Posted by Susan
As Ed mentioned earlier, we watched the Triplets of Belleville this Saturday. As I agree with pretty much everything he says about the movie (though I didn't find the theme quite as catchy as he did), I won't add anything to his commentary; rather, I wanted to mention "Destino", the short that preceded the movie.
"Destino" is the result of a collaboration between Salvador Dali and Walt Disney. Though they seem unlikely partners, it appears that Dali considered Disney a fellow surrealists (this New York Times article quotes Dali in referring to the "great American surrealists" Cecil deMille, the Marx Brothers, and Disney). Dali and Disney created "Destino" shortly after World War II, but Disney, citing financial problems, scrapped the project. The current version of the film is reconstructed from Dali's art and storyboards and closely follows his version of the story. The NYT article is worth checking out--it talks about the conflicted relationship between Dali and Disney, as well as all of the financial concerns tied up in the "Destino"'s release (the major one being that, by releasing the film, Disney has gained the rights to 22 Dali paintings, plus many sketches).
I found it amusing during the movie to try to identify the...characters? in "Destino" from the Dali paintings in which I'd seen them. The clocks from Persistence of Memory, the human cello from Musical Tempest/Red Orchestra, and the ants were easy to spot. I feel like I noticed a few more, but without owning the movie (yet) I'm unable to recall what they were.
Posted by Matt
Yesterday I saw the film Lana's Rain at the Music Box Theatre. It's an independent film, written and directed by Michael Ojeda, with Oksana Orlenko and Nikolai Stoilov playing the main characters, siblings Lana and Darko Lucev. This weekend was its opening; apparently the plan is for the film next to go to Los Angeles.
The film is somewhat impressive for what it manages on a small budget, the acting is quite good, and visually it was beautiful. The writing, on the other hand, was inadequate, and the plot had too many contrived elements. The film opens in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Darko is a crime lord. His sister Lana turns to him for help when she has no family left. He is fleeing from rival criminals. They come to Chicago, where Lana has great hopes for life in America, but Darko forces her into prostitution.
The early parts of the film are done fairly well, but the plot rapidly gets out of control. A United Nations team is sent to recover Darko; the idea of a UN SWAT team running around Chicago seems comical, and one interrogation scene was very over-the-top. A potentially interesting side plot involving a sculptor who helps Lana should have been either developed more or cut, in my opinion. The film's ending, despite seeming to please the crowd, was very contrived. In general, the story lost its believability, and thus its power, maybe halfway through the film.
Still, it was a visually impressive film (with many interesting shots of Chicago), and more worth seeing than much of what I have watched in the past year. (Freddy vs. Jason notwithstanding, of course.)
Posted by Ed
Daniel Boorstin, a former Librarian of Congress and one of America's best-known historians, died yesterday at the age of 89. Some random thoughts:
(I guess I was premature in my prediction that I wouldn't be writing much this weekend. Even so, more interesting stuff will come later in the week--I promise! Now it's back to the dissertation proposal...)
Update: Ralph Luker has written a Cliopatria entry that's amusingly similar to mine. It seems that we were on the same wavelength this evening...
Posted by Ed
The Oscars are being awarded tonight, which means that it's a good day to talk about the movies. Last night, Susan and I finally saw The Triplets of Belleville--a French movie we've been planning to watch for a long time--and I'd very highly recommend it. In fact, it's one of the most enthralling movies I've seen in years.
For those of you who don't know, The Triplets of Belleville is an animated film about a boy who dreams of winning the Tour de France, his short and plucky grandmother, a dog named Bruno, and the eccentric trio of scat singers that gives the movie its name. The movie's plot has to do with the sinister plans of the French mafia and the grandmother's efforts to foil them; the dialogue, such as it is, is almost entirely in French. I doubt that anyone will go to see the movie because of the characters, the plot, or the dialogue, however. Instead, the main reason to go see The Triplets of Belleville is to experience the bizarre--and fevered--imagination of Sylvain Chomet, the director and animator who brought the movie to life.
It's nearly impossible to write a description of The Triplets of Belleville that does the movie justice, so instead, I'll give you some disjointed thoughts about it and urge you to see it for yourself. The movie's opening scene features a performance of the title characters, an inexplicably catchy tune, and the indelible image of Fred Astaire being eaten by his own shoes; the scene's tempo is so fast and so quirky that it becomes almost intoxicating in its enthusiasm, before reverting to a series of slower-paced (but endearing) scenes of life in post-war France. It's impossible to pin down exactly where or when the movie takes place: it begins in the era of Josephine Baker and ends in the age of Charles DeGaulle, with lots of scenes in an unnnamed French town and in the title city of Belleville (which looks like a combination of Monte Saint-Michel and 1930s-era New York, but with lots of fat people and stupid boy scouts.) The overall feel of the movie is earthy, bizarre, and even a little creepy.
In a certain sense, The Triplets of Belleville seems like the exact opposite of a movie like Finding Nemo (which I also enjoyed). Finding Nemo feels like it was imagined by a team of talented people who were determined to create the ultimate crowd-pleaser; The Triplets of Belleville feels like one eccentric man sat down and let his imagination run wild. (Its humor is often more muted and always feels quirkier, and whenever I didn't laugh at it, I found myself wondering if there was something wrong with me.) The animation in Chomain's new movie is nowhere near as good as the animation produced by Pixar, but that can be part of its charm: its jerkier sequences seem reminiscent of Steamboat Willie or Betty Boop, and its modest overall style almost made me feel nostalgic about the animated movies I saw in my childhood. That's part of the movie's genius. The Triplets of Belleville evokes memories of everything from the early days of animation to the history of post-war France, containing more character and eccentricity in just a few minutes of screen time than a lot of movies contain in two hours. Then, just when you've gotten used to the movie's low-key style, you come across a scence that's visually stunning.
Part of me feels silly calling this movie last year's most under-rated film--after all, The Triplets of Belleville is now the second highest-rated movie on the Metacritic review site. Nevertheless, I have little doubt that The Triplets of Belleville is the most under-appreciated and over-looked movie in American theaters today. Even when critics praise it, they often treat it as a curiosity, acting as if it's just another cartoon that may entertain you or dazzle you with its creativity, but that isn't very serious or important. In other words, it fills the niche of "wonderful foreign animated film that reviewers will recommend, but that few people will actually see"--the niche that was filled by Spirited Away a year ago. That's a shame. The Triplets of Belleville isn't for everyone, but a lot of people who'd really like it won't get the chance to see it. And no one who watches it will think about paddle-boats or frogs the same way again!
Update: Check out this Sylvain Chomet op-ed piece in The New York Times. Chomet discusses why there's so much bad animation out there, describing one business meeting he experienced at Disney that was "like watching a runaway steam train being driven by a flock of headless chickens."
Posted by Ed
No, I'm not reverting to my old habit of limiting my blogging to quick comments on lots of different newspaper and magazine articles--at least, not permanently. For now, though, check out these links:
Update: I've added some links from the Sunday papers.
Posted by Ed
Yesterday, when I posted my blog entry about PG.T. Beauregard, I was tempted to write something about the mythology that surrounded him. (I wonder exactly how many of the fun details I described in the entry, and that Josh Green mentions in his article, are completely true.) I've been too busy and too tired to do much reading or blogging lately, so I never got around to it.
I'm still feeling a bit frazzled, but I thought I'd add a link to a fascinating article on Arnold Rothstein, the organized crime kingpin who supposedly fixed the 1919 World Series (and who was the basis for F. Scott Fitzgerald's character Meyer Wolfsheim, the benefactor of Jay Gatsby.) It's a fun read--like plenty of the other articles in the current issue of Legal Affairs--and it touches on the role of legend in history and on the question of how much we can ever really know about the past. Check it out!
Posted by Ed
Fun facts of the day: did you know that the Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard ended his career as the head of the Louisiana Lottery, several years after he turned down an offer to take over the Romanian army?
Beauregard was an interesting guy, as this Atlantic Monthly article by Josh Green shows. Beauregard became the South's first military hero of the Civil War at Fort Sumter, but he also had a more lasting mark on American life:
The confusion at Manassas led Beauregard to resume his search for a way to better distinguish his troops from the enemy. He had first submitted a rather theatrical request that his men be allowed to wear brightly colored scarves on the battlefield. This was declined. Next he pointed out how difficult it was to differentiate the official Confederate flag from the Stars and Stripes, after which it had been designed, and suggested that Congress be asked to adopt a new flag. This, too, was declined. So Beauregard resolved to design a battle flag—the flag that most Americans now think of as the Confederate flag, and the one to which Howard Dean was referring when he mentioned southerners in their pickup trucks. (The three official Confederate flags have been largely forgotten.) The Beauregard battle flag was formally presented to the troops on November 28, 1861.
Posted by Ed
What do I do when I should be preparing a lecture on Eduard Bernstein, revisionist Marxism, Nikolai Bukharin, and The ABC of Communism? I read random unrelated articles on the web, of course:
Posted by Ed
Today I've read two interesting articles that touch on a theme that's interesting to me, but that I know very little about: Mel Gibson's new movie on the Passion is devoutly Catholic in its sensibilities, but its biggest single audience will be made up of conservative evangelical Protestants.
The first article to make this point is a New York Times op-ed piece by Kenneth Woodward, who believes that "it is Christians, not Jews, who should be shocked by this film." Gibson's movie, he believes, attacks the "smoothly therapeutic" view of many conservative Protestants that the most important lesson of the New Testament is "what Jesus can do for me" and presents a vision of the Bible very different from the "inherently non-visual" view of evangelicalism. Moreover, he suggests that the film leaves out many of the elements of the Jesus story that contemporary Christians emphasize.
Jack Miles makes a similar point:
I refer to the astonishing fact that in their embrace of the Passion, Evangelical Protestants are celebrating a portrayal of Jesus that visually and theologically--in every way, perhaps, except in the wail, thunder, and thud of John Debney's deafening score--is flamboyantly, counter-Reformationally Roman. This film is awash in Catholic piety and Catholic imagery that the forebears of today's evangelicals would have found religiously and esthetically repugnant. As I write, the Passion is being embraced most warmly by Bible Belt churches where, down to this day, the faithful kneel before crosses without corpses. What has come over them?
(If you're interested in ancient languages, read the beginning of Miles's article: he has a fascinating discussion of the use of Aramaic in the film.)
Update: In The New York Times Magazine, Stephen Prothero discusses this question in more detail, as does Paul Richard in The Washington Post. Plus, a New York Times piece by Clyde Haberman discusses the use of ancient languages in the movie, and The Detroit Free Press describes reaction to the film among Chaldeans. (last two links via Languagehat)
Posted by Ed
Last night, Susan and I finally got around to seeing Lost in Translation. It was a good movie, and I enjoyed seeing it, but I can't quite figure out why so many people are so excited about it; in fact, I think that the flaws in the film have something to tell us about how the process of movie-reviewing itself can be flawed and unreliable.
It seems fair to begin my comments with a statement of what I liked about the movie. It did a wonderful job capturing mood and atmosphere, giving us a feel for the loneliness of the main characters and the disorientation of international travel. The scenes of Tokyo were visually impressive. I liked the way that the relationship between the two main characters was handled subtlely and that the plot proceeded at a slow, deliberate pace. The acting, finally, was quite good.
What didn't I like about Lost in Translation?
In other words, I really admired the performance, but I didn't love it. Then again, that's kind of my reaction to the movie as a whole... The message of Murray's performance seemed to be "See! I can act much better than you thought I could!", and though I bought that message, I didn't think that it was enough to carry the film.
What's more, Johansson's character had only been in Tokyo for a week. Her unhappiness would have made more sense if she'd been there six months and wouldn't be home for a long time, but it's not as if she was permanently isolated from the world. Murray's intense loneliness was more understandable: he didn't want to be in Tokyo, he was exhausted from several days of filming, and he might have been swamped by fans if he'd gone outside. Johansson, on the other hand, just seemed lost. I realize that issues in her marriage were supposed to be making her feel lonely, but in that case, there's more the film could have shown us. Her husband seemed like a complete cipher, as did every other secondary character in the movie. From what I can remember, I don't think that Johansson got much attention from her husband, but I didn't get the sense that she was all that interested in him, either. He seemed more like a plot device (an excuse for her loneliness) than like a real person.
Posted by Ed
This week's New Yorker features a fun Louis Menand article on the world championship chess match contested by Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in 1972. It's a great read, covering everything from Fischer's bizarre behavior to Spassky's Russian nationalism to the false claim that interest in the Spassky-Fischer match was inspired by the Cold War. Menand even begins with an interesting discussion of why chess matches are difficult to describe in an engaging way.
Nevertheless, I found one element of Menand's prose extremely (and irrationally) irritating: his assumption that chess is a sport. The misuse of the word "sport" is a pet peeve of mine; my main extracurricular activity has been quizbowl (an academic competition), and I'm always annoyed when people try to claim that it's a sport. (The people most likely to do this are the sort of people who seem most upset at their own lack of athletic prowess, and they invariably want to dumb the game down and make it more audience-friendly.) In my experience, no one seriously refers to Scrabble or intercollegiate debating as a sport... Activities like these--pseudo-intellectual pursuits that aren't even vaguely athletic--just don't qualify, as far as I'm concerned, and to claim that they do will often be tantamount to an attempt to simplify them or dumb them down.
I doubt that this rant will interest any of my readers, but I'm afraid I couldn't resist. If nothing else, I hope I've convinced some of you to go read Menand's article...
(An update follows...)
Update: Will Baude at Crescat Sententia has responded to this post, noting the following:
Lots of adrenaline pumps in chess players-- I had to quit playing chess last quarter because my nerves just couldn't take it-- but is that sufficient? After all, my last midterm got my adrenaline pumping too.
On the other hand, I think a definition of sport that doesn't include bowling and sharpshooting (which is after all, an Olympic sport) is too constrictive, and the amount of athleticism required for these is fairly low-key, even if they do require great skill. If sharpshooting is a skill, mustn't pool be? And so on.
Anyway, I don't mean to actually disagree with Ed so much as to say that I think the question is a lot murkier than he gives it credit for. I'm inclined to say that chess isn't a sport, but that quizbowl (in which buzzer-speed and reflexes really are important) might be.
