Friday, May 20, 2005

X-rays Archimedes

In the Stanford Report, I found an interesting article (here is an excerpt):
For five days in May, the ancient collided with the ultra-modern at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), bringing brilliant, long-hidden ideas to light with brilliant X-ray light. A synchrotron X-ray beam at the Department of Energy facility illuminated an obscured work—erased, written over and even painted over—of ancient mathematical genius Archimedes, born 287 B.C. in Sicily.
Archimedes' amazingly advanced ideas have been lost and found several times throughout the ages. Now scientists are employing modern technology—including X-ray fluorescence at SLAC's Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory (SSRL)—to completely read the Archimedes Palimpsest, the only source for at least two previously unknown treatises thought out by Archimedes in the third century B.C.

According to the article,
An anonymous private collector who bought the palimpsest for $2 million at auction in 1998 has loaned the manuscript to the Walters Art Museum and is funding the studies.

On the website of the Walters Art Museum there is more information on the manuscript (and a silly flash intro).
--Cesare

Friday, May 06, 2005

The sober Cannibal

Sometime in the future I would like to prepare a syllabus for a class on cultural relativism in antiquity and the early modern period.
As I'm very bad at organizing my notes, and I would like to have other people's impressions as well, I decided - guess what - to start a blog, where I'll put comments, ideas, and images related to this subject, from time to time.
The title of the blog is The sober Cannibal (and the drunken Christian). You can find it here, and I would really appreciate your comments, criticisms, and suggestions.
--Cesare

Thursday, April 07, 2005

creationists and their severe misunderstandings

I'm pissed.

When some wing-nut creationist can't make a good argument of his own against evolution, when he can't borrow one from a physicist (not necessarily a good one but they like to play the science authority card no matter how fallacious a move this is), they usually look to evolutionary biologists for help.

Of course looking to evolutionary biologists for help in arguing against evolution is patently...well...silly. Creationists selectively quote some well respected biologist where he or she says something like, hypothetically speaking: "neo Darwinism fails. The slow, gradual accumulation of change ultimately leading to complex adaptation is simply not supported by the evidence."

WOO HOO! They scream...JACKPOT!

However, they fail to realize that there is a serious debate in evolutionary biology about how evolution actually occurs. NOT THAT IT OCCURS or NOT THAT IT IS GUIDED BY SOME INTELLIGENT DESIGNER. In fact, what is known as neo Darwinism or gradualism or even just Darwinism is not now the majority position among most biologists. For example, recent advances in molecular genetics and developmental biology have shown us how naive a view traditional Darwinism truly is, i.e. the gradual sequential accumulation of single mutations that have relatively small phenotypic effects. We now know that single mutations can have dramatic phenotypic effects, for example, and that these mutations have been quite important in major evolutionary trends.

Similarly, creationists continually cite punctuated equilibrium as evidence that evolutionary biologists themselves argue about evolution. This is very much true. Biologists do argue about evolution. BUT...punctuated equilibrium is a theory about the pattern of evolutionary change, not a theory that claims evolution doesn't happen or that it is guided by some intelligent designer.

Here is some creationist's take on punc eq from this site.

"Seeing the problem of gradual evolution with the fossil record, and the obvious abrupt appearances of species, Drs. Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge have formed the theory of punctuated equilibria. Punctuated equilibria, is, by example, a bird giving birth to a mammal, thus leaving no transitional fossils in the geological record.

Many top evolutionists disagree with this position. And punctuated equilibria has its problems, too. For instance, in the above case, of a bird bearing a mammal, another mammal of the same kind of the opposite sex must be born at the same approximate time in the same area in order for the new species to continue. The odds of just one organism appearing this way, let alone two fulfilling the circumstances above, are astronomical."

It's really just a terrible misunderstanding of punctuated equilibrium. While it's true that not every biologist agrees punctuated equilibrium is a good theory, it's not because punc eq claims birds literally give birth to mammals. What punc eq posits is that significant morphological changes happen in fits and starts, punctuated by long periods of stasis..."stasis as data, stasis as data". However, life is happening quite normally all the while, i.e. birds are NOT giving birth to mammals. It's just that rapid morphological evolution is constrained during the times of stasis and/or accelerated during the time of change (during allopatric speciation events that have a lot to do with isolate selection and species selection if I remember correctly). The rapid bits of change are only rapid compared to the periods of stasis, for example tens or hundreds of thousands of years as opposed to millions of years, thus it is unlikely that we will find a good sequence of intermediate forms in the fossil record, even though intermediate forms did in fact exist. And I imagine, there have been some good fossil sequences found?

Ok, you may say, this bit is from a clearly uninformed religious wing nut who is not actively engaged in the debates. Well, what do you think of this then?

"But we don't need to look to physicists for such criticisms of conventional evolutionary theory. To see his, consider the following remark by Lynn Margulis, biologist, member of the National Academy of Sciences, and critic of neo-Darwinism (the reigning view of biological evolution peddled in all the basal biology textbooks):

'Like a sugary snack that temporarily satisfies our appetite but deprives us of more nutritious foods, neo-Darwinism sates intellectual curiosity with abstractions bereft of actual details—whether metabolic, biochemical, ecological, or of natural history.'

--Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species (New York: Basic Books, 2002), p. 103."

This is from William Dembski, king of all 'smart and rigorous' creationists himself.

What an idiot.

