Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Colin Dayan in the Boston Review:
Books abound on dog love, loving dogs, what it means to have or be with a dog. With all the writing about dogs, it might seem that we are too much infatuated with their unique qualities. But that is not it at all.
Even while we are ostensibly doing everything in our power to ascertain the nature and desires of dogs, the questions we ask obscure or betray what is most salient about them and necessary to their lives. And through it all—the testing and the loving, the ownership and the training, the argument for dog rights and the facts of their disposal—we never question the status of the human as a problem not a privilege.
To say, as Gregory Berns does in his new book How Dogs Love Us and his recent New York Times op-ed “Dogs are People, Too,” that dogs have the reasoning capacity of a young child is to continue to ignore what it is that dogs possess that we do not. Dogs are not people. Dogs are not humans. But we are desperate to appropriate whatever it means to be dog and to make that over in our image.
The urge to characterize dogs as like ourselves speaks to our ignorance and to the failure of imagination. As humans who control the arena of judgment, we cannot brook the humility demanded in confronting what we cannot understand, what we do not know.
I woke up one morning recently to discover that I was a seventy-year-old man. Is this different from what happens to Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis? He wakes up to find that he’s become a near-human-sized beetle (probably of the scarab family, if his household’s charwoman is to be believed), and not a particularly robust specimen at that. Our reactions, mine and Gregor’s, are very similar. We are confused and bemused, and think that it’s a momentary delusion that will soon dissipate, leaving our lives to continue as they were. What could the source of these twin transformations possibly be? Certainly, you can see a birthday coming from many miles away, and it should not be a shock or a surprise when it happens. And as any well-meaning friend will tell you, seventy is just a number. What impact can that number really have on an actual, unique physical human life?
In the case of Gregor, a young traveling salesman spending a night at home in his family’s apartment in Prague, awakening into a strange, human/insect hybrid existence is, to say the obvious, a surprise he did not see coming, and the reaction of his household—mother, father, sister, maid, cook—is to recoil in benumbed horror, as one would expect, and not one member of his family feels compelled to console the creature by, for example, pointing out that a beetle is also a living thing, and turning into one might, for a mediocre human living a humdrum life, be an exhilarating and elevating experience, and so what’s the problem?
I met Jane Freilicher the day I arrived in New York in the summer of 1949, just after I graduated from college and decided to move here on the advice of my friendKenneth Koch. He was away at the time but said I could stay in his apartment until he got back. I could pick up the key from Jane, who lived on the floor above his. Thus I found myself ringing the bell of a not very prepossessing-looking small loft building on Third Avenue near 16th Street. Jane came down to let me in and invited me up for coffee. I think that was the first time I saw her paintings, though it might have been slightly later. In any case, I wasn’t terribly interested in contemporary painting then, and I have only a vague memory of some partly geometric, partly loose semi-abstract landscapes. I certainly wasn’t aware that the year 1949 was going to be a momentous one, not just for me, but for American art, which had been slowly coming to a boil for several years thanks to the efforts of de Kooning, Kline, Pollock, Motherwell, and a handful of other revolutionary geniuses. It was in 1949 that LIFE magazine, unwillingly no doubt, tipped the balance in their favor with a splashy article about Pollock, topped with a half-sarcastic, half-serious headline: “Is he America’s greatest living painter?”
Satish Padmanabhan in Outlook India:
It’s the coldest day of the year in Jaipur. Schools have been closed for five days but there are many children standing in a queue that cuts across the entire Front Lawns of Diggi Palace, breathing out little puffs of white vapour, clutching copies of Interpreter of Maladies or The Lowland to get them signed by Jhumpa Lahiri. She can’t keep pace with the number of hands thrusting books at her, so her minders collect them and Jhumpa signs them in assembly-line mode. She has just had a session on The Global Novel with the Ethiopian writer Maaza Mengiste, Jonanthan Franzen, Jim Crace and Chinese-British writer Xioaola Guo. Franzen starts to talk about how, for someone like him, born in 1959 in Midwest America, there was only the American Novel, and how in his lifetime so much American culture has been exported. He suddenly stops mid-sentence, pauses to look down at his foot, looks up again at moderator Chandrahas Chaudhury and resumes speaking: “There’s no real point to that statement but you cornered me with a question. Maybe you can come back later for some deep thoughts on the history of the novel and how television relates to all of this.”
