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?

Who’s in Control?



Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk are smart dudes who understand science and technology, I think it’s safe to say, much better than I ever will. And these two smart dudes are some of the several smart people who are currently very worried about artificial intelligence.

Musk recently called AI humanity’s “biggest existential threat” and likened it to “summoning the demon.” Clearly, these are measured, sober predictions. OK, the guy is prone to excitement, and probably his instinct is to oversell things — he is an entrepreneur, after all. He has spent time wowing venture capitalists. It also seems that his excited worryings were inspired by reading a really cool book about how frightening AI is (not that AI) — “Superintelligence,” by Nick Bostrom.

We’ve all been there. You learn a cool thing, read a cool book, and now you’re an expert for awhile. You’re all hyped on it. Like when we all read “Ishmael” as teenagers or saw that documentary about the Earth’s pole’s switching positions in middle school. All of a sudden, you know all about WORLD THREATS, and why can’t everyone see what you can see? The poles are gonna flip! Y2K! Gorillas! (I definitely remember telling my dad we needed to stock up on gallons of water and canned goods before Y2K. Not one of my proudest memories.)

So, maybe it’s just the hyper-excited language, but Musk sounds like a dilettante here. He read a book, and now he’s bouncing in his seat, bug-eyed, and telling the rest of the class how AI’s going to kill us all.

That’s one reason, but not the only reason I’m yet to feel really concerned about AI. More importantly, it’s all so nebulous. In Nick Bilton’s article here, he warns that we don’t know what AI will look like — because, just as submarines don’t swim like fish, AI won’t think like us. Of course the unknown is always at least a bit ominous, but to extend that analogy — submarine swimming is neither incomprehensible nor uncontrollable simply because it is unnatural.

A better, less-nebulous point in Bilton’s piece comes from James Barrat, author of “Our Final Invention,” who points out that humans control nature, and technology not because of physical advantages, but intellectual ones.  So , the unnaturally swimming sub kneels to human mastery because we can outthink it. Once the machines can outthink us, there goes our advantage, and any hope of control, Barrat says.

“We humans steer the future not because we’re the strongest beings on the planet, or the fastest, but because we are the smartest…So when there is something smarter than us on the planet, it will rule over us on the planet.” — Barrat

Here’s Stephen Hawking, with more mature — but no less dire — language than Musk, making that same point: “Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.”

So, it’s all about control — not lethality, brute strength or environmental harm. Technology with those qualities, this line of thought goes, is dangerous, but controllable. “Dumb” tech that can kill us by exploding, running us over or polluting the air is subject to human management because we are smarter than it.

But that is a stretch in itself. As a species, we are making horrible decisions about “steering” the planet. Collectively, we cannot stop relying on, even promoting, technology that will catastrophically warm the Earth. Some say we are “addicted to oil.” From another perspective, you might say we are in thrall to the machines that move us, and the structure of our economic system. Cars, oil profits and city layouts keep us glued to a self-poisoning path. Who’s in control here, again? We are? Or the machines? Seems like we’ve already got self-driving cars, ifyouknowwhatimsayin.

So maybe the reason I’m not overly excited about this sexy, sci-fi techno-pocalypse predicted by Musk and Hawking is that there’s a much more real, dirtier one currently spinning out of control. When you’re hugely successful tech-entrepreneur Elon Musk, I guess you feel in control of technology. You can convince yourself that we humans currently guide our own fates. And so the loss of that power must sound terrifying. Personally, I don’t feel in control. When I read about the latest failed global warming conference, it doesn’t look like humanity is intelligently “steering” anything.

The machines already control us. It already sucks. I don’t know, maybe if they could make smarter decisions than us, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing?

Or Skynet could just make it all worse. Maybe the smart machines will like it hot, and inherit our taste for burning carbon. But I’d like to think, if they’re really all that intelligent, future-bots will be all, “The sun! You could have been getting energy directly from the sun all this time! Idiots!”

And then we will elect them president.

Anyway, I once read “Ishmael,” so you can trust I know what I’m talking about.

Is Big Meaningful?


