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Archive for July, 2009

Twisted Films

PES makes some fantastic “twisted films” using everyday objects in unexpected ways to create inventive stop-motion animations. In addition to the film on the front page, I particulary like the human skateboard.

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All the news that’s fit to anagram?

I was just perusing that occasionally invaluable Internet Anagram Server known as “I, rearrangement servant” when I followed a link that I’d never noticed before and stumbled upon The Anagram Times, a  blog composed of anagrams of headlines from major newspapers. So, for example:

Metro bridge collapses in Delhi = This rails problem needed logic

I won’t say that the submissions are all brilliant, but I enjoyed reading them, and I think I’m glad to know that such a site exists. And if you think you can do as well or better, apparently they’re looking for new reporters…

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Unscientific America and the popular image of science

I was intrigued but ultimately left unsatisfied by this article on Salon.com. Titled “Why America is flunking science”, the article takes on the question of why so many Americans don’t know basic facts about science. But rather than repeating the same tired claims about the uneducated masses, they consider instead the image of science presented by Hollywood and by scientists themselves. They walk through a number of examples (the well-researched but still implausible plot of Angels & Demons, Michael Crichton’s denial of global warming, the supposed link between vaccinations and autism) to demonstrate that the problem isn’t always a lack of education:

Consider vaccination. An army of aggrieved parents nationwide, likely spurred in part by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., swears today that vaccines are the reason their children developed autism, and they seem virtually impossible to convince otherwise. Scientific research has soundly refuted this contention, but every time a new study on the subject comes out, the parents and their supporters have a “scientific” answer that allows them to retain their beliefs. They get their information from the Internet, from other parents of like mind, from a few non-mainstream researchers and doctors who continue to challenge the scientific consensus, and perhaps most of all — as was much the case with Crichton and global warming — from a group of celebrities, most prominently Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, who have made a cause of championing such misinformation and almost assuredly deeply believe in it.

Yet the parents who listen to McCarthy and Carrey — rather than the CDC and the FDA and the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine — tend to be well-to-do and highly educated. Calling them “ignorant” is hardly accurate. After all, they’ve probably done far more independent research on a scientific topic that interests and affects them than most other Americans have. Like Crichton, they may be misusing their intelligence, but it’s not as though they don’t have any to begin with. Perhaps Mark Twain put it best: “The trouble with the world is not that people know too little, but that they know so many things that ain’t so.”

While I’m highly sympathetic to the take-home message that we should be paying more attention to the popular portrayal of science, I found the article incomplete in significant ways. Most importantly, I’m not convinced that the portrayal of science in Hollywood is as big a problem as they make it out to be. The spread of misinformation by celebritites, yes, certainly problematic. But to rail against the archetype of the mad scientist in fiction seems like an overreaction. The relation between this image of science, and the fact that even educated people are confused about science, seems more nuanced than the article presents. When we consider educated people who are being misled about scientific problems, isn’t the problem exactly that they do care about science but don’t know how to recognize reliable information? This is very different from the problem of avoiding science altogether because of unfavorable stereotypes.

While the article discusses some new institutions that are trying to tackle the image problem, it doesn’t give any concrete suggestions about what individual scientists can do to improve the image of science. Fortunately, the authors, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, have just released a book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, dealing with themes like those in this article. I’m very much looking forward to reading it.

If you’re interested in this topic, you might also want to follow Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s blog, The Intersection, where they are currently engaged in a high-profile debate with Pharyngula’s PZ Meyers.

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Ideas Worth Spreading

I expect that most of our readers are familiar with TEDTalks. The TED Conferences takes place annually and “bring together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes).” Their talks are then published on their website, so that we mere mortals can experience them as well.

In the past I’ve mostly watched individual talks that others have pointed out to me, but today I took some time to explore the site and find things on my own. One of my discoveries was the “TED in 3 Minutes” series, which includes shorter talks. I particular liked “Arthur Benjamin’s formula for changing math education“. His idea, which I whole-heartedly agree with, is that high school math education should shift its focus away from calculus and onto statistics. Although calculus is integral (pun intended!) to higher math and sciences, most students will never need it. Probability theory, on the other hand, is immediately applicable to every student’s life. As we manage our finances or make medical decisions, it’s important for everyone to be able to intelligently assess risks and benefits.

To help spread all these ideas, the TEDTalks website has transcripts for all their videos. The transcripts allow the text of each talk to be searchable, and through the “interactive transcript” feature you can jump straight to the point in a video where given text appears. The “TED Open Translation Project” allows anyone to submit translations of these transcripts into other languages, to further spread these ideas beyond the English-speaking community.

With over 450 videos available, it’s difficult to know where to start watching TEDTalks. If you have a favorite talk or two, please let us know in the comments.

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Acrobatics + Yoga = Acroyoga

I find the amount of control that these people have over their bodies amazing:

You can hear a bit more about acroyoga in this video (but the demonstrations aren’t as impressive): Jason and Jenny, who you see in the embedded video here, invented the sport about five years ago in Berkeley, CA. I’ve heard of an acroyoga class being offered in Amsterdam, so apparently it’s spread quite quickly.

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Let’s talk about Great Sci Fi

Because, well, why not?

Personally, I am a proper Dune fanatic. Dune is the War and Peace of speculative fiction, and, yes, I say that believing War and Peace is the greatest novel yet written. Dune, too, encompasses everything:

  • War
  • Peace
  • Guerrilla tactics
  • Religion
  • Fanaticism
  • Time
  • Space (tesseracts)
  • Love
  • Death
  • Psychology
  • Compromise
  • Ecology
  • Legend
  • &c…

The plot is intricate and deeply thought out, several of the characters can break a reader’s heart, and the world-creation is quite simply complete.

I first encountered the Dune world at age 13, through the David Lynch movie adaptation.  I read the novel immediately afterwards, and since then have owned somewhere on the order of a dozen copies, most of which I have given away (indeed, the purpose of having extra copies on hand).  I generally try to start reading the book slowly with lots of processing time; this works with many books I love, but in the case of Dune I am inevitably absorbed, and I career through the last 150 pages in a short evening.  I am left feeling somewhat heartsick each time, for Dune ends but does not resolve: the story is wide-ranging and messy, and even the “right” solution to the crises involve lots of death and–worse–soul-destruction and the breaking of barriers that protect people, like self-preservation.  None of which will be forgotten or forgiven, the ending makes clear.  I love the story for its truth to life that way. 

I have seen a friend become a creature.

In my family, I should note, “proper Dune fanatic” means that we attempt to forget the existence of all series books subsequent to Dune itself.  Or at least to spare ourselves any interaction with them.  Dune ends openly, and so theoretically open to sequel, but Herbert was quite evidently utterly unable to keep up the intensity of engagement that any true succeeding volume would have required.  I don’t necessarily hold this against the author; I have been told that many of the subsequent books were written to make money for Mrs. Herbert’s medical bills, and I tend to imagine that Dune as a universe is something powerful enough that it existed (somehow) prior to the books, while Herbert merely (somehow) saw it and tapped into it.  Which is a great accomplishment in and of itself, and should be enough.

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