Archive for May 16th, 2007

Some thoughts on Cantor’s dilemma

May 16, 2007

Recently, Janet D Stemwedel over at Adventures in Ethics and Science  discussed Carl Djerassi’s LabLit Cantor’s dilemma with specific reference to Cantor’s succumbing to Kurt’s blackmail; Stemwedel, in some of her earlier posts, also used the novel to discuss mentoring and the role of skilled experimenters in translating hypotheses into tested theories. All this piqued my interest in the novel; so, I borrowed the book from the library and finished reading it.

Cantor’s dilemma is a good read; especially, if you are somebody with some amount of training in scientific research, you might finish it in a sitting or two. However, from a  purely literary point of view, I felt that there is some room for improvement; for example, I found the introduction of a humanities grad student roommate to discuss the differences in the research culture in sciences and in humanities to be a bit contrived.

I also felt that Djerassi did not do justice to the character of Jerry–he comes out to be a complaining (if devoted) post-doc who does not seem to take any intellectual pleasures in his experiments or in the ideas put forth to him by his mentor; in addition,  he is distracted by some off-hand comment about the use of we during scientific shoptalk; finally, even though he gives enough reasons for Cantor to doubt his integrity, towards the end of the novel, all he could come up with, is a justification about how Cantor was trying to suck up to Kurt.

Bottomline: Djerassi is probably the John Grisham of LabLit; he gives a breezy read, with even some issues to think about; but, a more nuanced and aesthetically satisfying Dorothy Sayers or P D James of LabLit, he is not.

Unpredictable, massive impacting, explainable!

May 16, 2007

Stephen J Dubner at Freakonomics blog strongly recommends The Black Swan (and Fooled by randomness too):

I am about a third of the way through The Black Swan, and am finding it to be one of the most fun and challenging books I’ve read in a long time. It barrels its way through history, psychology, philosophy, statistics, etc. You find yourself arguing Taleb every third sentence or so — but, to me, that is part of the great fun. He is a brash, stubborn, entertaining, opinionated, curious, cajoling writer and thinker.

You can also ask the author Taleb questions at the blogpost; take a look!

Explaining altruism

May 16, 2007

George MacNamee writes about the mystery of altruism in this blogpost; however, any reference to Bill Hamilton is missing in the piece; this piece by Gadagkar again (pdf), also discusses the origins of the altruism idea (with some nice cartoons about a question by Haldane thrown in). Prof. Gadagkar’s Survival Strategies is a good book too, on some of these aspects!

Indexing pain, the painful way!

May 16, 2007

… an entomologist named Justin O. Schmidt decided to take one for the team and let a lot of bees, ants, and wasps sting him. Then, he would rate the level of ouchiness in an admirably systematic method. He published his “Schmidt Pain Index” in 1984 (refined in later papers, eg 1990), which ranked the sting-pain on a scale from 0 (completely benign) to 4 (mostly dead). The descriptions of the stings he presents are borderline precious, hearkening back to wine-tastings or sampling a pungent perfume.

The piece goes on to describe the how it feels to be stung by sweet bee, fire ant, bullhorn acacia ant, bald-faced hornet, yellowjacket, honeybee and European hornet, red harvester ant, paper wasp, pepsis wasp, bullet ant, …

Well, the kind of things people do in the name of science–my mind boggles. Or, as my thesis adviser used to say “Enquiring minds always want to know”?

HowTo: Edit your writing

May 16, 2007

Meant for those who write novels; but, they seem to be relevant to any kind of writing:

1- Give myself time after writing the book to let it be new to my eyes.

2- Take copious notes of spellings, major events, and even clothes changes to keep things consistent throughout the book.

3- Don’t be afraid to cut it down. Tightening prose is one of the best things you can do while editing.

Darwin correspondence online

May 16, 2007

Nearly 5000 letters of Darwin are being uploaded on the net as part of the Darwin Correspondence Project; via Neurophilosophy. In addition, there are also summaries of another 9000 letters (which will be uploaded later).

I am surprised at the amount of writing he seems to have managed; the only other person I know of who managed such copious writing is Gandhi — whose collected works runs into hundred volumes (and all of it available too, online).

Makes me wonder how much either of them would have written had they been living in the blogging era!