31 January 2011
30 January 2011
29 January 2011
28 January 2011
27 January 2011
26 January 2011
25 January 2011
24 January 2011
Elizabeth Rosenthal continues the narrative -- "Over the next 100 years, many scientists predict, 20 percent to 30 percent of species could be lost if the temperature rises 3.6 to 5.4 degrees Farenheit. If the most extreme warming predictions are realized, the loss could be over 50 percent, according to the United Nations climate change panel.
"Polar bears have become the icons of this climate threat. But scientists say that tens of thousands of smaller species that live in the tropics or on or near mountain tops are equally, if not more, vulnerable. These species, in habitats from the high plateaus of Africa to the jungles of Australia to the Sierra Nevada in the United States, are already experiencing climate pressure, and will be the bulk of the animals that disappear.
"In response to warming, animals classically move to cooler ground, relocating either higher up in altitude or farther toward the poles. But in the tropics, animals have to move hundreds of miles north or south to find a different niche. Mountain species face even starker limitations. As they climb upward, they find themselves competing for less and less space on the conical peaks, where they run into uninhabitable rock or a lack of their usual foods -- or have nowhere farther to go."
Whether or not one agrees that runaway global warming is anthropogenic (caused by humans), the cold fact is that temperatures around the world are rising faster and farther than ever before. If you are in a burning house, you don't stand around and ask whether the fire was started by a broken gas line or a cigarette. You put out the damned fire. All nations must unite in addressing this, the most urgent long-term issue of our time (alongside human overpopulation), for we all have a stake in the outcome. The stakes -- loss of species, rises in sea level, more numerous and powerful hurricanes, shifts in climate zones, loss of crop lands, famine, war -- are too dire to ignore.
I'm most grateful to all who spend a few minutes here. I invite you to share your thoughts by clicking on "Comments" at the bottom of any given post. I also invite you to sign on as a Follower (see right-side column). Each new post will be delivered to your email inbox automatically. Thank you all.
23 January 2011
The incident was widely publicized -- I recall reading about the crew's treatment in Stars and Stripes. Notably, photos of allegedly cooperative crew members were disseminated to the world press by North Korea as evidence of U.S. spying. What the North Koreans did not realize was that those same crew members were risking their lives by displaying their middle fingers extended, as a message to the world that the set-up was phony. Check out The Digit Affair for one crewman's first-hand account of the successful sabotage of North Korean propaganda. A sample image appears below -- click to enlarge.
HANDWRITING. Gwendolyn Bounds reports in How Handwriting Trains the Brain that "researchers are finding that writing by hand is more than just a way to communicate. The practice helps with learning letters and shapes, can improve idea composition and expression, and may aid fine motor-skill development. It's not just children who benefit. Adults studying new symbols, such as Chinese characters, might enhance recognition by writing the characters by hand. Some physicians say handwriting could be a good cognitive exercise for baby boomers working to keep their minds sharp as they age."
As I've grown older and my handwriting has become somewhat shaky, I've turned to the computer keyboard for typing my emails and letters, in order to retain legibility. Perhaps I should rethink this. It remains true that a handwritten note or letter from a friend or loved one has a more personal feel than something typed. If keeping my mind sharp is a perk, so much the better, eh?
FRIENDS. I have mixed feelings about the Scientific American article Why You're Probably Less Popular Than Your Friends. On the one hand, the message isn't exactly an ego booster. However, the elegant simplicity of the math used to support the claim is appealing, and has application across a wide range of topics involving numbers. See what you think. (Note: the copyrighted image below courtesy of Melissa McCarthy)
22 January 2011
"A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring; ~~ Alexander Pope
I am now 86 pages into a remarkable book, Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry, by Kenneth Koch. Although my own writing sometimes approaches the nuance of poetic prose, I make no pretense of being a poet, nor of knowing much about poetry. So Koch's book has been a revelation. He conducts the reader on a tour of the foundations of poetry, breaking it down into its component parts, with plenty of examples along the way. Here is one of the most lucid descriptions of poetry I've ever encountered --
"If we take the idea of a poetic language seriously, it can be defined first as a language in which the sound of the words is raised to an importance equal to that of their meaning, and also equal to the importance of grammar and syntax. In ordinary language, the sound of a word is useful almost exclusively in order to identify it and to distinguish it from other words. In poetry its importance is much greater. Poets think of how they want something to sound as much as they think of what they want to say, and in fact it's often impossible to distinguish one from the other."
When Leonard Bernstein delivered his 1973 series of six Norton lectures at Harvard, titled The Unanswered Question (still available on DVD), he brilliantly illuminated the structure and function of music by noting the parallels between music and language, borrowing from the linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky. In Making Your Own Days, Koch similarly illuminates poetry by noting the structural and functional parallels (and differences) between poetry and music, as well as poetry and prose. The degree of overlap is astonishing, yet it makes perfect sense. There is subconscious music in poetry, and subconscious poetry in music. Scan the Wikipedia article on linguistics and you'll see what I mean. It is a particular delight when the understanding of one field of study lends dimension and texture and color to another field.
