Tag: science

Catching up on science

I’m three months behind on my SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN reading, but that’s not really news, it’s status quo these days. On the train ride home this afternoon, I tried to correct that, working back from most recent with the May 2008 issue. A few items to note:

Page 36 has an in memorium for Sir Arthur C. Clarke. The brief item reminds us of Clarke’s scientific optimism and recalls the most famous of his three “laws”, that “a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But it concludes with what I feel is an even more touching and positive sentiment:

An asteroid, an orbit, a species of dinosaur and several prizes have been named after him. Many scientists, astronauts and writers have credited him with inspiring them in starting their careers. His impact, you might say, was indistinguishable from magic.

I was rather dismayed by the forum opinion column by Mark Alpert, titled, “The Mad Scientist Myth” with the subtitle “Readers need more novels about real science”. The article criticizes novels by the likes of H.G. Wells and Ian Fleming for their portrayal of “mad scientists”, and points to Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith, which won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize as an early example of a novel that does a good job at portraying scientists. He goes on to mention a few other novels that achieve this goal, with authors like John Updike and Allergra Goodman. He concludes:

A good work of fiction can convey the smell of a laboratory, the colors of a dissected heart, the anxieties of a chemist and the joys of an astronomer… Novels such as Intuition, with their fully fleshed out characters and messy conflicts, can erase the sinister Dr. No cartoons. And most important, these books can inspire readers to become scientists themselves.

When I read this I was thunderstruck. Did this guy grow up on an island? John W. Campbell, who took over as editor of Astounding Science Fiction in 1938 and was at the helm until his death in 1971, did exactly this: he insisted that scientists in fiction be real people, with real problems to solve; he turned away from the action/adventure/mad scientist and by doing so, appealed to a generation of writers that gave birth to the Golden Age of science fiction. Readers need more novels about real science, Alpert says. Has he never read a book by Arthur C. Clarke? Or Isaac Asimov? Or Hal Clement? How about a book by Robert Silverberg? Or Robert Heinlein? Present day writers who write novels about real science are too many to count. Glancing at the titles and authors on my bookshelves, I see novels about science by Greg Bear and Gregory Benford; by Joe Haldeman; by Robert J. Sawyer. Walk into any Barnes & Noble or Borders and the science fiction section is filled with more novels about science than the science and nature section is filled with science books. Furthermore, ask a scientist what inspired him or her to become a scientists and odds are that he or she will tell you that part of it had to do with reading science fiction as a kid. I agree we need more novels about real science. But I don’t think you have to look very far to find a whole lot of good ones already out there.

Finally, there is a fascinating article on “Science 2.0”, or the notion of using social networking as an added tool to peer review in science. The premise is, in essence, to publish everything online, to make the web each and every scientists’ notebook, one in which other scientists could comment, and provide immediate feedback. The discussion of pros and cons is a fascinating insight into the world of peer review, tenure tracks, publishing, where the science seems to get lost in a process that rewards priority and secrecy. Publishing mistakes can be as useful as publishing successes. Those of us who’ve taken science courses know that this is why our teachers told us never to erase things. We need to learn from that. And in a social networking environment, we can learn from more than just ourselves. For those interested, the article happens to be freely available on the Scientific American website.

Leap day

Today is my ninth leap day (1972 was a leap year, but I was born after February 29 so I don’t count that one. Leap day always makes me think of the history of leap day, which in turn gets me thinking about the intricacies of calendars and of keeping time in general. Man, the hoops we’ve jumped through to keep the calendar in line with the seasons!

Boskone, day 1

Almost midnight and I’m back from my first day (well, evening really) as Boskone. It’s been a lot of fun. I attended two panels. The first was “Selling What You Write” and it was interesting, but I realized that it was probably not something that I needed to attend, having made one sale already. This was basic stuff, but it was still fun to listen to the questions that people asked. The second panel was called “Tracking History” and was centered on a discussion by authors of long series of books on how they keep the internal histories straight. David Weber was the big star on the panel and it was also an interesting discussion.

Later, I had a beer and then wandered over to the Con Suite. Now, I didn’t know what a Con Suite was, but it looked like a VIP suite. (Turns out it’s not.) However, I saw mabfan there (along with gnomi and so I went over to say hello. One thing led to another and we ended up talking for a couple of hours. Michael was great. He introduced me to a lot of people, telling them I was a new writing and where my story had been published. So, for example, he introduced me to Allen M. Steele, who talked about his first experience winning a Hugo Award, and who proceeded to give me advice on my acceptance speech, should the day ever come when I win one. I got to tell Allen how he once lost me a story sale.