I'm still too lazy to provide a coherent answer to this question, but I will add a handful of thoughts. As far as I'm concerned, no activity that involves "sitting on your ass inside all day" is a sport (to quote someone I know who read this entry.) This rules out quizbowl and chess (although there's nothing stopping you from playing chess outdoors, of course.) I'm inclined to say that if you aren't moving at all, you're not participating in a sport. Finally, I don't think that "buzzer-speed and reflexes" make quizbowl a sport--otherwise, why not count video games? (They aren't a competitive team activity, I guess, but still... Even if you played other competitors one-on-one in a video game, it wouldn't be a sport.)
In any case, I'll end by returning to the original point of my post: go read Menand's article if you haven't already!
Posted by Susan
As you probably know, Mardi Gras is approaching. While some people celebrate Mardi Gras with nudity, public drunkenness, and shiny beads, the more sedate among us celebrate it by eating fattening things. Historically, this practice derives from the need to get rid of butter, milk, eggs, cheese, and other delectable foods before Lent.
Pre-Lenten treats vary; in England, Shrove Tuesday is celebrated by the eating of vast quantities of pancakes. (The term "Shrove Tuesday", by the way, refers to the practice of making one's confession--being shriven--in the days preceding Lent). A traditional Mardi Gras treat is king cake, a brioche-like bread baked with a little plastic baby inside. Whoever is served the piece with the baby must host the next party (and serve the next cake). As you might expect from the name, king cakes were originally served at Epiphany. However, I cannot think of a treat that can hold a candle to paczki.
Paczki (pronounced PUNCH-key or POONCH-key, depending, in some circumstances, on how excited you are about eating them) are, essentially, jelly doughnuts. But they're so much more than that. I mean, I can't envision a big market for jelly doughnut-shaped tchotchkes, but apparently one can purchase bobbleheads and stuffed toys in the shape of paczki. Traditional flavors for paczki include rose marmalade, raspberry, and prune, but you can find pretty much any flavor imaginable at many Polish bakeries.
I'm told that, in Chicago, one can find people lined up waiting at four in the morning outside the most popular bakeries. This will be the first year I try to get paczki in the city, and I've been looking for recommendations. The following are bakeries recommended in the Trib or on Chowhound; if you have any others (especially ones closer to the south side!) I'd love to hear them.
1000 Davis Street (Evanston)
5927 W. Lawrence Ave.
3329 N. Lincoln Ave.
7210 W. Foster Ave.
5348 N. Clark St.
Update: I have placed an order for paczki. If you normally see me after about 5 on Tuesdays, please be ready to eat some.
Posted by Ed
Here are some of the articles that have distracted me during my weekend rush to finish up my dissertation proposal:
Posted by Ed
Something occurred to me this afternoon as I walked home from the grocery store: assuming that John Kerry wins the Democratic nomination this year, he will become only the third Catholic presidential nominee of a major party in American history. This strikes me as a really interesting fact, not because it suggests that Kerry is some sort of pioneer (he isn't) or because it implies that anti-Catholic prejudice is keeping Catholics out of the White House (it's not), but because it tells us something about the history of prejudice in America.
Until this year, Roman Catholics have only been nominated for president twice. The Democrats nominated New York Governor Alfred Smith in 1928, and his religious faith was one factor in his landslide loss to Herbert Hoover. Thirty-two years later, John F. Kennedy became the second Catholic to run a major-party campaign for president; he was elected in 1960 only after he addressed the religion issue head-on, reassuring voters that he would think through the issues himself and not merely follow the orders of the Pope. A handful of Catholics have been nominated for vice president since then (like Geraldine Ferraro and Sargent Shriver), but the most prominent Catholic to run for president in recent years was Pat Buchanan.
One reason that Kerry's Catholic faith hasn't attracted more attention, I suspect, is that he doesn't widely advertise his religious views. His mother's ancestors, from the Forbes family, were one of Boston's most prominent Brahmin families; the fortune was based on whaling, opium-dealing, and trade with China, and Forbes family members were among Boston's wealthiest Protestants. Kerry's grandfather, meanwhile, was an Austrian Jew named Fritz Kohn who changed his name to Frederick Kerry when he moved to America in 1905. John Kerry looks like a Boston Brahmin, and though a lot of people assume that his ancestors were Irish Catholics, no one worries too much about his religious faith.
Nevertheless, the main reason that Kerry's Catholic background doesn't seem like a big deal has nothing to do with John Kerry. More than 40 years after the election of John F. Kennedy, the idea of a Catholic president just doesn't seem like a big deal: I can imagine a lot of Americans worrying about a Mormon or a Jewish presidential candidate, but Catholicism itself no longer seems exotic or out of the mainstream. That's an important lesson to keep in mind. Forty years from now, the current debate about gay marriage may seem as bizarre to most Americans as the 1960s discussion of Catholics in politics seems to us today. In one sense, then, the most noteworthy thing isn't that John Kerry may well become only the third Catholic presidentical nominee in U.S. history--it's that no one seems to notice this fact or care much about it.
Even so, the fact that only two Catholics were nominated for president in the 1900s still seems like a sociologically interesting fact. Catholicism is the largest religious denomination in America, including roughly a quarter of the population and a third of the religious population; nevertheless, it's taken us longer to nominate a third Catholic presidential candidate after JFK's victory than it took us to nominate a second Catholic candidate after Alfred Smith's defeat. Why? I have no idea. The importance of the (mostly Protestant) South in Democratic politics and the association of Northeastern Catholic politicians with unpopular liberal policies may have something to do with it.
Posted by Ed
This morning's New York Times features a fascinating article about my own field of study, Soviet history. Since the end of the Cold War, the Russian archives have released a wealth of documents about the course of World War II on the Eastern Front--a conflict that the article quite reasonably describes as "the single most important chapter in modern military history." The documents released so far have completely changed our image of the war, but there simply aren't enough trained military historians to interpret all the new materials. The result is a "missed historiographical opportunity" of startling proportions.
Research in newly released Russian materials has already led to a number of exciting discoveries:
It's interesting to ask how this situation came about, however, and I'd add two bits of context to the picture. The first has to do with the isolation of military history from the rest of the discipline. Three years ago, when Joshua Sanborn wrote an essay for the journal Kritika called "What's New in Russian Military History and Why You Should Care," he began with some comments on the state of the field:
The sense of exclusion is felt acutely by many of my colleagues in military history, even the successful ones. One scholar who began his career in military history advised me--too late to make any difference in my choice of dissertation topic, but early enough to prompt years of anxiety--that studying the army had two major drawbacks. First, your classes fill up with young men who want to show you sketches of warplanes, and second, no one reads your work. At that point, I had had no luck getting funding to do research for a dissertation that foregrounded the notion of "militarization." After dropping that word from the title of my project, I received the next four grants for which I applied. From that point forward, I was careful to make clear to anyone who asked that I was not writing a dissertation that could be called "military history," even though the focus of my manuscript was military conscription. This caution is widely shared. In 1994, the American Historical Association found itself in the awkward position of awarding its Birdsall Prize in military history to a bright young historian named Leonard Smith, who admitted on the first page of his book on the French Army mutinies of 1917 that he "fretted endlessly about being tagged a 'military historian' as he wrote the text."
What's more, even seemingly parochial military history can have lessons to offer the discipline as a whole. Consider the three historiographical issues mentioned above. Perhaps I shouldn't admit this, but the military side of these questions doesn't especially interest me: I doubt that I'd want to read an account of "Operations Mars" that focused on the experiences of soldiers, the tactics and strategies of the contending sides, and the overall outcome of the campaign. Nevertheless, the fact that the Soviet regime concealed the entire campaign from history is fascinating and important: it tells us something about the workings of the Soviet government, about the Soviet discipline of history, and about the Soviet Union's post-war attempt to rally its population by playing up the heroic story of the Eastern Front.
There's one more important fact that readers of this article should know: Soviet military history isn't the only sub-discipline that's suffering from a dearth of researchers. Historians, political scientists, and politicians argued constantly about the workings of the Soviet regime during the Cold War--but, now that the Russian archives have opened, a majority of Western historians are investigating social and cultural questions. This means that we can now try to settle some long-lasting historical debates about Soviet high politics, but that a majority of historians are seeking out answers to other questions.
Is this a problem? That's open to debate, I think. In an ideal world, universities all over the world would be loaded with students dying to learn about Russia's past, to the point where we had enough historians to examine all the documents that are now emerging from the archives. That doesn't seem like a very realistic scenario, however.
It's not hard to explain why historians and history grad students tend to shy away from military and political history. It can be hard for Westerners to get access to all of the relevant archives even now: the military archives can be hard to visit, and plenty of files on Soviet high politics are located in archives that are largely inaccessible to Americans. (It's no coincidence that the best new English-language book on Soviet high politics under Stalin was co-written by a Russian, the eminent historian Oleg Khlevniuk.)
What's more, there are plenty of new documents to go around--they don't all have to do with high politics and military history. I chose to study the Soviet Communist party's treatment of its members' misconduct, rather than the inner workings of Stalin's inner circle or the tactics of the Red Army on the Eastern Front, because I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to research a largely unexplored question using completely new sources. Historians are only now beginning to document the history of post-war Stalinism and the Khrushchev era, and I'm excited to be part of this trend in historical work. If everyone in the field stepped back and tried to answer traditional questions about Soviet history--why didn't the Red Army help the Warsaw Uprising? what was the role of Stalin's top advisers in the Soviet system?--then couldn't critics legitimately complain that we were allowing past historians to set our agenda, rather than moving forward with new questions and new approaches?
The problem, in short, isn't that historians are failing to take advantage of new sources and documents. It's that there are too many unanswered questions in Soviet history and too few researchers to examine them all. It's a shame that some grad students are discouraged from working in military history and that the public is sometimes left with misleading and simplistic ideas about the Soviet past, but with luck, this situation will begin to change with time.
Posted by Ed
By now, essentially everyone knows the story of how Grigorii Rasputin died. In 1917, soon before the Russian Revolution, a group of Russian nobles became upset at the influence that the "mad monk" was exerting on Tsar Nicholas II 's family and decided to kill him; Rasputin was given cakes and wine laced with poison, and when that didn't kill him, he was shot and beaten. Even that wasn't enough to finish him off, so the conspirators finally tied him up and threw him into the river Neva, where he finally drowned.
I've always assumed that this story was apocryphal, since it seems too good to be true. Nevertheless, plenty of reputable historians repeat this story as if there were no reason to doubt it. I've always been too lazy to look into its accuracy, but now--thanks to an article in the bizarre Russian periodical The Exile--I have a better sense of whether the traditional story of Rasputin's death is believable.
The Exile article in question is a review of the memoirs of Prince Feliks Yusupov, the man who's usually credited with killing off Rasputin. The review is a little on the weird side, but it doesn't exactly make Yusupov sound like an upstanding subject of the tsar:
Like many of the finest literary narrators of the early twentieth century, he was an exhibitionistic, androgynous brat whose early interests were terrorizing guests and servants. He describes with an indulgent chuckle the music teacher “…whose finger I bit so savagely that the poor woman was unable to play the piano for a year.” Aiming higher, the little prince's next victim was Grand Duke Michael, who liked to watch Youssoupoff and his brother play tennis. With his uncanny instinct for doing the greatest harm possible, Youssoupoff hit a return which “…struck the Grand Duke in the eye with such violence that one of the greatest specialists in Moscow had to be called in to save the eye.”
Little Felix grew up in one of the wealthiest families in Russia. His great-great-grandfather, Prince Nicolas Borissovitch, was a classic Russian aristocrat who used his thousands of Serfs as breed stock for concubines. Choosing only the best stock, the Prince outfitted an entire corps de ballet, which was trained to respond to his every gesture: “…when the whole ballet was on stage the Prince waved his cane and suddenly all the dancers appeared completely naked.” No wonder ballet was so much more popular in those days.
Youssoupoff has a charming pride in the family's vampiric past, ending his account of great-great-grandfather's career with the boast that “his last intrigue was with a girl of eighteen. He was then eighty.”
After 200 pages of Prince Felix's chatty, entertaining, but utterly mindless memoirs, he finally begins setting the stage for his one great deed, the murder of Rasputin. After such extended exposure to his featherbrained picture of the world, it's difficult to believe that this pampered, preening idiot could do anything of significance—or at least, anything good.
Posted by Ed
Russian fans of the Harry Potter series now have reason to rejoice: the fifth of J.K. Rowling's best-selling books, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, has now been translated into Russian. The reaction in Moscow has resembled the response in America and Britain: conservative members of the Orthodox church have denounced the series for promoting witchcraft and occultism, normally staid and serious reviewers have happily sung the praises of a children's book, and bookstores have been swamped with Potter fans.
Until recently, Harry Potter books (and other Western bestsellers) have been translated sloppily and haphazardly into Russian. (My copies of the first two books seem rather poorly translated, and the article I've linked to above claims that the translators have been known to add random passages of their own into the text.) This upset fans of J.K. Rowling, who looked to the web for superior, unofficial translations; as a result, Rowling's Russian publishers have now turned to a new translator, a friend of Joseph Brodsky named Viktor Golyshev. Golyshev, not surprisingly, doesn't seem very happy that he's fast becoming better known for his Harry Potter translation than for his work with texts by William Faulkner, George Orwell, Robert Penn Warren, and Sherwood Anderson. When a reporter asked him if he'd read J.K. Rowling before he was hired to translate her latest book, he responded "Hell no, what am I, 8 years old?" (Click here for an interview in which Golyshev discusses his work with translation and says that modern American literature "isn't quite worthy of consideration. It has almost nothing to say about life.")
Of course, it remains to be seen whether the fifth Harry Potter book will be as controversial in Russia as the second film in the series. A year ago, a Russian law firm announced plans to sue Warner Brothers over the film, claiming that its version of Dobby the house elf looked too much like President Vladimir Putin. The lawsuit never went anywhere, I believe, but it serves as a nice reminder that when Western pop culture comes to Russia, it enters another world.
