Connections

by Mary Hrovat

Photograph of Mayall Telescope and others on Kitt PeakWhen I returned to school after my first marriage ended, I had to decide what to study. I’d been working toward a degree in history when I dropped out of a community college to get married, but I’d always been drawn to astronomy. One of the reasons I chose astronomy over history, or any other option, was that I felt that astronomy contained many of the other things I was interested in. To put it another way, I thought that if I didn’t study astronomy, I would regret it, but if I did study it, I wouldn’t necessarily lose touch with the other things I was interested in because they were all part of astronomy, in one way or another.

My degree is actually in astrophysics, and obviously it involved a lot of physics and mathematics. To see how the universe works, you have to understand gravitation, nuclear fusion, thermodynamics, atomic physics, and much more. In addition, to use and design telescopes and detectors, you need to know about optics, electronics, and materials science. Although I started out with very little background in math, I wound up with a minor in mathematics. By the time I had taken all the math classes required for the degree, and a fourth semester of calculus (which I hoped would help me understand my physics classes better), I was only three credits away from a math minor, so I took a class in linear algebra.

Astronomy also has obvious links to chemistry and geology. The story of the universe is, from one viewpoint, the story of chemical evolution, the development of more complex chemical elements as stars turned hydrogen and helium into more complex elements through nucleosynthesis. To study planets and moons, we can sometimes apply what we know about the rocks and weather and geological processes of Earth. Geology also comes into play in other ways. For example, one piece of evidence for the dinosaur-killing asteroid that struck Earth around 65 million years ago is a thin layer of iridium in Earth’s crust. Read more »

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The Dark Dionysian: The Cathartic Pleasures of Live Industrial Music

by Joan Harvey

Christian Death.  Peter Ketels photo

In the dark times
Will there be singing?
There will be singing.
Of the dark times.
(Bertolt Brecht)

I like the idea of Industrial music as a kind of corrupted psychedelia – the same derangement of the senses, but the childhood innocence has gone. (Comment on YouTube of Throbbing Gristle’s Discipline)

I respond this way again and again, always a split second after each fricative machine growl. Half dreaming now and forced into pure response, I regress. The animal brain writhes sensuously in its own mere selfness. I am at the edge of a pleasure rarely visited. The possibility of ecstasy—being out of myself—is nearly always either novel enough to marvel at (a strictly front-of-brain act) or strange enough to scare me back into my body. (Alexander S. Reed, Assimilate 304) [i]

Most people I know not only don’t care for this music, but probably dislike it intensely.

I can’t really imagine people who don’t already enjoy this sort of music walking into one of these events and actually having a good time.

Therefore proselytizing should probably not be my aim.

We want to share our pleasures and convince others, but sometimes from the beginning it’s a lost cause.

Still, its a part of my existence most people don’t see. And in a way it’s somewhat surprising to me.

Oddly, I began going to industrial shows rather late in life.

They’re more in the line of a thing a teen goth would discover.

When we’re lucky we continually discover new pleasures.

And with luck, many of them. Read more »

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On Visiting Max Weber’s Gravestone

by Jeroen Bouterse

In the school vacation, I finally decided to go on what is probably my only-ever academic pilgrimage: I visited Max Weber’s tombstone in the Bergfriedhof cemetery in Heidelberg.

I had intended to go for some time. In my original plans, I’d go on foot (from the Netherlands) like a proper pilgrim, but after years of failing to go through I had come to realize that was not going to happen anytime soon. So I went by train. Which was too easy; I stood next to the monument before I knew it. I’m still coming to grips with the fact that only on the first time can you do a thing like this properly – that is, with enough ascetic self-denial to mark the purposefulness of your actions – and that I messed up that one chance.

Oh well. Isn’t it fitting to feel the charismatic potential of this particular relic being sapped by the very efficiency of modernity – the stahlhartes Gehäuse of the InterCity Express, working unfailingly to disenchant this tiny part of the world, too. Except for one detail, which I’ll get to later.

I fell in love with Weber as a history undergraduate. We read a fragment of the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The combination of a big and, not unimportantly, Western-centered thesis with detailed, painstaking social and historical explanations seemed a best of two worlds. More than that, Weber’s explanations, rather than reducing the ideas and deepest convictions of the people and movements he studied to some other variable, gave center stage to those convictions. He demonstrated that historical explanation involved understanding the beliefs and values laid down in historical texts, thereby at least partly justifying what I felt most comfortable doing. Read more »

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Behind You

by Joshua Wilbur

As you read these words, someone (or some thing) could be creeping up behind you.

Maybe you’re sitting at your desk.  Or at your kitchen table. Or on a half-empty train. Behind you looms an encroaching presence, a silent observer. I picture a middle-aged man in a black suit — a tired and unfeeling assassin— but imagine whatever or whomever you like. A mythical monster, a scorned lover.

