Archive for November, 2007

Repairing the clock at the center of the world

November 27, 2007

Here is an interesting story about Parisian undercover organisation, which restored, among other things, an antique clock at Pantheon:

Klausmann and his crew are connaisseurs of the Parisian underworld. Since the 1990s they have restored crypts, staged readings and plays in monuments at night, and organised rock concerts in quarries. The network was unknown to the authorities until 2004, when the police discovered an underground cinema, complete with bar and restaurant, under the Seine. They have tried to track them down ever since.

But the UX, the name of Untergunther’s parent organisation, is a finely tuned organisation. It has around 150 members and is divided into separate groups, which specialise in different activities ranging from getting into buildings after dark to setting up cultural events. Untergunther is the restoration cell of the network.

Members know Paris intimately. Many of them were students in the Latin Quarter in the 80s and 90s, when it was popular to have secret parties in Paris’s network of tunnels. They have now grown up and become nurses or lawyers, but still have a taste for the capital’s underworld, and they now have more than just partying on their mind.

“We would like to be able to replace the state in the areas it is incompetent,” said Klausmann. “But our means are limited and we can only do a fraction of what needs to be done. There’s so much to do in Paris that we won’t manage in our lifetime.”

The Untergunther are already busy working on another restoration mission Paris. The location is top secret, of course. But the Panthéon clock remains one of its proudest feats.

“The Latin Quarter is where the concept of human rights came from, it’s the centre of everything. The Panthéon clock is in the middle of it. So it’s a bit like the clock at the centre of the world.”

Hat tip: Kieran healy at Crooked Timber 

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It is not about you!

November 27, 2007

John Hawks has some advice to those on job-hunting expeditions:

If you’re in the job-hunting boat, and starting to feel unappreciated — like, when are they going to call? Why not you? Is there something wrong with your work? Etc., then read this post from New Kid on the Hallway and remember it’s not about you.

New Kid’s a medieval historian, but the story is much the same: job ads are mostly written by lawyers, job searches rarely go in predictable directions, and search committees rarely know exactly what they are looking for. If you think the ad fits you exactly, that still doesn’t mean that they’ll see it the same way.

Coming to think of it, even if you get an offer from somewhere, it might be worthwhile to remember all these factors which determine who gets the jobs and who does not. But, it is more crucial for those who feel underappreciated than to those who are getting offers, I think.

Virtual surgeries

November 26, 2007

Sceince Blog has an interesting post on virtual surgery and the mathematics behind it:

Making virtual surgery a reality will require solving mathematical equations, as well as making progress in computational geometry and computer science. An applied mathematician, Teran works in these fields; he develops algorithms to solve equations. Advances by Teran and other scientists in computational geometry, partial differential equations and large-scale computing are accelerating virtual surgery.

How human tissue responds to a surgeon, Teran said, is based on partial differential equations. Teran solves on a computer the mathematical equations that govern physical phenomena relevant to everyday life. He has studied the biomechanical simulation of soft tissues.

“Most of the behavior of everyday life can be described with mathematical equations,” he said. “It’s very difficult to reproduce natural phenomena without math.”

Tissue, muscle and skin are elastic and behave like a spring, Teran said. Their behavior can be accounted for by a classical mathematical theory.

Progress in his field is already rapid, Teran said, noting that “things in geometry that used to take days and days start to take hours and minutes.”

Teran believes medical schools will increasingly train physicians using computer surgical simulation.

Sounds interesting; take a look!

What the fossils say

November 26, 2007

Afarensis reviews Evolution: what the fossils say and why it matters:

Overall, the book is well written, well organized and makes a powerful case for evolution. It is definitely a worthy addition to the anti-creationist literature and fills a much needed gap. It is also an excellent book for the average lay person interested in evolutionary biology and paleontology.

Generally, I find anti-creationist books to be not of much interest to me, personally. However, since Afarensis specifically mentions “average lay person interested in evolutionary biology and paleontology“, I think I should take a look at it; may be you too, if you are interested in these areas.

