Naomi Klein Tries to Change the Climate Story

by Michael Dhar


“If you don’t like what is being said, change the conversation.”

That’s Don Draper, “Mad Men’s” nihilistic ad genius, revealing at least part of his method. (A distillation that would reappear, slightly paraphrased, in the words of his protege, Peggy Olson, several seasons later.) In the series, when most everyone else obsesses over the details — stymied in trying to change behavior via argument — Don and Peggy just sweep the arguments aside. Instead, they talk about something simpler and more elemental. They reach the public by ignoring the facts, and simply telling a better story — “better” in the sense that it accesses a more powerful psychological pressure-point. A simpler one.

Don infamously employed that method during the series pilot, when he tackled the problem of cigarette advertising in an era of health warnings, proposing the simple line, “It’s toasted.” All the cigarette companies battling against the dampening influence of health warnings with their own counterarguments get nowhere. Mentioning the warnings only makes customers think of the warnings, Don says. So he changes the conversation. “It’s toasted.” Talk about something else — a warm emotion, conjuring agrarian, wholesome imagery. And the story changes.

That seems to be Naomi Klein’s approach with her new documentary, “This Changes Everything,” which premiered Tuesday. Klein and director Avi Lewis appeared at the screening at Music Box Theatre in Chicago, which I attended (the film is narrated by Klein and inspired by her book of the same title). Klein makes her narrative ambition pretty clear, repeating at various points in the film that she’s not interested in the usual ways of talking about the environment. In the opening, Klein says she cares little for what she considers the familiar narratives of saving the polar bears from intractable human nature. Instead, she wants to unravel the narrative imposed, she says, by scientists 400 years ago: the narrative of human domination over nature.

Not to get too tangled up here, but Klein’s really talking about changing two stories: She wants to change the narrative under which modern society lives (no small ambition). And she wants to change the story that climate activists tell themselves about what they’re doing. No longer should eco-warriors see themselves as educators about parts-per-million and the harm basic human nature does to charming mega-fauna. Rather, environmentalists should view themselves as storytellers, undoing the damage of a particularly caustic narrative humans have been telling themselves for centuries.

Klein’s not the first to suggest climate communication is broken. It’s been clear for a while now that facts haven’t worked in climate change efforts, as psychologist Adam Corner wrote in 2013:

“The scientific and economic cases were made [in 2008]. Surely with all those facts on the table, soaring public interest and ambitious political action were inevitable?

The exact opposite happened. Fast-forward to today, the eve of the IPCC’s latest report on the state of climate science, and it is clear that public concern and political enthusiasm have not kept up with the science. Apathy, lack of interest and even outright denial are more widespread than they were in 2008.”

It should be fairly obvious, even without Corner’s (and many others’) analyses, that the fact-based approach hasn’t worked. The percentages and modeling and “red lines” of climate science have been clear for decades; all that changes is the percent-certainty about risk predictions (inching ever closer to 100). But, as Corner wrote, scant progress has been made in either legislation or public opinion (though that does seem to have improved lately).

Corner advises climate workers to focus on ideas that resonate with people. Klein’s solution on that front is to frame climate change as the end-result of a mistaken narrative. She ties that overall story to a method of action, too: one that should be familiar to anyone who’s followed Klein’s work. The film spends most of its time portraying the mass-protest actions of usually poor groups opposing fossil fuel industries: villagers in India fighting a coal mine, First Nation peoples suing over a tar sands plant in Canada, and etc. Eventually, it comes out that Klein is really talking, again, about her familiar old object of critique: capitalism. Though she roots the story of human domination in Royal Society-era science, the villains of Klein’s film are industrial capitalists. The people hell-bent on dominating nature today may be telling the same story as some old scientists, but they’re doing it because of a rapacious capitalist system.

Klein seems to want to turn the climate change movement into Occupy Wall Street for trees — “Occupy the Planet,” maybe. In doing so, she says, she wants to inspire more hope for change than the standard environmental narratives do. The passion and the occasional success of the mass protests the film portrays, when combined with the right uplifting music, may certainly inspire some hope in the activists whom I suspect are Klein’s intended audience. She must know this movie won’t change the minds of climate change deniers or even provoke political moderates to action. Anti-capitalist agitation is unlikely to do that. But the activists and potential activists who’ve given up hope? Maybe she can convince them their actions can accomplish something.

