth of the width of an atom – a result of two massive black holes merging violently in outer space more than a billion years ago.

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‘The Sparsholt Affair’ by Alan Hollinghurst

J. Daniel Elam at The Quarterly Conversation:

Gossip, speculation, and longing—and the discomfort (and occasional pleasure) of perpetual doubt—are the grounds on which contemporary queer men and women have become used to constructing our genealogies. We possess historical facts enough to fantasize about our “great-grandparents”: the evasive extravagance of Oscar Wilde; the repression with which E.M. Forster asks us to “only connect”; the ambiguity in Djuna Barnes’s famous claim, “I am not a lesbian, I just loved Thelma”; or the half-missing archive of Emma Goldman’s correspondence with women. The following generation of gay men was decimated by a plague, meaning that 30- to 50-year-old gay men will be the first generation to be both openly gay and alive. Even if it is easier now to imagine a queer family of brothers and sisters, it remains much more difficult to imagine a queer lineage. We long for a family tree that never quite appears in full: for queer mothers and fathers that could somehow supplement (or replace) the biological ones whose lives differ so greatly from our own. We construct these families through gossip and speculation, staring at chapter breaks and ellipses until they give us that aunt we might have had. Looking hard enough, we hope, we all might have that aunt.

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The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins is Still Ahead of the Times

Seán Hewitt at The New Statesman:

Hopkins is the laureate of “all things counter, original, spare, strange”. He is also, to my mind, the most exquisite English poet of the 19th century. In life, however, he felt the censure not only of his strict Catholicism but also of his own isolation. In one of his late sonnets, he summed up his position as an unpublished – and perhaps unpublishable – poet. A reader unfamiliar with Hopkins’s work will feel immediately the taut difficulty of his language, the force of his sound-scapes, and the miraculous effect of his anthimeria, as in his striking use of “began” as a noun:

Only what word Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.

Born in Stratford in Essex (now part of London) in 1844 to deeply religious High Church Anglican parents, Gerard Hopkins (he rarely used the name Manley) was short, fair and slightly built.

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Our loneliness epidemic is a political problem, too

David Masciotra in Salon:

A killer stalks the American street. Its weaponry is subtle, but it is responsible for the demolition of countless lives, and the damage of many communities. After it sneaks into a home, it creates social pathology and helps harvest political cruelty. It is loneliness. The United States of America has created a culture of solitary struggle and isolation. It should not shock too many careful observers who consider the predictable consequences of building an entire civilization on the mud and sewage of cutthroat, competitive corporate capitalism. The true meaning of icy bromides like, “rugged individualism,” “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” and “no free lunch,” is not a celebration of individual freedom as much as it is a “you’re on your own” ethic, or lack thereof, resulting in communal fissure and political friction.

Standards of living the U.S. are generally high, and yet suicide has steadily increased in every state, the homicide rate remains off the charts relative to the rest of the developed world, liver disease from alcohol abuse is on the rise, and opioid overdoses have become so routine in major cities and small towns than many police officers carry, alongside a gun and badge, a dosage of naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of opioid OD. In their bracing and brilliant book, “A General Theory of Love,” psychiatrists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon put America on the couch, and their diagnosis is rather grim. “A good deal of modern American culture,” they write, “is an extended experiment in the effects of depriving people of what they crave most.”

That which people most crave are the elements and effects of love — hospitality, community, solidarity — a general feeling of belonging and appreciation coupled with the exercise of moral agency for the benefit of other people. Thomas Aquinas defined love as “actively willing the good of the other.”

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No, women aren’t at risk from men

Joanna Williams in Spiked:

Being a feminist must be hard work. Perhaps you’ve got a newspaper column to fill with your hot take on the latest sexist outrage. Or perhaps you have a university sexual-harassment policy to write. Or a government minister to consult about a proposed new law. Or a hefty budget to administer. You’ve got the salary, a platform for your views, and the capacity to influence what happens in almost every institution in the country. And yet the entire basis for you being in this fortunate position, for walking the corridors of power, is your powerlessness. The bind for today’s professional feminist is the more power and influence she gains, the harder she needs to work to show that women are still oppressed.