Franzen is a big man with a slow, gentle demeanour and a deep, American Midwest drawl, who rarely makes eye contact and speaks mostly looking down at his knees with his hands hunched together. He reminds you of Stephen King with more kempt hair. He lingers thoughtfully on what he is trying to say, as well as what you’ve asked him. He talks about short stories and how it’s a most difficult art form. “Reading a short story is like confronting death. You know it’s going to end soon and my eyes start to moisten.” His standout moment of last year was when Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature and he wonders why her stories are not made into films. He says books are far tougher to make into films; he can count the number of great book-based films on the fingers of one hand. The conversation then veers towards social media. Suddenly, Franzen’s solid frame crumbles. He gets very animated. “I can’t understand editors who are telling reporters to tweet, tweet, tweet, get likes, likes, likes, send your pictures, upload your videos,” he imitates these editors in a high-strung squeaky voice, shaking all over. Soon, he calms down. “The notion that Twitter is some egalitarian force is flawed. Yes, it’s very popular, but even there a few people have a lot of followers, just like the real world.” Franzen is a birder and what he is really looking forward to is to go to Bharatpur, Sariska and later Kaziranga in Assam to watch birds after his sessions are over. I tell him about a bit of news I recently read about how three Amur Falcons with satellite tags had flown over the Arabian Sea non-stop for three-and-a-half days on their way from Nagaland to South Africa. Franzen finally makes eye contact.
Known today for their pacifist and quietist ways, Quakers had an altogether different reputation in the seventeenth century: belligerent and boisterous rabble-rousers. Fueled by evangelical zeal, and asserting radical ideas for the time, the Quakers were aggressive proselytizers. As a result, they faced violent persecution in England and, to a lesser extent, in the Netherlands, where many migrated. News of their beliefs (e.g. equality for women, refusal to swear oaths, etc.) and their tactics (e.g. preaching loudly and publicly, disrupting worship services, etc.) reached the colonies before the Quakers did. Connecticut, in fact, banned Quakers in October 1656—prior to any Quakers having ever reached the colony. Other English colonies followed suit (Massachusetts would be particularly harsh on the Quakers), with the sole exception of Rhode Island—though Roger Williams, its founder, spent much of his later life debating Quakers and being frustrated with their refusal to adhere to the “sober rules of civility and humanity.” Quaker missionaries arrived in New Netherland in 1657. Following the sentencing of one of their number, Robert Hodgson, for public preaching, Peter Stuyvesant passed a law that penalized anyone who housed a Quaker, and at the same time incentivized locals to become informants of Quaker activities. The law had gone into effect by December 1657, when local men John Tilton and Henry Townsend were convicted under it.
Ryan Jacobs in Pacific Standard:
A group of researchers at the Center for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University in the U.K. has recently analyzed newspaper articles, court records, and a series of “off-the-record” interviews with informants “who have, or who had, direct knowledge of contract killings” in order to construct what they term a “typology” of British hitmen. For the record, these social scientists “define a hitman as a person who accepts an order to kill another human being from someone who is not publicly acknowledged as a legitimate authority regarding ‘just killing’.” The results of their detailed search of British cases that matched this description in the period between 1974 and 2013 only turned up 27 contracted hits or attempted hits “committed by a total of 36 hitmen” (there was only a single “hitwoman”), but the researchers used the sample to tease out the details and profiles of typical killers-for-hire.
The main thrust of the paper, which will be published in the Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, is that hitmen do not operate with the drama, professionalism, or glamour that mob films and spy novels afford them. In actuality, the majority of killers select jejune settings for their crimes, have occasionally bumbling performances, and are often hired by contractors with lame motivations.