Posted by Susan
One of the most delightful aspects of microbiology is the preponderance of pretty colors to be found in labs, both due to experimental reagents (like indicator dyes in plates) and, occasionally, the organisms themselves**. For example, Serratia marcescens is a gram-negative bacteria that appears red at room temperature. This helpful visual property of S. marcescens has brought it notoriety in at least two "cases" that I can think of.
First off, it's claimed that in 1950, the US Navy used S. marcescens in an attempt to determine the vulnerability of San Francisco (used as a model port city) to a biological warfare. Aerosolized S. marcescens (accounts, none of which seem reliable, vary as to whether a large balloon or hoses were used) was released in the harbor, with the intent that the spread of the bacteria would be monitored. S. marcescens was thought to be an ideal species to use in this experiment because it was easily identifiable (due to its color) and nonpathogenic.
It wasn't actually nonpathogenic. Oops. Apparently there were unusually high incidences of pneumonia and bladder infections in San Francisco following the experiment.
A more charming anecdote about S. marcescens concerns the feast of Corpus Christi. A legend holds that a priest celebrating Mass at Bolsena found, in breaking the host at Communion, that the wafer had blood on it (a more literal case of transubstantiaton that one normally hopes for). The "miracle of Bolsena" was supposed to have been the impetus for Pope Urban IV's proclamation of the bull Transiturus, which established the feast of Corpus Christi (the body of Christ). Some microbiologists like to claim that the most likely explanation for the red Communion host was contamination by S. marcescens. Unfortunately, history doesn't support either the miracle of Bolsena or the microbiological speculation. It's still a fun story, though.
**I should point out that pretty colors are not the sole provenance of microbiologists. Continue reading for (pretty) proof.
Using especially fancy immunofluorescence, Dr. Conly Rieder of the New York State Department of Health's Wadsworth Center has created unbelievable images to study the movement of chromosomes during the cell cycle. This is a picture of a newt lung cell that is arrested in metaphase. Note how all of the chromosomes are lined up on the metaphase plate aside from the wayward one that has migrated to the right-hand spindle pole--this is why the cell is arrested.
Chromosomes are in blue, microtubules are in green.
Posted by Ed
In my next life, if all goes well, I plan to become a historian of 18th-century English crime. The subject is so fascinating, and so entertaining, that it narrowly beats out the other historical sub-field that I'd devote myself to if I weren't already interested in Soviet history: Byzantine studies. (How could you not love studying an empire whose rulers included Constantine V Copronymus, who earned his epithet as the result of an unfortunate event at his christening?)
There are moments, however, when I'm afraid that 18th-century English crime studies will be passe by the time my next life begins. After all, it seems that I see a review of another fascinating book on that subject every time I look at the website of an English literary journal, and there may not be enough sensational cases left by the time I begin my next career. Just today, for instance, I read a Times Literary Supplement review of a book on yet another sensational case--this one involving the Earl of Sandwich, an Anglican priest, and the eighteenth-century malady of erotomania.
The book reviewed in the current TLS, John Brewer's A Sentimental Murder, tells the story of how an Anglican priest named James Hackman killed Martha Ray, the long-time mistress of the First Lord of the Admiralty (and the mother of nine of his children.) This wasn't just any First Lord of the Admiralty, however; it was John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, who mentored Samuel Pepys, sponsored Captain Cook, and lent his name to everyone's favorite lunch-time food. (Captain Cook, it's often claimed, was such a sycophant that he named island after island after Montagu, until the Admiralty ordered him to stop; the Hawaiian islands were originally known as the Sandwich Islands, for example.)
Here's how the review describes the case:
The happy liaison between the Earl and Miss Ray was brutally shattered on April 7, 1779. As the lady left Covent Garden Theatre, she was shot by a certain James Hackman and died almost immediately. The murderer then turned a gun on himself, but botched the job. Even more unfortunate was the fact that, only a week before becoming a murderer, Hackman had been ordained as an Anglican clergyman. The motive for the killing was clear and freely admitted by Hackman. For four years, he had entertained a hopeless passion for Miss Ray, and had finally been overcome by it. He was hanged twelve days later.
Such an episode inevitably provided the newspapers with headlines for a month, and in this glare of publicity everyone seemingly behaved well. Sandwich forgivingly offered to use his influence to have the capital sentence commuted. Hackman gallantly declined the offer, insisting that he deserved death. On the scaffold, he behaved with such becoming courage that many in the huge crowd of spectators were moved to tears. Even the hangman showed a certain delicacy. When asked to repeat Hackman’s last words, the executioner huffily maintained that he “thought it a point of ill manners to listen on such occasions”. Nevertheless, word got around that the final phrase had been “dear, dear Miss Ray”. As with all sensational murders the principals were quickly idealized or demonized. Conspiracy theories and discussions about motive abounded. Oddly enough, it was Hackman’s reputation that came out of all this speculation the whitest.
Having established the story and its context in A Sentimental Murder, John Brewer then changes intellectual gear to investigate how each generation moulds the past for its own comfort and edification. In the late eighteenth century, Hackman was of interest to compilers of medical textbooks like Erasmus Darwin, who saw him as a fine example of “erotomania”, or love-madness. He was all the more interesting in that it was a malady normally suffered by women. At the same period, Martha Ray is used to romantic effect in Wordsworth’s poem “The Thorn”. In the nineteenth century, the case was written up as a squalid example of the wicked Georgian values that the Victorians had put aside. A generation later, the fate of Hackman, Ray and Sandwich was delivered into the hands of historical novelists, a fate possibly worse than death.
The main reason I've linked to these articles is that they tell a series of fascinating--even hilarious--stories. How could anyone not want to rush out and read these books after seeing what the TLS and The Guardian have to say about them? What's more, I'm struck by how intrigung these stories are, and I think that social history case studies like this could be an excellent introduction into academic history for college students. College students shouldn't merely be exposed to entertaining anecdotes, of course--they should be shown how fun stories are intimately tied to larger historical issues--but I think that cases like these could be a fantastic foundation for a college course. Back when I was an undergrad at Swarthmore, a professor in the department designed a U.S. history course called "Murder in a mill town," and I think he had a great idea.
I do wish, however, that writers were more interested in giving readers a better idea of why sensational crimes were important and interesting--and not just why they were entertaining. The Guardian notes that Jan Bondeson's book on the London Monster was "a little light on psychological and historical analysis," for example, and could have done a better job tying the case to the turmoil caused by the French Revolution or to the 18th-century cult of sensibility. The Times Literary Supplement, however, barely even mentions the broader significance of Brewer's book. I assume that he had a more developed theory--his book is called A Sentimental Murder and the review alludes to a "cult of sentiment," after all--but the TLS doesn't do a very good job of telling us what that deeper explanation is. Is it too much to hope that newspapers will move beyond the entertaining factoids found in history books to explain what they tell us about the past?
Posted by Ed
Regular readers of this blog are probably aware that I'm a fan of the writer Michael Dirda, given how often I link to his articles. I'm also quite fond of the work of another nonfiction writer, Cullen Murphy--the current acting editor of The Atlantic and the author of a monthly column in that magazine. You can get a sense of Murphy's eclectic interests by looking at some of his writing: he's the co-author of a book on the archaeology of garbage, the sole author of a book on feminist biblical scholarship, and the writer of the comic strip Prince Valiant. One of my favorite Murphy articles is this 1999 piece about camel racing in Saudi Arabia.
I've been planning to link to a Murphy article for a while now, but I haven't had a good opportunity. Today, however, I noticed that the Atlantic has made the articles from its last issue available online, including this Murphy essay on risks. Here's how it begins:
Toward the end of the James Bond movie The World Is Not Enough there is a scene where Bond and his sidekick, a physicist played by Denise Richards, are trapped in a nuclear submarine submerged in the Bosporus. The submarine's reactor is about to explode, killing all aboard and turning Istanbul into Chernobyl. But maybe, if Bond can hold his breath for a really long time, and swim underwater through a series of balky bulkheads, and then twirl some dials in exactly the right way—maybe, just maybe, everything will be okay. Should he give it a try? Denise Richards weighs the options—certain death in seconds versus a slender reed of hope—and declares, "James, it's too risky."
Other links worth looking at today include:
Posted by Matt
Apologies for my lack of posts lately. I don't intend to let this turn into an Ed-only website. I've also been somewhat sick, and before that I've had a huge number of things going on. But, let's not waste time giving excuses. I'll talk about some physics. (The background required is not as minimal as I would like; hopefully I can fill in more prerequisites in future posts.)
A new paper here, by Buchmueller et. al., addresses issues involved in looking for gravitinos at future colliders. This is an interesting topic, as it's a way of trying to show the existence of supergravity. Supergravity is a combination of supersymmetry and gravity, as the name suggests. So first, what's supersymmetry?
Supersymmetry is believed by many (occasionally by me, when I'm in an optimistic mood) to be an approximate symmetry of nature. It posits that for every particle we know of with half-integer spin (i.e., a fermion), there is a "superpartner" of integer spin (i.e., a boson), and vice versa. This may sound like a ridiculous idea; Occam's razor dictates that, when we haven't seen a single one of these superpartners, we had better have a good reason for believing they exist. And there is a good reason, namely that supersymmetry protects against all sorts of nonsense that appears in the Standard Model. Not the least of this nonsense is that the (also hypothetical) Higgs boson has a mass that tends to blow up to unphysically large values, unless nature has fine-tuned certain parameters to a high degree of accuracy. This is a bit hard to swallow, but supersymmetry causes this fine-tuning to become natural. It makes a very precarious theory into a robust one.
(There are other ways of addressing this Higgs issue, though, some very recently thought up and very exciting, and I'd like to talk about them in the future.)
Supergravity, roughly speaking, comes from taking the extra symmetry of supersymmetry and making it vary a bit from place to place. Those of you who know about gauge theories can probably see why this is nice. The really amazing thing about having this symmetry become a local one is that gravity automatically appears in the theory. This is really remarkable. You have this funny problem with the Higgs that gives things mass, so you add in a somewhat ad hoc symmetry, and suddenly your theory includes gravity. This magic is probably a large part of the reason people persist in believing in supersymmetry, despite the lack of experimental evidence for it so far. I should note that, compelling as supergravity is, it does not provide a feasible theory of quantum gravity. Otherwise people wouldn't be doing stringy things all the time.
[Those of you who know some particle physics, but are not familiar with SUSY, might want to take a look at John Ellis's review here.]
Supergravity, then, has a particle called the "graviton," representing a weak fluctuation of the gravitational field. (These are the quanta of gravitational waves, which the LIGO collaboration searches for.) The graviton, like any force-carrying particle, is a boson, so supersymmetry requires it to have a partner. This partner is given the name "gravitino." It's rather exotic; unlike every other fermion ever discovered, it has spin 3/2 instead of 1/2.
The paper I linked to above is one of many papers on looking for supersymmetry at colliders, but it caught my attention for a few reasons. One is that, when the Large Hadron Collider turns on in a few years (and the Linear Collider after that), we're going to have huge amounts of data that will give us hints about new physics. It seems likely to me that we will quickly get data we do not understand, but we will have a very hard time deciding which of many theoretical scenarios accounts for these data. In particular, supersymmetry is such a popular idea that many people will start trying to interpret whatever is found in terms of SUSY. This paper, then, considers a scenario that is a "smoking gun" for supergravity: finding the spin 3/2 gravitino. It's such an exotic particle that few other theories could look like it. The interesting thing is that there are plausible models in which it is the lightest supersymmetric particle, making it easier to find. Another thing that caught my eye about this paper is that it proposes searches involving tau leptons, which I work on identifying. If the superpartner of the tau is the second lightest supersymmetric particle, it could decay to a tau lepton and a gravitino.
If you've followed this discussion, I think a few things about the way high-energy physics works currently should stand out. The first is that there are often complex chains of reasoning leading people to be very convinced of things for which there is little direct evidence. This may seem risky, but it's proven suprisingly effective in the past. Eugene Wigner once posed the question of why mathematics is so effective in describing the natural world. I'm not sure that anyone can satisfactorily answer that question, but so far it hasn't failed us. Another thing I would like to point out is the interplay of theory and experiment. There are a number of ideas out there now about what physics looks like at higher energy scales than we have probed so far. Some of them sound very wacky. But ultimately, experiment is the arbiter of what becomes accepted in the next "Standard Model." To this end it is important to try to understand what tests can be most effective at culling the huge data samples we will have over the next decade, and what signals might be strong clues pointing us in a given direction.
I'm not sure how comprehensible this was; probably it seems simplistic and odd to those of you who know much physics, and boring to those who don't. But I hope that now and then I can try to get across some of the things I find so exciting about high-energy physics.
Posted by Ed
There are certain things one doesn't particularly want to read about while fighting off the flu, and today I came across one of them: Norbert Elias's thoughts on the history of nose-blowing.
For those of you who don't know, Norbert Elias (1897-1990) was a German historical sociologist who theorized about the relationship between the spread of modern manners and the process of state centralization in medieval Europe. In Part Two of his best-known work, The Civilizing Process, Elias comments on a series of quotations about nose-blowing from early-modern and modern Europe. The gems he discusses include "When you blow your nose or cough, turn round so that nothing falls on the table" (13th-century Italy) and "Some years ago people made an art of blowing the nose. One imitated the sound of the trumpet, another the screech of a cat. Perfection lay in making neither too much noise or too little" (18th-century France).
Elias's commentary also includes its share of fun tidbits: did you know that Louis XIV was the first king of France to have "an abundant supply of handkerchiefs"? Elias begins his commentary in the following way:
In medieval society people generally blew their noses into their hands, just as they ate with their hands. That necessitated special precepts for nose-blowing at table. Politeness, courtoisie, required that one blow one's nose with the left hand if one took meat with the right. But this precept was in fact restricted to the table. It arose solely out of consideration for others. The distasteful feeling frequently aroused today by the mere thought of soiling the fingers in this way was at first entirely absent.
Posted by Ed
A word of advice: it's not a good idea to catch the flu (or something flu-like) as you're rushing to finish your dissertation proposal.