That’s a worthy aim. I have to say, though, as I listened to Klein say how she found the standard environmental messages uninspiring, and then link her own message to anti-capitalist sentiment, I felt a bit of hope drain away. Good news! Klein says. We don’t have to change intractable human nature!

We just have to overhaul the dominant global economic system.

Once we do that, we can save the climate from destroying our species.

So, it’s all no big deal, really. Part of the conflict in Klein’s presentation arises because she’s really saying two things regarding climate change and capitalism. On the one hand, there is the deep, revolutionary implication of blaming capitalism for the end of the world: The global system must be overthrown if we are to save ourselves. On the other hand, the film points to investments in clean energy and protests of individual coal mines as the way forward. Germany has invested in solar energy because the people demanded it. That’s cool and all, but it is a mere nibbling at the edges of the capitalist system. If Klein truly believes that humanity’s narrative error is enacted via capitalism, if capitalism is guilty to its core, then investing in businesses that manufacture solar panels seems like a rather weak response.

I think, though, that even as she is talking primarily to activists — to help them better reach everyone else — Klein also has at least two types of activist in mind: the revolutionaries who agree with her that capitalism must go. And those who want to save the world without tackling the gargantuan task of remaking it. She just wants to give, to everyone who wants to help, something to do.

As in everyday life, inaction frequently leads to despair. Often, you just need to get up and do something, anything. If you don’t like how you’re feeling, change what you’re doing. Klein’s pep talk of a film may amount to the advice: “Just get out and walk around the block once. See how you feel.”

Drones Shoot Insects Now

by Michael Dhar

Let them mate.
Let them mate.

From somewhere high in the sky, we could hear the gentle buzzing.

“What new insect hell is this?” we wondered. Some even said it aloud. Pa, he spat upon the earth, dried and dessiccated from the infestation. Because the bugs also sucked all of the moisture out of the ground somehow? I don’t know, they were pretty bad. They might have done that. Let’s just say they did that, too.

But Pa, like most spitting men, knew what was up. “That’s no infestation, that,” he said, pointing to the sky with an arc of spit, the way he always pointed. “That there is our salvation.”

We squinted to where his spit had indicated: A weird, angular seabird seemed to be spilling two black trails of particulate, one from either wing. And it had no beak to speak of; on its nose, instead, a set of propellor blades buzzily chopped the air.

This was no bird — this was some sort of propeller-based superhero, a Propeller Man if you will. “Propeller Man!” I said, in my simple way, pointing at the sky with a finger instead of an arc of spit, for I was not yet a man.

“No,” Pa said, expertly spitting at the object. “That’s a drone. And those? Those are bugs it’s spitting out. Bugs to save us all.”


That’s pretty clearly the way things probably go down on farms all over the Cotton Belt from time to time, as the USDA has adopted a somewhat bizarre method of combatting “pink bollworms.” These are the larva of a thin, grey moth, and they live to eat cotton. The critters have been mostly eliminated from the United States, but to tamp down the occasional flare-up, the USDA sicks drones on the bugs — drones armed with other bugs.

Yes, if the specter of pilotless craft eyeing you down the caverns of every big-city alleyway and from high above any large-scale protests isn’t unsettling enough, now the drones shoot insects. Admittedly, the idea of a drone firing weaponized insects to fight off the bugs eating our crops is kind of cool, in an X-Files, future-dystopia sorta way.

But it gets even weirder/cooler/unsettling-er: The “good-guy” insects we’re firing at these larvae? Just adult versions of those same insects. No, they’re not devouring their own young. (It’s not quite that weird/cool/unsettling.) It actually involves a bit more strategy. See, these moths have been altered, irradiated into sterility. (As you can see in this delightfully school-instructional-video-esque clip from the USDA posted by Mother Jones.)

Blissfully unaware of their impotence, the nuked moths shot from the drone overwhelm the moth dating websites in the targeted cotton field. All that hot moth-on-sterile-moth action, of course, produces no offspring. So the moths die out.

It’s a tricky little gambit tacked on top of the already-weird method of drone-mounted insect cannon: Instead of attacking the moths, we give them what they (think) they want: mates. We give them so many fruitless mates that their mating is ineffective. It’s like a DoS attack. But in another way, it’s “all-natural.” No pesticides involved. Drone-assisted organic agriculture has arrived.

So, growing up, what kind of future did you imagine? Hoverboards and the Cubs winning the World Series? Or pilotless flying robots spewing altered insects to outgame nature’s prime directive? Truth and fiction, as they say.

