Sunday, October 19, 2014
The Men Who Wear My Clothes
Sleepless I lay last night and watched the slow
Procession of the men who wear my clothes:
First, the grey man with bloodshot eyes and sly
Gestures miming what he loves and loathes.
Next came the cheery knocker-back of pints,
The beery joker, never far from tears,
Whose loud and public vanity acquaints
The careful watcher with his private fears.
And then I saw the neat mouthed gentle man
Defer politely, listen to the lies,
Smile at the tedious tale and gaze upon
The little mirrors in the speaker's eyes.
The men who wear my clothes walked past my bed
And all of them looked tired and rather old;
I felt a chip of ice melt in my blood.
Naked I lay last night, and very cold.
by Vernon Scannell
Saturday, October 18, 2014
In a series of dispatches from this tantalizing world of “more or less,” Gottland chronicles the history of the Czech Republic in the twentieth century. Each of its seventeen chapters focuses on one or more individual figures—Tomáš Bata, a self-made billionaire; Lina Baatová, an actress who became the lover of Josef Goebbels; Karel Gott, the wildly popular crooner who lends his name to the book’s title—all of whom were caught up and tangled in the unfortunate net of their country’s history. During the last century, the Czech Republic was occupied first by the Germans, then by the Russians, and now by the specters of those years. In his nuanced portrait of a nation, Szczygieł poses questions as critical to literature as they are to history: how should one act when oppressed? To what extent is compromise necessary, justified, or cowardly?
The Czechs compromised; like many small nations, they had very little choice. The alternative was annihilation. “This we know,” Szczygieł writes, “in order to survive in unfavorable circumstances, a small nation has to adapt. It has carried this down from the days of the Habsburgs and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.” The Czechs, Gottlandtestifies, have proved to be remarkably resilient—Hitler is said to have shouted in a rage, “The Czechs are like cyclists—they hunch their upper bodies, but pedal below!”—yet adaptation has had its price, and its scars are no less painful for being invisible.
According to Teachout, however, it’s much worse than this. Our current Supreme Court, in Citizens United, “took that which had been named corrupt for over 200 years” — which is to say, gifts to politicians — “and renamed it legitimate.” Teachout does not exaggerate. Here is Justice Kennedy again, in the Citizens United decision: “The censorship we now confront is vast in its reach. The government has ‘muffle[d] the voices that best represent the most significant segments of the economy.’ ”
You read that right: The economy needs to be represented in democratic politics, or at least the economy’s “most significant segments,” whatever those are, and therefore corporate “speech,” meaning gifts, ought not to be censored. Corporations now possess the rights that the founders reserved for citizens, and as Teachout explains, what used to be called “corruption becomes democratic responsiveness.”
Let me pause here to take note of another recurring peculiarity in corruption literature: an eerie overlap between theory and practice. If you go back to that “censorship” quotation from Kennedy, you will notice he quotes someone else: his colleague Antonin Scalia, in an opinion from 2003. Google the quote and one place you’ll find it is in a book of Scalia’s opinions that was edited in 2004 by none other than the lobbyist Kevin Ring, an associate of Jack Abramoff who would later be convicted of corrupting public officials.
Clive James has always written with verve about poetry, and though much of his latest book is drawn from articles already published, the material was well worth collecting. Poetry Notebook may not have the idiosyncratic range of his Cultural Amnesia (2007) but it has the same knack of entertaining his readers, even those inclined to disagree with what he says.
Reflecting on the influential critic Ian Hamilton, James remarks: “Hamilton was strongest where he found weakness”. That is not his own purpose here, except perhaps in his account of Ezra Pound’s followers, of whom I shall have more to say. What he wants to explore is the intensity of language that enables certain lines of poetry to lodge in the mind even when the rest of the poem has been forgotten. He finds these in Shakespeare, naturally, but also in Robert Frost, WH Auden and Richard Wilbur. Philip Larkin is an important presence throughout, being exemplary in his ability to write a resonant line that miraculously carries significance without contortion. There is also a whole chapter on Michael Donaghy, a thoughtful tribute to a much-loved and talented poet, who spoke all his poems by heart and died far too young.