Read the rest here. (h/t Digg)
Snow Angel Haiku
Wrapped in layers
Of gortex and angora,
Carving snow angels.
First snowflakes fallen,
Her tongue searches crystalline
Darkness for their kiss.
Coltrane softly wails
Desperate to tell his tale,
Long winters release,
Fire in the black
Hearth smolders pink orange flame
Wet boots slowly dry.
We read books entwined
Faux fur throw lulls us to sleep
Snow angels whisper
Songs delicate like
Lace, dynastic porcelain
Painted with flower blossoms.
Liquid time measured in flakes
Unique as thumbprints.
We float over wind-
Swept beaches littered with shells,
Sand Pipers skim waves.
Fresh snow lights the sky with dew.
by Eric J. Weiner
David Cyranoski in Nature:
In 2006, Japanese researchers reported1 a technique for creating cells that have the embryonic ability to turn into almost any cell type in the mammalian body — the now-famous induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. In papers published this week in Nature2, 3, another Japanese team says that it has come up with a surprisingly simple method — exposure to stress, including a low pH — that can make cells that are even more malleable than iPS cells, and do it faster and more efficiently. “It’s amazing. I would have never thought external stress could have this effect,” says Yoshiki Sasai, a stem-cell researcher at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, and a co-author of the latest studies. It took Haruko Obokata, a young stem-cell biologist at the same centre, five years to develop the method and persuade Sasai and others that it works. “Everyone said it was an artefact — there were some really hard days,” says Obokata.
Obokata says that the idea that stressing cells might make them pluripotent came to her when she was culturing cells and noticed that some, after being squeezed through a capillary tube, would shrink to a size similar to that of stem cells. She decided to try applying different kinds of stress, including heat, starvation and a high-calcium environment. Three stressors — a bacterial toxin that perforates the cell membrane, exposure to low pH and physical squeezing — were each able to coax the cells to show markers of pluripotency. But to earn the name pluripotent, the cells had to show that they could turn into all cell types — demonstrated by injecting fluorescently tagged cells into a mouse embryo. If the introduced cells are pluripotent, the glowing cells show up in every tissue of the resultant mouse. This test proved tricky and required a change in strategy. Hundreds of mice made with help from mouse-cloning pioneer Teruhiko Wakayama at the University of Yamanashi, Japan, were only faintly fluorescent. Wakayama, who had initially thought that the project would probably be a “huge effort in vain”, suggested stressing fully differentiated cells from newborn mice instead of those from adult mice. This worked to produce a fully green mouse embryo.
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Sean Jacobs at Roads & Kingdoms
Most black South Africans, however, were not scandalized by Mandela’s one-time celebration of violent struggle or his communist leanings, or by Winnie’s complicated, but flawed, legacy, which was formed in a more compromising, violent outside. As Stephen Smith rightly concluded in the London Review of Books recently: “If any one person can stand in for the country, it’s surely Winnie, half ‘mother of the nation’ and half township gangsta, deeply ambiguous, scarred and disfigured by the struggle.” Most South Africans get this full, complicated understanding of their recent history.
Zola Mahobe is another such complicated figure, part gangster, part hero. Mahobe, a legendary soccer club owner in South Africa during the 1980s, died nine days after Mandela. While his death quite rightly did not receive the same attention that Mandela’s did, his life was shaped by many of the same forces. For some, Mahobe was a symptom of what was wrong with South African professional soccer. Others viewed him (and still do) as a brilliant entrepreneur, a sort of Apartheid-era Robin Hood, and a visionary that would help reshape the dimensions of South African soccer.
Read the rest here.