Someone might just be there. Right behind you. You won’t know for certain until you look.

* * *

We humans don’t have eyes in the back of our heads. Evolution didn’t budget for that luxury. Some animals—deer, horses, cows—have eyes on the sides of their heads, allowing them a wide field of vision. Other animals—humans, dogs, cats—have their eyes closer together and facing forward, allowing them to better judge depth and distance.

So while grass-grazers enjoy peripheral, panoramic vision their hungry hunters quickly spot them through dense forest. This suggests a simple rule of thumb for distinguishing the skulls of predators from those of prey: “Eyes in the front, the animal hunts. Eyes on the side, the animal hides.”

Eyes in the back, though, would require too many complex mutations, and we do well enough craning our necks to find food.  Our bodies have been molded over millions of years to fulfill carnal desires, desperate for what’s in front of us: arms stretching out, noses protruding, mouths gnawing ahead. Biology has determined our fate as forward-oriented creatures and given us a great fear of that which lies outside our perception. Read more »

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Universal Medicare: Free Healthcare or Your Worst Nightmare?

by Carol A Westbrook

“Medicare for All” is a battle cry for the upcoming national elections, as voters’ health care costs continue to skyrocket. Universal Medicare, they believe, will provide free health care, improve access to the best doctors, and lower the cost of prescription drugs. Is it a dream, or is it a nightmare?

I am 100% in favor of universal health care, but believe me, it ain’t gonna be free. True, I’m not an economist–I’m a doctor–but I can do the math. I’ve had years of experience, both practicing under Medicare’s system and as a Medicare patient, and I understand something about health care costs. Few voters under age 65  understand what Medicare provides, and even fewer have a grasp on what it will cost the government–and ultimately the taxpayer–to extend it to all.

What Medicare provides for free is Medicare A insurance, which covers inpatient hospital, costs. To cover outpatient and emergency room visits, the senior must purchase Part B, which covers 80% of these charges. Medicare B costs $135/month plus a sliding scale based on income. Prescription drug coverage requires purchasing Medicare D from a private company. (Medicare C is alternative private insurance). Medicare A, B and D premiums are all deducted from the monthly Social Security check. Additionally, a senior may purchase a Medicare Supplement from a private insurance company, which covers the un-reimbursed Part A, and B costs. Confusing? Here are two examples. Read more »

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Sneaky Bastard Words

by Gabrielle C. Durham

If you took Latin, then you probably have a larger vocabulary than the average bear, and you are more likely to have strong opinions on some words you vaguely remember based on Latin roots (cognates). For example, folks are more commonly using “decimate” to mean destroy or devastate, and it annoys the living materia feculis out of me. Decimate originally meant to kill every 10th person, based on the Latin word for 10 (decem), which is so oddly and satisfyingly specific. “Devastate” and “destroy” are already well known and used, so why do they need another alliterative ally in little weirdo “decimate”?

Another little sneak is “cleave.” Meaning #1 is to adhere tightly and closely or unwaveringly. Meaning #2 is to divide or split, to separate, or to penetrate a material by or as if by cutting or tearing. The second meaning is where we get “cloven” as in “cloven hoof,” the tool “cleaver,” “cleft” as in “cleft palate,” and “cleavage.” Both versions arose before the 12th century. The first meaning comes from Old English clifian by way of Middle English clevien. The second meaning comes from Middle English cleven from Old English cleofan and likely Old Norse kljufa, meaning to split. How can these words be so close for almost a millennium with polar opposite meanings? Read more »

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May 12, 2019

Dialectics of Enlightenment

Kwame Anthony Appiah in the New York Review of Books:

Justin E.H. Smith

How enlightened was the Enlightenment? Not a few critics have seen it as profoundly benighted. For some, it was a seedbed for modern racism and imperialism; the light in the Enlightenment, one recent scholar has suggested, essentially meant “white.” Voltaire emphatically believed in the inherent inferiority of les Nègres, who belonged to a separate species, or at least breed, from Europeans—as different from Europeans, he said, as spaniels from greyhounds. Kant remarked, of something a Negro carpenter opined, that “the fact that he was black from head to toe was proof that what he said was stupid.” And David Hume wrote, in a notorious footnote, that he was “apt to suspect” that nonwhites were “naturally inferior to the whites,” devoid of arts and science and “ingenious manufactures.”

The more general critiques take up larger intellectual currents in the eighteenth century. The era’s systematic forays into physical anthropology and human classification laid the foundation for the noxious race science that emerged in the nineteenth century. So did the rise of materialism: it became harder to argue that our varying physical carapaces housed equivalent souls implanted by God. A heedless sense of universalism, in turn, might encourage the thought that the more advanced civilizations were merely lifting up those more backward when they conquered and colonized them.