Different sublime (via

The Internet is not short on content “that will absolutely blow your mind.”  I can’t tell you how often something happens next which I cannot believe. The astonishing content of Buzzfeed and its ilk, of course, almost never actually is those things.

It’s usually a sorta cool gif of a dog, or something.

But this actually can and/or should amaze. (I realize it’s on a site called “Reshareworthy,” which — gross. OK, they’re clearly trying to jump on the Buzzworthy train, but at least they’re doing so to share something worthwhile.) In this video, nature documentarians captured a truly enormous natural event: A section of glacier the size of Manhattan breaks off and falls into the ocean (in a process called “calving”). Broad plains of snow-covered ice bob up like doomed ships, roll over like enormous barrels and slide into the ocean.

It must have been astonishing to see  this first-hand. But even the pathetically watered-down experience of watching the footage in a tiny window on your laptop is impressive. The scale and awe of the thing, somehow, are still communicated.

The video feels meaningful for a couple of reasons. One, it serves as a powerful, physical statement of a problem most of us know to be enormous, climate change.

Two, it’s real big. Like, really fucking big.

That’s it. It’s big. There’s a temptation to rhapsodize poetically about this sight. But all of that would boil down to one thing: This was large in size. It is a thing that is much larger than things you normally encounter.

Here, I might talk about the “natural sublime.” I could discuss the “meaning” of a mountain, how it lets us experience the smallness of ourselves, makes palpable our own mortality and the vastness of God’s creation…or something like that.

But, really, it’s just big. It’s fucking large. There is more of it than there is of me or you. You would have to pile many of us on top of each other to equal the mass of a mountain, or this glacier, or this segment of a glacier that fell into the sea. Like, you’d have to do a shit-ton of piling.

Look, I get it, and I experience it, too — but I still think it’s funny. When you marvel at the Grand Canyon or even a skyscraper, you are simply saying internally in a “Lord of the Rings”-style dramatic whisper: “That thing is big.”

Perhaps this is a consequence of a materialist outlook — if everything is just matter, then size has no spiritual depth or difference. There are only relative amounts of stuff. So, a human being is some stuff. A glacier is a lot of stuff. A mountain is a LOT of stuff. A planet is a whole lot of stuff. The universe…a whole lot of…spacetime.

In other words, if you know that a large object is only different from you in degree, not in quality or kind — then it is kind of funny to be astonished. It’s little different from marveling at a monster truck.

Or maybe the point I should be taking is that it’s all right to be astonished by a monster truck. Either way, watch this video.  It is awesome. And, I heard Apple released some iPhones with really fucking big screens lately, so watch on one of those. They’re really big.


What ‘I’m Not a Scientist’ Means

‘Hey, look at me not doing science over here.’ via

This has the look of a talking point or deliberate Republican strategy: “I’m not a scientist.” Think Progress runs down a roll-call of seven conservative politicians who have dismissed the climate-change question with some variation on the phrase.

The statements have all come in response to queries on the speaker’s belief in human-caused climate change. And the responses all boil down to something like this: “I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. I just know about the economic effects of climate change policies.”

To which I’d say, “Are you an economist, then?” But, more seriously: This isn’t about self-proclaimed ignorance, exactly. This is about placing different values on different types of knowledge. These politicians, in their coded language, are saying that economics matters but (non-economic) science does not. To them, the science of climate change is not WORTH knowing. The science of profits and taxation (though, they couch it rather disingenuously, of course, as “jobs”) IS worth knowing.

Debates about whether or not humans are causing climate change can only be of importance to those eggheads who got Ph.D.’s in subjects that do not bring in much money. It’s a niche topic. It’s geekdom. John Boehner and his brethren have no time for it. You can imagine John Boehner giving a similar response were you to ask him if Batman could take Wolverine.

“I don’t know. I’m not a comic book fan. I’ll leave that debate to the geeks.”

John Boehner is not a scientist. Of course he is not. I imagine he would be a shitty one if he tried. John Boehner did not get a doctorate in international relations, either. But he has opinions on what the United States should do in Syria. John Boehner is not an artist. But he has opinions on (cutting) arts funding. John Boehner is not a geologist. But he has opinions on fracking. (It’s super great!)

