Thursday, April 25, 2013

Why It Can Be Hard to Hit a Baseball

Check out this animated .gif of the movement of Yu Darvish's pitches. They all start at the same place but they end up in completely different locations. How is someone supposed to hit that?:

Is the fact that the Mariners beat this pitcher once this season (out of the two times they've seen him) evidence that the high point of the season is already past?

Source link here.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Everything You Need to Know About the Doctor

Wonderfully concise infographic about Doctor who found here. I hadn't realized that his marriage may not be valid ... (see ***):

Monday, April 22, 2013

Book Review: The Old Ways

Robert Macfarlane is usually classified as a travel writer, and that's technically correct. His pace of travel may be slow, because he always writes about walking, but it's certainly moving from one place to another and describing what happens. So he's a travel writer, and an excellent one at that -- but I wouldn't read him if he was merely a travel writer. What's remarkable about his writing is that the case could equally well be made that he is a poet, and could almost equally be made that he is a science writer or an art writer (or both). In fact, it's only toward the end when he veers more into history and biography than describing his own experiences that his writing begins to lose its unique quality.

Macfarlane writes about rocks and geology, but also people and how they live among those rocks, why their feet scraped out the paths that he later follows.This is a book about the value of walking, from the UK, a country where walking is practically the national sport. Although perhaps the best chapters are not about walking, but about taking to the sea and following the boat paths. Close enough.

Here's two quotes that give a taste of the philosophical edge to Macfarlane's descriptions:

"The massif is a terrain shaped by what Nan Shepherd once called 'the elementals'. Mountain lanscapes appear chaotic in their jumbledness, but they are in fact ultra-logical landscapes, organized by the climatic extremes and severe expressions of gravity: so hyper-ordered as to see chance-made." -- p. 192

"'As I watch [the world],' wrote Nan Shepherd in 1945, 'it arches its back, and each layer of landscape bristles.' It is a brilliant observation about observation. Shepherd knew that 'landscape' is not something to be viewed and appraised from a distance, as if it were a panel in a frieze or a canvas in a frame. It is not the passive object of our gaze, but rather a volatile participant -- a fellow subject which arches and bristles at us, bristles into us. Landscape is still often understood as a noun connoting fixity, scenery, an immobile painterly decorum. I prefer to think of the word as a noun containing a hidden verb: landscape scapes, it is dynamic and commotion causing, it sculpts and shapes us not only over the courses of our lives but also instant by instant, incident by incident. I prefer to take 'landscape' as a collective term for the temperature and pressure of the air, the fall of light and its rebounds, the textures and surfaces of rock, soil and building, the sounds (cricket screech, bird cry, wind through trees), the scents (pine resin, hot stone, crushed thyme) and the uncountable other transitory phenomena and atmospheres that together comprise the bristling presence of a particular place at a particular moment." -- p. 255

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Replacing Flow Cytometry with ... DVDs?

I read a story about scientific ingenuity in middle school that, on a subconscious level at least, made me want to be a scientist. In it, a physicist was able to cool down matter with lasers into a state so cold that it collapsed in on itself, overlapping in space the way light waves do. He turned substance into light, it had something to do with the spin of the nucleus or something like that. Now, the best part of this was that this scientist didn't have money for all the lasers you use to cool down the matter, but instead he figured out how to dismantle CD players and use the ubiquitous mass-produced lasers from those to do that exact job.

Now there's something else that reminded me of that story, only with DVDs instead of CDs. In this link there's the story of how if you add an extra photodiode to a DVD player and then make this special DVD with microfluidic channels inside, then you can adhere a specific molecule to those channels, spin the DVD around and detect the cells that stick to that molecule using the DVD player. In short, you can look and see if the cells have a specific receptor or not.

If this can be made to work at low concentrations of cells (and that's a big if), then this could replace a $50,000 flow cytometer with a $200 DVD player. The immediate application discussed is an HIV test, but that's only the beginning. You could look for cells complementary to any molecule you could stick to the wall in high enough concentration. With $49,800 left over for other experiments.

That's the kind of science that I find truly exciting. Not the bigger more expensive instrument (that's for other scientists, it takes all kinds) but the cheaper more efficient instrument. The MacGyver effect, if anyone remembers that show -- although I personally was always more partial to the A-Team, potato, potahto. This is the kind of science I can do with undergrads in my lab. Something you can do with your own hands (and budget): that's exciting.

