Friday, March 29, 2013

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Q: How is a Newborn Baby like the Color Red?

A: Both of them are philosophically transformative (in the proper context).

Let me explain: There's an old philosophical story about how experience differs from knowledge. It's about a color researcher who happens to be color blind. She has studied wavelengths and spectra and knows all about the color red, but has never truly seen it. She may even be considered the world's expert on knowledge about the color red. She knows how the brain fires when it sees red and has read about how it's a different color from green. But does she truly know what "red" is?

Then one day she gets gene therapy and receives properly working opsins in her retina which allow her to see the color red. She turns to a red Rothko painting (hey, this is my story, I can tell it how I like) and sees a brilliant wash of crimson for the first time. She has gained something from the operation. But what is it exactly that she has gained? Not knowledge but a new experience. She sees red for the first time. This subjective experience is what philosophers call qualia.

Now comes along an argument from a philosopher that puts this into a new context. According to this argument, before you have a baby, you know all about it (including your own experience of being a baby). Maybe you can even test its DNA to find out about the baby. But you have never experienced being a parent. When you hold that baby for the first time, you're like the color researcher seeing red for the first time. This is a totally new, subjective experience, and this is so uniquely valuable that (philosophically speaking) it outweighs all the inconveniences and stress that result from that tiny squalling mass. The baby is a new color, a color no one in the world has even seen before, and (for the biological parents) a color literally mixed from the two parents' colors.

All this and more is summarized in the Percolator blog post "Maybe You Should Have a Baby". Including this quote:

Moreover, since having one’s own child is unlike any other human experience, before she has had the experience of seeing and touching her newborn child, not only does she not know what it is like to have a child, she cannot know. Without having the experience itself, she cannot even have an approximate idea as to what it is like to have that experience. Like the experience of seeing color for the first time, the experience of having a child is not projectable. All of this results from the fact that having one’s own child is transformative—and far more so than the experience of seeing color for the first time.

I would only add that, being the parent of four boys, I can attest that each of their "colors" is a brand-new gift to the world, unlike the others yet equally beautiful. One of the joys of parenting is finding out just how different your children are from eachother, and from you. It's also one of the greatest difficulties. Yet each child is indeed a work of art, and I'm grateful for each one.

Tolkien Redesigned

Sometimes less is more, no? I have to say The Hobbit is my favorite, although the elegance of The Return of the King and its multiple layers of evocative resonance makes it a close runner-up.

I'm going to return to this link which has many ways to print out these pics very soon ...

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Mechanical Philologist

I'm surprised it took this long.

Finally, the principles of bioinformatics have been applied to philology (the study of/love of words). The software used to make gene trees can be applied to word trees. Here's a news article on it and here is the original Proceedings of the NAS article.

This makes perfect sense because both words and genes are "made of letters." Words are like genes, and genes are like words. There is a deep poetry at the heart of life. Computers are good at analyzing genes, so (with the help of an ear or two) they should also be good at analyzing words.

Once again my mind turns to the anti-mechanism philologist, Owen Barfield. What would he say to this? Would he welcome this pattern-finding algorithm? Or would he insist that, rather than gathering a little more hidden info, this overlooks the most important part of words, the inner revelation and subjective experience?

Not being able to ask him right now, I can only look at the results with a Barfieldian eye, asking, how does the development of genes parallel the development of words? I think he'd at least welcome the idea that there are significant parallels between the two evolutions, and here's a program that may be able to capture them.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Book Review: The Pastor by Eugene Peterson

In a way, Eugene Peterson has been a pastor to me. I first read his books (and "The Message," his translation of the Bible) when I came to Seattle and joined my church 16, 17 years ago now. Peterson's words are tangled up with my own pastor's words and I'm sure mixed up at some point. I used to seek out "The Message" to use in Bible readings for the congregation or Sunday School. Because I associate Peterson's writing with my own translocation to the Northwest, I found it particularly fitting that in this, his memoir, he starts by drawing strong lines of attachment to his own place, western Montana (which I certainly count as Northwest enough to be "Northwest"). Peterson's words have always been part of the mental map of the Northwest for me, and now I find out that's because he is indeed part of the Northwest. I can't claim to have known this long ago, but I'd like to think that I may have felt it on an unconscious level.

The Pastor is not really about being a pastor; it's more about being part of a church. Peterson strikes an uncommon balance in that it's always clear that the church is distinct -- the church is The Church as opposed to the world -- but the church is not sealed off or even "above" the world it is called out from. Rather, the church is "for" the world it is called out from. Peterson may express this paradox better than any other current writer, to me at least.