More here.

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A celebration of curiosity for Feynman’s 100th birthday

Tom Siegfried in Science News:

Feynman was born 100 years ago May 11. It’s an anniversary inspiring much celebration in the physics world. Feynman was one of the last great physicist celebrities, universally acknowledged as a genius who stood out even from other geniuses.

In 1997 I interviewed Nobel laureate Hans Bethe, a Cornell University physicist who worked with Feynman during World War II on the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos (and later on the Cornell faculty). “Normal” geniuses, Bethe said, did things much better than other people but you could figure out how they did it. And then there were magicians. “Feynman was a magician. I could not imagine how he got his ideas,” Bethe told me. “He was a phenomenon. Feynman certainly was the most original physicist I have seen in my life, and I have seen lots of them.”

More here.

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Justin E. H. Smith speaks about Irrationality

From The Philosopher’s Zone:

Justin E. H. Smith

In 1944, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer published their famous claim that “Enlightenment reverts to mythology” – meaning that any rational order sooner or later collapses into irrationality. Seven decades later, with Brexit roiling the UK, a reality TV showman in the White House and batty conspiracy theories spreading like a plague, it seems that Adorno and Horkheimer were right on the money. How did we get here? Is human society fated to be irrational? And why is the alt-right having all the crazy fun these days?

Listen to the podcast here.

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Can the World’s Largest Democracy Endure Another Five Years of a Modi Government?

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves towards his supporters during a roadshow in Varanasi, India, April 25, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Aatish Taseer in Time:

Populists come in two stripes: those who are of the people they represent (Erdogan in Turkey, Bolsonaro in Brazil), and those who are merely exploiting the passions of those they are not actually part of (the champagne neo-fascists: the Brexiteers, Donald Trump, Imran Khan in Pakistan). Narendra Modi belongs very firmly to the first camp. He is the son of a tea seller, and his election was nothing short of a class revolt at the ballot box. It exposed what American historian Anne Applebaum has described as “unresolvable divisions between people who had previously not known that they disagreed with one another.” There had, of course, been political differences before, but what Modi’s election revealed was a cultural chasm. It was no longer about left, or right, but something more fundamental.

The nation’s most basic norms, such as the character of the Indian state, its founding fathers, the place of minorities and its institutions, from universities to corporate houses to the media, were shown to be severely distrusted. The cherished achievements of independent India–secularism, liberalism, a free press–came to be seen in the eyes of many as part of a grand conspiracy in which a deracinated Hindu elite, in cahoots with minorities from the monotheistic faiths, such as Christianity and Islam, maintained its dominion over India’s Hindu majority.

Modi’s victory was an expression of that distrust. He attacked once unassailable founding fathers, such as Nehru, then sacred state ideologies, such as Nehruvian secularism and socialism; he spoke of a “Congress-free” India; he demonstrated no desire to foster brotherly feeling between Hindus and Muslims. Most of all, his ascension showed that beneath the surface of what the elite had believed was a liberal syncretic culture, India was indeed a cauldron of religious nationalism, anti-Muslim sentiment and deep-seated caste bigotry.

More here.

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Sunday Poem

At an Early Age a Boy Discovers
the Pleasures and Perils of Double o

—for Jo Sodano

Put these silly identical twins
………………………… o and o
….……….in a word and it goes goofy,
but endearing. Buffoon.
………………………… Booby. Nincompoop.

….……….Your mother’s not crazy
just a little loony. That’s not shit
………………………… in your pants
….……….but poopy.
And add one more o to lose
………………………… and you’re loose
….……….and ashamed
of nothing but ready
………………………… for everything: Cookie!
….……….Snookie! Whoopie! Booze!
Floozies!
Words only too willing
………………………… to pooh-pooh
….……….the alphabet’s great aspirations,
that silly goose. How far
………………………… would you get with a girl
….……….if seduce were spelled
sadoos? What conclusions
………………………… would a philosopher
….……….dedoos? What if
there were nothing loopy
………………………… in the language, no
….……….va-va voom! No magic
broom. No swooping wings?
………………………… no dark lagoon?
…………. No fingernail
moon? No freedom to ooh
………………………… and ahh, to swoon?
….……….Nothing too
gorgeous for words?
………………………… Too, you small extremist,
….……….pipsqueak, adverb always
piping up, Too much?
………………………… There’s never
….……….too much!

Christopher Bursk
from
The First Inhabitants of Arcadia
University of Arkansas Press, 2006

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Marcus Aurelius – the Unemotional Stoic?