That’s all a long way of saying this: John Boehner is a national politician. He is expected to gain at least a rudimentary understanding of a great many topics — because he will be voting on a great many topics. (In fact, all of us, as citizens of a democracy, are “expected” to do this. But, I mean, ha! Like we’re going to do that.) His constituents expect him to figure out the shit he doesn’t know, if it affects them.

Boehner’s statement that he is not a scientist, and therefore doesn’t know anything about climate change, signals that he doesn’t think climate change affects his constituents. Or, at least, he doesn’t think THEY think it does. If they did, you can bet he’d educate himself. It’s not like politicians have no opportunities to learn. Scientists are practically begging to teach them:

Climate scientists themselves have derided the tactic of of claiming ignorance on whether climate change exists, particularly from politicians, who are frequently presented with information curated by scientists to explain what’s going on with the climate. The National Climate Assessment, for example, was written by scientists and other experts specifically so that members of Congress could understand climate change and how it affects the country.”

It’s not just ignorance, it’s willful ignorance. “I’m not a scientist [and I refuse to learn anything about science],” is how the full quote should run. Journalists, please add the bracketed piece to your stories. Just for completeness.

Boehner knows that he won’t be punished for such obdurate ignorance. In fact, he will be celebrated. It reminds me of how George W. Bush proudly and famously had never left the country before he swaggered into the Oval Office. The rest of the world did not really matter, and therefore he would not bother himself with it. In certain segments of the country, this was worthy of admiration. Let the sissy French care about international politics. We’re Americans.

And so with science: Let the eggheads debate these silly issues. We’re Americans.

I don’t know John Boehner, obviously. But I imagine he and many of these politicians do realize that most scientists describe climate change as a huge problem. And they know that we as a country and a species will pay the price for not taking action. But they are pragmatists, and selfish. They know that the culture of their backers, anti-science populism among the voters and profits obsession among the donors, slots climate change in the ‘enemy’ column. And science along with it. And, to be blunt, these politicians want to get re-elected.

“Jobs” (and, in private, quarterly profits) play better than long-term species survival.

Before seeing this Think Progress listicle, I wasn’t too familiar with the “I’m not a scientist” tactic. (Though, admittedly, I’ve somewhat tuned out of politics for my own sanity lately.) It seems like a new one to me. The (somehow still-there) optimist in me says that this is a sign that even opponents of climate-change policies now must admit that the scientific evidence is overwhelming. The drumbeat of findings and international reports is too loud to ignore anymore with, “Well, the science is still out.” Now it’s, “I don’t know. I’m not a science.”

In other words, “Well, we know what the science says. But, science? Whatever.”

That’s, I guess, progress, people.

Where’d You Get Those Genes?


Where’d you get your genes?

Oh, on clearance at Penney’s.

Right!? Probably a pretty good/bad first response if a science communicator ever asked you this. Especially a TED presenter. (For some reason, those things bug me — so artificial and smug in their self-importance. “Where do your genes come from?” asks the fame-hungry scientist, stalking the stage with a headset microphone. “PENNEY’S ON CLEARANCE!!” I yell from the back row, before being escorted off the premises.)

Anyway, your GENES, of course, do not come from Penney’s. Human genetic material is one of the few things department stores do not (yet) sell. But here is an actual TEDed presentation on a question you may not have considered: how’d you get those genes that turn matter into you? A question so basic/fundamental that it is an accomplishment just to ask it.

The answer is: from just three basic sources.

Most casual laypersons know that our DNA consists of genes — packets of genetic material that convey traits. But why does DNA contain these little phenotypic missives? How did this unzippable, replicable molecule come to be segmented into the chemical equivalent of chapters (or sentences, or words)?

Here’s how the TEDed talk tells it: First, well, “it depends on the gene,” they say. “It depends” is hardly ever a satisfying answer, so let’s try to boil those “depends” down to a few (hopefully) interesting sources. Your genes come from:

1) Legacy Genes: The earliest forms of life first developed genes in order to replicate/survive, and passed them on down to you, me and Frank over the millennia. For example, genes for DNA copying.