Some career feminists get around this conundrum by claiming they are not representing their own interests but selflessly fighting for other women. Apparently, countless hordes of downtrodden women, unable to speak up for themselves, are just waiting for feminists to give voice to their concerns. But as only a small minority of women identify as feminists (estimates vary between a third and seven per cent), the response to all this speaking on behalf of others seems to be a resounding ‘no thanks’. The last resort of the professional, well-paid, powerful feminist, desperate to prove her credentials as a member of an oppressed group, is to allude to violence. The experience of violence – whether actual, imagined or potential – appears to unite all women, allowing the most privileged to claim common cause with women who are struggling just to get by. Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of Suffragette Emmeline, expresses this succinctly: ‘Violence against women is the one factor that infects every aspect of women’s lives.’

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August 17, 2018

Hume is the amiable, modest, generous philosopher we need now

Julian Baggini in Aeon:

Socrates died by drinking hemlock, condemned to death by the people of Athens. Albert Camus met his end in a car that wrapped itself around a tree at high speed. Nietzsche collapsed into insanity after weeping over a beaten horse. Posterity loves a tragic end, which is one reason why the cult of David Hume, arguably the greatest philosopher the West has ever produced, never took off.

While Hume was lying aged 65 on his deathbed at the end of a happy, successful and (for the times) long life, he told his doctor: ‘I am dying as fast as my enemies, if I have any, could wish, and as easily and cheerfully as my best friends could desire.’ Three days before he died, on 25 August 1776, probably of abdominal cancer, his doctor could still report that he was ‘quite free from anxiety, impatience, or low spirits, and passes his time very well with the assistance of amusing books’.

When the end came, Dr Black reported that Hume ‘continued to the last perfectly sensible, and free from much pain or feelings of distress. He never dropped the smallest expression of impatience; but when he had occasion to speak to the people about him, always did it with affection and tenderness … He died in such a happy composure of mind, that nothing could exceed it.’

In his own lifetime Hume’s reputation was mainly as a historian. His career as a philosopher started rather inauspiciously.

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A New View of Evolution That Can’t Be Represented by a Tree

Erika Check Hayden in the New York Times:

In 1837, Charles Darwin sketched a spindly tree of life in one of his notebooks. Its stick-figure trunk sprouted into four sets of branches. The drawing illustrated his radical idea that, over time, organisms change to give rise to new species.

“I think,” Darwin scrawled, suggestively, above his humble tree.

Biologists have worked since then to fill in the details of that tree. While all beings are related, Darwin intimated, it should be possible to classify all living things into distinct lineages of more closely related species — branches — based on their shared evolutionary histories.

Darwin and others used physical similarities and differences between organisms to add ever more details to his basic tree. Then, after the discovery of DNA’s structure in 1953, scientists began tracing the evolutionary history of life through its shared genetic code.

But that project has now reached a crisis point, David Quammen writes in his new book, “The Tangled Tree.” Genetics is revealing that the branches on Darwin’s tree of life are not so separate from each other as was once thought: Genes sometimes skip from species to unrelated species, effectively fusing different branches together. The big question now is whether Darwin’s tree represents a fundamentally flawed conception of evolutionary history or is merely in need of revision.

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Freedom Requires Limits, So That Others May Enjoy Their Freedom Too

Namit Arora in Outlook:

Freedom is the ability to pursue the life one values. This view of freedom is inclusive, open-ended, and flexible. It embraces our plural, evolving, and diverse conceptions of the good life. It also admits other long-standing ideas of freedom, such as not being held in servitude, possessing political self-rule, or enjoying the right to act, speak, and think as one desires.

Some people naively equate freedom with an absence of social restraints. But should I be free to do whatever I want? Should I be free to pollute the river, not pay any taxes, or torture the cat? To play loud music on the metro, not rent my apartment to Dalits, or incite hate or violence against other groups? I hope not. My freedom requires limits, so that others may enjoy their freedom. Edmund Burke held that freedom must be limited in order to be possessed. A freer society is not necessarily one with fewer social restraints, but one with a wisely chosen set of restraints and provisions, such as public education, healthcare, and ample safety nets for all.

But inevitably, in pursuing the life we value, we’ll sometimes run into strong disagreements over our values and the restraints and provisions we see as conducive to freedom. These disagreements might spring from our religious vs. secular values, modern vs. traditional values, egalitarian vs. libertarian values, authoritarian vs. democratic values, and various other axes of identity, culture, and belief.

