misce stultitiam consiliis brevem

Archive for June, 2009


Who doesn’t love science of the future? Today I’m linking to 7 Man-Made Substances that Laugh in the Face of Physics, which mentions several things which we are now able to create. Granted, most of them are still only produced in limited quantity rather than being ready for mass-market. And at least one (non-Newtonian fluids) I remember making myself as a kid out of flour and water. But overall, it gave me that thrill of reality catching up to science fiction. I love it when science advances sufficiently.


Who did it better?

This week‘s New Yorker has a “Talk of the Town” about a version of Assassins at a private high school in NYC. You can see a summary of the sketch here or find the full one online for subscribers (or, of course, search out a hardcopy!).

Fond, frightening, and mixed memories of the 1999 HRSFA-HCS Assassins War. Which reminds me that someone really ought to create a stories page on the HRSFANS wiki. (Yes, I realize that having said that, I am accepting de facto responsibility…)

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Keep Libel Laws Out Of Science

Sense About Science, a UK-based science outreach organization, has launched a campaign to prevent British libel law from being used to stifle scientific debate. The direct motivation for this campaign was a lawsuit brought against Simon Singh by the British Chiropractic Association. Singh holds a PhD in physics and has written bestselling popular science books on a variety of topics. In April 2008, in conjunction with the publication of his book “Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial”, he wrote an article in The Guardian about the BCA’s claims that chiropractice can treat a variety of illnesses including asthma and ear infections. Singh denounces these claims as unsubstantiated and reckless.

The BCA’s response was not to provide any evidence for the efficacy of these treatments, but rather to sue Singh for libel. And this is not an isolated incident: British libel law has often been used to threaten journalists and other writers who aim to provide objective criticism of scientific or other topics. A variety of factors, including excessive costs and a “reverse burden of proof”, make such claims particularly difficult to defend against. (This article in the Wall Street Journal provides more details on the topic, including a discussion of how British law can threaten writers around the world, not just those in the UK.)

Although Singh’s situation is obviously upsetting, I’ve been impressed and heartened by the thoughtfulness and good spirit with which Singh and others have responded. Singh is fighting the libel case out of his own pocket: he explains in a statement that despite the immense financial risk, he finds the issue sufficiently important and feels a personal obligation to challenge this flawed system:

Moreover, the article was about an issue of public interest, namely childhood health and the effectiveness of particular treatments for some serious conditions. Hence, I was not prepared to apologise for an article that I still believed was important for parents to read, and which I believed was accurate and legally defensible.

The final reason for fighting on was that I knew that I was able to devote the time, money and energy required for a long legal battle. Most journalists would have been forced to back down and settle under the pressure of a libel threat, so it seemed that I had a duty to fight on in light of my privileged position. I knew when started, and I still know now, that this legal fight will be horrendously expensive and draining, but it will not destroy me.

Singh and Sense About Science have received an outpouring of support from the scientific community, and from science bloggers in particular. Within 24 hours, more than 2,000 people signed a statement published by Sense About Science calling for a reform of British libel law. In Singh’s statement, he writes touchingly about how grateful he is to the members of a facebook group created to support him, and to the numerous bloggers and journalists who have been following his case. Throughout, Singh has been admirably even-tempered, presenting his thoughts straightforwardly and without malice. Likewise, his supporters have been encouraging and optimistic, without being rude to those on the wrong side of the debate.

Despite the grief that Britain’s libel laws have caused Singh and others, I take heart in seeing how the scientific community has come together to productively oppose these unreasonable laws, how science blogging in particular has been used to quickly spread awareness of this issue, and how Singh himself has taken on the burden of standing up for productive scientific inquiry and debate.

free debate

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Calvino & Serling

I always like to compare Italo Calvino‘s Invisible Cities to The Twilight Zone, so here goes: Both are collections of sketches that function as especially elegant metaphors for the tiny but devastatingly important processes driving the human mind.

The Twilight Zone, as I hope you know, was an early-1960s American television show, mostly half-hour episodes of bizarreness.  It’s beautiful, and still often available for your viewing pleasure. Some episodes are explicitly science fiction (time travel, space travel, aliens, &c.), others more horror-like (evil dolls, dead grandmothers speaking through toy telephones, monsters on airplanes, &c.).  Some characters are cutesy, and some twists are corny, but the overall effect of being drawn into the Twilight Zone is one of astonishing insight into what people don’t talk about.  Rod Serling, the host and creator of Twilight Zone, invites the viewer to consider what people’s fears mean to their humanity. TZ is a Cold War show, and in the situations it uses often of its time, but at the same time the stories told through those situations are remarkably timeless.

Invisible Cities is more recent, a book from the 1970s by the experimental Italian-out-of-Cuba writer Italo Calvino (I love it that the author’s initials are the same as those of the book–albeit only in English).  I first encountered Calvino in my Expos class freshman year at Harvard, a course called “The Limits of Originality” in which we compared linked works of literature or other art.  Cities, for which the “framestory” is a dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, was paired with excerpts from The Travels of Marco Polo.

But, despite occasional specific directions between one city and another, Invisible Cities is hardly a travelogue.  The cities–each sketched in a few paragraphs or at most a few pages–are fantastical and dreamlike, and generally not located in any geographical space.  Each city has a woman’s name, and a theme.  In each city, life is exaggerated in some pointed way–a strange relationship to their ancestors or descendents, or to the heavens, or to the neighbors that illuminates human relationships in our world. 

Reading science fiction or fantasy I often find myself wishing that my inner world could be so externally obvious–that my body would begin to disintegrate without someone to love, or that I could bleed to death for breaking a vow.  Yes, it would make life perilous in whole new ways, but sometimes I feel that it just might be worth it for my physical nature to reflect psychological stresses obviously enough for any bum on the street to see.  (Maybe I’d be more attuned to them then, too.) 

That’s what I get from both Calvino’s and Serling’s collections of oddities–a tuning to my nature and my neighbors’. 

Also, after Expos class I made it a life’s goal to memorize Invisible Cities–I figured I had a good 50-70 years to work on it, and it’s not that long, and very poetic–but I haven’t made any progress.  (Maybe if I actually owned a copy again … hmmm.  I got so into Bookcrossing that all my copies were released “into the wild.”)

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