Short version: Sheila Williams at ASIMOV’S really liked my story, “Wake Me When We Get There”, however, there was one fatal flaw to the story, which she pointed out, Allen Steele had handled much better in a similar story that he did.

He introduced me to Daniel Kimmel, a film critic in the Boston area, and the three of us stood around talking for quite a while. Daniel and Michael are very funny together.

He introduced me to author Sarah Beth Durst, who has been nominated for the Norton Award this year, and who stood around with us chatting for a while, too.

And he also introduced me to writer Bruce Coville who is the special guest at Boskone this year, and who stopped by to chat with us for a while as well. Michael and Bruce are also very funny together.

Naturally, I was overwhelmed by all of this. It’s such a cool feeling to talk face-to-face with these writers. I mean, I was chatting about Hugo Award speeches with Allen Steele, the guy who wrote “Hunting Wabbit”, which amused me so much when it appeared in SCIENCE FICTION AGE. There are nearly two full days left to the conference and now, I can’t wait for more! Thanks again, mabfan!

If I could go back in time, I’d sleep in later this morning…

This evening, I will start reading Joe Haldeman’s new book, The Accidental Time Machine. Time travel has been a staple of science fiction since H.G. Wells The Time Machine and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Now some scientists think that building a time machine might be plausible in the distant future.

Up From Dragons

I finished Up From Dragons by John Skoyles and Dorian Sagan, on Wednesday night, but haven’t had time to say a few words about it. It was one of those books that really surprised me. I had started to read it five years ago, but only got through a dozen pages or so before I moved onto other things. Even so, I recall those first dozen pages as being interesting.

I turns out that this is one of the better science books that I have read. My memory of The Dragons of Eden is just fuzzy enough to prevent me from making a fair comparison between the two of them. However, I remember loving The Dragons of Eden and I loved Up From Dragons as well.

Up From Dragons was a more technically difficult read than Eden. Without being mathematical, the book discusses the most complex object in the universe–the human brain–and I found myself at times at the limit of my comprehension, reading and re-reading passages. Nevertheless, I came away with a good understanding of what the book was trying to say, and a better understanding of the human brain, consciousness, and the evolution thereof than I have ever had before.

The book was well written, and moved in a logic order. In fact, it presented its arguments in such a way, that a chapter would conclude with a seemingly logical conundrum that would be resolved in the next chapter. I haven’t seen this kind of science writing since Isaac Asimov and I appreciate it. It makes the reading more fun. You feel like you are unraveling these mysteries along the way.

For anyone interested in human intelligence, and the evolution of the human brain, I definitely recommend this book. It’s a winner.

A brainy book

I’m through six chapters (about one-third) of Up From Dragons and it is one of the most difficult non-mathematical books I’ve ever come across. By this, I don’t mean that it is not well-written, or even unclear. On the contrary, it is very well-written and quite clear. But I find myself at the limit of my comprehension when dealing with the deep internal functioning of the human brain, with all of the gammas and the various waves and synchronizations, to say nothing of the complex brain anatomy.

But it is completely fascinating and I find myself asking all sorts of questions, and although it is difficult subject matter, an understanding is beginning to form out there in the haze just beyond my reach. I’ve never had this experience with a book before, the intellectual equivalent of getting the shit kicked out of you and coming back for more.

Up From Dragons

Those of you who announced your dislike of City of Quartz were right. Reading on the train home last night, I grew increasingly annoyed with what I felt was Davis’ pretentious literary style and by the time I got home, I was annoyed enough to give up the book.

So I picked up another book from my dusty shelves, Up From Dragons by John R. Skoyles and Dorian Sagan (son of Carl Sagan). I originally got this book five years ago and began reading it just after I moved to the D.C. area, but was sidetracked with too many other things at the time and gave it up after only a few pages. Yet those few pages always fascinated me. That, coupled with the fact that the book was really written as a kind of sequel to Carl Sagan’s brilliant, Pulitzer Prize-winning The Dragons of Eden (which is on my list of all-time favorite books), convinced me I needed to give it another try. So far, I’m glad I have.

The first two chapters develop a fascinating theory of consciousness and dreams which, unlike Freudian theory, are based on concrete experiments and studies. The argument made is that human consciousness evolved from reptilian consciousness, but that because evolution must build on what already exists, we still have that “reptilian” consciousness buried within our brain stems. Studies and experiments show that brain wave patterns of conscious (awake) reptiles are strikingly similar to that of mammals in slow-wave sleep. Furthermore, the brain wave pattern of sleeping reptiles is strikingly similar to that of mammals in R.E.M. sleep. Thus, slow-wave sleep (which we almost never remember) is what consciousness “feels like” to a lizard. As if that wasn’t enough, reptiles don’t control their body temperatures except by their environment. When sleeping, therefore, their temperatures tend to drop. The same is true in mammals. When in R.E.M. sleep, we become poikilothermic. For some reason, I find this just fascinating.

