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Posts Tagged ‘science’

We’ve Got Spines for Everyone, and Other News

January 22, 2016 | by

Collect ’em all. (All 215 of them.)

  • AIGA’s Eye on Design blog has a thoughtful, thorough history of The Paris Review’s art and design, with stories from our former editor Maxine Groffsky and our art editor, Charlotte Strick. “The masthead has shape shifted from serif to sans and back again; its size has gone from pamphlet, to book, to magazine, to somewhere in-between … ‘Mining The Paris Review’s rich archives revealed that the primary role of design in those mid-century issues was to support the publication’s beautifully curated literature and artwork,’ says art editor Strick. She was determined to make the current publication work in the same way, while simultaneously reminding the reader of The Paris Review’s continual evolution.”
  • Scholars have long endeavored to place Sarah Palin on the continuum of American poets—but where does she belong? Her speech endorsing Trump this week suggests that she’s the next Walt Whitman, as Jeet Heer writes: “There is a strong consensus among Palin scholars as to where she fits into the poetic pantheon: She is heir to the tradition of free-flowing democratic verse that runs from Walt Whitman to Carl Sandburg to Allen Ginsberg … Now that Palin is back in the spotlight, it’s hard not to hear her voice in her great precursor Whitman. Palin’s alliterative apostrophe to the common folk of Iowa (“You farm families! And teachers! And teamsters! And cops, and cooks!”) calls to mind the egalitarian inclusiveness of Whitman’s many lists … As a right-wing populist, Palin shifts the political valence but keeps the allegiance to the ordinary. As much as any Whitmanesque poet, she claims to be the voice of those who are never listened to.”
  • In which Janet Malcolm takes Ted Hughes’s unauthorized biographer, Jonathan Bate, to task: “Beyond tastelessness there is Bate’s cluelessness about what you can and cannot do if you want to be regarded as an honest and serious writer … The question of what [Hughes] was ‘really’ like remains unanswered, as it should. If anything is our own business, it is our pathetic native self. Biographers, in their pride, think otherwise. Readers, in their curiosity, encourage them in their impertinence. Surely Hughes’s family, if not his shade, deserve better than Bate’s squalid findings about Hughes’s sex life and priggish theories about his psychology.”
  • Fact: Robert Pinsky once wrote a text-adventure video game called Mindwheel. “For a brief time in the mid-nineteen-eighties major literary publishers, including Simon & Schuster and Random House, opened software divisions, and major bookstores stocked works of ‘interactive fiction,’ ” writes James Reith; Pinsky’s Mindwheel is “a playful mishmash of sci-fi tropes, Pop surrealism, and allusions both high and low: the work of a poet having fun, but still the work of a poet. After all, Pinsky pointed out to me, ‘allusion’ and ‘ludicrous’ both come from the Latin ludere, meaning ‘to play.’ ”
  • While we’re here poring over our “books” and our “literature,” there are people out there with their eyes on the real prize: an elevator to the stars. “As outlandish as it seems, a space elevator would make getting to space accessible, affordable and potentially very lucrative. But why it hasn’t happened yet basically boils down to materials—even the best of today’s super-strong and super-lightweight materials just still aren’t good enough to support a space elevator … ‘The problem with the entire space elevator effort is that there is no real support for it … This is what a project looks like when it’s done as a hobby, by hundreds of people spread out all over the world. There will be no substantial progress until there is real support and professional coordinating management for the effort.’ ”

The “Splendidly Cranky” Utopian: An Interview with Curtis White

December 3, 2015 | by

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Curtis White first came to public attention as a culture critic with his best-selling The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves (2003). Dubbed “splendidly cranky” by Molly Ivins and “absolutely indispensible” by Slavoj Zizek, The Middle Mind showed White’s ability to speak to a broad readership about the themes that run through all of his books—cultural skepticism, intellectual freedom, and the utopian function of the imagination. White’s “imagination” is the kind with an adjective in front of it: the political imagination, the social imagination, the scientific imagination. To say the political imagination rather than simply politics is to take the conceptual leap that White’s work insists upon, whereby we are reminded not only that we invent the rules of “politics” but that we reinvent and reaffirm them every day.

White grew up in postwar suburban California. He studied literature with John Barth and philosophy with Gayatri Spivak and spent his entire professional career at Illinois State University in Normal, where he eventually became a Distinguished Professor, before retiring in 2009. He now spends his time training for triathlons and writing books, most recently The Science Delusion (2013) and We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data, which was published last month.

I corresponded by e-mail with White over a few weeks last summer about Reason, Romanticism, and the benefit of heartbreak.

We, Robots strikes me as a companion volume to The Science Delusion—two complementary ways of approaching the same problem. What do you see as the books’ common ground?

Amused indignation? All of my recent nonfictions, going back to The Middle Mind, are, finally, ideology critiques. The last two aren’t so much about science and robots as they are about the stories we’re told about science and the dawning age of “intelligent machines.” As with all ideology, we’re told these stories in order to gain our consent to a social reality that is unjust, unequal, and—here’s where I come in—dishonest. I’m indignant about the dishonesty of “science communicators” like Richard Dawkins or the economist Tyler Cowen. Dawkins and his cohort Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens speak as if science were the only legitimate source of “truth,” while the humanities, art, and religion are disciplines for the undisciplined. Cowen is a machine-age entrepreneur who glosses over the most egregious social consequences of living through machines, wholly lacking the imagination to understand how others might look at his robot utopia. For him, this future is inevitable anyway, and criticism of it is merely “standing in the way of progress.”