I'll have something more substantive to write after I'm fully recovered, but for now, here are some of the links that have gotten me through my most recent bout of illness:
Posted by Ed
Here are some of the links that have interested me most this weekend:
Posted by Ed
Today's New York Times features an entertaining article on Amazon.com: because of a weeklong computer glitch at the company's Canadian website, the names (rather than the pseudonyms) of thousands of book reviewers were inadvertently revealed to the public. The results were often amusing:
John Rechy, author of the best-selling 1963 novel "City of Night" and winner of the PEN-USA West lifetime achievement award, is one of several prominent authors who have apparently pseudonymously written themselves five-star reviews, Amazon's highest rating. Mr. Rechy, who laughed about it when approached, sees it as a means to survival when online stars mean sales.
"That anybody is allowed to come in and anonymously trash a book to me is absurd," said Mr. Rechy, who, having been caught, freely admitted to praising his new book, "The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens," on Amazon under the signature "a reader from Chicago." "How to strike back? Just go in and rebut every single one of them."
Mr. Rechy is in good company. Walt Whitman and Anthony Burgess both famously reviewed their own books under assumed names. But several modern-day writers said the Internet, where anyone from your mother to your ex-agent can anonymously broadcast an opinion of your work, has created a more urgent need for self-defense.
Update: It seems that every blog around is commenting on this article. Plus, as Will Baude points out, you can read a lot of amusing Amazon reviews at this blog.
Update 2: The Observer talks to various British writers about this story. My favorite response was by the critic D.J. Taylor, who said, "When I was 22, I wrote an article in the Spectator about working in a bookshop, and I can remember forging a letter about it and sending it in. I have also reviewed under the pseudonym Felix Benjamin - the names of my children - but that was because I was doing the same book for two different papers and wanted to make sure I got paid twice."
Posted by Ed
The use of counterfactuals can be a controversial subject among historians. The British scholar Niall Ferguson has edited a collection of essays on alternative history as part of an effort to promote a "chaotic" view of the past, but more traditional historians have scoffed at speculation about how history might have changed if events had followed an alternative path. E.H. Carr, for one, wrote off the use of counterfactuals as a "parlour game" for poor losers, and the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott denounced counterfactual history as "a monstrous incursion of science into the world of history." Very few attempts at alternative history have been rigorous or intelligent, after all: readers are more likely to come across a silly science fiction story about the assassination of Adolf Hitler than they are to see a serious discussion of the role of contingency in history.
Nevertheless, I'm going to do something a little risky here: I plan to discuss what might have happened if the July 20, 1944, attempt on Hitler's life had succeeded. Earlier this week, the History News Network led me to an interesting Reuters article on Philipp von Boeselager, an 86-year-old German who participated in that plot. Reuters quoted a remark by Boeselager that got me thinking:
"We were convinced that even if July 20 had been successful, we would have been hanged because the mass of Germans believed Hitler. They would have said: 'If Hitler was still alive, we would have won the war'," he said.
Of course, history might not have turned out this way if Hitler had died. Perhaps the German government would have continued the war until its total defeat in 1945; perhaps it would have surrendered, and the German people would still have realized that their cause was doomed. Boeselager's idea has some surface plausibility, however. After World War I, many right-wing nationalists came to the conclusion that Germany would have won the war if the country's leaders hadn't "stabbed them in the back" by surrendering too soon, and it's not hard to imagine a World War II "stab-in-the back" theory in the event of Hitler's death.
Which brings us to an important question: How would the history of post-war Germany have developed under this scenario? Would Nazism or a milder form of German nationalism have experienced a resurgence? Would the country's post-war pacifism have emerged? How would German relations with America and the Soviet Union have developed?
The main advantage of this scenario, I believe, isn't to help us understand the July 20 plot or the end of World War II; it's to help us understand the course of post-war German history. In order to answer the questions above, after all, we need to understand why German history developed the way it has. Many contemporary observers expected Germany to remain a threat in the future: Lord Ismay, a British diplomat, famously claimed that NATO was founded in order "to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down," and the Soviets were afraid that a resurgent Germany would become an ally of the capitalist West. This didn't turn out to be a problem, of course--just as the world economy confounded expectations by flourishing (rather than falling back into the Great Depression.)
But why hasn't post-war German foreign policy been more assertive? What role was played by the country's feelings of shame and humiliation for their total defeat, for the beginning of the war, and for the Holocaust? What role did the Cold War and the division of Germany play? How important was the American occupation and the process of de-Nazification? All of these factors would have played out differently if Hitler had been killed on July 20, 1944, and counterfactuals can highlight the role of contingency in world history and focus our attention on important questions about the past.
Posted by Ed
Some links were looking at:
Posted by Ed
Every so often, when I read the morning comics, I wince at Doonesbury and wish that Garry Trudeau could be as amusing as he was in the comic strip's glory days. Then I wonder if I'm giving him too much credit... Was Doonesbury ever as amusing as I think I remember?
My tentative answer: Yes. If you're curious, go to this link and read the first comic you come to. It's an amusing jab at John Kerry that's still relevant today, even though it was written back in 1971 (when Kerry was the leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.)
For more old Doonesbury comics, click here and look around. Be warned, however: the video game they had on the site a year or two ago can be really addictive!
Posted by Ed
As most of my fellow Illinois residents are probably aware, Blair Hull is a really rich man who's spending money freely in his bid for the U.S. Senate. (His television commercials are on the air constantly.) Until now, however, I didn't know that Hull began his successful business career as part of a Las Vegas card-counting ring!
Here's what Joshua Green had to say about Hull's fortune in a recent Atlantic Monthly article:
Trained in mathematics and computer science, Hull became part of a notorious card-counting ring that operated in Nevada in the 1970s. He beat the odds--or, rather, beat the house by shifting the odds in his favor--by devising intricate mathematical formulas that called for a skilled team of card counters to help determine when and how to bet in blackjack. The team consistently turned a profit until one member blew its cover by publishing a self-aggrandizing tell-all book, The Big Player. Hull quit blackjack with $25,000 and a habit of citing the economist William F. Sharpe to anyone who questioned his wisdom in playing cards: "Investing is the sacrifice of current consumption for expected future gain; gambling is the sacrifice of current consumption for expected future loss." Hull always expected future gain. As if to underscore his analytical rigor, he used his winnings to found Hull Trading Co., a computerized options firm that earned him $340 million--and the means to run for the Senate--when Goldman Sachs bought it, in 1999.
Hull is most animated by those aspects of campaigning that can be quantified and formulated. "Politics is very unpredictable," he told me. "More so than blackjack." I asked if he really could write an algorithm to help win the election. His face lit up, and his press secretary winced. "Sure!" he replied. He reached for my notebook and began scribbling as he spoke: "You'd create a persuasion model based on canvassing that says 'the probability of voting for Hull is ...' plus some variable on ethnicity ... with a positive coefficient on age, a negative coefficient on wealth, and that gives us an equation ..." Sure enough, a lengthy equation unfolded across the page that to my untrained eye looked like part of the human genetic code:
Probability = 1/(1 + exp (−1 * (−3.9659056 + (General Election Weight * 1.92380219) + (Re-Expressed Population Density * .00007547) + (Re-Expressed Age * .01947370) + (Total Primaries Voted * −.60288595) + (% Neighborhood Ethnicity * −.00717530))))
Hull looked pleased. "That's the kind of innovation I will bring to problems in the United States Senate."
Reading Green's article, I had to wonder how the other multi-millionaires in politics made their fortunes. If I'm not mistaken, former Senator Howard Metzenbaum got rich by buying up land near airports so he could build parking lots there--a very clever move. Did anyone else make his money through activities as amusing as Hull's or Metzenbaum's? Is the political success of millionaire candidates at all connected to their business styles and strategies?
Posted by Ed
One of these days I'll write an entry that isn't either a discussion of history or a collection of links I'm too lazy to discuss. That day has not yet arrived, however:
Posted by Ed
On Sunday, The Washington Post reviewed a new PBS documentary on the Medici family that sounds like one of the silliest attempts at popular history of the year. The documentary, it seems, treats the Medici as a bunch of thugs, unintentionally portrays most Renaissance artists as dull and unimaginative, and betrays a complete lack of interest in the political and social context of the time. Its central conceit is that the Medici family was like a modern-day Mafia clan; the film is called "Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance" and, as the review points out, "not 10 minutes into this overheated attempt at potboiler history, you realize that someone must have had a very bad idea at the original planning meeting: Let's tell real history like Francis Ford Coppola makes movies."
In short, it sounds to me like this was a history documentary made by people who aren't interested in history. (Why would anyone feel a need to enliven the story of the Medicis by making frequent Mafia allusions, when the family's story is fascinating and entertaining in its own right?) The reviewer's commentary is convincing, and sometimes devastating; the reviewer outlines problem after problem in his account of where the film-makers went wrong. My one criticism was that the reviewer combined a compelling critique of the series with an implicit restatement of a common misconception about history: that it's primarily a collection of facts.
The Washington Post criticizes the documentary, and rightly so, for its treatment of nearly every academic subject it touches on, but it reserves some of its most searing criticism for the film's portrayal of art history:
Anachronism abounds, which defeats the efforts of the filmmakers to give the viewer a feel for period dress, style and manners. Also abundant are the cliches of art history documentaries: Artists, like Botticelli, see women in diaphanous dresses with long flowing tresses, inspiring them to make paintings of women in diaphanous dresses with long flowing tresses. The odd subtext of this, of course, is that artists lack imagination, creativity and invention.
But they are brave souls. Artists and thinkers must confront the forces of reaction and darkness. They must persevere through the rantings of religious fanatics like Savonarola, or the persecutions of the Inquisition. They are inspired by the high, sustaining ideals of truth and beauty, and they must bequeath to the world a new enlightenment.
It's not that any of these generalities are false. But they are self-defeating to the presumed intent of popular history-making: to make history entertaining. Cliches shut down curiosity. Perhaps Donatello's David was "revolutionary" and Michelangelo's David "extraordinary" but saying so adds very little to the way we might see these works. It simply puts them into the comfortable category of "the unprecedented" or the "without equal" that assures us that they are very good indeed -- and lets us move on, smoothly, to the next Great Work.
The review goes on to criticize the film's portrayal of history:
The odd thing about "Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance" is how much its contemporary filmmaking style goes hand in hand with a very old-fashioned style of history-telling. Through graphics and music and costumes and fancy camera work, the anecdotes are retold with flair. But given the absence of any economic or political depth, or any explanation of the deeper fissures that led to the Reformation, the series feels like a parody of Victorian history-telling. Of course you can't put everything in, but the series does prattle on for four hours. There was room for more of those wonderful things known as facts.
I'm sometimes a little wary of the reviewer's view of history, however. He criticizes this film as "a parody of Victorian history-telling" without telling what this means; he criticizes it as "reenactment history" without explaining what's wrong with reenactment. What strikes me as most questionable, however, is the reviewer's implicit solution: add in more facts! Though I haven't seen the documentary, I get the sense that it was long on assertion and short in interpretation; what it needed was to do a better job explaining the role of the Medicis in the Renaissance, not reciting facts about them. A firmer factual basis could be the foundation for a more sophisticated take on what was happening, but the indiscriminate addition of facts wouldn't have saved this series.
The most sophisticated criticism, I believe, not only points to the flaws in a work of art or entertainment, but conveys an understanding of how that work's genre can succeed at its best. It sounds like PBS has chosen to air a silly and mediocre series about the Medici family, and The Washington Post has done an entertaining job pointing out some of its weaknesses. Nevertheless, I can't tell from the review whether this "Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance" is just a shallow and silly attempt at popular history or whether it's an even more atrocious waste of time and money. The Washington Post's review treads along a fine line between compelling criticism and more shallow, almost elitist criticism--it just would have been more convincing if it had provided more examples and had seemed more thoughtful in its representation of the genre of history.
Posted by Susan
I feel a little guilty doing this, but oh well.
Posted by Ed
In all his life, the Renaissance art historian Bernard Berenson wrote only one fan letter. It was addressed to Ray Bradbury and written soon after Bradbury published an essay in The Nation about why he wrote science fiction; the letter resulted in a friendship between the two men and led to Berenson's suggestion of a possible sequel to Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury never got around to writing that sequel, but he discusses it--and the question of literary memory--in a fun Wall Street Journal op-ed piece called "Remembrance of Books Past."
Here's how Bradbury describes Berenson's suggestion:
Berenson was so fascinated that at lunch one day at I Totti [sic] he said, "Why not a sequel to 'Fahrenheit 451' in which all the great books are remembered by the Wilderness People and are finally reprinted from memory. What then?
"Wouldn't it be," he continued, "that all would be misremembered, none would come forth in their original garb? Wouldn't they be longer, shorter, taller, fatter, disfigured or more beautiful?
"Instead of angels in the alcove, might they be gargoyles off the roof?"
I was so fired by Berenson's suggestion that I wrote an outline, thinking, Oh God, if only I had the genius to know some of the really great books of history and rewrite them, pretending to be my future Book People, trying to recall the details of an incredible literature.
I never did this.
Bradbury's game sounds like fun, but I'm more intrigued with Berenson's idea for a sequel. To be frank, I find his idea more interesting than the idea behind Fahrenheit 451--though, to be fair, perhaps I should write out my memories of that novel and see how they compare to reality before making such judgments. (At the end of his essay, Bradbury suggests that his readers write out their memories of the plots of books they read long ago and then compare them to the original.)
Berenson's idea is compelling, I think, because it touches on two key ideas: the way that readers interpret books and the way that people in general remember what they've read. Many writers, I suspect, would be shocked to learn that their readers have learned the "wrong" lessons from their books; people in different times and places understand the same works of literature in very different ways. A novel conscious of this basic fact could be a fascinating philosophical book--discussing the ways a group of several different people might worked together to reconcile their different views to produce as "true" a reprinting as possible, say, or envisioning rival versions of the same work emerging from different authors.
