Monday, April 27, 2015

The Making of the Atomic Bomb - the Dane of Twain

I assume we’ve worked through “Moonshine” and “Atoms and Void”, and now will tinker with “Tvi” and “The Long Grave Already Dug”. Two historic take-a-ways from the first two chapters would seem to be Leo Szilard’s idea of nuclear chain reaction, and, of course, Earnest Rutherford’s famous gold foil experiment. 

Chapter 4 appears to me a mishmash of scientific war stories, while 3 is the story of Niels Bohr. I don’t think Poul Martin Moller’s The Adventures of a Danish Student is available in English, so it probably will not be the next book here. Is it strange that Niels Bohr, perhaps the most famous Dane after Hamlet, apparently relied on another famous Dane to work through the disabling reflective self? Bohr became consumed with humanity's most incredible blessing or nightmare: our ability to contemplate our own contemplation. Consciousness or awareness must be mankind’s defining trait. For Bohr it apparently arrived like Cougan & Dark’s Pandemonium mirror maze reflecting oneself into infinite eternity. Rhodes credits the other famous Dane, (no, not Hans Christian Andersen, although elf-land has worked for some) Soren Kierkegaard, with enabling a ‘leap of faith’ as the individual personally makes his ‘either-or’ decision. More practically, it seems that throwing himself into to hard work helped. And, while Polanyi’s view that quantum jumping is similar to the Virgin Mary, except with a hell-of-a-lot-more observational ‘clues’ for the former, the strong reliance of a real outside world in science allowed Bohr to focus externally instead of internally.

I also found it remarkable that Niels Bohr, Moller, Harald Hoffding, Bohr’s father’s friend and common house guest, and Kierkegaard all traveled in the same circles. If you want to be famous, find some famous friends, or ones who seem like they should be. 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Punching Up

Garry Trudeau, the cartoonist responsible for Doonesbury, recently wrote an article about humor, appropriate targets for satire, and “good taste”

I’m not sure why he’s just now talking about Charlie Hebdo, but Trudeau uses it to give a sanctimonious lesson on satire:
Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. Great French satirists like Molière and Daumier always punched up, holding up the self-satisfied and hypocritical to ridicule. Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny—it’s just mean.
It’s strange that Trudeau would hold up Molière as an upper-cutter, given his refusal to criticize the monarchy. Molière of course realized the same thing the brave satirists at Charlie Hebdo did: if you target certain groups with humor, you risk losing your head—the only difference being Molière preferred to keep the good life, and the Hebdo cartoonists were willing to give up theirs.  So who actually “punched up” against a target perfectly willing to punch back, and who was merely shadow boxing?

Trudeau again:
Ironically, Charlie Hebdo, which always maintained it was attacking Islamic fanatics, not the general population, has succeeded in provoking many Muslims throughout France to make common cause with its most violent outliers. 
Every. Single. Time.

This argument is so lazy, so boring, and so depressingly common, that I’m livening it up with a new drinking game. Every time a narcissistic male shouts "Allah Akbar" and suicide-murders civilians, pick up the newspaper and take a shot for every article that mentions the words "alienate" “provoke” “disenfranchise” “offend 1 billion Muslims,” or makes some version of the argument that “Yeah, they shouldn’t have been killed, but they knew better than to draw a cartoon.” You will be hammered for a week straight. 

This is the masochistic logic that follows nearly all Islamic terror attacks: when looking for root causes, first find out how the victims brought it on themselves.  

This argument is also incredibly patronizing. It assumes the Muslim population is too delicate, its skin too thin, to ever deal with the same sorts of satire we all deal with. 

It's a shame that intellectuals are so keen to criticize filmmakers, cartoonists, and writers, and rarely ever insist that these easily-offended groups lighten up already.  

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Making of the Atomic Bomb - Polanyi

I couldn’t let Chapters 1 and 2 slip by without mentioning Michael Polanyi’s view of science as an almost Adam Smith-like system where free thinking scientists pursue their interests, guided by the invisible hand of the larger scientific community. He mentions an orthodoxy within science and the necessity for belief and “profound commitment in the scientific system and scientific world view.”

Then Polanyi makes the statement “Any account of science which does not explicitly describe it as something we believe in is essentially incomplete and a false pretense. It amounts to a claim that science is essentially different from and superior to all human beliefs that are not scientific statements—and that is untrue.”

What determines orthodoxy is "every member of the group, as in a Quaker meeting."

Finally, what pushes science forward, he says, are small rebellions within the scientific orthodoxy. Because of the apprentice system where science is learned from master scientists, the rebellions must be guided by plausibility, value, and originality.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

"So when is Cheryl's birthday?"

Recently, the Atlantic reported on The Math Question That Went Viral.  The question was given in a Singapore and Asian Schools Math Olympiad for Secondary 3 students (the equivalent of 9th grade in US).  Here is the question in full:

Solution and full explanation provided here:  P5″ logic question is actually a Math Olympiad question for Sec 3 and 4 students.  I got close but didn't solved the whole thing.  My error was that I didn't read the problem closely enough.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Fishtown, USA

The most interesting neighborhood in Philly and Ellen happens to live there.   Could this be just coincidence?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Is the Thunder Lizard back?

My childhood love affair with dinosaurs has already been noted in this blog:  The Lost World and the Mating Mind.   The obsession, however, lasted only until I was about 11 or 12, and I never pursued my childhood dream of becoming a paleontologist.  But, just as in later life we still like to hear about how our old high school sweetheart is doing, I remain interested in any news I can pick up from the Mesozoic era.