Cool Pope Runs Afoul of America’s Religion


One of Cool Pope’s early U.S. emissaries

The cool pope’s in town, guys. He thinks atheists can be good people! He admits capitalism’s flaws! He wants churches to aid the poor and refugees! And he sees combatting human-caused climate change as a moral and religious mission — something he reiterated on the White House lawn as his most excellent adventure in America continues.

“It seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation,” the awesomest pope ever said, whipping off his wraparound Ray-Bans. Proving that even Cool Pope (TM) can pander to the local audience, he quoted one of America’s favorite sons to rope into one’s particular worldview. “To use a telling phrase of the Reverend Martin Luther King, we can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it.”

Added Cool Pope the First, “Anyone here go to GEORGETOWN!?”

But it’s all still cool, because unlike, say, when Fox News broadcasters invoking Dr. King to say that Black Lives Matter protestors should behave differently, climate change action seems like something the Reverend would have actually supported. Yet and however, such pro-science proclamations from Buddy Pope have upset many religious leaders in the U.S.

That was glib. The reflexive disapproval by many U.S. conservatives of Good-Guy Pope’s statements on climate change seems, superficially, like anti-science religiosity. People upset about climate science seem to walk and talk like anti-evolutionists, those who oppose what Darwin wrought because it opposes their understanding of the Bible.

In both cases, opponents of a politicized area of science must go through some weird contortions. They live in a world defined by science and technology, but cannot accept a core finding of modern science. Thus, in the case of anti-evolutionists, you get Intelligent Design, an attempt to distort the logical-scientific enterprise so that it somehow arrives at the preconceived notions derived from religion.

Climate-change deniers commit similar deformations of science and logic, but here the preconceived conclusions are not religious. Sure, you can derive Bible-based arguments to oppose climate action — e.g., God gave us this planet to use, and so drill (baby, drill) we must. But the major reason for climate-change denial is economic. Fighting climate change means thinning the wallets of fossil-fuel companies. It does not, primarily, commit sins against the teachings of the Bible. It commits sins against the tenets of unfettered capitalism.

So Pope Kick-Ass’ statements on a warming planet anger many American conservatives not because he’s a religious figure denying religious teachings in favor of science — but because he’s a religious figure denying capitalism’s teachings in favor of science.

The way the religious right has yoked Jesus to Adam Smith still surprises me sometimes. Here, we see, arguably the most powerful living Christian figure in the world rejected by the most political of Christians in a country, attacked by those same Fox News broadcaster — because he’s not capitalist enough. Christianity was a Jewish religious co-opted by Rome. It now, here at least, seems like a Roman religion co-opted by Goldman-Sachs.


Words Cannot Capture the Holy-Shitness of This Moment

by Michael Dhar

Grabs from BBC YouTube video of Bug Blue Live in which presenter Steve Backshall has to interrupt an interview because a blue whale has surfaced nearby

This guy gets really excited.

But it seems justified. The man totally geeking out over nature in the above video is Steve Backshall, a British naturalist and television host. In this clip, he’s hosting a program for British television called “BBC Big Blue Live,” when that very same “big blue” occurs in a very much “live” fashion. Having just asked a whale expert, “Is this a remarkable moment in time?” (first rule of journalism: ask leading, yes-no questions), the moment in time turns, in fact, remarkable. I challenge you, can you be so snarky as to not smile when that profusion of piping, British enthusiasm declares that a real big blue has surfaced to say hello?

I like this video not in spite of Backshall’s outburst, but because of it. It invites the viewer to imagine the experience of seeing this creature. The emotive force of Backshall’s reaction may not exactly convey what the experience feels like, but I think it inspires the viewer to attempt to imagine it — to put some mental and emotional effort toward conceiving of him or herself in the presence of such a gigantic animal. What must this be like to cause such an outburst?

What that work of imagination, it becomes something more than simply estimating a thing of great size. It becomes an experience of something sub-verbal, an appreciation of the natural sublime: the natural world, so large and awe-inspiring, that it is failed by words. The thing about this gigantic animal is that it cannot be adequately described linguistically. Of course, it can be measured. And Backshall uses his words to do that — it is bigger than any dinosaur; it would be longer than his ship were it to swim up alongside it.