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Congo and Colonialism

Angus Mitchell at The Dublin Review of Books:

As the nineteenth century came to an end, rumours started to circulate widely about the violence perpetrated by the regime of King Leopold II in the Congo Free State. Parliamentary intervention followed from involvement by the two main NGOs: the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and the Aborigines Protection Society. In 1903, a question was asked in the House of Commons by the Liberal MP Herbert Samuel. The foreign secretary, Lord Lansdowne, ordered the British consul and his man on the spot, Roger Casement, to journey into the upper Congo. Having spent five years reporting officially on many aspects of Leopold’s colonial administration, Casement was well-placed to investigate the stories. He would spend the next three months travelling through the region. On exiting the river with a dossier of hand-written reports, copied correspondences and memos, testimonies and a diary, he scribbled the first of nearly three hundred letters to ED Morel, a young activist-writer. He recommended him to read Heart of Darkness and suggested he contact the author, Joseph Conrad, to see if he would support a public campaign for systemic reform. Casement and Conrad had met in the lower Congo in 1890 and a friendship had developed between the two men.

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In V.S. Naipaul’s Writing on Conrad, We See Who He Truly Is

Something I wrote on Naipaul a few years ago, which I post now as a kind of memorial… It was published in The Smart Set April, 2015:

The fact is, Naipaul provides powerful ammunition for all sides of the debate. Were Naipaul simply a monster, he (and his writing) would not be so compelling. Revealing himself to be a monster in one instance, he will use that very quality to his own advantage in the next. This protean quality makes Naipaul larger, as a character, a novelist, and a thinker, than any of the categories meant to encompass him. Those, for instance, who want to dismiss Naipaul for what Wood calls his “conservatism”, find themselves, more often than not, moved by his “radical eyesight.” And vice versa. Inevitably, to read Naipaul is to experience a rather exciting push/pull of attraction and repulsion. You can see this even in the short quote from Packer’s review of the French biography above. Naipaul describes extremely ugly behavior. Further, he seems to take narcissistic pleasure (the word ‘narcissism’ comes up often in discussions of Naipaul) in doing so. But he ends with a thought that is sensitive and vulnerable. “I was utterly helpless. I have enormous sympathy for people who do strange things out of passion.” By turning his sympathy around, he elicits it from us.

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Bernstein on Bach

Sudip Bose at The American Scholar:

Not long ago, Turner Classic Movies aired several episodes of the 1950s television show Omnibus in which that most engaging and passionate of teachers, Leonard Bernstein, aided by singers and instrumentalists, lectured on various musical subjects. The aim of Omnibus was to enrich the cultural life of the American public, and as such, it represented an early attempt at producing programming that was entertaining as well as educational. If you had tuned in to those Sunday afternoon and evening shows, you might have encountered the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright or William Saroyan or Orson Welles. Bernstein hosted seven programs (forerunners to his legendary Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic), which covered topics such as “What Makes Opera Grand,” “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony,” and “The American Musical Comedy”—their illuminating content belying these somewhat sober titles. I happened upon the Bernstein mini-marathon when it was halfway over, though I did manage to add a few episodes to my DVR queue. A few evenings ago, I happily settled in to watch “The Music of J. S. Bach”—the most inspiring hour I’ve spent in front of the television in ages.

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Aretha Franklin Is As Immortal As Can Be

Amanda Petrusich in The New Yorker:

The eternal challenge is to answer grief with something that resembles love. To choose not just to sit around decrying hardship and injustice but instead to uncurl your fists and approach sorrow with grace, power, and, most incredibly, gratitude—not for the hurt itself but for the whole miraculous mess of being alive, this strange endowment of breath and blood. Most days, I believe that Aretha Franklin did this work better than anyone. And she did it while being tough and self-assured, confident in both her capacity and her worth, thus obliterating the terrible, pervasive presumption that a woman can’t be tender and oh-my-goodness mighty at the same time.