Massimo Pigliucci in iai:

The title of this essay may sound redundant: aren’t all Stoics unemotional, making it their business to go through life with a stiff upper lip? Actually, no, and neither was Marcus, whose 1,898th birthday falls on April 26th of this year. It is true that he wrote in the Meditations, his personal philosophical diary: ‘When you have savouries and fine dishes set before you, you will gain an idea of their nature if you tell yourself that this is the corpse of a fish, and that the corpse of a bird or a pig; or again, that fine Falernian wine is merely grape-juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dipped in the blood of a shellfish; and as for sexual intercourse, it is the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of mucus.’ (VI.13)

These don’t exactly sound like the musings of someone who delights in gourmet food or drinks (Falernian was the best wine an ancient Roman could buy), not to mention someone with a romantic bent. But Marcus was deploying a technique that modern psychologists call ‘reframing,’ and a good case can be made that he wrote the above precisely in order to help himself temper his own far too emotional attachment to things that are best seen in a slightly cooler light. Do not get so overexcited about your dinner courses — he tells himself — remember that food is for nutrition, and that one doesn’t need exotic fauna to enjoy a savoury meal. When you get too cocky about being the emperor, just bring back to mind that the purple of which you are so proud is derived from crustacean blood. And try not to go overboard with this sex thing; after all, you’ve already had 14 children!

So the most famous philosopher-king in history was not attempting to suppress emotions (which the Stoics, good psychologists that they were, recognised is both impossible and undesirable), but rather to question them when they take a disruptive form. In fact, one overall goal of Stoic training was to shift out emotional spectrum, so to speak, from negative ‘passions’ like fear, anger and hatred to positive ones, like love, joy and a sense of justice.

More here.

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I Watched an Entire Flat Earth Convention — Here’s What I Learned

Harry T Dyer in LiveScience:

Speakers recently flew in from around (or perhaps, across?) the earth for a three-day event held in Birmingham: the UK’s first ever public Flat Earth Convention. It was well attended, and wasn’t just three days of speeches and YouTube clips (though, granted, there was a lot of this). There was also a lot of team-building, networking, debating, workshops – and scientific experiments. Yes, flat earthers do seem to place a lot of emphasis and priority on scientific methods and, in particular, on observable facts. The weekend in no small part revolved around discussing and debating science, with lots of time spent running, planning, and reporting on the latest set of flat earth experiments and models. Indeed, as one presenter noted early on, flat earthers try to “look for multiple, verifiable evidence” and advised attendees to “always do your own research and accept you might be wrong”.

While flat earthers seem to trust and support scientific methods, what they don’t trust is scientists, and the established relationships between “power” and “knowledge”. This relationship between power and knowledge has long been theorised by sociologists. By exploring this relationship, we can begin to understand why there is a swelling resurgence of flat earthers.

Let me begin by stating quickly that I’m not really interested in discussing if the earth if flat or not (for the record, I’m happily a “globe earther”) – and I’m not seeking to mock or denigrate this community. What’s important here is not necessarily whether they believe the earth is flat or not, but instead what their resurgence and public conventions tell us about science and knowledge in the 21st century. Multiple competing models were suggested throughout the weekend, including “classic” flat earth, domes, ice walls, diamonds, puddles with multiple worlds inside, and even the earth as the inside of a giant cosmic egg. The level of discussion however often did not revolve around the models on offer, but on broader issues of attitudes towards existing structures of knowledge, and the institutions that supported and presented these models.

More here.

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May 11, 2019

To Infinity and Beyond: The Power of Calculus

Michael J. Barany in the LA Review of Books:

If calculus has turned you off, left you behind, shoed you away, or beaten you down, Steven Strogatz — a professor of applied mathematics at Cornell University — wants to help. (If you and calculus are on friendly terms, you will find much to learn and enjoy here, but you are not the target audience.) Strogatz is a specialist in the mathematics of chaotic interacting systems, the topic of his first crossover book, Sync (Hyperion, 2003). He followed with a mix of memoir and differential equations in The Calculus of Friendship (Princeton, 2009) and a New York Times series that grew into an exuberant mathematical primer, The Joy of X(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). His latest, Infinite Powers, aims to explain the fundamental ideas of calculus, some of its history, and a few of its applications. Even those with no need or desire to do calculus, Strogatz contends, should be able to appreciate it.

When modern calculus debuted in the late 17th century, only a handful of people could claim to understand it well. In the 18th century, scientists and philosophers came to see it as both a powerful tool for reasoning and a way of marking the bounds of rational inquiry: a rational scientific question was, by definition, one that could be addressed with calculus. In the 19th century, it became the foundation of science and engineering education. We now live in a scientific and technological age made by those who learned, with great effort, to see the world through calculus-tinted glasses.

So it is no wonder that people like Strogatz, highly trained to see calculus all around them, can conjure wonder and excitement at the wages of calculus in the world.

More here.

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