At the same time, I don't think it's a coincidence that a scholar of the Renaissance was intrigued by the question of memory. I've never read one of Berenson's books in its entirety, but excerpts I've seen from works like Rumor and Reflection and Seeing and Knowing suggest to me that Berenson would have something perceptive to say about literary memory. In a recent entry, moreover, I discussed how a study by another writer (Frances Yates) considered memory in the Renaissance:
The Art of Memory, for instance, describes how scholars in an age before printed books were able to retain seemingly incredible amounts of information: One prodigy could recite all of Vergil's Aeneid backwards. By using a "theater of memory," derived from some actual building, a student would place images of what he wanted to remember at selected locations. Then he need only stroll mentally through this imaginary building and glance at his memory-sites to have the images reappear to him in their proper order.
The question of how people memorize lengthy works was also discussed by a scholar of an earlier era, Albert Lord. In his classic work The Singer of Tales, Lord looked at oral epic poetry from the Balkans, showing that it was far more spontaneous and flexible at its performances than most modern readers may realize. The basics of a story, and much of its language, remained the same--but the poet lengthened or contracted his work to fit the mood of his audience. The Singer of Tales is a complex and intriguing work that shows that the art of memory isn't as simple as we're inclined to believe.
I wish I could end this entry with an insightful point or a brilliant summing up, but I don't have any final insights here. Scholars like Yates, Spence, and Lord have shown us that the art of memory is a fascinating subject of study, providing insights that could have enriched a Fahrenheit 451 sequel. And if you're ever in need of a good parlor game, read the rest of Bradbury's essay and speculate on how other novels might have been mis-remembered in another day and age.
Posted by Ed
Here are some links I've come across today. I found all of these articles intriguing, but I'm too lazy to comment on them in detail:
Posted by Ed
The Elgin Marbles are among the most famous cultural artifacts in European history, but sometimes, it seems, they aren't considered in their full historical context. After all, it's easy to see the controversy surrounding them in ahistorical terms--we remember that a British noble named Lord Elgin seized a group of sculptures from the frieze of the Parthenon in the 1804 and that the Greeks now want them back, but we've largely forgotten the events that transpired between Elgin's day and our own.
The Elgin Marbles aren't just the center of a contemporary political debate, however: they were also the subject of a series of atrocious English poems. Those poems are worth looking at today, I believe, if only for their entertainment value.
Lord Byron was undoubtedly the most famous of Elgin's literary detractors. One of his best-known poems, "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage," denounces Elgin as a "modern Pict" and even includes the following lines (according to the website for a British campaign to return the Marbles) :
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne'er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch'd thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!
Thomas Hardy took a different tack in his 1905 poem "Christmas in the Elgin Room," which considers the fate of the Marbles from the perspective of the Greek gods. In Hardy's view, the gods--as represented by the statues from the Parthenon frieze--are cooped up, unhappy, in the British Museum, upset at the course of history that has led to their own fall and to the rise of Christianity:
"O it is sad now we are sold--
We gods! for Borean people's gold,
And brought to the gloom
Of this gaunt room
Which sunlight shuns, and sweet Aurore but enters cold.
"For all these bells, would I were still
Radiant as on Athenai's Hill."
--"And I, and I!"
The others sigh,
"Before this Christ was known, and we had men's good will."
Which leads to an interesting question: What conclusions should we draw from these poems? On one level, I'd argue, they tell us something about English intellectual history: as Mary Beard recently pointed out, there's a long history of British writers who've had trouble confronting the Marbles' mythic fame. At the same time, they remind us that--in certain quarters--Lord Elgin's actions were as controversial in the nineteenth century as they are today. That's an important lesson to remember as the world debates the Marbles' fate.
Posted by Ed
I finally gave in to temptation yesterday and bought a copy of Robert Merton's The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity. (Click here for an earlier discussion of this book and of the field of "romantic scholarship.") So far, it seems like a fascinating and delightful book--it may not as polished as On the Shoulders of Giants, Merton's earlier book, but it has the advantage of a central argument with farther-reaching consequences.
Don't take my word for it, however. Today's Washington Post features a Michael Dirda column singing the book's praises. As a way of introducing readers to Merton's work, he begins by hailing On the Shoulders of Giants as "one of the most delightful books of our time":
Who wouldn't love OTSOG (as his classic is commonly referred to)? In that rambling, leisurely digressive "Shandean postscript," Merton goes about tracing the origins and history of the celebrated remark by Isaac Newton: "If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." To begin, he points out that the so-called "Aphorism" crops up in Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, where we moderns are described as pygmies atop the gigantic shoulders of the ancients. Burton leads on to the 17th-century antiquarian John Aubrey (he of the gossipy Brief Lives) and from there to Swift and Rabelais, to the classicists Joseph Scaliger and Juan Luis Vives, to Bernard of Clairvaux and, finally, to the mysterious Didacus Stella. All this sleuthing in the stacks is very entertaining in itself, but what makes OTSOG really fun is Merton's wry, mock-supercilious tone, supported by a steady patter of footnotes, parenthetical reflections and bits of autobiography.
In other words, nearly half of OTSOG is simply marginalia, oddments of learning mentioned almost in passing. Thus Merton incidentally defines "the Parvus complex" as the tendency for people to belittle themselves or their achievements. He resurrects the useful word "agelast" (a person who doesn't laugh) and quotes a neat quip by Albert Einstein: "If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world." After discussing how some fields are named for their eponymous founder (e.g., Boolean algebra), the social scientist sneakily adds that "On rare occasions the same individual acquires a double immortality, both for what he achieved and for what he failed to achieve, as in the cases of Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometries, and non-Aristotelian logics." Even OTSOG's index turns out to be funny: "Bacon, Francis: William Shakespeare?," "Merton, Robert K.: another pupil of George Sarton" and "Barber, Elinor: co-author of an important unpublished work, The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity."
The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity isn't as frolicsome as On the Shoulders of Giants. It tends to repeat, even belabor, some of its points and generally feels more ramshackle -- and not in a wholly Shandean way. And yet the book is full of good things. Word mavens will enjoy the survey of how a half-dozen major dictionaries define -- or mostly ill-define -- "serendipity." Several pages analyze the word's pronunciation and judge its sheer musicality as part of its appeal. There are reflections on collectors and collecting, a domain that would hardly exist without the pleasure of serendipitous discovery. Even more seriously, Merton examines the corporate or academic pressure for steady, continuous progress in research against the need for scientists to follow their instincts and make the mistakes that occasionally result in a happy accidental breakthrough. Merton even meditates on the problem of unexpected evil in life, the dark counterpart to unexpected good luck. He notes that, in many careers, to be lucky is good, but to be too lucky tends to make one seem undeserving of the prestige or honor. Conspicuous good fortune undercuts the claims of hard work and merit.
It occurred to me, while reading James Shulman's introduction to the book, that there's an interesting relationship between the genre of romantic scholarship and the concept of serendipity itself. As Merton argues, increased competition makes it harder to justify funding for basic research and easier to demand funding for research with practical applications; the history of science, however, shows that many great discoveries have arisen serendipitously from research whose applications could never be predicted. By the same token, increased competition in academia and publishing makes it harder for "serious" writers to produce less traditional books that won't sell well or win their authors tenure. Books like Merton's won't transform the world the way the discovery of penicillin did, but they deserve a wider audience nonetheless.
Posted by Susan
Historically, royal families have been fascinating tools for people interested in genetics and pedigree analysis; the combination of lots of inbreeding and the high profiles of the people involved allows one to assemble pedigrees of various interesting disorders that ran in these families.
It seems like most genetics courses cover the hemophilia pedigree of the descendents of Queen Victoria. However, there are some more interesting cases that I've never seen taught, such as the possible porphyria cases in the descendants of Mary, Queen of Scots and, of course, the infamous "Hapsburg lip" (or jaw).
The unofficial motto of the Hapsburg family was "Bella gerunt alii, tu, felix Austria, nubes!" ("Where others must fight wars, you, fortunate Austria, marry!). Due to the large amount of politically motivated intermarriage between Hapsburgs, the dynasty was virtually unparalleled in the degree of its inbreeding (when pedigrees look this recursive, all is not well). One particular phenotype that has been followed in this family is the mandibular prognathism and related traits (the "Hapsburg lip" or "Hapsburg jaw") first observed in Maximilian I (1459-1519).
As you can see from the pedigree, the trait was dominant (the heterozygous phenotype, however, appears to have been incompletely penetrant). The plethora of portraits of Hapsburg family members has allowed us to follow the trait through the generations--in fact, Albert Chudley was able to use postage stamps in his analysis of the Hapsburg jaw pedigree*.
The Hapsburg's intermarriage policy came back to bite them in the ass in 1665 when Charles II (the Bewitched) came to the Spanish throne. Not only did poor Charles have the most pronounced case of the Hapsburg jaw on record (his jaw was so deformed that he was unable to chew), he was also mentally retarded and impotent. He named Philip V of Anjou, a Bourbon relation, as his successor, which led to the War of the Spanish Succession at his death in 1700. The war ended Hapsburg hegemony in Spain and was the beginning of the end for the dynasty.
The Hapsburg jaw has been an interesting case for scholars over the years. Schroedinger mentions it in 1944's What is Life?, and James Watson (who has credited What is Life? with focusing his academic interests on genetcs) refers to it in DNA: The Secret of Life. It's always fun to look at these pedigrees and speculate about the role they played in history, though one suspects that people take them a bit too seriously (for example, I wouldn't try to claim that Alexis's hemophilia played a big role in the Russian Revolution).
*Chudley AE. Genetic landmarks through philately--the Habsburg jaw. (1998) Clin Genet. 54(4):283-4.
Posted by Ed
I have a horrible confession to make: I know almost nothing about Harriet Tubman. I know that she was an escaped slave, known by the nickname "Moses," who helped fugitives escape north to freedom via the Underground Railroad; I'd probably recognize a picture of her, and I have a vague sense that she was short. Beyond that, however, I'm not sure that I could tell you anything of interest about one of our country's most famous abolitionists.
I was therefore struck by the following passage from a short book review in Newsday:
'Who's Harriet Tubman?" my mother asked. I was in sixth grade and could not have been more appalled; it was as if she had asked who George Washington was. A well-informed person, my mother had majored in American history in college. How could she not know Harriet Tubman?
Historian Catherine Clinton's new biography of the legendary fugitive slave suggests why. Clinton notes that Tubman lapsed into obscurity in the early 20th century, not becoming the children's cultural icon that she now is until the civil rights movement. In the '60s, six children's and young adults' books were published about Tubman -- five in the '70s, six in the '80s, and a staggering 21 in the '90s. Since 2000, 16 more have been added to the tally. In my public elementary school in the '70s -- and this is no exaggeration -- we studied Harriet Tubman every single year.
Yet amidst all this juvenilia, there has been little serious scholarship on Tubman, which seems strange given her importance. ( This month Clinton's book is joined by Kate Clifford Lawson's "Bound for the Promised Land.")
The article also helped me understand why I know so little about Harriet Tubman, who's scarcely more than a name to me. I strongly suspect that I first heard about her in elementary school (learning only as much as you'd expect from that level of education), and that I haven't heard anything more detailed since. I can think of good books that touch on the lives of other early abolitionists--check out The Kingdom of Matthias, by Sean Wilentz and Paul Johnson, is you're interested in a fascinating book that touches on Sojourner Truth's life story--but I don't know of good books describing Tubman's life in detail.
What's the lesson in all this? I have no idea. Perhaps it's a reminder that our elementary schools are an under-utilized force in teaching children the basics of history; if they can teach whole generations of children about a fascinating but little-known historical figure (with no coordination from above), then just think of what else they could do! On the other hand, perhaps this is a sign of the weakness of our secondary schools, which fail to build on the lessons our youngest children are taught. Maybe, finally, this is a sign of the superficiality of U.S. history education: our school kids have learned the most basic factual details and names from American history, but don't always know the rest of the story. Who knows?
Posted by Matt
Stephen Wolfram's A New Kind of Science is now available online. (You have to register to read more than a few pages, but it's free.) I decided to take the opportunity to browse it a bit. Let me quote the opening for you:
Three centuries ago science was transformed by the dramatic new idea that rules based on mathematical equations could be used to describe the natural world. My purpose in this book is to initiate another such transformation, and to introduce a new kind of science that is based on the much more general types of rules that can be embodied in simple computer programs.
In case you missed it: Wolfram is comparing himself to Isaac Newton. He did this more explicitly when he spoke at Chicago (on part of his grand tour of universities, where he must have been saddened to see how few people shared his enthusiasm that a "paradigm shift" was underway.) Wolfram is smart -- he had received his Ph.D. in physics from Caltech by age 20, and had published papers in theoretical particle physics at 15. What he seems not to realize is that being smart does not make one right.
If you've read much about the book before, I'm probably not saying much new below, although I haven't seen much criticism of Wolfram's ideas about particle physics before. (This is probably because he continually fails to provide enough details to suggest that he has any theory at all.)
Wolfram's central point is that simple computer programs can generate complex behavior. While his arrogance and disdain for the capabilities of other people is obvious, it must extend pretty far if he thinks that no one has thought of this before. See Leo Kadanoff's review for a discussion of the history of cellular automata. Kadanoff is himself very smart; he was one of the inventors of our modern understanding of quantum field theory. (I'm referring to his work in relation to the renormalization group.) Kadanoff's review is fair, and even forgiving in ways that I would not be. For instance, he mentions Wolfram's statement that symmetries are usually not important in phase transition problems as a mistake that will probably be fixed in later editions. I'm more inclined to see it as a sign of a bigger underlying problem (I'll get to this in a moment.)
Not having read the book myself, I decided to take advantage of its posting online to peruse the section on fundamental physics. I'm surprised to find Wolfram saying that his idea that the universe is a computation is "bold." It's certainly been claimed before, notably by Edward Fredkin. In fact, Konrad Zuse, who built the first working programmable computer, speculated on the universe as a discrete computation. Beyond its lack of originality, I think the idea is facile and uninteresting until it has been fleshed out thoroughly. The early development of modern physics had people thinking of the universe as being like clockwork. In the 19th century people looked for mechanical explanations of physics, and thermodynamics developed by thinking about engines. I'm no expert on the history of physics, but it certainly seems that current technology has often served as a useful metaphor or example. It's no surprise then that people start thinking about the universe as a computer, and it could even be useful. But it should be acknowledged that this device is a tool, possibly a useful one, but not a profound truth. Otherwise this insight is no more interesting than a Matrix-style "Dude, what if we're all living in, like, a computer?" So, we have to look more closely at Wolfram's ideas to decide if there is any utility in them.