After the heyday of the freedom movement passed in the 1970s, two contrasting paths gradually emerged in black churches: one stayed true to the message of social justice while the other turned to an emphasis on individual morality and a gospel of prosperity. Most rising religious leaders took the latter approach. In the 1990s T.D. Jakes—whom Time dubbed “America’s Preacher”—organized “Women Thou Art Loosed” conferences that promoted spiritual and sexual health. These gatherings, which attracted audiences of over 10,000 women, combined spiritual counseling, group therapy, and personal confession. In a dramatic style, Jakes spoke to women about the abuse they had suffered, and they let their emotions flow. The sermons were just the cornerstone of a thriving business, which included teaching materials, a book, and a movie. Jakes used the message of respectability and prosperity to build a massive support group for women, who are the majority in most black churches. While Jakes said little about politics, other ministers employed talk of moral uplift to advance their views about social issues—in particular, their opposition to same-sex marriage.
Don’t be fooled by the slapstick comedy and the silly names, the labyrinthine plots that careen around and veer maddeningly toward irresolution and paranoia, the playful gags and the abundant nods to pop culture—or to stoner culture, for that matter. Thomas Pynchon writes serious moral fiction.
Although his name has become a byword for postmodernism and impenetrable prose, Bleeding Edgemakes clearer than ever before what has been true since the publication of V. half a century ago: Pynchon is a writer with a profound, unwavering moral vision and an abiding commitment to realism. Not the realism of a Balzac or a Howells, of course, but the kind employed by Dostoevsky and Flannery O’Connor, the kind that forgoes verisimilitude in favor of the fantastic and the grotesque in order to make a point about the nature of reality—what is real and enduring, and what isn’t.
“Tanks are mortal, pears eternal,” was Milan Kundera’s memorable formulation in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and this eloquent phrase pretty well captures Pynchon’s take on the subject, too. Perennial champion of the animate over the inanimate, tireless advocate of love, not war, he begins and ends Bleeding Edge with the simultaneous bursting into bloom of “what looks like every Callery Pear tree on the Upper West Side,” as Ziggy and Otis, two brothers on the cusp of adolescence, head to school.
Judgment Day is upon us, the radio evangelist proclaimed a few years ago, setting May 21, 2011 as the date. All across America, billboards became Camping advertisements for Apocalypse. “Cry mightily unto GOD for HIS Mercy” was one suggestion, “Joy to the World” claimed another. All across the nation, there were Americans who laughed, and those who readied themselves. Camping’s believers stopped paying their credit cards, quit their jobs, said farewell to friends. Some spent their life’s savings in preparation for the End — some spent it on the Rapture campaign itself.
When Judgment Day did not come, Camping tried to assuage believers. “Please forgive me, America!” a new billboard read. “I was terribly wrong about … May 21, 2011. There is forgiveness in those who trust in Jesus Christ.” Then he said that he had gotten the timing wrong and that the End would, in fact, happen in October. But October passed the same as ever and then Harold Camping had a stroke. By that time, accounts of thousands who had mistakenly given up their Earthly existence came pouring through the news. “Yet though we were wrong,” wrote Camping in a letter to his Family Radio Family, “God is still using the May 21 warning in a very mighty way.” Look at the millions and billions of people who heard the message of Christ’s imminent return, Harold Camping wrote. And he would still come, Camping assured us.
Turn Turn Turn
Music by Pete Seeger, 1919-2014
(Adapted from Ecclesiastes)
To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose under heaven
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep
To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven
A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together
To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven
A time of love, a time of hate
A time of war, a time of peace
A time you may embrace, a time to refrain from embracing
To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven
A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time for love, a time for hate
A time for peace, I swear it's not too late
Pete Seeger died yesterday
Philip Hoare in The Telegraph:
On the shores of New South Wales, a coast along which, even now, one could imagine James Cook sailing past on the Endeavourof a civilisation on the edge of utter wilderness. growth forest into what would eventually become lavatory paper.