Franklin, who died Thursday, at seventy-six—a family statement cited pancreatic cancer as the cause—was born on March 25, 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee. She had four children. Her father, C. L. Franklin, was a Mississippi-born Baptist minister of deep and wide renown, and her mother, Barbara, sang and played piano in the church. When Aretha was still a child, her father gave up itinerant preaching to settle at the New Bethel Baptist Church, in Detroit, Michigan. (Not long after, Barbara and C. L. separated; Barbara died in Buffalo, New York, in 1952, when she was thirty-four and Aretha was just ten.) At first, C. L.’s congregation had four hundred members and met in a bowling alley. In 1963, the church was thriving and moved into the once-crumbling Oriole Theatre, which C. L. arranged to have renovated by black workers and artisans, a transition he described, in the Detroit Free Press, as “a trip from the valley to the mountain”; two thousand parishioners gathered to celebrate. C. L.’s friends and acolytes included Martin Luther King, Jr., and the gospel singers Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward. You can imagine the sort of child that crowd might nurture. The music of the black church—where Aretha was born and inculcated, where her voice both originated and returned—was the most trenchant force in her life.

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Animal fat on ancient pottery reveals a nearly catastrophic period of human prehistory

Michael Price in Science:

A bit more than 8000 years ago, the world suddenly cooled, leading to much drier summers for much of the Northern Hemisphere. The impact on early farmers must have been extreme, yet archaeologists know little about how they endured. Now, the remains of animal fat on broken pottery from one of the world’s oldest and most unusual protocities—known as Çatalhöyük—is finally giving scientists a window into these ancient peoples’ close call with catastrophe. “I think the authors have done an excellent job,” says John Marston, an environmental archaeologist at Boston University who wasn’t involved in the current study. “It shows the people of Çatalhöyük were incredibly resilient.” Today, Çatalhöyük is just a series of dusty, sun-baked ruins in central Turkey. But thousands of years ago it was a bustling prehistoric metropolis. From about 7500 B.C.E to 5700 B.C.E., early farmers grew wheat, barley, and peas, and raised sheep, goats, and cattle. At its height, some 10,000 people lived there. Among its more noteworthy features, Çatalhöyük’s inhabitants were obsessed with plaster, lining their walls with it, using it as a canvas for artwork, and even coating the skulls of their dead to recreate the lifelike countenances of their loved ones.

Around 6200 B.C.E., climates cooled across the globe. Massive glacial lakes in North America emptied into the Atlantic Ocean, scientists believe, altering sea currents and weather patterns and triggering what’s known simply as the 8.2-kiloyear event (referring to its occurrence 8200 years ago). A team of researchers led by biochemists Mélanie Roffet-Salque and Richard Evershed of the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom and archaeologist Arkadiusz Marciniak at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland, wondered whether Çatalhöyük’s farmers left behind any trace of the climate shift. Over the past few years, Marciniak had been digging up fragments of clay pottery (or potsherds) left buried in ancient trash piles, dating from about 8300 to 7900 years ago.

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August 16, 2018

Death of a Marxist

Vijay Prashad in The Hindu:

On Sunday, August 12, Samir Amin died. With him went a generation of Egyptian Marxists who came of age in the time of Nasserism and departed with the world in tatters. Amin was born in 1931 in Cairo. He was doing his PhD in Paris when Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers overthrew the British-dominated monarchy in Egypt in 1952 and directed their country towards a path of non-alignment.

Amin’s thesis — in economics — was written while he was active in the French Communist Party. In the thesis, he thought hard about the problems of his native land and other countries despoiled by the colonial menace. For Amin, as with other dependency theorists, the Third World suffered from theft, plunder as well as deindustrialisation, and then unequal exchange. The policy space for the new Third World states — Nasser’s Egypt amidst them — was narrow. Emancipation would be difficult. It would take courage to break the yoke of monopoly capitalism, to rise from the penalty of colonialism and advance towards a necessary socialist future.

Amin, like others in his generation such as India’s Ashok Mitra and Brazil’s Celso Furtado, did not go immediately into the academy. He went home to Cairo, where he worked in Nasser’s Institute for Economic Management (1957-1960) and then to Bamako (Mali), where he worked as an adviser in the Ministry of Planning (1960-1963). Amin would talk fondly of these years, of the experience he had in trying to move an agenda for the development of his country and that of other African countries. The limitations set by the powerful countries of the world — the imperialist bloc led by the U.S. — and by the system of monopoly capitalism prevented any major breakthrough for states such as Egypt and Mali. Amin’s first book, published in the 1960s, was on the experience of development undertaken by Mali, Guinea and Ghana. It warned against any facile belief in progress. The unequal system in the world generated profits for the powerful and generated poverty for the weak.

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