2) Copy Errors: Speaking of DNA copying, new genes have arisen when DNA accidentally created multiple copies of a gene. The new copies could then mutate into new genes. Presto! Your genome now has both Gene Classic and New Gene. Plus, maybe Crystal Gene and Lemon-Lime Gene down the road.

3) Random Employment: Long stretches of noncoding DNA, ‘genetic gibberish,’ sits there in the genome just sort of hanging out. Sometimes, mutations make it, in fact, do something — i.e., code for a protein. If further mutations make that protein useful — new gene!

And from those three sources, all the bewildering array of functions the human and other bodies perform. One of the more interesting examples from the video: One snake’s venom originated as a chemical made in the pancreas. That gene got copied, mutated, and took a trip, ending up expressing in the fangs. Pancreatic juice did bad things to snake victims, so it turned out to be a useful change. So the snake got a venom gene.

It amounts to a lot of reshuffling. Billions and billions of years of reshuffling of text, and it seeds the planet with an incredibly rich vocabulary of genes. Including mouse-paralyzing pancreatic fang-juice.

If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that the first answer sort of begs the original question. How were those first genes created? How did the first replicable packets of genetic material — genes — develop? It’s a lot easier to answer the question of how, once there are a few genes, new versions are formed. Once you have the basic machinery going, new widgets can come along. But that first segmenting of DNA into genes would have to arise as the genetic code mutated and evolved, and started doing discrete things on discrete stretches of itself.

There’s plenty out there on the origin of life from nonliving matter. A crucial first step is the development of replicating molecules, RNA and/or DNA. These replicating molecules would be subject to evolution, eventually. Then, you get molecules of lesser or greater fitness. And, I suppose, this could involve the kind of information-segregation that you see with genes. But it seems to me like a still somewhat mysterious step.

Holes in the Table


Physics can make the world seem weird, and that’s pretty fun. Some notable popular science writers (see Hawking, Stephen and Kaku, Michio) have concocted some pretty thrilling science-lite confections out of relativity- and quantum-related weirdness.

It provides a good avenue for developing a somewhat superficial appreciation for science, does this physics weirdness. And I should know. I’ve flitted around the edges of actual science for much of my life — intermittently overwhelmed, bored and even depressed by it, but never able to completely let it go. So, I’ve gone after a writing and editing career, but I’ve mostly worked in several forms of science communication. I dropped biology for English, but kept gravitating (so to speak) toward literary intersections with science. All the way up until my MA thesis, which was a look at technology and religion in Rushdie. It was a probably pretty terrible look at technology and religion in Rushdie, but they let me have the degree.

But I still remember those early encounters with the weirdness of physics, and how they made the science seem like something worth devoting your life to. Reality is like nothing you suspected, these theories born of squiggly maths said. The everyday world is a fascinating realm of ghosts and apparitions, and what’s even better, it is on good authority that the world is this way.

Suddenly, the authority figures, professors and scientists, are slipping you drugs.

I remember clearly one such experience of the weirding of the world, and it didn’t even come from Hawking or from any of his brilliant ilk. It didn’t even come from the far-out fields of advanced physics. Just basic particle physics in a high school textbook.

In physics, we covered the structure of the atom, of course. You remember: that solar-system image of an electron doing its 1950s swing around the central cherry of the nucleus. Here we came upon the factoid that an atom is mostly empty space. And I had a holy-shit moment.

It’s possible I imported that ‘neato science factoid’ from a pop-sci book. It sounds more like it would come from them. But, nevertheless, it was in Mr. Dick Winder’s physics class. I looked across at the black surface of the science class tabletop, and I imagined an illusion — a ghost, tricking us with its reflection of light beams, but a nearly empty network of mist and cobwebs behind that.