Unfortunately Wolfram has published little detail on his ideas about fundamental physics. Kadanoff notes that specific elements of Wolfram's ideas "emulate previous two dimensional quantum gravity theories and integrable systems work," and calls the chapter "exciting... but not yet science." Wolfram's footnotes say that he has developed more formalism for these ideas, but did not publish it as ANKOS was meant for the general public. Still, no such publications seem to be forthcoming. Wolfram appears to think physicists will be so excited by his skeletal ideas that they will rush to fill in the details themselves. His case is not nearly compelling enough for this to happen.
Wolfram notes that cellular automata can have clusters that resemble particles. This idea is not new, as anyone who has played with John Conway's Game of Life will realize. These are, in some sense, the discrete equivalent of solitons in differential equations. (That is, waves that propagate without changing shape, historically first observed in a canal.) Wolfram's general idea is that the universe consists of a network of lines, with "tangles" in this network representing particles. This is an intriguing idea, though it's worth noting that discrete approaches to space, like spin networks, have generated more interesting physics before Wolfram's book was published. Unfortunately, as Wolfram has stated this idea, it's not apparent to me that it has any chance of working. It is telling that he has so much difficulty with simple things like explaining what moving particles look like in this model (pg. 529). He speculates that faster-moving particles should have more nodes. How low-energy Lorentz symmetry -- in which, in different reference frames, a moving particle can appear to have any speed below the speed of light -- could emerge from such a model is puzzling. His attempt at an answer seems to be that different frames view different "slices" of the "coat" of nodes and links surrounding a particle. This sounds like a kluge, barring further details. In fact this lack of observable symmetry seems to be the biggest problem with his proposal: it discards the most important lesson of 20th century physics, which is the vital importance of symmetries in defining physical theories. Aside from Lorentz symmetry, there are various gauge symmetries corresponding to electromagnetism, the weak force, and the strong force, and the role of these in Wolfram's model is totally unexplained.
Wolfram's notes supply brief summaries of gauge invariance, the Standard Model, and conserved quantities in physics. They even mention dualities in field and string theories in which solitonic objects in one theory are particles in a dual theory. There is only one apparent mistake I see in his summaries of physics, namely a statement that supersymmetry unifies quarks and leptons with gauge bosons (the superpartners of quarks and leptons are scalars, of spin 0, not gauge bosons, which have spin 1), and this is not a big deal. Despite these notes, Wolfram does not seem to address how these ideas could fit into his theory. Somehow particles have associated with them a means of transforming under gauge groups. One could think about placing information about these properties on the nodes or links of the network, but Wolfram's formulation in which the universe is just some network evolving according to certain rules is probably unable to capture this information. His idea may have merit for geometry. General relativity tells us that geometry and gravity are intimately related, and it is natural to wonder if geometry is fundamentally discrete, so this is not surprising. It is much trickier to see how the other, non-gravitational, forces fit in. And the easiest route to addressing this is essentially through lattice gauge theory, a well-established theory that Wolfram can't lay claim to. Perhaps this is why he doesn't bother to address the issue at all.
I see one way out of this criticism, but I don't think it's a good one. This is the observation that gauge symmetries describe redundancies in our physical description of a system. One can fix a gauge and work happily there. In other words, it may be argued that the formalism of gauge theory is a human construct, not an aspect of the natural world. There is some reason to go along with this. One might have dual theories that are precisely equivalent but that appear to have different symmetry groups. So, Wolfram might claim that the symmetry groups are emergent properties of behavior described by one of his networks with tangles. This is not entirely implausible. But, if true, it is difficult to see how his approach would render anything calculable, or offer much insight into the world. If we must do long computer simulations to extract information, we haven't really gained any understanding. This is a general problem with Wolfram's philosophy; he argues that standard techniques will hit a wall and we must use computation anyway. He points at indecidable problems. But, fundamentally, science is about gaining useful understanding of the world, not about crunching numbers. I don't see his approach helping us here. Even if the underlying physics of everything (whatever that would mean) is cellular automata, our equations are much more comprehensible, and simulating these higher-level equations is easier (and more interpretable) than simulating whatever the underlying CA would be. Suppose for a moment we find an underlying CA, or other discrete system, describing the universe. Then what do we do with it? Simulate it? The simulation would be slower to evolve than the actual universe. What could we ever do with such a thing? We're unlikely to be able to determine whether it truly does describe the universe, because the time needed to run it to get anything resembling what we know about the universe would be prohibitive. We're better to stay in the realm of less grandiose, but more useful, theories. They're testable. They're science.
I think I'll close before getting too carried away in philosophical nonsense. As for the "Principle of Computational Equivalence" and Wolfram's claims about mathematics, I'll point you to Lawrence Gray's review in the Notices of the AMS and to Scott Aaronson's review. The latter also critiques Wolfram's idea that physics is fundamentally not quantum, and argues that his model of fundamental physics probably violates Bell's inequality. To my mind this is not devastating; quantum mechanics can likely be tacked onto the model after the fact. The idea of space-as-network has been used in other quantum theories like loop quantum gravity. Wolfram's own insistence that the universe is not fundamentally quantum is probably wrong, but this is not reason enough to reject entirely his thoughts. He does seem to think of his attempt at explaining quantum behavior classically as one of the things that distinguishes his model from loop quantum graivty, so this criticism does make his ideas seem even less original. However, I think the puzzle of how particle physics works in his model is a more troubling issue, and he will have to address it if he wants to have a hope of convincing physicists to take him seriously. Let me close with this quote from Kadanoff's review:
From my reading, I cannot support the view that any "new kind of science" is displayed in NKS. I see neither new kinds of calculations, nor new analytic theory, nor comparison with experiment.
P.S. Also of interest is this page of humor related to the book. See especially "A New Kind of Review" from the amazon.com site.
Posted by Ed
Have you ever read a book that's simultaneously so intriguing and so irritating that part of you feels driven to keep reading and part of you wants to close the book in disgust? This evening I've been reading The Child That Books Built, in which the writer Francis Spufford describes how books and reading shaped his childhood. Sometimes the book strikes me as pompous and pretentious; the writing style can be irritating, and Spufford seems proud of himself for including references to Wittgenstein, De Quincey, and Chomsky. Other parts did a fantastic job capturing the excitement that good children's books can inspire in their readers. In short, I feel quite conflicted about Spufford's writing.
In this entry, however, I'll focus on the admirable side of The Child That Books Built. Spufford's taste in children's lit is similar to mine--that is, he focuses on the classics, loves fantasy novels like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, and seems willing to read most anything if it catches his fancy. Reading Spufford made me wish that I'd had the chance to read the books of Rosemary Sutcliffe, Alan Garner, and Leon Garfield.
Spufford doesn't just describe his own childhood experiences as a reader, however. He also delves into contemporary criticism of classic children's books. One of my favorite sections dealt with Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series:
In 1993 William Holtz announced that he had studied the manuscripts of the books, and that they had effectively been written by Rose Wilder Lane, Laura Ingalls Wilder's daughter and a skilled novelist in her own right. Rather than being the memories of an "untutored genius," they were the disguised handiwork of a pro. Laura-the-character was a construct. Events from the family history had been selected and combined to give the stories dramatic unity, and sometimes excised altogether. In the writing of The Long Winter, for example, Rose had deleted the presence of a married couple who had shared the building on Main Street with the Ingallses for those seven months, and made a hard time worse with their insufficient stoicism.
Holtz's book caused outrage. It was not the idea that particular incidents might not be trustworthy that so upset a large section of the Little House audience: it was a threat to the emotional authenticity of the experience each had had. There was a feeling that a promise had been made to the reader by the little girl they had first met in Little House in the Big Woods, and this news seemed to break it....
Holtz also showed that the books had been influenced by Rose's politics, which were right-wing libertarian, in the style of Ayn Rand or Robert Heinlein. Her beliefs did overlap with her mother's. Both women believed that the New Deal was an abuse of the federal government's powers, and a terrible attack on the self-reliant traditions of the frontier. [Spufford goes on to say that Rose "thought that all taxes were theft, that social security numbers were incipiently totalitarian, and that the FBI was as bad as the Gestapo.... Even elections were dubious: they might give an imprudent majority the power to demand their neighbors' property."] And this vision shaped the books, especially the later ones in the series: not as anything as dishonorable as propaganda, but as a deep substructure of values.
Spufford's account of The Chronicles of Narnia was fascinating, but in a different way. It seemed simultaneously perceptive and creepy:
Aslan has two distinct speaking voices. To the boys in the series, he is stern, man-to-man and noble in an archaic way. "Rise up, Sir Peter Wolf's-Bane. And, whatever happens, never forget to wipe your sword." To the girls, he is tender and even playful. "Oh children, catch me if you can." "Speak on, dear heart." Of course, as a reader, you can be both the girls and the boys, whichever sex you are yourself, and so get Aslan both as ideal father and as something verging on ideal lover too. Of all the ten different children in the seven separate books, it is Lucy, the youngest girl, who is clearly Lewis's own surrogate in the book--the person he would like to be in relation to Aslan, confiding, enchanted, wholly unafraid. "And he was solid and real and warm and he let her kiss him and bury herself in his shining mane." But Lewis keeps returning to the situation in which guilt has to be brought to Aslan, to be judged and purged.... The idea of being looked at by the lion and wholly known made me feel naked.
At its best, The Child That Books Built captures the excitement of reading and provides insightful commentary on familiar children's books. I still love good stories, even if they're intended for younger readers, and Spufford can make this interest seem natural and appealing; it's nice to see a writer on a similar wavelength. At its worst, however, The Child That Books Built seems both pompous and a bit creepy--which really makes me hope that we're on different wavelengths after all. But if you can move beyond the book's less pleasant side, then Spufford's book is worth delving into.
Posted by Ed
I have a lot to do today, and won't have a substantive post until later this afternoon or this evening. To tide you all over, here are some links:
Update: I've just read this Josh Cherniss post on the death of Alan Bullock, which linked to several more obituaries (including those by The Independent and The Telegraph.) As usual, The Telegraph's obituary is the best written and the most charming; my sense is that it does the best job of assessing his work (describing it as workmanlike and competent but not the most imaginative), and it also does a nice job discussing his involvement in politics and his work in university administration. Bullock sounds like an interesting guy.
Posted by Susan
A recent Nature news article about the avian flu reminded me of how interesting orthomyxovirus genetics is. The avian flu, as you may know, began as a pandemic in ducks and chickens in East and Southeast Asia late last year and has since jumped to humans.
New flus develop through two major pathways: minor antigenic shift and major antigenic drift. In both cases, the "antigens" in question are hemagglutinin and neuraminidase, the major surface proteins on influenzaviruses. Since hemagglutinin and neuraminidase protrude from the cell membrane (here's a picture, courtesy of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases), they are the proteins that are recognized by the immune system. Flus are classified by what type of hemagglutinin and neuraminidase they have; for example, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 was caused by an H1N1 strain. Once you get the flu, you're immune to influenzaviruses with the same surface protein, but you can get the flu again if you're infected by a virus with different surface proteins. That's where minor antigenic shift and major antigenic drift come in.
Minor antigenic shift is simply the random mutation of the hemagglutinin and neuraminidase genes. Influenzaviruses have single-stranded RNA genomes that are copied with RNA polymerase. Because RNA polymerase is error-prone, the mutation rate in influenzaviruses is very high. This sort of genetic variability is fairly common among viruses--it's a major problem in vaccine development for a number of pathogens, including HIV.
More interesting is major antigenic shift. Major antigenic shift is the result of coinfection of a human cell by both human and animal influenzaviruses. When the progeny virii from these cells are packaged, they contain recombinant viruses that carry genes from both the human and animal viruses. Progeny virii carrying hemagglutinin and neuraminidase derived from the animal virus (novel antigens that allow the virus to escape immune system detection) and internal proteins from the human virus (which allow it to efficiently attack a human host) are capable of spreading in the human population. As you might expect, these hybrid flus tend to arise in areas where people live in close proximity with animals (usually birds or swine).
The clinical applications of this genetic information are just beginning to be utilized. A recent paper by Ferguson et al proposes a model for studying antigenic shift of flu viruses. Some countries, including Germany, are modifying existing vaccine preparation plans to include a greater focus on animal pandemics. In addition to these preventative measures, there's been a greater focus on devising flu treatments, though as yet none look any more useful than this "Receipt against Influenza" from Gentlemen's Magazine (circa 1743):
Take of Rue, Sage, Mint, Rosemary, Wormwood, and Lavender a handful of each, infuse them together in a Gallon of White Wine Vinegar, put them whole into a Stone Pot, closely covered up...set the Pot upon Warm Wood Ashes for eight Days; after which strain thro' fiine Flannel the Liquid, and put into Quart Bottles well cork'd, and in each a quarter of an ounce of camphire. With this Preparation wash your Mouth...snuff a little up your Nostrils, and carry about a bit of Sponge dipp'd in same, in order to smell especially when you are near any Place or Person infected.
Posted by Ed
Earlier this afternoon, as I should have been reading the works of Norbert Elias, I came across a fun book review in The Guardian. The subject of the review, James Sharpe's Dick Turpin: The Myth of the English Highwayman, sounds like a fascinating book; it covers everything from the career of the title highwayman to the nature of crime-fighting in 18th-century England and the development of the cultural myth of the English outlaw. If you want a quick but entertaining read, click on the link above.
What struck me most, however, was the review's conclusion:
Sharpe is sufficiently relaxed to find Carry On Dick funny (not the film itself so much as the idea of it). But behind his excavation of the more preposterous outcrops of the Turpin myth - the endless pubs with their hidey holes, the Staffordshire figurines, the pantomime boy-girl in fishnet tights - Sharpe is making a profoundly serious point about the way history is put together. He argues that it is only by stripping away the layers of myth and story and getting to the broken bedrock of the documentary record that we can come close to understanding what Turpin's life was actually about. Being able to bear the gaps, the puzzles and the blanks is what gets us nearer to the truth.