In many ways, Greer’s book is a middle-aged escape act. Put her in the open country, and she feels happy: “Only in suburbia do I begin to feel frantic and hopeless, suddenly back where I was in my teens, imprisoned, heartsick, revolted by the endless roofscape, waiting for life to begin.” She’d rather end her life in the wastes: “Better a swift agony in the desert than my mother’s long twilight in a seaside nursing home.” After much searching of Australia’s wild corners, Greer finally finds her utopia in the shape of Cave Creek, 60 hectares of rainforest on the Gold Coast of Queensland boasting a remarkably high degree of biodiversity – and a chequered history of logging and intrusive agriculture. It is that new world conflict that powers White Beech’s story: one of invasive species – botanical, animal and human. After all, its author has declared it her intention never to call Australia home until Aboriginal sovereignty is recognised. Indeed, Greer’s first act, having bought Cave Creek, is to try to find its traditional owners – the Aboriginal people whose deep-time culture cuts through Western occupation. And yet Greer’s own bloody-minded, can-do attitude, it seems to me, is an essentially Australian characteristic. The rest of this wonderfully idiosyncratic book is taken up with the documentation of Greer’s “Cave Creek Rainforest Rehabilitation Scheme”, designated by plastic signs around the property instructing all comers that anyone taking anything out of it will be subject to prosecution (or, worse still, the vocal ire of its owner).
Benedict Carey in The New York Times:
People of a certain age (and we know who we are) don’t spend much leisure time reviewing the research into cognitive performance and aging. The story is grim, for one thing: Memory’s speed and accuracy begin to slip around age 25 and keep on slipping. The story is familiar, too, for anyone who is over 50 and, having finally learned to live fully in the moment, discovers it’s a senior moment. The finding that the brain slows with age is one of the strongest in all of psychology.
Over the years, some scientists have questioned this dotage curve. But these challenges have had an ornery-old-person slant: that the tests were biased toward the young, for example. Or that older people have learned not to care about clearly trivial things, like memory tests. Or that an older mind must organize information differently from one attached to some 22-year-old who records his every Ultimate Frisbee move on Instagram. Now comes a new kind of challenge to the evidence of a cognitive decline, from a decidedly digital quarter: data mining, based on theories of information processing. In a paper published in Topics in Cognitive Science, a team of linguistic researchers from the University of Tübingen in Germany used advanced learning models to search enormous databases of words and phrases. Since educated older people generally know more words than younger people, simply by virtue of having been around longer, the experiment simulates what an older brain has to do to retrieve a word. And when the researchers incorporated that difference into the models, the aging “deficits” largely disappeared. “What shocked me, to be honest, is that for the first half of the time we were doing this project, I totally bought into the idea of age-related cognitive decline in healthy adults,” the lead author, Michael Ramscar, said by email. But the simulations, he added, “fit so well to human data that it slowly forced me to entertain this idea that I didn’t need to invoke decline at all.”
A review of Sam Harris's Free Will by Daniel C. Dennett at Naturalism.org:
[Sam Harris] is not alone among scientists in coming to the conclusion that the ancient idea of free will is not just confused but also a major obstacle to social reform. His brief essay is, however, the most sustained attempt to develop this theme, which can also be found in remarks and essays by such heavyweight scientists as the 2 neuroscientists Wolf Singer and Chris Frith, the psychologists Steven Pinker and
Paul Bloom, the physicists Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein, and the evolutionary biologists Jerry Coyne and (when he’s not thinking carefully) Richard Dawkins.
The book is, thus, valuable as a compact and compelling expression of an opinion widely shared by eminent scientists these days. It is also valuable, as I will show, as a veritable museum of mistakes, none of them new and all of them seductive—alluring enough to lull the critical faculties of this host of brilliant thinkers who do not make a profession of thinking about free will. And, to be sure, these mistakes have also been made, sometimes for centuries, by philosophers themselves. But I think we have made some progress in philosophy of late, and Harris and others need to do their homework if they want to engage with the best
thought on the topic.
Zeeya Merali in Nature:
Most physicists foolhardy enough to write a paper claiming that “there are no black holes” — at least not in the sense we usually imagine — would probably be dismissed as cranks. But when the call to redefine these cosmic crunchers comes from Stephen Hawking, it’s worth taking notice. In a paper posted online, the physicist, based at the University of Cambridge, UK, and one of the creators of modern black-hole theory, does away with the notion of an event horizon, the invisible boundary thought to shroud every black hole, beyond which nothing, not even light, can escape.