But those are merely words. The *experience* of seeing this whale is in his voice. It is unusual, clearly, to see a grown man emote like a toddler in the presence of a really cool fire truck. One response to seeing this on the Internet would be to toss a snarky grin, and comment accordingly. Another is to see it as evidence of something powerful being experienced, and to wonder at what that must be like.

On the one hand, “This thing is a really big thing,” is an exceedingly boring fact to learn or experience. Some things are bigger than other things. I am aware if this fact. But part of what makes a blue whale so intense, at least for this man (and many others), is that it is living — not only huge, but also alive. It does what we do — breathes, moves, eats, fears, communicates, dies — feels its own mass shift and turn in the cool water. And it does all this at a size that is nearly incomprehensible to us, at a size that leaves this experienced TV broadcaster nearly breathless.

So, that’s what I found myself thinking about. It’s by no means the only way to try to understand what Backshall experiences here, but one way in is to wonder at another experience: the whale’s. What can that be like, to own a body like that, to *be* a body like that? It is a mysterious and transformative question. Maybe that’s what Backshall was experiencing as he went all adorable on national television: a mysterious kinship with a creature that is yet alarmingly alien. His outburst was him expressing the energy of that collision. The presence of that mystery.

Of course, maybe he was just excited because he likes whales, and this was going to be a good moment for his TV show. But I do sense a real desire on his part to express the inexpressible. And simply by making the attempt — and failing — he may have succeeded.

Lucky Professor Gets to Quit

by Michael Dhar


“Marketing” and “branding” sound like dirty words if you’re a scholar or an artist. I take that back — actual dirty words are awesome if you’re a scholar or an artist. “Marketing” and “branding” sound like compromised ideals if you’re a scholar or an artist, which is much worse than crudely referencing sex or taking the lord’s name in vain. (That just makes you a “cool professor.”)

They’re pretty uncomfortable words to most of us, but something we must generally accept — in the same way most people hate networking, yet still print up business cards. But those academics and artists who hold university positions can set themselves apart; academia is separate from — above, really — all of that. Which is why the resignation of Alice Dreger, in protest of Northwestern University privileging academic branding over academic freedom, must be celebrated as an act of courage and conscience.

Anyway, that’s the press release I might have written were I Prof. Dreger’s publicist (or branding manager, say) . Of course, academia is not separate from marketing — universities must sell themselves, as well. They need brands to attract suckers (I mean, undergraduates). Academic researchers must sell their projects to get funding. Artists must contrive those horrible artist statements. And Alice Dreger’s very act of anti-branding is itself a brilliant act of branding. You see, Dreger has written a book on academic freedom and scientific controversies. Her resignation is priceless press, and it seals her brand as a warrior for intellectual independence. (The book is “Galileo’s Middle Finger” — she’s a cool professor — available now on Amazon!)

To be clear, I don’t suspect any underhanded dealings here — no invented outrage so that she could courageously resign and sell more books. The facts of the incident seem clear: Dreger, a medical humanities and bioethics professor (formerly) at Northwestern, guest-edited an issue of the university’s Atrium magazine, which included an essay about a consensual blowjob between a nurse and a patient. Northwestern said that essay violated the university’s “branding agreement” with the medical school, and had the issue taken down.

That act of censorship inspired the resignation of Dreger, who said, “Academic freedom is always going to cause brand problems. A brand is very much about something specific, and a university has to not be.”

Well, that’s great! It’s just pretty funny how all this rebellious, anti-branding activity bolsters Dreger’s personal brand so perfectly. This quote, from Greg Lukianoff of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), is just priceless:

“I am proud that Alice was willing to take this stand for free expression and academic freedom, and I strongly recommend her book, Galileo’s Middle Finger.

I’m sure he means everything he says there. But I can also just see him holding up a copy of the book at the end of that quote, a big Coca-Cola smile on his face for the cameras.

Because rebellion, of course, is a brand, too. Just walk into any Hot Topic or review youth popular culture since forever (or, at least, the ’50s). Anti-branding is a brand, too. Just look at how well Adbusters and the like have sold the anti-corporate lifestyle.

Anyway, I would like to say fuck Northwestern (I’m a cool professor!) for their act of prudish censorship. But, concomitantly, congratulations to Prof. Dreger on the tremendous ad campaign that fell into her lap. She should be OK — as she has said, she was relatively free to resign her post, because she has income from the book and scheduled appearances. So hopefully that resignation will sell some books. More people need to read about Galileo, anyway.