Kieran Healy has some problems

November 26, 2007

In visualizing

a fine, blurry line.

A tribute to Tillie and Grace

November 26, 2007

To lose Tillie Olsen and Grace Paley in one year is a bad year, even if a lot of people didn’t know it at the time, Tillie Olsen would have said, and she would have been right. To have had them both for so long was a privilege, even if a lot of people didn’t know it, Grace Paley would have said. And she would have been right.

If there were ever two people, and not coincidentally at all, two women, who epitomized PEN’s goals: advancing literature, defending free speech and fostering connections betweens writers everywhere, Tillie and Grace were it.

That is Amy Bloom paying her tributes to two writers who passed away this year; via Maud.

The resurrection of the virus

November 26, 2007

Then, last year, Thierry Heidmann brought one back to life. Combining the tools of genomics, virology, and evolutionary biology, he and his colleagues took a virus that had been extinct for hundreds of thousands of years, figured out how the broken parts were originally aligned, and then pieced them together. After resurrecting the virus, the team placed it in human cells and found that their creation did indeed insert itself into the DNA of those cells. They also mixed the virus with cells taken from hamsters and cats. It quickly infected them all, offering the first evidence that the broken parts could once again be made infectious. The experiment could provide vital clues about how viruses like H.I.V. work.

Michael Specter at the New Yorker, in a rather lengthy piece on why evolutionary biologists are bringing back extinct deadly viruses. There are some rather provocative sentences in the piece, like this one for example:

Weiss, who is responsible for much of the basic knowledge about how the AIDS virus interacts with the human immune system, was not deterred. He was eager to learn whether the chicken retroviruses he had seen were recently acquired infections or inheritances that had been passed down through the centuries. He moved to the Pahang jungle of Malaysia and began living with a group of Orang Asli tribesmen. Red jungle fowl, an ancestor species of chickens, were plentiful there, and the tribe was skilled at trapping them. After collecting and testing both eggs and blood samples, Weiss was able to identify versions of the same viruses. Similar tests were soon carried out on other animals. The discovery helped mark the beginning of a new approach to biology. “If Charles Darwin reappeared today, he might be surprised to learn that humans are descended from viruses as well as from apes,” Weiss wrote.

On the whole, the entire piece makes a very interesting reading, and mixes the biographical details of the scientists with their work. Take a look!

Update: Carl Zimmerman and some of his commentors discuss the piece.

Lemaitre, Hubble, and translational fidelity!

November 25, 2007

You remember Lemaitre of Bible, age of earth and God’s mistakes fame? Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean has a nice discussion as to whether the credit for Hubble’s law should actually be given to Lemaitre; apparently, Lemaitre got the constant value, now known as Hubble’s constant, quite close; however, Arthur Eddington (of the Sir Arthur Adding-One fame), when he translated Lemaitre’s paper–which gave the cosntant–from French into English, dropped that one sentence which discussed the data!

Having said that, Sean argues as to why it should still be called Hubble’s law and not Lemaitre’s law:

However — Lemaitre didn’t have very good data (and what he did was partly from Hubble, I gather). And for whatever reason, he did not plot velocity vs. distance. Instead, he seems to have taken the average velocity (which was known since the work of Vesto Slipher to be nonzero) and divided by some estimated average distance! If Hubble’s Law — the linear relation between velocity and distance — is true, that will correctly get you Hubble’s constant, but it’s definitely not enough to establish Hubble’s Law. If you have derived the law theoretically from the principles of general relativity applied to an expanding universe, and are convinced you are correct, maybe all you care about is fixing the value of the one free parameter in your model. But I think it’s still correct to say that credit for Hubble’s Law goes to Hubble — although it’s equally correct to remind people of the crucial role that Lemaitre played in the development of modern cosmology.

An interesting piece of science history; take a look!