I'm going to start a new tag for this, because I keep finding examples. Let's call it "cheap science," although "MacGyver science" might be just as good. More to come ...

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Book Review: Ender's Game

Read this one aloud to the boys. This time through, knowing the course of the story, a few things stood out. First of all, it's intense. Other authors create suspense, but Card creates intensity. The detail in strategy and mechanics of the game, and the demonstration of Ender's skills, it's all just as impressive on a second reading.

Also on a second reading, it's clear that Card is very good at not telegraphing certain spoilers. The spoiler of all spoilers occurs a good distance before you reach the end of the book so you are fooled (this won't be a problem in the movie, of course, because you don't know how much time you have left as you know how many pages you have left!). The seams where Card must have expanded this story from its original short-story form are very clear to me. I've only read the immediate follow-up book (also very good) but not any of the others in which he must really expand on some of the threads left hanging.

Card's ambivalence about violence in a story that, quite frankly, depends on it is a road for future analysis. The reason why you like Ender's Game is the strategy and the game-like nature of the conflict, the breathtaking intensity and intricacy of it all. In the end, Card makes you feel some shame for having liked it but doesn't do much more than that. That's deliberate but I need to read the later books to see where he takes it. Right now I can't tell if he's trying to have his cake (violence) and eat it too.

This was just on the borderline of being too intense for our nine-year-old, even with some judicious parental editing. Caveat emptor. But all the same, it must be one of the top 25 books of all time for me. Let's hope the movie can do it justice and expand it in subtle ways.

How high should I put the 3rd book and its follow-ups on my reading list, I wonder?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Spiral Emerging from the Landscape

My friend Roger Feldman recently completed a sculpture in north Scotland. It's ... well, you should see for yourself, and if you don't have access to a private jet to Scotland, these videos are the next best things:

ekko from Far North Film on Vimeo.

ekko: Return from Far North Film on Vimeo.

We too are part of the landscape.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Book Review: How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

I'm tired of teaching-reform books. Finding a good one is as difficult as finding most anything on the Internet these days: you have to wade through hundreds of half-baked attempts to find the gem you're looking for. And there's a lot of them too: here's an op-ed on the topic running today/tomorrow in the New York Times. Good ideas, but a definite sense of futility, and I feel like I've read it before. Also, couldn't it really be edited to one page instead of two?

It's in this context that How Children Succeed really does stand out. It's not a perfect book, but it's the best on the topic that I've read. Paul Tough writes like he has a personal stake in the topic, and by the end of the book you find out that he indeed does, in multiple ways. He covers ground from the famous KIPP academy to public schools in Chicago to a tournament-winning chess team from the Bronx. There's some good science in here, but it's not wielded like a club, it's integrated into the conclusions, and it points beyond itself (perhaps that is the sign of good science).

A few of the points are contradictory -- is it optimism or pessimism that builds success? -- and a few of the initiatives, like the new "character GPA" focus, are so new they are untested and feel faddish. (There's nothing more faddish than education reform ... ) These are exceptions. Most of this book is much more solid than average.

And don't be thrown by the "children" in the title: several parts of the book have to do with undergraduate retention and definite "young adult" areas of success.

One point Tough hits on but also tends to shy away from is how close all these character-building traits are to a traditional concept of virtue. I understand that, recently, virtue tends to bring to mind compulsive Republican gamblers (it's a long story if it doesn't for you), but to me at least, the notion only works if it is grounded in a community of oft-confused pilgrims working their way toward a goal rather than having arrived at it. In that context, virtue is the best single word to describe what this book recommends. Virtue and love, especially the love of a parent. That definition of virtue must involve love.

My best recommendation of this book is that Tough covers the same ground as Malcolm Gladwell in several places, in a much less flashy yet somehow more lasting manner. So in that sense, he's a more humble and more accurate Gladwell, writing in book length rather than essay length. What's not to like about that?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Very Hungry Silly Putty Blob

This may look alive, but it's just magnets. The cube is a super-strong neodynium magnet and the gray stuff is Silly Putty mixed with iron filings. The magnet pulls the Putty around it, although it looks like the other way around. We ascribe agency to fluid motion I suppose, which is normally a reasonable assumption.