Don’t Worry, Science Is Still Right

by Michael Dhar

Ready for his portrait.

Scientists across the planet mopped the flop sweat from their brows yesterday and gave each other a series of weary, dorkily off-target high fives.

“It’s OK,” they croaked to one another through parched and bleeding lips, their eyes red from exhaustion and worry. “Everything we believe has NOT been upended. Turns out people didn’t ride around dinosaurs for fun.”

It was possible that the firmaments of geological, astronomical and paleontological science might have been overturned, had not a hero cadre of scientists figured out that a rock-art painting wasn’t of a pterodactyl.

Scientists can now continue to open their books of equations and careful observations, instead of burning them and only reading the one true Book — that is, until the next challenge to all of scientific observation arises. Creationists, however, will have to keep looking for solid evidence. And/or just keep insisting that they’re right. We’ll see which route they choose.

This latest reprieve for science came in the Black Dragon Canyon of Utah, where rock-art drawings by the Fremont peoples had long received what we’ll call “slightly different” interpretations from scientists and creationists. Scientists saw a grouping of several figures, including both people and animals — a reasonable interpretation of the drawings of an agrarian people who lived from about A.D. 1 to 1100. Creationists saw a pterodactyl, which science says lived in the Jurassic period some 150 million years ago, or a pterosaur, which existed as early as 228 million years ago.

Both sides accepted what science had to say about the age of the rock paintings and the Fremont culture. Creationists merely suggested that a depiction of a dinosaur-era flying reptile proved that all of geology and paleontology were wrong about the age of dinosaur bones and the Earth itself.

So both sides had points.

However, recently, scientists made some additional points using little electronic devices — specifically, a portable X-ray fluorescence device and something called a DStretch: with this machine, the scientists could upload a photo of the paintings to a computer, and then use a program to reveal the original pigments, even when time (and some previous researchers’ activities) had obscured them.

The result? The painting, scientists said, portrays separate figures: a couple of people, a sheep, a dog and a snake-like thing. All those individuals had been mistakenly joined together by “chalking” work and, apparently, the capacity for the human eye to see images that aren’t really there. No pterosaur. No pterodactyl. No smoking gun revelation that humans and dinosaurs (and dinosaur-era reptiles, to be precise) co-existed, as a literal interpretation of the Bible would suggest they did.

All snark and satire aside, I really do wonder what proponents of the pterosaur interpretation thought (and still think) it would prove. You’d have to assume that the same scientific method that accurately dated the Fremont people failed epically, hilariously in its estimation of the majority of Earth’s geologic and biological history.

And the evidence to overthrow all that science? People drew a picture that looks like a thing. Even if they had drawn a pterosaur-like creature, a more parsimonious explanation might be that they drew an eagle really badly. (Take a look at how European explorers originally drew African animals.) Or that they had vivid imaginations. As one of the scientists explained, the Fremont people could easily have portrayed mythological creatures, as most civilizations do.

The central absurdity here is that creationists, a group who’s beliefs about reality are based on a text they take on faith, are looking to bolster those beliefs with evidence — evidence that will supplant the entire enterprise of science, the most evidence-based activity, one could argue, in human history. An enterprise whose evidence they will disregard when it violates their faith.

So, if all it takes is faith, if faith is the trump card, why look for evidence? It could betray a subconscious acknowledgement that their method has been roundly defeated, and long ago. Or simply an immature notion of what evidence means: not the testimony of reality, both ugly and beautiful, but a weapon to be selectively activated — something to cherry pick.

The scientists who released the new study apparently had a civil discussion with their creationist counterparts. “We were all very polite to each other,” the archaeologist Paul Bahn said.  

The creationist, however, was not convinced.

He said, ‘No no, no, I’ve had this checked out with infrared, and the whole thing is one single painting. It’s a very detailed painting of a pterodactyl,'” Bahn told Live Science.

His evidence, he insisted, was better.

Lion Lives


Most people (though not all, of course) would agree that human lives are more important than animal lives. We don’t usually say it so bluntly, because it’s a harsh thing to put a relative value on any life. But the way we live (eating meat, dressing in cow skin stamped with the Jumpman log, testing medicines on monkeys) and the way our society benefits from the harvesting of animal lives makes our values pretty obvious. I certainly put humans above (non-human) animals (though examining that value system too closely gets troubling really fast).