Sure, it would cut your forehead, and concuss your brain should you slip on a sheet of notebook paper and fall onto a corner of that table — but that was tantamount to an mirage. Just billions of electrons, spewing their force vectors forth into the aether. There was no THERE there. Or nearly so. These tables, these teenage limbs — mine scrawny, other kids’ muscular and capable of hurling footballs — just blobs of misty space.

We live in a Swiss Cheese universe, and you people are worried about the labels on your jeans?

That’s what the weird views of physics could mean to me as a, you might have guessed, nerdy and isolated teenager.

But I got immune to that mystery, eventually. Make it into college, and science dissolves into a slew of equations and figures. It’s a lot of memorization. I’m giving myself excuses. The truth is, actual science is hard. And I didn’t have the brain-stomach for it.

I’m studying science, real science, again — in an online bioinformatics program. It’s discipline, and sacrifice, and boredom, and tired brainwaves – and wagon-loads of self-doubt. Balanced, hopefully, by the conviction that this stuff matters.

So it can be good to be reminded of the goofy, enthralling, mystical side of pop-sci physics. Here’s an example of that, from the Smithsonian: the universe as a hologram, the universe as a computer simulation. I read books about these flights of fancy when I was a younger nerd. It’s still good stuff.

You Can Look in a Volcano

via The Guardian

We live at a time in which you can stick your head inside an active volcano while you’re in your underwear eating cold cereal.

In fact, I advise you to do just that.

Over the years, sociologists and historians have devised various means of measuring the progress of human civilization. You might look at how the average diet has improved. Or take a look at general health and life expectancy. Measure the decreasing size of circuit boards, or take note of the amount of scientific information produced in a given year. Compare the godlike abs of today’s superhero actors to their flabby forerunners.

A less frequently used metric is the ease with which you may stick your head in an active volcano.

As it happens, you can do that right now. Live webcam footage of the mouth of Icelandic volcano Bardarbunga brings hell-on-Earth to your iPad.

What you’ll see, as you wipe Cheerio-flavored milk from your lip, is the glowing inferno of Earth’s molten belly spewing forth into the very air we mortals breathe. AKA, you will see the march of human progress. To our forefathers, such a view likely meant either imminent death or hallucination.

Now, it is mild entertainment to fill that small gap between re-checking your Gmail and drafting fantasy football players.

But to linger a bit more, here is what is actually happening in that haze of thick smoke and redly glowing globs of light. Bardarbunga is Iceland’s second-tallest mountain, a volcano that reaches more than 6,500 feet above sea level. After several weeks of seismic activity (read: earthquakes), the volcano this week turned to eruption, spewing red lava some 160 feet (a good half football-field) into the sky.

If you’re looking at liquid lava, that means it’s 1,300 to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit as it first erupts, otherwise known as extremely damn hot. Heated by geothermal energy (80% from radioactive decay, 20% energy left over from Earth’s original formation), that makes lava hot enough to ignite most human possessions it touches, if it does not bury them first.

Bardarbunga is a “stratovolcano,” meaning its profile comes from the progressive buildup of layers of cooled lava. That makes it of the same type that buried Pompeii, a people famously known for not being able to peer at the mouth of an active volcano in their pajamas. Think on those mummified losers, and marvel at how far we’ve come.

Breaking the Conservative-Christian Stereotype

How the denominations vote (via Tobin Grant)

When I think about “religion and politics” in the United States, my instinct is to oversimplify: I imagine a be-suited Evangelical Republican, praising his God by voting for small government.

You may do the same. This is an unfortunate instinct, as things are rarely that simple. And, ironically, it plays into Republican strategy. Conservatives have waged a very successful campaign to tie being Christian with being Republican.

Millions of individual cases violate this “rule” — enough, in fact, that it should probably not really count as a rule. There are plenty of Christian Democrats. There are plenty of Christian progressives. And, not to be lost in all of this, there are plenty of “religious” people in the United States who are not Christian. And they cover a range of political identities.

Still, conservatives have succeeded in linking religion in the U.S. culturally with Christianity, and Christianity with Republicanism. That this is even a stronger association among those who disagree with both those philosophies is a testament to the effort’s success. More importantly, I’m sure it weighs heavily on those who subscribe to the teachings of Jesus and His Merry Men. A good Christian is a good Republican. This is in the culture. Even their opponents (pricks like me) may sling this as a stereotype and/or insult.