Speaking of music, NYTimes columnist Anthony Tommasini has presented his choices for the ten greatest classical music composers in history. Any such list is subjective, but Tommasini does a good job of explaining his choices (see image below, click to enlarge). They are, in descending order, as follows --
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828)
Claude Achille Debussy (1862-1918)
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Giuseppi Verdi (1813-1901)
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Bela Bartok (1881-1945)As explored in yesterday's post, our preoccupation with round numbers in general, and the number ten in particular, makes for some unfortunate omissions. When I view the list above, I have a few quibbles with the order (Mozart should be at #2, for instance), but I also cry out, "What about Rachmaninoff? Where is Haydn? Vivaldi? Mendelssohn? Chopin?" Surely the list of preeminent classical composers should be expanded to 20! Ah well, food for thought, grist for one's mill, choose your metaphor and fire when ready.
Another musical curiosity -- in Pearls Before Breakfast, Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten describes a wonderful experiment, one into which you, gentle reader, might insert yourself to see what your response would be. Here is the setup --
"He emerged from the Metro at the L'Enfant Plaza station and positioned himself against a wall next to a trash basket. By most measures he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved t-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.
"It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1097 people passed by .... Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape. Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? What if he's really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you? What are the moral mathematics of the moment?"
"On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by the Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities -- as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste. In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?"
You'll have to check out Pearls Before Breakfast to learn more. If you are surprised by what you read, you'll not be alone. Be sure to view the embedded video in the article, and wonder to yourself -- would I have stopped?
21 January 2011
The study, "Round Numbers as Goals," does not offer a psychological explanation for this quirk of ours. My conjecture (with no evidence to substantiate it) is that subconsciously we are reverting to the source of our use of a numeral system with 10 as its base -- we first learned to count using our fingers and thumbs, of which we have ten. Holding up seven or nine fingers may feel incomplete, unsatisfying. Holding up all ten? Aaah, resolution! (Imagine if we, like cartoon characters, had only eight manual digits, and used a base-8 numeral system.)
BANNED WORDS. We have heard (unfortunately) of banned books. Carl Zimmer has banned the use of certain words from his science writing classes. His motivation does not derive from prudery or political correctness. Rather, he explains, "anyone who wants to learn how to write about science -- and to be read by people who aren't being paid to read -- should work hard to learn how to explain science in plain but elegant English -- not by relying on scientific jargon, code-words, deadening euphemisms, or meaningless cliches."
Bravo. You will find Zimmer's Index of Banned Words here, and his explanation about why words (along with sentences, paragraphs, etc.) matter here. "Death to Obfuscation!", indeed. Prepare to be entertained.
20 January 2011
19 January 2011
18 January 2011
- If a photon of light were able to bend its course into a curve, it would circle the Earth at the equator 7.75 times in one second.
- That same light takes 8.3 minutes to travel the 93 million miles between the Sun to the Earth. This means that each time we look at the sun, we aren't seeing it as it appears now. We're seeing it as it appeared 8.3 minutes ago. We are seeing the past. We are witnessing history.
- The more distant the object, the longer it takes light to travel the distance from that object to our eye, hence the further back in history we see. The nearest star to our sun, Alpha Centauri, is situated 4.37 light years away. A light year is a measure of distance (how far light travels in a year's time), not a measure of time. So when we look at the nearest star, we are seeing it as it appeared 4.37 years ago, not as it appears now. Even older history, but nothing like the history we observe when we view the most distant objects in the universe, whose light takes billions of years to reach us. Wrapping one's imagination around such distances could fry one's brain.
With this as background, I refer you to a NYTimes article titled Darkness on the Edge of the Universe. The article provides a clear explanation of the history of our understanding of not merely the size of the universe, but its evolution. For our universe is expanding, as discovered by Edwin Hubble in 1929. His finding upset Einstein's vision of a static universe, and in the decades since physicists have struggled to understand the balance between the force which holds the matter in the universe together, gravity, and the antigravity force which drives the matter in the universe apart, dark energy.
In recent years, two teams of astronomers have independently arrived at the same conclusion -- that the rate of expansion of the universe, far from slowing down, is actually accelerating. Standing beside the vital questions raised is "an unassailable conclusion, one that's particularly unnerving. If the dark energy doesn't degrade over time, then the accelerated expansion of space will continue unabated, dragging away distant galaxies ever farther and ever faster. A hundred billion years from now, any galaxy that's not resident in our neighborhood will have been swept away by swelling space for so long that it will be racing from us at faster than the speed of light. (Although nothing can move through space faster than the speed of light, there's no limit to how fast space itself can expand.)
Light from such galaxies will therefore fight a losing battle to traverse the rapidly widening gulf which separates us. The light will never reach Earth and so the galaxies will slip permanently beyond our capacity to see, regardless of how powerful our telescopes may become.
Because of this, when future astronomers look to the sky, they will no longer witness the past. The past will have drifted beyond the cliffs of space. Observations will reveal nothing but an endless stretch of inky black stillness. (Click on any image to enlarge.)
17 January 2011
16 January 2011
15 January 2011
- the hydrosphere, which describes the combined mass and behavior of water found on, under and over the surface of the planet;
- the atmosphere, the layer of gases surrounding the planet and retained by Earth's gravity;
- the lithosphere, the rigid outer shell of our rocky planet, which includes the crust (the outermost shell) and the mantle (the predominantly solid but more viscous layer lying between the crust and the planet's molten outer core);
- the biosphere, the global sum of all ecosystems -- the zone of life on Earth.