So to learn about how the church should be the church, I suggest reading this man's memoir. It's not perfect, it could use some editing, but then again, so could this review. Another benefit is that you get some glimpses into what really matters for a writer writing -- and I even copied a page to put up on my bulletin board to glance over as I embark on this summer's writing project, high praise indeed because there's only so much room on that board. This book is worth the space on that board, and it's worth the time it took to read.

I may have never read a memoir that left the indelible impression, not so much of the author, but of the people and the God that he spent his life with. It's hard to call it a memoir because it is so other-focused in effect. A remarkable, quiet, and moving book.

Book Review: Reamde

This book is so thick that finishing it makes you feel like you've been through what the characters go through: a multi-country chase back and forth around the world, with lots of guns, boats, terrorists, and computer programs. Neal Stephenson is the Gen-X Tom Clancy. Don't get me wrong, Stephenson can write circles around Clancy, but both have the same loving attention to physical detail and intricate plots, always involving how things really work rather than how they seem to work in movies and TV. I liked Clancy's novels, so take that as a complement.

Reamde is an entertaining mashup of spycraft, woodscraft, and computercraft (or whatever you would call the heavy involvement of a World-of-Warcraft style game called T'Rain in the proceedings). But ultimately it's no more than beach reading: it's a diverting novel with one huge coincidence propelling the whole thing and lots of clever touches. Often clever, but I'm not sure if any rise to the level of ingenious. Thrilling as a rollercoaster, a few orders of magnitude longer, and in the end, about as deep and lasting an impact on the soul. Sometimes you need that, but actually, I prefer Stephen King in the end because King seems to be more "about something," and has characters with more heart. Lest I keep sounding like I didn't enjoy this novel, I affirm that I really did -- it's just that the experience (a month or so listening on audiobook) is already fading from mind, like a long, pleasent daydream.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Map of Physics-Land, Circa 1939

Three-quarters of a century ago, this map of physics was published, its "rivers" leading from ancient Greek philosophers through to nineteenth- and twentieth-century scientists. You can find Faraday where the Electricity river joins with the Magnetism river to become Electomagnetic, because he's the prime figure in realizing those two forces are actually one and the same. Maxwell is at the junction of Light, Electromagnetic, and Mechanical into a sound labeled "Energy." Out there at the edge, Einstein and Dirac gaze out into the past future of physics.

Standing now this much farther down the river, we can see that the "Weak Force" river must have joined with "Electromagnetic" in the 70's to form the "Electroweak" river, with Salam, Glashow and Weinberg nearby.

Past that it's hard to plot history on the map. Grand unification of strong with electroweak, and of gravity with the other three, is somewhere out there, if theories check out. But they haven't, not yet.

How do we tell when we've passed from a river into a directionless swamp? Is that what String Theory is? All we have is a very nice map, but I haven't heard of any experiments yet that would confirm the reality of String Theory's extreme elegance. Multiverse theory seems to have broadened into more of a sea without direction than a river.

Apparently we found the Higgs, right where it should be. Because it was where it should be it looks like our maps have no problems with them. I can see why many physicists seem slightly disappointed with this. Where do we go next? Onward and upward to higher energies. What do we do with ourselves if our theories are perfectly right?

It's fascinating how different the physics world looks in 2013 as opposed to 1939. The first half of the twentieth century may end up being a time of discovery like no other, with a discoverer (Einstein) like no other.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

They Don't Make Pyrex Like They Used To ...

I use Pyrex in both the lab and the kitchen, and always thought because the label was the same, that the kitchenware was the same as the labware. Alas, I was wrong.

In the 90's Corning changed the kitchen Pyrex recipe from borosilicate to soda lime silicate. So a pan that used to be able to handle a 300 degree F shift in temperature can now only handle 100 degrees F. Lab Pyrex is still borosilicate, although I still hold my breath when pouring something very hot, just by reflex, and the upcoming video only enhanced that reflex.

The silver lining is that Consumer Reports made a nice video showing just how shattering the oven-to-freezer move can be now. There's always a certain thrill to watching stuff blow up (especially if there's a safety shield between you and the explosion):

Monday, March 18, 2013

Comic-Book Elements

One of the ways to tell if you're a "chemist" or not is to ask yourself a simple question: Do the elements feel like different personalities to you, or not? If the answer is "yes" then you may be a chemist.

Here's a tumblr site where an artist has gone through and given a personality to each element, with a one-sentence factoid about each. These may be considered character designs for a Justice-League style crossover comic spectacular about certain complex chemical reactions ... well, a guy can dream, can't he?