In a tetchy but crucially important coda Sharpe broadens his argument into an all-out attack on the boom in popular history, which he maintains is marginalising proper history, the kind that gets done in universities rather than in television studios. By presenting the past as a series of puzzles capable of definitive solution (Who was the "real" Queen Victoria? Where is the "lost" prince?), popular historical discourse makes proper, professional historical research seem bitty and, frankly, dull. In a culture where "secret histories" are constantly being brought to light, it takes quite a lot of effort to be satisfied with a version of Turpin peppered with black holes of the unknown. But to Sharpe, an academic historian, it is vitally important that we keep faith with the difficulty, ambiguity and lack that marks the tricky business of getting closer to the past. Anything else is simply a carry on.
Sharpe's book, unfortunately, hasn't been released in America yet. Moreover, I'm unfamiliar with his past work--though several of his other books sound like they'd be fun to read. I'm therefore not sure how to judge his argument, since I don't even know what sorts of "popular history" he's arguing against.
It would be easy for someone to make an argument against popular history from an elitist, arrogant viewpoint, but I'm inclined to be sympathetic to Sharpe. When I looked up his past work at the Seminary Co-op, for example, I found the following description of one of his books, The Bewitching of Anne Gunter:
Here is an account of one woman's experience of the practice of witchcraft in early modern Europe. It involves controlling fathers, willful daughters, nosy neighbors, power relations between peasants and aristocrats, and village life. In 1604, 20-year-old Anne Gunter was bewitched: she foamed at the mouth, contorted wildly in her bedchamber, went into trances. Her garters and bodices were perpetually unlacing themselves. Her signature symptom was to vomit pins.
I'm not convinced, however, that "popular history" marginalizes academic research and makes the work of historical scholars seem "bitty and, frankly, dull." I'm also inclined to think that serious historical writing and the worst popular history appeal to very different audiences; by this interpretation, The History Channel and other purveyors of bad popular history fill certain TV viewers' need for shallow programming on the past, but don't necessarily divert the public's attention from "real" history. (Perhaps, however, there's a middle ground of mediocre-but-not-awful popular history books that does send readers the wrong message about the certainties of history.) I'm inclined to think that there's a market for history books that are simultaneously intellectually entertaining and academically sound, but that it's easier for publishers to make a quick buck by publishing garbage. The key is for historians to write more good books and for publishers to bring those books to the public.
Update: The more I think about it, the more I think that there is a kind of Gresham's Law of history; bad history books sometimes do drive out the good. My feeling, though, is that the main problem isn't ridiculously bad books and TV shows that espouse silly conspiracy theories (annoying as they can be), but books that appear to be good despite their mediocrity. I can think of several books in Soviet history that are far more popular than their more academically sound counterparts, and which present an overly simplistic view of the Soviet Union; this just makes the job of academic historians more difficult.
Of course, I don't know precisely what Sharpe's argument is, since I haven't read his book. Perhaps I'll have more to say when I do.
Posted by Ed
If you had asked me a week ago to name a major American news organization with interesting commentary on religion, The New York Times would not have been the first news source to leap to mind. (I tend to prefer The Washington Post's religion coverage, and a lot of magazines publish really good articles about the role of faith and God in American life.) Even so, America's newspaper of record has published several interesting religion articles over the past week.
The first of these articles was an op-ed piece by John Kearney, a journalism student at Columbia. Kearney's main argument is that American journalists should "dispense with Allah and commit themselves to God," but he isn't making a conservative Christian argument. Instead, his suggestion is much more interesting:
Here's what I mean: Abraham, the ur-monotheist, represents the shared history, and shared God, of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Many Christians and Jews are aware of this common past, but seem to have a tough time internalizing it. Lt. Gen. William Boykin, a deputy under secretary of defense, made headlines last year suggesting that Allah is not "a real God" and that Muslims worship an idol. Last month in Israel, Pat Robertson said that today's world conflicts concern "whether Hubal, the moon god of Mecca known as Allah, is supreme, or whether the Judeo-Christian Jehovah, God of the Bible, is supreme."
Never mind that Hubal was actually a pre-Islamic pagan god that Muhammad rejected. Mr. Robertson's comments, like those of General Boykin, illuminate a widespread misconception — one that the news media has inadvertently helped to promote. So here's a suggestion: when journalists write about Muslims, or translate from Arabic, Urdu, Farsi or other languages, they should translate "Allah" as "God," too.
The second article (a Saturday "arts and ideas" piece by Felicia Lee) discusses the relationship between religious belief and economic growth: new research suggests that religion encourages growth by fostering a fear of hell and thereby encouraging individual traits like honesty, work ethic, thrift, and openness to strangers.
South Korea, the researchers argued, was an excellent example of how economic growth and religiosity sometimes go hand-in-hand. The study's findings weren't all good for religion, however:
Oddly enough, the research also showed that at a certain point, increases in church, mosque and synagogue attendance tended to depress economic growth. Mr. Barro, a renowned economist, and Ms. McCleary, a lecturer in Harvard's government department, theorized that larger attendance figures could mean that religious institutions were using up a disproportionate share of resources.
"It's all been rather surprising," Ms. McCleary said."People didn't believe you could quantify aspects of religion. We wanted to be intellectually provocative. We see about five more years of study to get out all the stuff we want. We're trying to raise interesting questions in a different way."
The third article notes that Mel Gibson has responded to focus groups by deleting a key scene from his film version of The Passion. In that scene, the high priest Caiaphas declared of Jesus that "His blood be on us and on our children," uttering a curse that some see as a historical justification for anti-Semitism. The article also address Gibson's views on the Holocaust.
Posted by Ed
One of my nastier habits at my old blog was to link indiscriminately to lots of interesting articles without providing much commentary. This habit has, once again, overpowered me, but at least I've managed to confine my links to one post:
Posted by Matt
I've been buying quite a few CDs lately. A lot of the purchases are motivated by listening to the "Indie Pop Rocks" station on SomaFM. I recommend trying it if you have any interest in the vaguely defined "indie pop" genre, which I got into by listening to a lot of Belle & Sebastian. Here are my thoughts on some albums I've bought recently. (I'll warn you that I don't really know that much about music, so feel free to take this with more than a grain of salt.)
Belle & Sebastian, Step Into My Office Baby. This is a single, with the title track from the recent full-length Dear Catastrophe Waitress album. (Which I highly recommend, though the ideal introduction to the band is If You're Feeling Sinister.) Thus there are only two new songs. I definitely recommend this to fans of the band, though. The second track, "Love on the March," is upbeat and fun, much in the style of the songs on DCW. The third track, "Desperation Made a Fool of Me," has the feel of some of the older songs. Stuart Murdoch sings over a simple guitar, keyboard, and drums line; Sarah's voice enters later. The song avoids the more highly-produced sound many have complained about. (I don't necessarily object to it -- but that's a matter for another time.)
Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Amazon.com reviews of this are full of people saying it's the best album they own. It's been described to me as a rarity -- an indie album that lives up to its hype. Although I'm not yet ready to put it among the best albums I own, I do agree that it's an exceptionally good album, and I've listened to it more times than I care to admit in the past 48 hours. Jeff Mangum's voice annoys some, but after some listening I think most will adjust to it, and the songwriting here is exceptional. The lyrics are a bit odd, many of them drawing on the diary of Anne Frank (most obviously in the fast-paced "Holland, 1945"), and ranging from haunting to disturbing or simply bizarre. Beyond the straining vocals and strange words, there is a band playing an unusually diverse array of instruments, and doing it rather well. On a few of the tracks -- especially "Oh Comely" -- everything comes together so spectacularly well that I can understand Pitchfork's ranking of this as the 4th best album of the 1990s. I highly recommend giving this one a chance.
The Postal Service, Give Up. A collaboration by Death Cab For Cutie's Ben Gibbard and Dntel's Jimmy Tamborello, done through the mail, you've probably heard of it if you're at all interested in this sort of music. I know I had heard a lot about it before I finally bought it. I rarely listen to electronic music, so I don't know what to compare this to, but it's quite good. There's a lot of catchy, upbeat, solid pop music here, like "Such Great Heights," with good vocals overlaying an electronic background. Other songs are less upbeat; "Recycled Air" and "Nothing Better" are very good, more mellow tracks at the core of the album. Give it a listen; there's a reason people have been talking about this.
The Sea and Cake, Oui. You can download the tracks "Afternoon Speaker" and "The Colony Room" from Amazon, and I suggest doing so before buying this album. I recommend it, but I've heard it accused of being boring, and there may be some truth to that. It's a set of very mellow, jazz-influenced rock songs. None of them are exceptionally catchy; in itself this isn't a bad thing, but it might lead to my initial opinion of the album being lower than it will be after repeated listenings. I worry, though, that these songs blend together too much, and that repeated listenings will reveal this album to be a bit too monotonous. Time will tell.
The Sugarplum Fairies, Introspective Raincoat Student Music. I bought this solely based on Amazon recommendations and the 3 sample tracks there, so again, download those and see what you think. Silvia Ryder's breathy vocals work very well here, and I think this is a very good pop album. Not groundbreaking, not innovative, but a lot of pleasant songs.
I should probably mention that buying all these indie albums is a relatively new thing for me, aside from B&S. My music collection (at least, the portion that isn't classical music) is dominated by older rock, like Pink Floyd, Cream, and the Beatles. So I'm sure there are many very good bands I know nothing about. I'm working on it.
Posted by Susan
Matt writes about the difficulties of physics pedagogy, in particular the lack of focus on new research. As I have no experience with upper-level physics courses, I can't judge whether his claim that biology departments are better than physics departments at teaching students about current physics is correct (though I suspect it is). I should point out, however, that not all undergraduate biology courses are equal in their emphasis on current research; while there exist courses that focus heavily on critical reading of current research, there are far more that contain almost no critical reading whatsoever, to their great detriment. To downplay critical reading in undergraduate science curricula is to shortchange future scientists, and it's not just because of the lack of exposure to new research.
In biology, there are two extremely important reasons for including current research in the curriculum (in addition to the obvious reason that it's good to know what's being discovered): reading current research papers is the best way to learn about research techniques, and it is essential for young scientists to be able to critically evaluate research data.
By saying that paper-reading is the best way to learn about research techniques, I'm not trying to say that reading a random Nature article is going to teach you how to do a Western blot (it won't). Rather, I mean that, in reading current research, a student can learn the values and limitations of each technique--what it can confirm, what it can't confirm, how to modify it to look at an unusual system, and so on. These are the problem-solving tools of science; students who begin a research project without this knowledge will be sorely disadvantaged.
To get back to Matt's post, he asked how classes involving current literature generally work. Here's the biology standpoint. There seem to be two major approaches--either a discussion class associated with a topical course or a class that resembles a journal club. In the former, the topical course (molecular biology, cell biology, etc.) is supposed to give one sufficient background to understand the paper. Discussions are usually led by a small group of students who present background information and direct discussion of the research results. Journal-club-style classes are less formal; one person gives a short talk on the background of the paper, and the other participants present the figures. It's not unusual in these classes to assign a "flawed" paper (usually one that still has some real and interesting results, however) to facilitate critical discussion of the paper's problems.
I think that both of these formats (particularly the latter) are underutilized in undergradaute curricula. I would definitely like to see a required journal club/seminar/"topics in [field]" class as part of all undergraduate curricula. Unfortunately, that'll be a while, but at least undergraduates who go out of their way to hone their critical reading skills will be rewarded by being better prepared for (and more likely to get into) graduate school.
Posted by Ed
With the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens approaching quickly, Greek nationalists have been eager to push for the return of the Elgin Marbles. The issue is extraordinarily complicated, however. Support for the return of the Marbles appears to be growing in Britain, but museums the world over have championed the universalistic argument that to return all antiquities to their original home countries would be a disservice to the world; the debate on the Elgin Marbles has touched on the questions of whether Greece has the facilities to care for the sculptures properly and of whether the restoration of the Marbles to the Parthenon would be the most appropriate way to display them.
Nearly everyone in the debate acknowledges that disputes over antiquities need to be considered individually, but a newly prominent case out of China casts these issues in a fascinating light. What difference does it make if a country is willing to pay for the return of its artistic treasures?
As The Globe and Mail reports, wealthy Chinese businessmen are banding together to regain a group of bronze sculptures of zodiac animals from Beijing's Summer Palace, which were looted by the British and French during the Opium Wars. An excerpt from the article:
China Poly Group, a conglomerate with links to the Chinese military and business interests in property development and telecommunications, purchased three of the bronze statues for $5-million from foreign collectors at an auction in 2000. Another prominent Chinese businessman, the casino tycoon Stanley Ho, paid more than $1-million to buy a fourth bronze statue from a New York collector last September. He promptly donated it to the Poly Group, which has displayed the four bronzes at its private museum in Beijing and at temporary exhibits across the country.
When the four bronzes were displayed in Macau last month, Ho said the display was an "exhilarating" boost to Chinese national pride.
At the ruined summer palace, Yang maintains that China shouldn't have to pay anything for the recovery of the looted treasures. He believes they should be legally returned to China without cost, since they belong to his country. But despite his qualms at the price, he is pleased that foreign collectors are now recognizing China's ability to protect and preserve its own treasures. In the past -- partly because of the chaos in the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s -- many foreign collectors argued that China could not safely protect its own heritage.
"Those relics are part of Chinese history and culture, and they should be studied by Chinese specialists, not by foreigners," Yang said. "I've read some of the things that foreigners wrote about our relics, and we can do a better job. We are their home, so we should display them. Everyone can see now that we have the ability to preserve them."
I'm not going to take a position on whether the zodiac sculptures and the Elgin Marbles should be returned. I do believe, however, that decisions on the return of artistic treasures and antiquities need to be based in large part on the question of what's best for the study and preservation of the works in question. With that in mind, certain parts of the Chinese argument worry me. The final paragraph in the block quote above suggests that some Chinese scholars would be happy if the government limited Western scholars' access to the zodiac sculptures. The return of antiquities should always be part of an effort to make artistic treasures more accessible to the world, I believe--and any plan that fails in that goal is automatically suspect.