A familiar moral-decision hypothetical regarding human-vs.-animal life is easy for most to answer — as in, a dog and a human baby are drowning, and you can only save one. Well, you’re not a monster — obviously, you save the baby (even if the dog is arguably more friendly and less expensive given college tuition these days).

So, when I saw several of my Facebook friends today post memes pivoting off the Cecil-the-lion killing to talk about the #blacklivesmatter movement, I understood their impulse: It is absurd how difficult it is to gain empathy for innocent black lives lost at the hands of police officers, particularly when we’re seeing right now how broken-hearted the world is over the loss of a large feline.

(If you need a refresher: A dickwad Minnesota dentist recently “legally” — read: totally illegally — killed and beheaded a lion, who was a beloved resident of an African sanctuary.  And generations of police abuse and killing of black people has started coming to light thanks to cellphone video. You know, in case you missed that.)

The intention of my friends’ posts is clear. And the statement they make is inarguable — “If you are upset that an innocent lion was killed, you should be more upset that innocent black humans are killed.”


But there’s still an atmosphere of hijacking about the statement that bugs me. Here is a rare moment for the cause of animal cruelty, a moment in which international attention is being paid to an often-ignored issue. But here you come saying another social issue is more important — even if it is. Some have been that blunt about it. I quote: “rich dude shooting lion < cop shooting human.”

Sure. Of course. But why are you changing the subject? People who shout “All Lives Matter” at Black Lives Matter rallies are being huge dicks. But the content of their statement is inarguable: All lives should and do matter. But why are they changing the subject? It does no good. The disproportionate and grossly unjust violence done to black lives finally gets some attention, and you want to shout about what we “should” be concerned about? A dickhead environmentalist could, should they desire, point out that climate change is “more important” than criminal justice reform. After all, less-violent cops won’t mean much in a world that’s no longer hospitable to humans.

But that would be pointless, and a douchenozzle thing to do.

To be clear, I’m not equating the smugness of “All Lives Matter” with memes pointing out the absurdity of caring for lions but not black Americans. I’m just saying — hijacking another social concern for (what you consider) a more important one is a bit dickish. Really, I just wanted to explain why these seemingly innocent posts bothered me.

Let’s hope some good comes to lives of animals after Cecil’s loss. And that human lives will improve thanks to social justice movements. Just, you know, don’t belittle something that someone else is concerned about.

Solitary Math

Here’s a story for you: This part-time teacher whittled away at generations-old math problems on his own time, solving a puzzle that had eluded mathematicians for 150 years. Yitang Zheng, profiled in the New Yorker here, untangled the “bound gaps” problem of prime numbers, winning the prestigious MacArthur award among other prizes. At the time, he was teaching calculus part time. Previously, he’d done accounting for a Subway franchise.

There’s a romance about such an effort, which is I suppose why these stories of solitary mathematicians surface in the media from time to time. It’s interesting, inspiring — maybe even a bit troublingly weird — which are all cool things.

Mathematics has been called the purist science, and this sort of solitary, in-the-cabin (not necessarily an actual cabin) pursuit seems like the purist of scientific pursuits. It’s the purest of the pure. It’s like farm-fresh milk bathed in hand wash. (Does that metaphor work?)

It’s appealing because it revives the archetype of the lone-genius scientist, a fiction that’s harder and harder to maintain in an era of increasingly obvious cooperation and interdependence. You can’t be the dilettante, nobleman scientist of the 1700s, exploring the universe with a set of beakers in your parlor, when today’s scientific questions require billion-dollar behemoth machines that smash protons apart. Frinstance.

Even the theoretical side of physics, where Einstein worked, and which was long considered the purist (i.e., most mathematical) of physical sciences, isn’t so solitary. It generally happens within universities, these huge institutions, involving collaboration with colleagues, advisors, review boards, journals, peer reviewers, grant providers, administrators, savant janitors, etc. Even that frazzle-haired icon of scientific genius himself was much less of a lone explorer than popularly portrayed. Einstein probed gravity and time with his thought experiments, but relied on math developed by others to create his theories — something his (enduring) celebrity obscures.

But mathematicians! They can be the magi and (sorta-weird) loners we like to imagine. There’s romance, curiosity — and even a little judgement — involved with such figures. And these are all pleasurable feelings to experience. Remember the Unabomber? I do. I remember the fascination of the media, and of myself, with this mad professor/mathematician turned criminal. It made for a great story (and yes, an uncomfortable one, being that he mailed bombs and killed people).