Clifford had seen an extra dimension

November 25, 2007

No, not of strings, but that of film making; here is his enthusiastic recommendation of Beowulf:

Ok, I’m talking about the 3D version of the new Robert Zemeckis film, “Beowulf”, a film realization of the well-known epic poem. I went just to see what the visuals were like (and actually expected a bit of a mess for the telling of the tale itself), and the visuals were stunning – beyond stunning (my enthusiasm might be in part due to seeing it in the excellent Arclight Hollywood) – but the rest of the film-making was pleasantly well above expectations. I think that they did a good job of bringing it to film, with the motion capture overlaid on animation making it have both a reality and a mythological feel at the same time. Purists about the story will be bohered a bit by the adaptation and heavy rewriting, but taken as a stand-alone piece of work, it is very good indeed. Visually, this film has to be some sort of new landmark, following hot on the heels of the marvellous work done earlier this year for “300″, the striking bringing to life of the Frank Miller graphic novel. I can’t get over how well they used the extra dimension – and it really is there. I was not convinced the 3D-ness would be so impressive, but you end up being truly inside the scenes, almost a participant instead of just distant observer. If it were not for 300, I’d say that this will take all the technical awards for visual work in the coming months… now I’ll just say that it will probably take most of them.

I don’t care if this seems like a commercial for the movie or not. It’s just so notable as a visual treat that I thought I’d insist that you find the 3D version in a cinema near you and go and see it. Local folks: – Go to the Arclight. Just go.

Looks like a must-see; which also reminds me that I have not seen 300 either; lots of catching up to do!

Reflections on the making of historical knowledge

November 25, 2007

Carlo Ginzburg in conversation with Sanjay Subrahmanyam; the introductory passage that precedes the interview gives some biographical details of the both the interviewer and interviewee:

Carlo Ginzburg is one of the best-known historians working today, and his work has been translated into many languages the world over. Born in Turin in 1939, he was educated at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, where he now teaches. He has also taught at the University of Bologna and was Professor of History and Franklin D. Murphy Professor of Italian Renaissance Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) for an extended period from 1988 to 2006. Professor Ginzburg is celebrated for brilliant and methodologically innovative explorations into mentalities, art-history, literature and social history. He is among the pioneers and practitioners of the current known as “micro-history”. His The Cheese and the Worms (English translation: 1980) is an acknowledged classic. His other writings available in English include The Night Battles (1983); The Enigma of Piero (2000); Clues, Myths and the Historical Method (1989); Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath (1991); Wooden Eyes, (1998); The Judge and the Historian (1999); History, Rhetoric, and Proof (1999); and No Island is an Island (2000). Here he responds to questions and remarks from Sanjay Subrahmanyam, who is also Professor of History at UCLA.

The piece alternates between personal information, and the processes that are involved in the making of the historical knowledge; and, at some point, they even become intertwined. It is an interview that needs to be read at leisure and some parts of it are really dense; however, the piece is worth your time. To give a sample, here is Carlos on historians and their continuous dialogues with their own inner devil’s advocates:

Historical knowledge is by definition, as it has been said, a located knowledge, but one should try to avoid preaching (an attitude I detest in all its versions: religious, ideological and so forth). Historians must be involved in a constant, contentious dialogue with their own internal devil’s advocate. To raise serious objections against oneself is not an easy endeavour (to be self-indulgent is tempting); but there is no alternative. I started working on the victims of the Inquisition; only later I realized how deeply my own cognitive approach had been shaped by the inquisitors’ (I tried to unfold the implications of this disturbing contiguity in an essay entitled “The Inquisitor as Anthropologist”).

To my surprise, I am unable to answer your second question and to provide names of historians I admire whose ideological presuppositions I most disagree with. Am I so parochial? In fact, the first name who came to my mind is Joseph de Maistre, who was not a historian. [C.G. refers here to Maistre [1753-1821], a conservative and anti-revolutionary thinker who has sometimes been compared to Edmund Burke]. I feel in trouble – you put forward your question as a real devil’s advocate.

Happy reading!