These characters help to make a simple but fundamental point: chemistry is like a sprawling novel, with personalities joining and rejoining according to simple rules, making flash and fire, sound and fury, when they can. If you can get this point subconsciously and intuitively, I think you will do better on your next chemistry test!

And even though Kaycie D. doesn't (claim to) have much scientific training, I am sure that deep down, in the way that counts, Kaycie's an honorary chemist.

What does this say about the role of personality in defining the universe?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Rocks from the Bottom of a Martian Lake

Here's the data that shows what was in the rock that Curiosity dug up from Mars (after the rock was blasted with heat into a gas and then molecules of the gas "weighed" with mass spectrometry, that is).

The most amazing part is all the water it implies. It's a perfect clay that was probably deposited at the bottom of an ancient lake, meaning, holy cow, there was a whole LAKE on Mars. Since water is the most probable sine qua non for life, then this is exciting news for possible Martian microbes. Assuming existence is an exciting thing for microbes.

With all the evidence for water, Mars has just become a fascinating test case of how easy it is for simple life to emerge. If it didn't happen there, then it must be very hard. Looks like Mars was playing with a rather full deck, chemically speaking. Was it enough? Was the game rigged to win or lose? The question is still open, and it's the open questions that keep us moving forward.

The other things I note include that the red oxidized iron is not present below the surface, so most of Mars is gray, sulfur-rich rock without much oxygen. Life must have been simple and not photosynthesizing or oxygen-using.

Where did all that water go? What forms of life were able to take hold in those Martian lakes? Times like this I half think they shouldn't have called the rover Curiosity ... they should have called it Patience, because that's what we need to wait for these tests to be done ... which is a virtue, I know, I know ...

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Between Heaven and Earth

One of my favorite places on earth, its essence caught in a photograph:
The title of this work is "Midday Prayers" by Michael Kenna, from a show at the Tacoma Art Museum. I feel a trip to Tacoma coming on (since the north coast of France is even farther away) ...

Intro to Quantum Mechanics (Using Light Bulbs)

Did you know: The colors of fire are a big shining clue that light is made of discrete packets, or quanta? At least historically, the color of light emitted by a hot item led to the conclusion that light must be like a particle as well as like a wave. Via a few brains, including Einstein's. Now we can look at a star's color and tell its temperature. If you'd like to know how it all fits together (with stick figures to illustrate), here's a video of it, which you can be sure will find its way into my next physical chemistry course:

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Higgs Apocalypse (And I Feel Fine)

I thought this article was about the search for the Higgs boson, when in fact it's about the apocalypse. Funny how that happens. The connection between the two seemingly disparate things is that the currently measured mass of the Higgs boson implies that the universe is metastable. Lest this sound like a good thing it's important to remember that, since scientists think of energy the same way they think of gravity, becoming more stable = going "down" in energy, so that being "meta"/above the most stable level is a recipe for potential collapse.

If the Higgs field drops to a lower value, then everything that has mass is affected, and the delicate balance of forces that sustains matter itself reorganizes. No wonder they call the universe's current state a "critical" state!

My favorite quote from the end:

It’s a puzzle, he said, why the universe exists in such a critical state. In an e-mail, Dr. Giudice wrote, “Why do we happen to live at the edge of collapse?”
He went on, “In my view, the message about near-criticality of the universe is the most important thing we have learned from the discovery of the Higgs boson so far.”
Guido Tonelli of CERN and the University of Pisa, said, “If true, it is somehow magic.” We wouldn’t be having this discussion, he said, if there hadn’t been enough time already for this universe to produce galaxies, stars, planets and “human beings who are attempting to produce a vision of the world,” he said.
“So, in some sense, we are here, because we have been lucky, because for this particular universe the lottery produced a certain set of numbers, which allow the universe to have an evolution, which is very long.”
So the 13.7 billion years of constant physical constants (including Higgs boson mass not collpsing from its metastable state) is something to be grateful for. We're sitting on a bubble.

A couple of connections to be made here: First, this is reminiscent of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything in which he describes how the Yellowstone caldera is a gigantic volcano that could erupt and take this whole corner of the continential US with it. The metastable Higgs boson is the same kind of thing at a universal level. History had a beginning, and we're told it has an ending. The end is near.

Second, I realized over this weekend that two of my favorite movies (not objectively best but subjectively favorite, mind you) are Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys and Disney's animated Hunchback of Notre Dame. Both came out within about a year of each other and both are apocalyptic in several senses of the word. The idea of feeling on the verge of collapse is a familiar one and it makes for worthy art that resonates with, say, a college senior in 1995-1996.