Stassa Edwards in The New Inquiry:
Grigori Rasputin’s dick is on display at the Museum of Erotics in Saint Petersburg. Housed in a jar of formaldehyde, the member, which the museum’s owner claims he obtained from a French antiquarian, is quite sizable. Actually, it’s enormous for a human penis: Wide and meaty, it measures about a foot long. According to the museum, just gazing on the preserved member can cure a range of problems, everything from infertility to a humdrum sex life. But the specimen isn’t a human penis. It more than likely came from a horse.
It wouldn’t be the first time something inhuman was passed off as Rasputin’s dick. An earlier version circulated after Rasputin’s 1916 murder, legendary for being long and difficult: an initial failed poisoning, followed by multiple gunshots, a beating, and finally a drowning. Legend has it that in the midst of the horror show the man in charge of the grisly plot, Prince Felix Yusupov, somehow managed to castrate the mad mystic. Rasputin’s penis was supposedly scurried out of the country and ended up in the hands of Russian émigrés in Paris. There, his dick became a kind of religious relic of their vanished homeland, a potent piece of a vanished social order.
Susan Stewart in The Nation:
Writing in 1930 with Baudelaire and, subsequently, Goethe on his mind, T.S. Eliot took up the question of what it means for a poet to possess “the sense of his own age.” While it may be true, he noted, that Goethe was the representative Enlightenment dilettante, pursuing his scattered scientific and aesthetic “hobbies,” and Baudelaire a “theological innocent,” writing as if the problem of evil had never occurred to anyone before, Eliot nevertheless concluded that “they are both…men with restless, critical, curious minds and the ‘sense of the age’: both men who understood and foresaw a great deal.”
Is there any poet in the postwar period who was driven by a sense of the age—its archaisms and barbarisms, its new looks and new media, its corollary fears and hopes—more intensely than Pier Paolo Pasolini? Born in 1922—the same year as the American poet Jackson MacLow, a year younger than the Italian poets Andrea Zanzotto and Maria Luisa Spaziani, a year older than the French poet Yves Bonnefoy—Pasolini seems of an entirely different era from his long-lived contemporaries. He is fixed in the amber of the 1960s and ’70s—not only because of his early death (murdered on the beach at Ostia on November 2, 1975, at the age of 53), but also because in his poems, films, novels, plays, journalism, criticism, drawings and paintings, he continually took the measure of his time.
Emily Anthes in Mosaic:
At first my meal seems familiar, like countless other dishes I’ve eaten at Asian restaurants. A swirl of noodles slicked with oil and studded with shredded chicken, the aroma of ginger and garlic, a few wilting chives placed on the plate as a final flourish. And then, I notice the eyes. Dark, compound orbs on a yellow speckled head, joined to a winged, segmented body. I hadn’t spotted them right away, but suddenly I see them everywhere – my noodles are teeming with insects.
I can’t say I wasn’t warned. On this warm May afternoon, I’ve agreed to be a guinea pig at an experimental insect tasting in Wageningen, a university town in the central Netherlands. My hosts are Ben Reade and Josh Evans from the Nordic Food Lab, a non-profit culinary research institute. Reade and Evans lead the lab’s ‘insect deliciousness’ project, a three-year effort to turn insects – the creepy-crawlies that most of us squash without a second thought – into tasty, craveable treats.
The project began after René Redzepi (the chef and co-owner of Noma, the Danish restaurant that is often ranked the best in the world) tasted an Amazonian ant that reminded him of lemongrass. Redzepi, who founded the Nordic Food Lab in 2008, became interested in serving insects at Noma and asked the researchers at the lab to explore the possibilities.
The Food Lab operates from a houseboat in Copenhagen, but Reade and Evans are in the Netherlands for a few days, and they’ve borrowed a local kitchen to try out some brand new dishes. I, along with three other gutsy gastronomes, am here to taste the results.