There is also confirmation (and cited studies) that the evolutionary value of dreams is primarily for learning new things: skills or memories. A person who is constantly woken during R.E.M. sleep has difficulty learning new skills. A person constantly woken during slow-wave sleep has difficulty with memory. The brain does not appear to care in what order this learning takes place which is often why dreams can seem random. I love this kind of stuff. When the brain processes these events, it takes a lot of juice. In fact, we tend not to remember our dreams because the bulk of the brain’s processing power is required for learning the skills and processing memories and can’t be spent on recursive activities like remembering the dreams generated in order to remember the events of the day.

The randomness of it, I feel, is yet another blow to Freudian theory. It seems to me that for Freudian theory to work, there has to be subconscious meaning to the particular thoughts that trigger dreams with all their alleged symbolism. Yet if the triggers are entirely random, if the brain does not care about the order in which the thoughts are processed, then the “meaning” given to the thought being process seems greatly devalued. It becomes no less random than picking a card from a Tarot deck at random and being told that there is significance to what you randomly picked. The significance may be there, but if so, it is nothing more than coincidence.

In any event, so far, this is a great book, and after I finish it, I may have to go back and re-read The Dragons of Eden, which I read for the first and only time in late December 1996.

On the shoulders of giants

Today I visited Westminster Abbey. I walked there from the hotel, crossing the Green Park, passing by Buckingham Palace, and along St. James Park until I reached the Abbey. Those of you that have seen it know that you can’t miss it. You are not allowed to take pictures inside, but I did take some pictures from outside.

On the shoulders of giants

The Trinity test

I have read two-and-a-half books on the creation and use of the atomic bomb. The first was Richard Rhodes Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb, which went into great detail on the building of the bomb. I also read Genius by James Gleick, a biography of Richard Feynman, one of the many physicists who worked on the bomb. And now, I am halfway through American Prometheus, another Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Halfway through the book, the Trinity test has just taken place and I can’t emphasize enough how much of a chill it causes in me to read descriptions of the test, even though I have read them several times before. It is perhaps one of the best examples of cognitive dissonance that I can imagine: the impressiveness of the human imagination to deduce such staggering power and pry the secrets loose from Nature; and yet at the same time, the horror of the invention in the hands of fallable men.

Death by Black Hole

I just finished reading Death by Black Hole by Neil deGrasse Tyson and I give it 5-stars. It was outstanding! I rarely rate a book as 5-stars and it has to be truly remarkable for me to do so. The last book that I ranked as 5-stars was First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen, and I read that book back in early November 2005, some 15 months ago. So 5-star books are few and far between.

The book is a collection of science essays, mostly on astrophysics, taken from his “Universe” column in NATURAL HISTORY magazine. The essays themselves were fascinating, but what pushed them over the edge was their colloquial style, and the humor that Tyson brought to them. Among my favorite essays in the book: “Stick-in-the-Mud Science”, “Hollywood Nights”, and “Holy Wars”.

Anyone out there who enjoys popular science, especially cutting-edge discussions of the universe on macroscopic and microscopic scales, will enjoy this book.

The tough part about reading a 5-star book is that it is always very difficult to follow up. The next book I am reading is Isaac Asimov’s The Secret of the Universe, also a collection of science essays (and one which I have read once before, but that has never made it onto my reading list because I read it prior to 1996). I love Asimov’s science essays from F&SF and I have read them all. I figured this would be the one thing with which I could follow up another great book of science essays.

Stick in the mud science

I’m through an additional 60 pages of Death by Black Hole and I’m really enjoying it. Much like Asimov, Tyson has a very colloquial way to his writing. I particularly enjoyed his essay “Stick In the Mud Science”. The essay demonstrates how much you could learn about the Earth and it’s position in the solar system, as well as other characteristics with nothing more than a stick in the mud, some string and a rock. It reminded me of Asimov’s essay, “The Man Who Weighed the Sun”. This is how science should be taught in junior and senior high schools.

Tyson is also amusing and has a tongue-in-cheek humor about him. The essay I am currently reading, called “Antimatter Matters” has the following, which made me laugh:

If a particle and antiparticle collide, the will annihilate by refiling the hole and emitting gamma rays. Gamma rays are the sort of radiation you should avoid. Want proof? Just remember how the comic strip character “The Hulk” became big, green, and ugly.

How can you not enjoy reading (and learning about) something interesting when little quips like that are thrown in here and there for good measure?