But what should we do with this feeling? The answer is not to a personal collapse, or a bunker mentality. The answer is to realize that, one way or another, the kingdom of God is truly "at hand." It's sometime to wait for and anticipate, constructively. In the meantime, read Jeremiah 29, plant roots and work for the good of all around -- but don't worship the form of things that are, even now, passing away.

And be grateful for 13.7 billion years of constant,dependable physical laws. We may not get another 13.7 billion.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Book Review: Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars

Glittering Images would like to do for visual arts what Break Blow Burn did for poetry. It is indeed very good, and covers a lot of ground, and has an admirable purpose. Paglia has noticed the distance between artists and the general public, and this is her attempt to bridge that gap with 29 selected artworks reproduced here along with a few pages of descriptions.

I actually think it works better for the older artworks than the newer ones. For some reason, Paglia spends more time describing history and less time describing the art the closer she gets to the present. By the end, only a paragraph or two are spent on the specific artwork while pages go on providing context, while I don't remember that happening in Break Blow Burn. Also, once in a while Paglia's interpretation wheels off a little too far for my personal credibility. Regardless, Paglia isn't afraid to be idiosyncratic (I can even agree on much of what she says about George Lucas being a great visual artist, but I think it's much better applied to his first two Star Wars movies rather than his sixth). Some of the analysis feels tired or stretched.

Back and forth, back and forth, it comes down to this: Second-rate analysis from Camille Paglia is still about an order of magnitude better than average. Despite my mild frustrations, I still very much enjoyed this book. For the desert island, it'll be Break Blow Burn before this. For the non-desert islanders among us, it's well worth a check-out from the local library.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Turning a Video Camera into a Stethoscope

This is the coolest thing I've seen all week (and justifies a third post of the day). Here a simple computer program magnifies motions and hue changes in video so that we can see the blood flow (pulse) and breathing movements in patterns that could even be diagnostic, without touching the patient at all:

The best part? The code is open and the idea is simple, so I too cannot wait to see what people across the world do with this. It's like a Neal Stephenson novel in real life ...

Could this be used to identify overly stressed people by video? At TSA checkpoints? Is that an invasion of privacy? In court? Let's not get ahead of ourselves, but I do think this has a lot of potential.

Food Detectives in the Classroom

The New York Times recently ran a story in which the reporter (a film-maker) took five everyday food items and ran them through a bomb calorimeter. Lo and behold, the calorie counts on the packages don't match the claims, and four out of five were too high, adding up to an extra 500 calories.

I have mixed feelings about this study. Sure, some of the calorie counts are a little higher than claimed -- but the error bars in the bomb calorimeter's findings were not reported. Why are we trusting the instrument so much? This is far more about journalism than it is about science.

And yet, and yet ... it could be about science. What if a chemistry course on calorimetry had each lab group buy different kinds of food and test its calories, then compare to the claimed calories? They'd learn bomb calorimetry but they would really learn whether calorie counts are accurate, which is more interesting because it's what the calorimetry is for. If it's done by students doing it for the first time, their numbers may not be as accurate, but I'm not sure they're so accurate in the first place. It would be like the lab exercises I've read about in which students use DNA barcoding to check whether the fish at the supermarket is indeed the species that the label claims it is. Instant relevant lab exercises -- and if the students like, they can inflate it into a Michael-Moore-style expose more approprite for a communcations class. Feel free.

Or a newspaper as venerable as the Times could talk about error bars and point out that not all differences are truly significant ... but that may be too much to ask. Replication and journalism may be philosophically at odds. So be it.

There's Solid Nitrogen and Then There's SOLID Nitrogen ...

Oh, the fun you can have with a vacuum chamber! You can even make nitrogen molt. In this video, the medium of the fun is liquid nitrogen:

When the pressure drops and gas is pumped out, the nitrogen starts to evaporate to fill the void. Because the atoms escaping as gas have so much more freedom/so many more configurations, they are in a sense "hotter" and the atoms left behind must cool down as a result. (This evaporative cooling is the same reason sweat on a hot day will cool you down.) The cooled nitrogen drops quickly below its freezing point and the atoms lock into place. You have a glassy puddle of frozen nitrogen.

But it's still not done. The atoms are frozen but they froze too quickly -- they are still disordered and puddly. After a moment (about 1:20 in the video), the bonds start to rearrange into a better crystal, and the rearrangement propagates along the nitrogen ice, shedding nitrogen snowflakes as the crystal pops into place. It reminds me of a snake shedding its skin for some reason.

Not sure what this has to do with cooking, but good basic science can always find its true application later. Enjoy the show.