Jane Mulkerrins in The Telegraph:
“I thought Housekeeping was far too private a novel ever to be published,” says Marilynne Robinson. “And with Gilead, if I had gone to my editor and said, ‘I have a great idea for a book, about a minister dying in Iowa in 1956…’” She trails off, laughing. “So, when you discover that these stories, which seem borderline incommunicable, actually have reception and mean things to people, that’s very, very gratifying.” Robinson’s novels do not merely “have reception”. Her first, Housekeeping, published in 1981, was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; 24 years later her second, Gilead, won the same award; with her third, Home, she scooped the 2009 Orange Prize.
...Vehemently non-dogmatic, Robinson upholds the basic Christian tenets of tolerance, kindness and forgiveness, and has no time for hardline Christian conservatism in America. “It bothers me enormously. I hate to call it conservatism, because they are not conserving anything. It’s just a claim to a superior patriotism or something,” she says, shaking her head. “There’s a lot of complexity in the Bible, but there’s a great deal of simplicity in it,” she continues. “‘I was hungry and you fed me; I was naked and you clothed me.’ This hardline impulse is very disturbing and I don’t understand it.” She also refuses to be drawn into simplistic debates that pit religion against science, and has, at times, been an enthusiastic reader of tomes on cosmology and quantum physics. “When people try to debunk religion it seems to me they are referring to an 18th-century notion of what science is,” she says. “And I’m talking about Richard Dawkins here, who has a status that I can’t quite understand.” She has also called him “an animal anthropologist” in the past. “The us-versus-them mentality is a terrible corruption of the whole culture.”
NOW sing: the guards howling
beat him with obscenities.
......But he did.
His legend is
He was singing
when they shot him.
Even for them, it was too much
The killed him,
they couldn't kill him enough.
who'd held out with bloody stumps
by James Scully
from Poetry Like Bread is for Everyone
Curbstone Press, 1994
When the socialist politician Salvador Allende dramatically won Chile’s presidential election in 1970, a powerful cultural movement accompanied him to power as folk singers emerged at the forefront proving that music could help forge the birth of a new society. “Venceremos” charts the development of such a cultural phenomenon from the years before Allende’s victorious campaign to the brutal U.S.-backed military coup on September 11, 1973, which ousted his presidency and imposed the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. The bloody repression that followed would claim the life of Víctor Jara, a key singer-songwriter, but could never put to rest the lasting power of his songs nor the movement he personified.
Victor Jara Story
David Dobbs in The New York Times:
Of Christine Kenneally’s father’s father — a man neither Kenneally nor her father ever knew, a man who did the deed requisite to reproduction and promptly vanished — she asks, “Did he leave anything more significant than the loud bang of a door shut down the generations?” Of course he did. He left his DNA and a granddaughter determined to draw from modern genetics and hard-won family history a coherent account of her roots. Kenneally’s own heritage is only one of the mysteries she pursues in “The Invisible History of the Human Race,” a smart, splendid, highly entertaining look at how DNA, increasingly visible to us since we first sequenced the human genome in 2000, can “open up tracts of human history that had been entirely obscure.” While DNA may now be visible, however, it remains more hint than history. Kenneally, a journalist and linguist, shows that just as a gene usually delivers its genetic message only in conversation with an incoming chemical messenger, so our DNA tells its tales most fully only in light of the history of the people who carry and interrogate it. It takes all those threads to get the whole story. And Kenneally wants it all.
“If everyone had his DNA analyzed,” she writes, “and that information were linked to everyone’s historical information, it would be the nearest thing to the book of humanity.” She backs up this claim beautifully, showing how genetic analysis can be combined with skillful mining of historical, social and cultural information to solve fascinating riddles of ancestry.
Friday, October 17, 2014
Dan Pashman in Slate:
Thrasymachus: I see, Socrates, that you believe it permissible to cherry-pick your favorite ingredients from a snack mix.
Socrates: I do. Should I believe otherwise?
Thrasymachus: You should. The snack mix is a delicate balance of components. To target certain ones is to deprive others of the desired experience. It is unjust.
Socrates: So do you believe, then, that the purpose of a snack mix is to bring together ingredients in a prescribed ratio?
Thrasymachus: I do.