These are very narrow, bigoted men. They have no respect for anything other than their own empirical, technological dogmas. The worrisome thing is that we don’t see more prominent objections to their thinking, other than a few heroic figures like Chris Hedges. But I may have answered my own question there—if you have strong objections to what is inevitable, you will not be “prominent.” You will not be taken seriously. As much as possible, you will not be seen. Read More »

On “Relativity”

October 8, 2015 | by

The poetry of astrophysics.

A 2008 image of Omega Centauri from the Hubble telescope, revealing that the cluster “appears to harbor an elusive intermediate-mass black hole in its center.”

It’s not a new idea that poets and scientists should talk to one another. During a visit to Florence in 1638, the young John Milton sought out Galileo Galilei. By then a blind old man, Galileo was living under house arrest, confined by the Inquisition for asserting, after his celestial observations, that the Earth revolved around the sun. Years later, old and blind himself, Milton would pay homage—in his epic poem about the origins of our universe, Paradise Lost—to the great astronomer, who makes a cameo appearance with his telescope pointed at the sun’s dark spots.

Five years ago I got my first job, as a research fellow at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge; in the stray hours between thinking about Milton or Donne, I finished my first book of poems. In college, a wooden ramp across the four-hundred-year-old stone steps is the only outward sign of its most famous fellow. Fifty years ago, Stephen Hawking arrived fresh from his Ph.D. (as I did) to take up a research fellowship at Caius, then never left. Within that community, where I would sit down to lunch with friends in maths, genetics, or cognitive science, traces of those conversations began to creep into my notebooks and even into poems. When I got the commission to write a poem on light for this year’s National Poetry Day—today, in the UK—my first thought was paradoxically of its absence: the black holes whose mysteries Professor Hawking has spent his career working to unfold. Read More »

The Machinery of the Universe

July 1, 2015 | by

Poe’s vision of the cosmos and the art it inspired.

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Alfred Jensen, Physical Optics, 1975, oil on canvas, 7'2" x 12'9". Image via Pace Gallery

Since adolescence, Edgar Allan Poe had been picking fights with science. His second collection of poetry, published when he was all of twenty, opened with a mischievous sonnet needling what he called that “true daughter of Old Time”:

Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?

By the time Poe wrote Eureka: A Prose Poem, the last major work he published before his premature death in 1849, his attitude toward certain men of science had softened. He eagerly absorbed—and sometimes rejected—theoretical works by the brilliant astronomer Sir John Herschel, the popular scientist J. P. Nichol, and the towering, eccentric naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, to whom Eureka was dedicated. He was still capable, on the other hand, of caustic put-downs such as the one he attributes early in the book to a scientist from the distant future. It’s in that figure’s prophetic voice that Poe chews out most of his contemporaries for “their pompous and infatuate proscription of all other roads to Truth than the two narrow and crooked paths—the one of creeping and the other of crawling—to which, in their infinite perversity, they have dared to confine the Soul—the Soul which loves nothing so well as to soar in those regions of illimitable intuition which are utterly incognizant of path.” Read More »

Impressions

March 16, 2015 | by

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From Photographs of British Algae

Some claim that Anna Atkins—born on this day in 1799, in Kent—was the first woman to take a photograph. Others that hers were the first photos ever printed in book form.

Atkins was a botanist, an artist, and an accomplished nature photographer. Her father was a scientist, and he encouraged his daughter’s early interest in botany. Both her father and her eventual husband, John Pelly Atkins, were friendly with the pioneering photographer and inventor William Henry Fox Talbot; it was probably Talbot who introduced her to the techniques she would come to use in her art.

In her books on British algae and her later work on plants and ferns, Atkins worked by contact-printing cyanotype photograms, and by “photogenic drawing,” the process by which light-sensitive paper is exposed to the sun. Read More »

A Parish for Slang Bedouins, and Other News

November 4, 2014 | by

John Frederick Lewis, A Bedouin, ca. 1841.

  • Edgar Allan Poe filed for bankruptcy in 1842. Here’s a long list of his debts, with creditors listed in Philadelphia, Richmond, and New York, and orderly columns of numbers that grow large enough to give you a sympathetic panic attack.
  • “If ambitious writers work at the boundaries of the written language (as they should), then they ought do it from a path of mastery, not ignorance; broken rules carry no power if writers and readers don’t notice the transgressions. Proper usage shows us where the earth is, so that, when the time comes, we know what it means to fly.”
  • Not unrelatedly: “Dickens published an essay on slang, probably by George Augustus Sala. The 1853 article expressed the view that either slang should be ‘banished, prohibited’ or that there should be a New Dictionary that would ‘give a local habitation and a name to all the little by-blows of language skulking and rambling about our speech, like the ragged little Bedouins about our shameless streets, and give them a settlement and a parish.’ ”
  • In which Ann Patchett reminds readers of the New York Times that she’s not married to her dog.
  • “I found it odd that there had never been a scientist as a Man Booker judge. There have been many non-literary types amongst the judges: a former spy, a former dancer, a Downton Abbey actor—but science, apparently, was a step too far. Until this year, when I joined the judging panel.”

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