Proteins also come together because of electromagnetic interactions on a much smaller scale, so in that sense it's not an exaggeration to say life depends on magnets. Only in cases like this where you can actually see it is all.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Neil Gaiman on Writing

Neil Gaiman recently published eight rules for writing, which (like his writing) tend toward the perfectly apt. I will be posting these on my wall next to my writing computer:

  1. Write
  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
  3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
  4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
  5. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  6. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
  7. Laugh at your own jokes.
  8. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
At this site they have several other authors' rules if you want to know what other authors say. The rules are overlapping but non-identical, as you'd expect.

Book Review: The Periodic Table: A Very Short Introduction

A blurb on the inside cover of this book declares that this Oxford Very Short Introductions series is "the thinking person's Wikipedia." I disagree, because in the most important way, it's the exact opposite of Wikipedia: it's written by one person, solely from that person's point of view. But it is indeed written at the level of detail of a Wikipedia entry, with more emphasis on history than on current usage.

It's well worth reading, and I say that as someone who teaches the subjects covered here in a fair amount of detail. It's also less than 150 pages long and small enough to fit in one's pocket. Eric R. Scerri gives a brisk tour of layout and history from a scientist's point of view, technical but not arcane or dry, and then knows when to stop.

The only repetitive part for me was describing when history was repetitive, making new elements by melding atomic nuclei together, making elements so new that numbers not names are the only memorable thing about them. Is that really chemistry, or is it physics?

At any rate, I will be looking for other members of this series in the future. And by that I mean both the Very Short Introductions and the periodic table.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Book Review: Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks

I should have listened to that voice in my head (maybe it was a hallucination) and started with Uncle Tungsten as my first book by Oliver Sacks, but chose Hallucinations because it just came out and I got it quickly from the library. My only previous exposure to Sacks was indirect, by watching the movie Awakenings when it came out I-don't-want-to-think-about-how-long ago. From frequent reference, I know he's a good writer, and I can see his technical skills and breadth of experience on display here. This is just so much not the book I should have started with. Color me nonplussed.

Hallucinations left me (mostly) flat because, despite its rigid organization into different chapters being types of hallucinations, it feels disorganized or perhaps overorganized, more often than not consisting of a list of well-described hallucinations with a little bit about the proximate medical or neurological cause. The writing is smooth and the scenes are set expertly, so I have a very clear understanding of what hallucinations must be like. That's something. Hallucinations themselves are so vivid that even so, it is an engaging book, but like hallucinations, there is no coherent narrative.

A few exceptions to this rule exist, especially when Sacks talks abut why he started to write in the manner he is famous for today, and a few other personal anecdotes. I wonder if the book would have worked better as a chronological memoir rather than a topical list.

But what really surprises me is how little Sacks puts these brain-images together to tell us anything about how the brain really works. It seems to me that many hallucinations have a "normal brain function" equivalent, such as how when you're in the lab running HPLC profiles all day, you walk home and the mountains look like HPLC profiles a bit (that might be just me but any repetitive perception seems to give an inertia to the brain, like still feeling the rocking of waves after leaving the ocean). Now, that's voluntary and imaginary, but it looks like the brain is doing the same thing when it hallucinates some types, just against your will (or knowledge). The same for how dreams reflect something of your recent (or distant) experience. So hallucinations tell us something important about perception itself, I'm sure of it. But I couldn't find anything about that (the philosophy of hallucinations?) in this book. The only reference to Wittgenstein is a throwaway more about his brother than him.

At least Sacks doesn't go directly at religion, although there's a whole separate book to be written here by a Barfieldian Christian who takes the vast variety and convincing, quasi-mystical nature of hallucinations seriously but also sees it as, possibly, part of a created order of perception as well. But instead we get the old story about how Joan of Arc may have been epileptic (yes, and ... ? Where in the rules does it say God can't use epilepsy?) and a tacked-on semi-patronizing paragraph about how this tells us nothing either way about the divine.

Sacks is clearly a gifted writer; this just was not the book for me to start on. I've got another Sacks book on hold and I also own Uncle Tungsten from a library sale, and you can't go wrong with an ode to how cool the periodic table is, so I'll give him more chances. I should've started with that last one, I know it ...

Monday, April 1, 2013

2013 Color Lecture

Every Spring when it's my turn to teach Natural Sciences Seminar I present a lecture about color, and I try to make it a unique combination of biology, chemistry, and physics. This year, lots of new information about these berries, which are the shiniest berries in the world. They can maintain bright color and shine without any pigments whatsoever. Here's the link if you're interested, the lecture itself starts about 18 minutes in.