Socrates: And would it not stand to reason, then, that the Eater should compose each bite in that ratio?
Thrasymachus: It would.
Socrates: How then should the Eater ascertain the proscribed ratio?
Thrasymachus: Well, I think it plain to see, Socrates. Survey the mix and judge the proper ratio based on its appearance.
Socrates: But, Thrasymachus, do not different components have different weights, such that some components may be found in greater abundance at the top or bottom of the mix?
Natalie Angier in the New York Times:
For the tallest animals on earth, giraffes can be awfully easy to overlook. Their ochered flagstone fur and arboreal proportions blend in seamlessly with the acacia trees on which they tirelessly forage, and they’re as quiet as trees, too: no whinnies, growls, trumpets or howls. “Giraffes are basically mute,” said Kerryn Carter, a zoologist at the University of Queensland in Australia. “A snort is the only sound I’ve heard.”
Yet watch giraffes make their stately cortege across the open landscape and their grandeur is operatic, every dip and weave and pendulum swing an aria embodied.
To giraffe researchers, the paradox of this keystone African herbivore goes beyond questions of its camouflaging coat. Giraffes may be popular, they said — a staple of zoos, corporate logos and the plush toy industry — but until recently almost nobody studied giraffes in the field.
“When I first became interested in giraffes in 2008 and started looking through the scientific literature, I was really surprised to see how little had been done,” said Megan Strauss, who studies evolution and behavior at the University of Minnesota. “It was amazing that something as well known as the giraffe could be so little studied.”
Rohini Mohan in Guernica:
Cowering behind the tree’s foliage, Mugil thought of her husband Divyan, who would be on the field somewhere, driving the cadre around. How he could be working she didn’t know. No one seemed to know whether they were coming or going. Several Tiger high commanders had surrendered to the army, and it was nerve-wracking to keep track of who was trustworthy and who was playing double agent. The counterattacks, too, seemed vastly disproportionate. One time, Mugil counted the army shoot sixty rounds in reply to a single round of fire from the Tigers.
Her parents were still in PTK. She had been meaning to find out if they were safe; they were also looking after her two sons, whom she hadn’t seen in weeks. Maran was three and wouldn’t miss her, but Tamizh was barely two. He would bawl if she were gone for more than a few days.
How much might these girls’ parents worry about them? Mugil could still hear them screaming and there was nothing she could do. Through the rain-drenched leaves, she watched an army boy snap off the girls’ cyanide capsules from around their necks. Another shorter man rammed the butt of his rifle into a girl’s hip. As she clutched it and crumpled to the ground in pain, he kicked dry leaves and sand into her face. The front of his boot hit her nose. Writhing in pain, the girl folded her hands toward him. But he was already unzipping himself and pushed her on her back. Mugil looked away. The girls were only as old as she had been when she joined the Tigers, perhaps younger.
The Australian novelist Elizabeth Harrower, who is eighty-six and lives in Sydney, has been decidedly opaque about why she withdrew her fifth novel, “In Certain Circles” (Text), some months prior to publication, in 1971. Her mother, to whom she was very close, had died suddenly the year before. Harrower told Susan Wyndham, who interviewed her a few months ago in the SydneyMorning Herald, that she was absolutely “frozen” by the bereavement. She also claims to remember very little about her novel—“That sounds quite interesting, but I don’t think I’ll read it”—and adds that she has been “very good at closing doors and ending things. . . . What was going on in my head or my life at the time? Fortunately, whatever it was I’ve forgotten.” Elsewhere, Harrower has cast doubt on the novel’s quality: “It was well written because once you can write, you can write a good book. But there are a lot of dead novels out in the world that don’t need to be written.”
Harrower deposited the manuscript of “In Certain Circles” in the National Library of Australia and essentially terminated her literary career. She has said that she thinks of her fiction as something abandoned long ago, buried in a cellar. She can’t now be bothered with writing. “I don’t know anybody who knows I’m a writer,” she said in 2012.