In its stead, Hawking’s radical proposal is a much more benign “apparent horizon”, which only temporarily holds matter and energy prisoner before eventually releasing them, albeit in a more garbled form.
“There is no escape from a black hole in classical theory,” Hawking told Nature. Quantum theory, however, “enables energy and information to escape from a black hole”. A full explanation of the process, the physicist admits, would require a theory that successfully merges gravity with the other fundamental forces of nature. But that is a goal that has eluded physicists for nearly a century. “The correct treatment,” Hawking says, “remains a mystery.”
Hawking posted his paper on the arXiv preprint server on 22 January1. He titled it, whimsically, 'Information preservation and weather forecasting for black holes', and it has yet to pass peer review. The paper was based on a talk he gave via Skype at a meeting at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, California, in August 2013 (watch video of the talk).
Shoaib Daniyal in NY NewsYaps:
In a riotously funny scene from recently released comic thriller Dedh Ishqiya, Jaan Mohammad (played by Vijay Raaz) aggressively threatens a very drunk Khalujaan (Naseeruddin Shah) to leave town so that he can win the hand of the beautiful Begum Para (Madhuri Dixit). In a twist typical of the film, fist fights and gun brandishing suddenly give way to poetry, as Khalujaan picks up the word “wādā” (promise) used by Jaan and starts taunting him using asher. A gangster by profession and somewhat removed from the world of poetry, Jaan retorts as best he can by racking his brains and coming up with the only sher he knows on “wādā. This change of playing field from violence to poetry, though, can only end badly for Jaan. His verse induces derisive laughter from Khalujaan who then points out that Jaan’s original sher spoke of “bādā” (wine) and not “wādā” at all. Jaan just confused the two rhyming words.
It is credit to the competence of director Abhishek Chaubey that the Bombay heater I was in found the wordplay funny and laughed along with Khalu, in spite of the fact that very few would have been able to point out Jaan’s mistake themselves. Anupama Chopra, movie critic for the Hindustan Times, though, might have empathised more with Jaan and his struggles with High Urdu. While generally praising the film, she did end her review with one small regret: “I also struggled with the Urdu,” she said.“It was melodious but I wish I understood more of it.”
This frank admission, and the fact that Dedh Ishqiya is the only Bollywood film I’ve ever seen with English subtitles, contains within it some stark irony for an industry which, it could be said, was born into Urdu.
Monday, January 27, 2014
by Ahmed Humayun
(This is the second post on Pakistan's struggle against militancy. Part I is here).
To prevail against an insurrection, a state must fight on many fronts. It must construct a comprehensive military and political strategy, strengthen its institutional capacity to fight an internal war, and mobilize public support for a protracted struggle. Above all, an insurgency is a contest between the state and its challengers over legitimacy and credibility. In this clash of narratives, the state must persuade the population that its actions are those of a representative, duly constituted government attempting to restore its control even as the rebels repudiate the fundamental legitimacy of the state.
So far in Pakistan the militant groups are winning the war of narrative. As I wrote last time, the Pakistani Taliban is by no means a monolith but its different factions do come together around a clear strategic story. Insurgent propaganda states that the rebellion's goal is to replace an illegitimate, un-Islamic government subservient to Washington with an Islamic state. Their war is defensive—for Islam and against America. The state, on the other hand, speaks in contradictory voices. Some say that the state must fight until the rebels lay down their arms, forswear the use of violence, and respect the rule of law, while others insist on immediate, unconditional negotiations. The truth is that ending the turmoil within Pakistan requires some adroit combination of fighting and talking—but only if they are aspects of an integrated strategy that has as its aim the restoration of state control and that realistically accounts for the ambitions of the rebels, which are revolutionary, and which they have pursued from the mountains in the tribal areas to major urban centers across the heartland.