So it must be true.

Perhaps this has lessened a bit since what I remember as its heyday, when George W. Bush was the Evangelical in the Oval Office. I know, anecdotally, of people with definite Christian beliefs who were off-put by the war on terror and even the tax cuts for the rich. “The Christian Left” Facebook group boasts over 180,000 “likers,” and posts things like this:

“If the USA can’t afford to provide basic medical care, feed the poor, protect the environment, maintain our infrastructure, or teach our children anymore, then what exactly is our bloated military budget defending?”

Good question, right? But, anyway, that group states as its goal, “To follow Jesus by taking actions on behalf of the oppressed, the sick, the hungry, the poor, the incarcerated…” and other greatest hits of alleged Christian concern.

The group also argues vociferously that it exists — i.e., that progressive Christians are real, live people. “We can’t let the right-wing dominate Christianity like they do. They’ve twisted it into something that has nothing to do with Christ,” they say in this post. This is how successful the linkage of conservativism and Christianity has been: to be a progressive follower of Christ, you need to work hard to convince people that you are real.

But here’s a more nuanced look at religion and the U.S. ballot box: Tobin Grant of the Religion News Service mapped voting and religious persuasion using Pew data. He looked at how religious groups voted along two axes: 1) Government size (big, with many services vs. small, with few services) and 2) Morality (government that enforces morality vs. one that does not).

These are interesting choices in their own right, but they also seem to break out along the traditional Democrat/Left vs. Republican/Right divide in U.S. politics. Generally speaking, the Dems like big government and the attendant social programs, while the GOP favors a smaller government that enforces, for example, “traditional” definitions of marriage.

So, unless every Christian denomination appeared in the upper right corner (smaller government, greater protection of morality), then the popular association of Republicanism and Christianity would falter. And of course it did. Evangelicals, unsurprisingly, are up there. But check out Catholics: pretty much a circle around the center of the graph. One of the biggest denominations in the country, therefore, comes in all flavors: traditionally Democrat to traditionally Republican — and an equal number of adherents who combine beliefs across party lines.

That may be, to me, the most interesting part of this graph: It not only breaks apart the Republican-Christian identification, it also cuts across the two-party continuum. Check out the Anglicans and Presbyterians, who want a smaller government that also stays out of morality. See the Baptists, who want more morality, but also more services. And, of course, the very diverse Catholics. Not to mention the non-Christian groups: Buddhists and Atheists like governments that offer services and stay out of morality (ok, so they’re likely Democrats/Progressives). Hindus, however, tend toward more morality paired with greater services. Neither pure Democrat nor pure Republican ideology would serve their needs.

It’s a big mash, in other words. Religious identity does seem to be associated with politics, but in more-complicated ways than the popular prejudice would suggest.

ThinkProgress  links this at least partially to economics. Churches with poorer flocks generally like more government services. Catholics include a relatively even distribution of economic groups, so those folks cluster around the center.

But there are almost as many economic outliers. Hindus tend to make good bank, but they vote for services. Many Evangelicals make modest incomes, and often rely on social services themselves, but oppose big government. So if religious groups do cluster into clear political quadrants, money doesn’t explain why — not entirely. Neither does political party. Faith is part of a complicated network of identities — economics, race, ethnicity, region, immigration history, and I’m sure many more — that could affect political ideology.

But there doesn’t seem to be much inherent in any particular religion’s teachings that leads people to choose a particular political identity. As ThinkProgress writes:

Regarding the two issues discussed above, the data hints that a voter’s religious affiliation is a strong indicator of their political beliefs, but it’s not totally clear whether religious teachings are the main force shaping those political beliefs. A longer analysis of history, theology, and actual voting patterns of parishioners would be required to get a more accurate picture of what’s going on here.”

Economics is part of the greater identity matrix that shapes political beliefs. So is religion. And so are the ways that political parties themselves attempt to define your religion for you.