I should add that of all the members of the dinosaur pantheon, my absolute favorite was the Brontosaurus, inspired as much by the name -- thunder lizard -- as anything.  But the object of my greatest love turned out to be a phantasm that disappeared as I reached adulthood. 

Back in 1877, the famed but unusually named paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh discovered a partial skeleton of a juvenile dinosaur he named apatosaurus ajax ("deceptive lizard").  Two years later, Marsh found a more complete remains of a dinosaur he believed to be a different genus and called it Brontosaurus excelsus.  In 1903, however, Elmer Riggs re-examined Marsh's specimens and concluded that they represented the same genus.  In such cases, the ICZN (International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature) mandates that the oldest name has priority -- which means that the rather dull Apatosaurus wins out over the much more resonant "Brontosaurus."  Because (1) Riggs' findings were published in a rather obscure journal; and (2) American culture seem enamoured of the Brontosaurus (Sinclair Oil pushed Brontosaurus as the name of its logo), the general public never really learned about Marsh's error until 70 years later when museums started making the correction.  So, it wasn't until the 1980's, when I started to buy recently published dinosaur books for my kids, that I learned that Brontosaurus had never existed.   I have never fully recovered from the devastation.

That is, until now.  Yesterday, a team of Portugese and British scientists published an article which described their exhaustive taxonomic analysis of Diplodocidae family of dinosaurs.  See "A specimen-level phylogenetic analysis and taxonomic revision of Diplodocidae (Dinosauria, Sauropoda)."  As the authors describe it, the study resulted "in the proposal that some species previously included in well-known genera like Apatosaurus and Diplodocus are generically distinct.  Of particular note is that the famous Brontosuarus is considered valid by our quantitative approach." (emphasis added)  In other words, these fellows contend that Marsh got it right and that Riggs made the error. 


This, of course, is just the beginning of probably a long debate.  But, it at least opens the possiblity that all my childhood affection for Brontosaurus may not have been in vain.  And -- hey -- things change.  Pluto is out; maybe Brontosaurus will be in.

Read all about it here:   The Brontosaurus Is Back

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Borowitz on Cruz

From the desk of Andy Borowitz:

Cruz’s Constant References to Jesus Drive Millions to Atheism

His is of course funnier than mine, but I just want to point out that I warned people about this sort of thing. Republicans and Religion

Everything you need to know in life is from Saturday morning cartoons

Here is how I picture the future. Pretty much every physical part of life will be accompanied by a machine like this:

The Making of the Atomic Bomb - Foreward

I’d like to initiate dissuasion appropriately enough at the Foreward (to the 25th anniversary edition).

In a speech on the Iran nuclear agreement Barack Obama said “… but the truth of the matter is: Iran’s defense budget is $30 billion. Our defense budget is closer to $600 billion. Iran understands that they cannot fight us. … You asked about an Obama doctrine. The doctrine is: We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities.”

The stance of “preserve all our capabilities” has been the doctrine of every president in the last 60 years.

In the Foreward of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, author Richard Rhodes writes, quoting the Australian ambassador-at-large for nuclear disarmament, Richard Butler,
“My attempts to have the Americans enter into discussions about double standard have been an abject failure—even with highly educated and engaged people. I sometimes felt I was speaking to them in Martian, so deep is their inability to understand. What Americans totally fail to understand is that their weapons of mass destruction are just as much a problem as are those of Iraq.” Or Iran, North Korea—or of any other confirmed or would-be nuclear power.
Rhodes talks of the blatant unfairness to preach disarmament while holding “our capabilities”. “As long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will seek to acquire them.” If there must be a deterrent, wouldn’t the threat of rearming be fairer (and safer)?

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Blog the Book

People have suggested from time to time that we use the blog as some breed of Book Club. We know from Russia that clubs—bowling, book, or otherwise—are not emboldened by a resolute state, and from the U.S. that democracy only foments clubs of mutual prejudice and competition. What really drives the world is chance. Thus, when we discovered last week that Bill and Myk were reading the same book, a 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner, I felt the stars align, the Ouija board move, and I ordered the book myself. It fulfills all the the Pros and Cons (it is historical, but way over 200 pages) that will surely let this thing last less than two weeks, but why should precedence or the prospect of failure deter us (for what's a heaven for?).

I encourage everyone to beg, borrow, or steal a copy of The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, and just stream-of-conscious on the blog anything that inspires you while reading the book. Maybe we'll generate a little insight, humor, or controversy before we all go back to discussing Islam.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes

[OK, yes, it is too long for all of us ADD—tweeters, but the good news is that it has pictures, and you can probably skim all the high energy physics equations.]

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Beast of Turin

For all you car aficionados out there…hello?…Is there an echo in here?

Over 100 years ago in 1910-11, a car was built (two of them, actually) to break the land speed record. As in all times, bigger was better. It reached 135 mph, but failed to make the return trip needed for the record.
At the wheel was racing driver Arthur Duray. He reckoned that first and second gear were okay, that third gear called upon all of his experience as a racing driver and that fourth gear needed the courage of a hundred men!
(Turn the volume down before watching)

February, 2015, The Beast of Turin trailer:

March, 2015, The Beast of Turin returns:

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Also appropriate for April Fool's Day

Gary Dahl dies, or rather, the story of his death is reported today. My favorite line in the story is "resonated with the self-indulgent ’70s", as if that differentiates any of the last several decades.

The Confused Person's Guide to Middle East Conflict

A simple diagram illustrates the region's alliances and hatreds

Accompanying comments.