Posted by Ed
Back when I was an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, I once had a conversation with a fellow quizbowl team member about how to create the perfect TV show. My suggestion: take any hackneyed and poorly written family sitcom and substitute Mao Zedong for the father figure. The result would be comedy gold!
I was recently reminded of this conversation as I read the latest collection of essays by one of my favorite writers, Clive James. James begins one essay--a review of a Bertrand Russell biography--with the following sentence: "Two twentieth-century philosophers whose names are inseparable, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell, were such a great double act that there simply has to be a buddy movie sooner or later." That line got me thinking...
Maybe I'm just eccentric, but I think that Clive James and I are on to something here. I can see several possibilities--either James's system (a straightforward combination of a buddy movie and biopic) or my system (take a mediocre movie and substitute one of the pairs below for the two central characters--Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins do Rush Hour!). Either way, I'm convinced that we need some intellectual buddy movies, and here are some possibilities:
Important note: Yes, I'm aware that Sun Yat-sen (and not Mao Zedong) was "the father of the revolution" in China. But coming up with titles for blog entries is harder than you'd think!
Important note 2: If my GT posts are a little frivolous for your tastes, don't worry: more substantive fare is on the way.
Posted by Matt
The title of this post comes from The Particle Adventure website from the Particle Data Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and is meant to describe charged leptons (the electron, muon, and tau). It's meant to capture that these particles have much larger masses than their associated neutrinos, and that they have a family resemblance. I think it's interesting for (at least) two reasons: it illustrates the difficulty of physics pedagogy, and it's a good example of whimsy in physics.
Physics pedagogy has been on my mind for the past few days for two reasons. The first is this blog. I work in experimental high-energy physics, and plan to do particle theory in graduate school. I would like to use this blog to talk about my research and various topics in physics that interest me, but I realize that the majority of the audience is unlikely to have much background in the subject. (If you do have more background, please comment and let me know!) Thus, I'm hoping to do a series of expository posts giving a rough overview of high-energy physics. I think that it's a subject that should be interesting to the general public (as evidenced by the success of the PBS Elegant Universe special), and it will help me think about good ways of explaining ideas to curious people who don't have a BA in physics. I think that, despite the stretched analogy that supplied this post's title, the Particle Adventure site from the PDG is a good educational resource, and I suggest you take a look if you're curious and have some time. (After all, a large number of tax dollars fund high-energy physics experiments, so it's only fair that we try to explain them to the public.) For my proposed expository posts to go well at all, I will need a lot of feedback on whether I'm comprehensible. It would also be good to know if there is an audience for such posts, so please comment.
The second reason I've been thinking about the teaching of physics is that the U of C physics department had a "town meeting" tonight to address the undergraduate curriculum. Although our department is outstanding both in terms of research and the instructional skill of our faculty (you can't really understand Fourier analysis until you've seen Bob Geroch dancing around a lecture hall), the undergraduate curriculum is lacking in a number of ways. A lot of them simply involve the ordering of the topics, or the lack of adequate training in math methods for many of the students. But one of the most glaring absences, in my opinion, is that undergraduate classes (or even graduate classes, for that matter) do not teach students about current research. I've observed that biology departments seem to be much better at this. I brought this up at the meeting today, and my criticism was more or less waved away; in fact, a number of the people present seemed to take offense. It was brought up that there is a Friday lecture series in which professors describe their research, and that students working on BA theses hear about the research of other students. I pointed out that none of these fora, useful though they may be, can compare to a detailed study of individual research papers. A very reasonable professor then noted that such a class would be difficult to arrange, as no professor is competent in enough fields of physics to do a decent survey. (It was also argued that "physics is a much more mature field than biology," but I don't really believe the argument that understanding physics research papers requires significantly more background than understanding biology papers.)
Can any of you provide me with some information about how such classes work in other fields? I can think of a couple of solutions. One is to offer different survey classes for different branches of physics; this could easily grow out of hand, and would probably require students to have fairly deep background. The other is to bring in a new professor every week or two to guide the class through a few papers in his (or her) area of research. I think this is feasible, and I think it is vital to the education of a scientist to begin reading research papers as early as possible. My own education in this respect has been mostly self-directed, and it has gone well, but there have been times when more guidance would have been helpful. I hope that some readers can enlighten me on how such classes work in other departments or at other schools, so that I can try to have some effect on the U of C curriculum before I leave the school.
As for the other interesting aspect of the quote, for now I will just point you to one of my favorite whimsical titles in physics.
Posted by Ed
This week, the Boston Globe ideas section features a fun article about the Columbia sociologist Robert Merton, who died last year at the age of 92. Merton is best known for his article "Social Structure and Anomie," but his influence has extended far beyond the ivory tower; the many terms he coined include "role model," "self-fulfilling prophecy," and "focus group." Now, as The Boston Globe reports, Princeton University Press is publishing a book that Merton co-authored and then abandoned, The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity.
I'm much more familiar with another of Merton's books, a charming volume called On the Shoulders of Giants. That book, which describes the history of Newton's aphorism "If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants," is a masterpiece of what Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda calls "romantic scholarship"; Merton himself called his book a "Shandean postscript" and jokingly referred to it as an example of a genre called "otsogery" (from an acronym of the book's title.) I love the genre, whatever you want to call it, but I wonder if its days are numbered.
It's nearly impossible to describe On the Shoulders of Giants in a compelling way, since the book is so quirky, so eccentric, and so charming that you have to read it to appreciate it. Instead, it makes more sense to give Merton's definition of the word "otsog". In the postscript to his book, Merton defines an otsog as "a close-knit narrative that pays its respects to scholarship and its dues to pedantry; also an exceedingly diversified (and thoroughly parenthesized*) piece of dedicated scholarship." (The asterisk refers readers to a footnote, which reads "and heavily footnoted.") Earlier in the postscript, Merton gives a longer and more entertaining definition of the word; he then goes on to describe such words as "otsogable," "otsogamy," "otsogfidian," "otsogre," and "otogurient." The body of the book is an entertaining and digressive look at the history of a well-known phrase.
I first came across On the Shoulders of Giants in a Michael Dirda essay in the collection Readings, which introduced me to the genre that Dirda calls "romantic scholarship." The books he describes as exemplars of the genre include classics like Frazer's The Golden Bough and Graves's The White Goddess and lesser-known books like Avram Davidson's Adventures in Unhistory; they also include such delightful volumes as The Book of Imaginary Beasts by Jorge Luis Borges and The Book of Beasts by T.H. White. Some of the books that Dirda describes sound so appealling that I don't know why I haven't rushed out to buy them:
The works of Francis [sic] Yates, especially Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964) and The Art of Memory (1966), explore some of the most esoteric byways of Renaissance intellectual history. To read them is to feel as though you were looking through the secret notebooks of the Elizabethan magus John Dee or the doomed philosopher Bruno. The Art of Memory, for instance, describes how scholars in an age before printed books were able to retain seemingly incredible amounts of information: One prodigy could recite all of Vergil's Aeneid backwards. By using a "theater of memory," derived from some actual building, a student would place images of what he wanted to remember at selected locations. Then he need only stroll mentally through this imaginary building and glance at his memory-sites to have the images reappear to him in their proper order. Yates uses this intriguing system to explain aspects of Renaissance thought, even the very design of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
Which leads to an obvious question: why am I telling you about the fields of romantic scholarship and otsagery? The main reason, I'll admit, is that I find these genres fascinating and love to read and write about them. But another part of the answer is more speculative: I wonder whether romantic scholarship (as practiced by academics like Merton) is becoming rarer and more difficult in the present day.
I don't think it's a coincidence, after all, that none of the books Dirda mentions in his essay were written after 1980. Many of the traits that define romantic scholarship are rarely emphasized in the academy: how many books by present-day American academics move beyond narrow academic specializations, have a writing style and subject matter likely to intrigue the educated public, and are characterized by curiosity or a sense of humor? Do academics under the current tenure system have any incentive to write romantic scholarship? Is the publishing industry interested in producing scholarship that doesn't appeal to a narrow academic audience but is unlikely to become a best-seller? (I sometimes get the sense that academics in the sciences are more likely than their colleagues in the humanities to write for the public in areas outside their specialty--just think of Donald Knuth or Douglas Hofstadter--but few academics from any discipline publish nonfiction outside their field.)
In my own field (Soviet history), the only academic I can think of who might be described as a "romantic scholar" is the historical economist Alexander Gerschenkron. Gerschenkron is best known for his volume Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective and for texts like Bread and Democracy in Germany, but his interests were never limited to historical economics; he was offered chairs in three academic departments at Harvard (economics, history, and Slavic literature), and he wrote articles on everything from the best way to translate Shakespeare to the reading habits of the average American. Gerschenkron's "romantic" approach to scholarship even appears in his volume on economic backwardness, which includes chapters entitled "Notes on Doctor Zhivago" and "Reflections on Soviet Novels." Gerschenkron died in 1978, however. I can think of Russianists who write popular history (like Orlando Figes and Bruce Lincoln), but I can't think of anyone who who writes more speculative, off-beat scholarship.
I may, of course, be underestimating the longevity of romantic scholarship or over-estimating the extent to which it existed in the past. (Most of the books described by Dirda weren't written by academics, after all.) Furthermore, it may be wrong to lump the writings of Merton and Gerschenkron together. (Merton's work and Gershenkron's scholarship may have less in common than this blog entry would suggest--and someone like Yates may well be in another category altogether.) One could even make the case that the decline of otsagery is a good thing. (In his book The Fly Swatter, Nicholas Dawidoff describes Gerschenkron's confrontation with the social historian Leopold Haimson over a paper on Soviet chess that sounds quite silly. Could Haimson's paper be described as romantic scholarship? Not exactly, I think, but my definition of the term isn't exactly precise...) Finally, I don't want to sound as if I think that academic work should be touchy-feely and whimsical. Narrow academic specialization isn't an unquestionably bad thing, after all, however much it's often decried, and the vast majority of scholarship will never appeal to the public.
Nevertheless, I can't help but think that romantic scholarship is growing less common these days, and that everyone would benefit if academics wrote more books that are quirky and peripheral (like On the Shoulders of Giants), wide-rangingly intelligent (like Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective), or intriguing and interdisciplinary (like the works of Frances Yates.)
Update: Last night, as I was getting ready for bed, I went to one of my bookshelves to find something to read before I went to sleep. The book I chose was The Footnote: A Curious History, by Anthony Grafton. The book is an excellent recent example of romantic scholarship; the back cover even features a Michael Dirda quotation praising it as "an investigation into the historical imagination, a quick tour of 'the culture of erudition,' and, not least, the most recent intellectual entertainment from one of the most learned and enjoyable scholars now at work."
The Footnote, of course, isn't a book for everyone. I loved reading about David Hume's criticism of Edward Gibbon's footnotes and about Pierre Bayle's plan to write a comprehensive list of all the errors in the world's reference book, but other readers might find this sort of thing insufferably dull. Had I thought of this book before writing my blog entry, however, I might well have framed the issue very differently.
Were I to rewrite this blog entry, I probably wouldn't focus on the question of whether romantic scholarship is in decline. (I suspect that certain forces in contemporary academia and publishing make it more difficult, but that's all I can say.) Instead, I'd focus on the role of "intellectual entertainment" in academia. I wish there were more "otsogs" like The Footnote (though I believe that such works are, and should be treated as, somewhat peripheral); I enjoy seeing academics with a sense of humor. (The title of another Grafton book is an allusion to Monty Python.) Moreover, I believe that a willingness to think beyond traditional boundaries can enrich less "peripheral" academic works, and that scholars should resist the urge to be too narrow in their focus. That doesn't mean that academics should spend all their time on books as eccentric as On the Shoulders of Giants, but it does mean that we should welcome academic books that move beyond the mainstream of historical scholarship. Long live the otsog!
Posted by Susan
Cell has a 30th anniversary supplement out this month. It features commentaries by scientists on their classic research papers, many of which completely revolutionized their relevant fields.
The list of papers reads like a syllabus for an ideal cell biology course, including:
The most interesting aspect of such a retrospective is not the papers themselves (though if you're lazy like me, it's nice to be able to get important papers from the '70s and '80s on PDF); it's the commentaries. Generally, when learning about a given scientific topic, I prefer to learn about the history of the field--how the process was originally visualized, what evidence overturned the original model, how new models were developed, and so on--rather than covering each individual protein in a pathway from the standpoint of current knowledge. This is not to say that I think no class should ever follow the latter model--it's more or less necessary in lower-level classes--but particularly in graduate-level classes, an understanding of the progression of the field is essential to understand the current questions in the field.
Even aside from all didactic purposes, historical analyses of biological problems have an advantage over nuts-and-bolts approaches in that they're much more interesting--essentially, they're the biography of their field, which should involve liberal doses of mystery novel, logic puzzle, and (if the titles of the Cell commentaries are anything to go by) lots of bad puns. There's also a certain charm to seeing how much the field has changed--for example, it's inconceivable to me that there was a time when, as Christine Nusslein-Volhard writes, the theory of morphogen gradients was not widely accepted. It's also sort of fun to try to find "I-told-you-so" subtexts in Stanley Prusiner's commentary on his prions paper--actually, it would've been sort of fun to have an "I told you so!" issue. It's too bad that none of the appropriate Lynn Margulis papers seem to have been published in Cell.
Posted by Ed
Via Bookslut, I recently came across this article: a review of a board game based on Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. An excerpt:
So, while Mystery of the Abbey might seem a lot like Clue, it plays as if Mrs. White has spiked everybody’s drinks and relocated the crime scene to the Winchester Mystery House. Although the rules are simple to learn, there’s a surprising amount of complexity to actual game play, and the environment can shift at the flip of a card – whether or not that means one player may suddenly get to raid your stash, or the entire room is forced to sing "Frere Jacques" in rounds, it’s sure better than prying that fourth railroad from your vindictive spouse. I only hope that the game designers at Days of Wonder aren’t currently reading Foucault’s Pendulum....
With luck, the creators of this game will discover the works of Vladimir Nabokov. Could Pale Fire: The Boardgame be in the works?