Yet advocates of negotiation —including leading politicians, retired generals, and influential pundits—blame the state and its alliance with Washington rather than the militants for fomenting the violence. As a result it is widely believed in Pakistan that the war against militancy has been foisted on the country by the United States; that insurgent violence is merely retaliation for Pakistani military aggression and American drone strikes in the tribal areas; and that conflict will cease when these operations end. The result is that formula recited by many: ‘This is not our war.' This dominant narrative has had a negative effect on the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the public, created demoralization in the country's army and police forces, and emboldened the insurgents.
What God Says
I place before you a bowl of evidence
but will never make you eat
Chance is what you’re up against,
and the only is of me you’ll meet
You can pray until your tongue expires
and never know my heart’s desire
I roll the future out mysteriously,
you trace my trail of crumbs through mires
You profusely write of who I am
as if I were like you a man
You cannot know the I of me
unless you crack the I of thee
In the light and in the gloom
I beat a drum and hum your tune
by Jim Culleny
by Paul Braterman
Lord Kelvin (Smithsoinian Instituion Libraries collection)
Kelvin calculated that the Earth was probably around 24 million years old, from how fast it is cooling. Rutherford believed that Kelvin’s calculation was wrong because of the heat generated by radioactivity. Kelvin was wrong, but so was Rutherford. The Earth is indeed many times older than Kelvin had calculated, but for completely different reasons, and the heat generated by radioactive decay has nothing to do with it.
Disclosure: in my introduction to the Scientific American Classic, Determining the Age of the Earth, and elsewhere, I have like many other authors repeated Rutherford’s argument with approval, without paying attention to Rutherford’s own warning that qualitative is but poor quantitative, and without bothering to check whether the amount of heat generated by radioactivity is enough to do the job. He thought it was but we now know it isn’t. It was only when chatting online (about one of the few claims in the creationist literature that is even worth discussing) that I discovered the error of my ways.
On the face of it, things could not be plainer. Kelvin had calculated the age of the Earth from how fast heat was flowing through its surface layers. An initially red hot body would have started losing heat very quickly, but over geological time the process would have slowed, as a relatively cool outer crust formed. His latest and most confident answer, reached in 1897 after more than 50 years of study, was in the range of around 24 million years.
Emin Cizenel. Dedication. 2013.
Mixed media on canvas.
by Mara Jebsen
Rodin was famous for his fragments, and, in his era, hotly defended the choice to sculpt just a hand, or a torso, or a foot melting back into its original rock. The character Bernard, in Virginia Woolf's experimental "The Waves" seems to have revealed something about Woolf's thoughts on the unfinished, as he goes about talking, story-spinning, and worrying about the way life seems to accumulate more than culminate, so that all we get is phrases, bits. While coherence--in story, in body--provides a comforting pleasure for the audience, artists who know how to make wholes sometimes get weary of the falseness that an orderly whole brings with it--and take a pleasure in the fragment, the seemingly unfinished, strangely perfect, part.
I know, from my work as a writing teacher, that almost any student can produce a promising fragment, but very few can manage a coherent whole--in terms of idea, or story-- without a great deal of coaxing, insistance, and endless re-writing. The work of a beginner is to complete the fragment. But perhaps the work of a master is to let the fragment be.
As a beginning storyteller myself, I find that whole tales are elusive, and the images arrive like little shards of a broken mirror. What to make of them--that's the hard part. What follows is the first piece of a tiny "novel" that is all pieces, inspired by a Sufi tale I heard three years ago, and subsequently garbled in my mind. In it, a man is visited by three different messengers, all strangers, each of whom require that he leap violently away from the life he is leading, and begin again. In the third phase of the man's life, he begins to show signs of spiritual enlightenment, and he ends as a mystic. The story, for some reason, made dozens of images--partial ones stuck in angled mirror-shards--arrive in my head for two years. In my version, the eventual mystic is a girl. She is young, wealthy, blank.