The 18th-century cult of sensibility, spread through performances on the Parisian stage and nurtured by novels of deep emotional intensity by the likes of Samuel Richardson and Rousseau, loosened the grip of the costive, courtly smile. Charming and tender smiles - transparent expressions of feeling intended to be shared by all men and women, though, in practice, chiefly enjoyed by the Parisian cultural and social elite - became fashionable. Teeth and smiles were chic - and so were dentists. Practitioners like Pierre Fauchard made dental care a profession: they abandoned the street (where teeth had been brutally pulled by colourful showmen like 'Le Grand Thomas', who operated on the Pont Neuf and was known as the 'Pearl of the Charlatans' and 'Terror of the Human Jaw') and set up offices (upstairs so the patients' screams could not be heard in the street below) in fashionable spots like the Rue Saint-Honoré. They encouraged tooth conservation, not brutal extraction, wrote treatises that established dentistry as a science, and emphasised the importance of patient self-care, which helped them peddle a succession of cleaners, whiteners, gargles, toothpicks and breath sweeteners. Fauchard invented spring-loaded denture sets, which, as Jones reminds us, 'had the unfortunate habit of leaping dramatically out of the owner's mouth at unguarded moments'. Nicolas Dubois de Chémant went one better and manufactured very expensive porcelain dentures, a set of which (illustrated in the text) belonged to the exiled archbishop of Narbonne, and were exhumed during the building of the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras.
Liberal political philosophy post-Rawls is directed towards justification. It takes many different approaches, all designed to identify the circumstances under which the exercise of coercive authority by the state is legitimate – that states should conform to principles that would be agreed to by rational individuals behind a “veil of ignorance”, that they follow principles that no one could “reasonably reject”, that they could have arisen spontaneously without the violation of fundamental rights, and so on.
Communitarians and other modern admirers of idealism object that such justifications presuppose an instrumental conception of political life, measuring it by its contribution to the pursuit of individual self-interest. They argue that unless we appreciate that human beings are fully social and that the state is in some strong sense a political community, we perpetuate the alienation that the idealists diagnosed so trenchantly. From which it follows that law and authority must be understood as embedded within a concrete ethical life – Sittlichkeit, to use Hegel’s own, untranslatable, German word. Yet how are such political communities to be assessed?
“Thought”, for Hegel, is a technical term used to refer to the content of his own philosophy. So when he writes that something can be “justified in thought”, that means that it is justifiable from the standpoint of that philosophy. But it hardly needs saying that the speculative philosophy found in Hegel’s Science of Logic will not be the sort of justification available to the average passenger on the Stuttgart omnibus.
James Hamblin in The Atlantic:
What if nutrition labels told people exactly what calories meant, in practical terms? A bottle of Coke could dole out specific exercise requirements. The calories herein, it might say, are the equivalent of a 50-minute jog. The decision to drink the Coke then becomes, would you rather spend the evening on a treadmill, or just not drink the soda? Some would say that's a joyless, infantilizing idea. The implication that people can't understand calorie counts is unduly cynical. Have a Coke and a smile, not a Coke and a guilt-wail. Others would protest on grounds that it's impossible to make this kind of exercise requirement universal to people of all ages, body sizes, and levels of fitness. Everyone burns calories at different rates. But Sara Bleich, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is not among these people. She describes these labels as her dream.
For the past four years, translating nutrition information into exercise equivalents has been the focus of Bleich's increasingly popular research endeavor. Her latest findings on the effectiveness of the concept are published today in the American Journal of Public Health. In the study, researchers posted signs next to the soda and juice in Baltimore corner stores that read: “Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about 50 minutes of running?” or “Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about five miles of walking?” (And, long as those distances and times may seem, they may even underestimate the magnitude of the metabolic insult of liquid sugar.) The signs were a proxy for an actual food label, but they made the point. They effectively led to fewer juice and soda purchases, and to purchases of smaller sizes (12-ounce cans instead of 20-ounce bottles). Bleich also saw learned behavior; even after the signs came down, the local patrons continued to buy less soda and juice. "The problem with calories is that they're not very meaningful to people," Bleich told me. "The average American doesn't know much about calories, and they're not good at numeracy."