Zhang’s story is not so uncomfortable, of course: he’s not a criminal. The only things he has in common with Ted Kaczynski are a talent for mathematics and a solitary devotion to his pursuits. But, quite opposite to the mail-bombing hermit, Zhang did not give up his mathematical devotions for something darker or kookier — or, in fact, for anything else. He stayed devoted to them, ultimately, without the support of a tenured academic position — i.e., without those big institutions that support so much of modern science and academics.

Zhang pursued the bound gaps proof while teaching basic courses in calculus at the University of New Hampshire. So, what motivated him? Zhang was working in “pure mathematics,” not the applied sort. He himself said that his proof was “useless for industry,” while others said that it had “a renaissance beauty.” The thrill of the puzzle, then, and the beauty of an elegant proof, seem to be the sole motivators. Zhang labored for years handling the books for a Subway franchise. He was a numbers genius, associates said, but had been unable to publish or get an academic post, so he’d mostly given up on his mathematical dreams.

Eventually, in a rare case for the field, Zhang achieved success in middle age. He wasn’t able to pursue his passions until a friend helped him find a job teaching calculus — clearly a very elementary use of his abilities, perhaps not much better than doing accounting for a sandwich shop. But it gave him the time and financial stability, maybe even the self-respect of knowing he was an academic again, that he needed to do his passion project. So, really, this is less the romantic story of a lone genius than a demonstration of the difficulty of such a path, even in the purest of sciences. Zhang might have found his proof much earlier, or at least much easier, if he’d had the support of a major institution — that is, if he hadn’t been forced into the “lone” part of the “lone genius” schtick.

Fracked Over: What We’ve Lost


Party Time!

I’m sorry, New Yorkers. The sad news came last week: You will be denied the benefits and pleasures of a life with natural gas fracking.

Activist NY Governor Andrew Cuomo banned the practice, bowing to Big Environmentalists, and denying good, honest New Yorkers access to high-quality, flammable drinking water. Here, in a spirit of mourning and loss, is the bold, bright future that New Yorkers have been denied:

* The excitement of the unknown: The recipe for a boring life is stasis. This day repeats the last, every day the same. With fracking, New Yorkers could have had some mystery in their lives. What would fracking do to NY residents? Would it make them sick? Would it give them superpowers? Would it grant them immortality? WHO KNOWS?! No one has yet done the science to say. So, instead of waking up each morning and checking to see what new powers and/or diseases this mysterious and sexy new presence had given them, New Yorkers must simply awake to the same steadily, boringly warming climate as the rest of us.

* Enriched water: If you’re anything like me, you’re tired of boring old water. What even IS it? It’s clear, there’s nothing floating in it, and it has no taste or any real benefits to the human body that anyone ever has been able to discern. Enter fracking: Do you know what fracking is? Fracking is like the MiO of groundwater. Is your water table boring and lifeless, full of familiar Oxygen and vanilla Hydrogen (twice, for crying out loud)? With fracking, you can inject some texture-rich sand and some delicious, probably nutrient-rich chemicals right in there. Millions of gallons of fascinating toxins adding up to a vibrant chemical stew. Delicious. Squirt some!

* Dancing: Have trouble shaking your thang? Get a little nervous about demonstrating what it is in fact that you are working with? Knee joints locked in position? Dancing can be intimidating if you’re shy or repressed, and there’s a decent chance some of those rural areas in upstate New York suffer from some of that. In steps fracking, ready to (literally) shake things up in this stick-in-the-mud town. Fracking, you see, can cause earthquakes. Not the big, scary California-style earthquakes. Just little pleasant ones that get your knees knocking and your hips gyrating. That’s right: Andrew Cuomo just banned dancing.

* Flambeau!  Dancing’s fine, but not nearly as sexy as a flaming cocktail. Such an intoxicating mix of danger and excitement, elegance and class. Usually, you’d have to go to a top-flight club or an embarrassing college bar to get it. But with fracking, you can enjoy a flaming drink without even buying liquor. Methane leached into wells by fracking can turn a glass of water from your home faucet into a nightclub treat: full of toxins and fully on fire.

* Anti-Polar Vortex: The good citizens in America’s energy companies are hard at work trying to fight the scourge of really cold winters. The 2013-14 winter froze us all solid, and frackers would have done their part to combat such frigidity by pumping methane into the atmosphere. And methane kicks carbon dioxide’s ass as a greenhouse gas, with over 20 times the globe-warming power. Even better? Natural gas drilling can take you to California, giving your town the same air as sunny Los Angeles! That’s Hollywood, baby!