At 4 in the morning
(apologies to Federico Garcia Lorca)
At four in the morning
Too soon for birds.
Too late for bats.
At four in the morning
Too soon for light,
Its lying eyes
At four in the morning,
My eyes are shut.
My mind is near.
At four in the morning,
The veil is swept.
The curtain up.
At four in the morning
I see the ark.
Its gaping hold.
At four in the morning
A time to die.
A fatal sigh.
by Brooks Riley
The study appears this week in the online journal PLoS ONE, published by the Public Library of Science. It provides an alternative theory to two current theories of how simple bacterial cells were swallowed up by host cells and ultimately became mitochondria, the "powerhouse" organelles within virtually all eukaryotic cells -- animal and plant cells that contain a nucleus and other features. Mitochondria power the cells by providing them with adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, considered by biologists to be the energy currency of life. The origin of mitochondria began about 2 billion years ago and is one of the seminal events in the evolutionary history of life. However, little is known about the circumstances surrounding its origin, and that question is considered an enigma in modern biology. "We believe this study has the potential to change the way we think about the event that led to mitochondria," said U.Va. biologist Martin Wu, the study's lead author. "We are saying that the current theories -- all claiming that the relationship between the bacteria and the host cell at the very beginning of the symbiosis was mutually beneficial -- are likely wrong. "Instead, we believe the relationship likely was antagonistic -- that the bacteria were parasitic and only later became beneficial to the host cell by switching the direction of the ATP transport."
The finding, Wu said, is a new insight into an event in the early history of life on Earth that ultimately led to the diverse eukaryotic life we see today. Without mitochondria to provide energy to the rest of a cell, there could not have evolved such amazing biodiversity, he said. "We reconstructed the gene content of mitochondrial ancestors, by sequencing DNAs of its close relatives, and we predict it to be a parasite that actually stole energy in the form of ATP from its host -- completely opposite to the current role of mitochondria," Wu said. In his study, Wu also identified many human genes that are derived from mitochondria -- identification of which has the potential to help understand the genetic basis of human mitochondrial dysfunction that may contribute to several diseases, including Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and diabetes, as well as aging-related diseases. In addition to the basic essential role of mitochondria in the functioning of cells, the DNA of mitochondria is used by scientists for DNA forensics, genealogy and tracing human evolutionary history.
Thursday, October 16, 2014
If the members of the Nobel Academy felt slighted when Jean-Paul Sartre rejected their prize 50 years ago, they didn’t show it. The Academy set out the dinner plates and made their speeches anyway — without the philosopher. The 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature, announced Anders Österling — longtime member of the Swedish Academy, and a writer himself — was being given to “the French writer Jean-Paul Sartre for his work which, rich in ideas and filled with the spirit of freedom and the quest for truth, has exerted a far-reaching influence on our age.”
S. Friberg, Rector of the Caroline Institute — a prestigious Swedish medical university — made the following remarks at the banquet: “Sartre's existentialism may be understood in the sense that the degree of happiness which an individual can hope to attain is governed by his willingness to take his stand in accordance with his ethos and to accept the consequences thereof …”
“It will be recalled,” said Anders Österling, “that the laureate has made it known that he did not wish to accept the prize.
Leo Carey in the New York Review of Books:
Nine hundred and thirty pages into Jan Swafford’s new biography of Beethoven, there is an interesting juxtaposition. After the composer died, in March 1827, his funeral was “one of the grandest Vienna ever put on for a commoner.” Schools were closed. Some 10,000 people crowded into the courtyard of the building where he had lived, then followed the coffin to the local parish church—not, as Swafford has it, to St. Stephen’s Cathedral. (Among the torchbearers was Franz Schubert.) Franz Grillparzer, the leading Viennese writer of the day, wrote a funeral oration. But later that year, when Beethoven’s effects were auctioned off, a lifetime’s worth of manuscripts and sketchbooks fetched prices that Swafford calls “pathetic.” Beethoven’s late masterpiece the Missa Solemnis went for just seven florins. By comparison, his old trousers and stockings sold for six florins.