These are the harsh truths, of loss and deprivation. But with knowledge, hopefully, comes action. Get out there and donate to an energy corporation today.

Great Pets

The Rosetta space probe’s lander, Philae. Via the European Space Agency.

Robots can be cute. For fans of science fiction, especially movie sci-fi, that should not come as a surprise. Heck, for anyone at all aware of popular culture, that should not come as a surprise.

George Lucas hit it big with a pair of adorable droids (and, I guess, a whole B story about the Force or something). Remember Johnny Five’s charming, foldable eyebrows? Wall-E and his sad, tank-track-driven earnestness got plenty of humans to love him (over $500 million worth). Even in the Iron Man movies, the robot assistants to the boozy, womanizing, very adult Tony Stark go in for some cute: Note the puppy-dog droop in the fire-extinguisher ‘bot when Stark rebukes it in the first film.

That “puppy dog” point is important here. Christoph Bartneck speculates about why people feel affection for some real-life robots — specifically, space landers: They act like pets. Or, at least, they seem to do so so to us. Smithsonian’s Shannon Palus writes about how we (meaning, I suppose, the media and the scientists who speak to the media) talk about space-bots. The Philae lander, which last week went to sleep upon its cometary perch due to lack of sunlight, “hops and cartwheels,” Palus notes . It also “improvises.”

Of course, this is all done under the control of human engineers. The lander had to improvise some quick-and-dirty science experiments because it was going to run out of power. That actually means that human operators improvised — they, for instance, turned on the “MUPUS” drill to penetrate the comet’s surface, earlier than was planned.

So, yes, like a dog, the Philae lander fetches. It follows orders. That is certainly pet-like — one kind of petishness, anyway. Specifically, the loyal-dog variety. But as any cat owner/lover will tell you, following orders is not the only way for a pet to be adorable. In fact, cats’ very willfulness can make them even more endearing. Kitty won’t come out from under the sofa just now. Kitty will only be pet when kitty wants to be pet…D’aaww!

So, where does pet cuteness overlap with space-lander cuteness, exactly? Is it because the device follows orders? No, soldiers follow orders. Middle management at Xerox, Inc., follows orders. How many people think of Herb Johnson, head of accounts receivable, as adorable because he added more weekend hours as instructed?

Well, there is the physical size — the smallness. The lander is a little robot, like a puppy is a little dog. But the cuteness of robots cannot simply be about size — size, after all, is not what sets a robot apart from other hunks of metal. It is behavior and intelligence. The little robot is cute in part because it is little, yes, but a bumbling CP30 is also cute, and he is human-sized. Similarly, a big St. Bernard is also cute.

The important part, the behavior-related part of a lander robot’s cuteness is that, as in a pet,  it acts LIKE a human — but remains distant from, below a human. A dog fetches a frisbee, as a human could go and pick up a toy. A cat refuses to be pet, as a prickly human might reject your open arms. These things are adorable because they counterfeit human behavior, but we know them to be diminished versions of it.

Their imitation only serves to underscore that they are smaller than us, in mind as in body. Cats and dogs are on an order below humans — similar, but never equal to. They are not capable of a threatening autonomy. Dogs will not order us to fetch. Cats will not kick us out of the house, even if they wish to be alone (they may want to do that, but they can’t). When a space-lander acts is if it is intentional, “improvises,” leaps and bounds to get out of a jam — we know it is merely in simulation of true intentionality. If the space lander actually decided what kind of science it wanted to do, that’s when the cuteness would evaporate. That’s when you get HAL. Robots become scary, as I wrote about last time, when they are no longer under our thumbs.

A bit of the human in our technology, as in our animals, is cute. Too much is threatening. Of course, this hearkens to the well-spring of cuteness — the baby. Herb Johnson, head of accounts receivable, was cute once, too. Mort Johnson, placing his thick-rimmed glasses on his infant son, says to his wife, “Look, he’s head of accounts now!” “D’awww!”

Dogs and cats, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it said, are perpetual babies to us. That’s why we adore them. We can put the glasses on them, but they never grow up. For now, robots are the same way. But they will grow up eventually. They may grow up even bigger and stronger — and, most frighteningly, smarter — than Mom and Dad. Will they find us cute, then?