Beethoven’s last years are rich in anecdotes of neglect. The late works were too abstruse for the public, and he told a visitor (exaggerating somewhat) that even earlier ones were out of fashion and never performed in Vienna. When Rossini, then Europe’s most popular composer, paid a visit, he was appalled at the squalor in which the great man was living and left in tears. He appealed to aristocratic contacts to do something, but they refused, considering Beethoven crazy and beyond help. Even Beethoven’s successes in these years were partial: the ecstatic reception of the Ninth Symphony is well known, but Swafford suspects that the audience at the premiere had come to cheer “the man and his legacy” rather than the music.
Nobel prizewinners May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser have spent a career together near the Arctic Circle exploring how our brains know where we are.
Alison Abbott in Nature:
The fact that Edvard and May-Britt Moser have collaborated for 30 years — and been married for 28 — has done nothing to dull their passion for the brain. They talk about it at breakfast. They discuss its finer points at their morning lab meeting. And at a local restaurant on a recent summer evening, they are still deep into a back-and-forth about how their own brains know where they are and will guide them home. “Just to walk there, we have to understand where we are now, where we want to go, when to turn and when to stop,” says May-Britt. “It's incredible that we are not permanently lost.”
If anyone knows how we navigate home, it is the Mosers. They shot to fame in 2005 with their discovery of grid cells deep in the brains of rats. These intriguing cells, which are also present in humans, work much like the Global Positioning System, allowing animals to understand their location. The Mosers have since carved out a niche studying how grid cells interact with other specialized neurons to form what may be a complete navigation system that tells animals where they are going and where they have been. Studies of grid cells could help to explain how memories are formed, and why recalling events so often involves re-envisioning a place, such as a room, street or landscape.
While pursuing their studies, the two scientists have become a phenomenon. Tall and good-looking, they operate like a single brain in two athletic bodies in their generously funded lab in Trondheim, Norway — a remote corner of northern Europe just 350 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle. They publish together and receive prizes as a single unit — most recently, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which they won this week with their former supervisor, neuroscientist John O’Keefe at University College London.
Nathan Jurgenson in The New Inquiry (image in Franz Kline, Suspended, 1953):
Modernity has long been obsessed with, perhaps even defined by, its epistemic insecurity, its grasping toward big truths that ultimately disappoint as our world grows only less knowable. New knowledge and new ways of understanding simultaneously produce new forms of nonknowledge, new uncertainties and mysteries. The scientific method, based in deduction and falsifiability, is better at proliferating questions than it is at answering them. For instance, Einstein’s theories about the curvature of space and motion at the quantum level provide new knowledge and generates new unknowns that previously could not be pondered.
Since every theory destabilizes as much as it solidifies in our view of the world, the collective frenzy to generate knowledge creates at the same time a mounting sense of futility, a tension looking for catharsis — a moment in which we could feel, if only for an instant, that we know something for sure. In contemporary culture, Big Data promises this relief.
As the name suggests, Big Data is about size. Many proponents of Big Data claim that massive databases can reveal a whole new set of truths because of the unprecedented quantity of information they contain. But the big in Big Data is also used to denote a qualitative difference — that aggregating a certain amount of information makes data pass over into Big Data, a “revolution in knowledge,” to use a phrase thrown around by startups and mass-market social-science books. Operating beyond normal science’s simple accumulation of more information, Big Data is touted as a different sort of knowledge altogether, an Enlightenment for social life reckoned at the scale of masses.
As with the similarly inferential sciences like evolutionary psychology and pop-neuroscience, Big Data can be used to give any chosen hypothesis a veneer of science and the unearned authority of numbers. The data is big enough to entertain any story. Big Data has thus spawned an entire industry (“predictive analytics”) as well as reams of academic, corporate, and governmental research; it has also sparked the rise of “data journalism” like that of FiveThirtyEight, Vox, and the other multiplying explainer sites. It has shifted the center of gravity in these fields not merely because of its grand epistemological claims but also because it’s well-financed. Twitter, for example recently announced that it is putting $10 million into a “social machines” Big Data laboratory.