Clearly this is another case of severely misunderstanding the biological debate. While I'm not sure about Lynn Margulis' current views on the creationism debate (perhaps she went wing nut what with Gaia and all...but I doubt it), regardless, it doesn't really matter. Endosymbiosis, the theory that Margulis contributed greatly to and the theory that she thinks is an important update of neo Darwinism, is pretty much the accepted explanation for the origin of complex eukaryotic cells; indeed, the one "peddled in all the basal biology textbooks". Endosymbiosis certainly does not claim that evolution didn't happen or, more importantly, that the only way to explain the origin of eukaryotic cells is to invoke an intelligent designer who put all the prokaryotic pieces together. Rather, it claims that the prokaryotic pieces evolved all on their own and were then incorporated by primitive eukaryotic cells through completely natural processes. While the theory of endosymbiosis has some problems explaining the origin of the 9+2 microtubule containing flagella (the favorite example of many creationists), there are other good non-endosymbiotic theories of the evolution of the 9+2 flagella...that do not make any reference to an intelligent designer! I think these explanations are oftentimes closely related to explanations of the development of the eukaryotic cytoskeletal system and endomembrane system, a convenient connection that can be troubling for the irreducible complexity arguments concerning the flagella. But this is a topic for another day.

I'm not going to go into the details of endosymbiosis theory. Suffice it to say that there isn't much about intelligent design in there.

Now for a little speculation: it seems like there are two explanations for the creationists' consistent misunderstanding of evolutionary biology:

(1) This is the one I hope is correct because it doesn't make the creationists out to be so evil: They are just plain dumb or uneducated. They don't understand the debates because they either lack the brain power or the education to do so.

(2) This is the one that I suspect is true. This is quite unfortunate because it paints a picture of creationists as manipulators, malicious corruptors of minds: They completely understand the debates and realize that they are misrepresenting them, but also realize that by doing so, and in a clever enough way (note I said clever enough not clever), lots of people will buy what they're sellin'.

These people are probably just malicious liars.

It makes me sad.

-- Matt Dunn

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Early Music Institute Combines Local Talents and Hot Baroque Tunes

You may not know this, but we have a School of Music (SoM) here at IU. For those of you who are interested and have the time, I highly recommend checking out some of what the SoM has to offer. There have already been nearly 700 programs this academic year.

One interesting feature of the SoM is its Early Music Institute (EMI). The EMI has regular programs featuring baroque tunes performed on period instruments (very cool) played in the style of the period. If you have not attended an EMI recital and you like "classical" music, you owe it to yourself to go. Here are a few upcoming dates for EMI programs:

March 31
Baroque Chamber Recital
7pm
Ford-Crawford Hall

April 7
Baroque Chamber Recital
7pm
Ford-Crawford Hall

April 10
Baroque Orchestra
2pm
Auer Hall

All of the above recitals are free and open to the public. See the following website for more SoM events:

http://www.music.indiana.edu/events/

-Brian

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Intelligent Design talk, March 30

Anthony Perez-Miller is speaking on Intelligent Design at the next meeting of the Indiana University Campus Freethought
Alliance:  

Wednesday, 30 March 2005
Woodburn Hall 004
Indiana University
7:30--9:00 pm

This organization was started last semester by one of my X200 students, Justin Novotny, and some of his friends. In his words:

"The purpose of this group is, among other things, promoting rational thought and science, critically analyzing religion, researching various paranormal and supernatural claims, and defending separation of church and state. We are predominantly made up of atheists and agnostics, but also have some non-theists and religious students involved....

Some of the topics we plan to cover this semester are religion and science, philosophy of religion, Biblical analysis, secular ethics, Islam, various paranormal phenomenon, etc. In particular, I am looking for someone with strong scientific credentials to critique Intelligent Design theory."

I hooked them up with Anthony, since ID is his dissertation topic. He's planning to give an introductory historical discussion, then
describe the main ID arguments about complexity.  There should be time for questions at the end. The event is open to anyone on campus; Justin has invited Christian campus groups to attend, and it would be nice to have HPS representation too.

Hope to see you there!
Cheers,
Melinda

Have a look at Bruno (and the Lounge)

I always liked the Lounge, the graduate students page at the JHU HSMT program.
Among my favourite features there, I would count very interesting tools like the Colloquium Bingo and the Dissertation Finder, and the very funny piece about things to do in an elevator, hidden behind the picture of the building in the left menu. Remarkably(?), in this site you can also have a glance at a corner of Sandy's and Renate's apartment in Baltimore (section Random Photo Album).
However, the most memorable item is certainly given by the Bruno Latour Action Figure at the entrance of the site. Just brilliant.

Apart from these marvels, have a look at the current students page. I think our departmental webpage should have a feature of this sort. People, and especially prospective students, should know what graduate students are doing here. I myself do not know what some of us are interested in. And this is bad.
Am I wrong? (as Walter Sobchak in the Big Lebowski would say)

--Cesare

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Michael Ruse and science as religion

"It seems now that theater owners are censoring what goes on the silver screen, and evolution is out! The Wedge is working! I forecast that within five years, Congress will insist that the NSF give money to work on Intelligent Design. Impossible you say? This is a country where forty million people do not have health care insurance, but where the President will fly back in the middle of the night to sign a bill to hook up Terry Schiavo. These are dark times and it is an obligation - and an honor - for those of us with philosophical training to use it for the common good. The conservative right is absolutely correct. There are moral values at stake here." (Emphasis added)

From the Philbio Blog.

Michael Ruse thinks science is a religion. I'm not sure I agree but I need to think about it some more. At first glance, sure, it seems 'believing' in science is about having faith in sound reasoning and observation while relgion sensu stricto is about having faith in extra-sensory and extra-logical...things...or ways of getting knowledge...or whatever.

However, naively, science is just an extension of rigorous common sense and even the most religious people seem to be huge fans of common sense. They just choose to break the chain from common sense to science. They seem to argue that some science isn't good science and that's why they 'break the chain', but this seems to be the issue. We need to explain what science is and what good science is. We certainly don't need to preach to the chain breakers that they are simply worshipping at the wrong church.

You run into IU HPS folks in the damndest places

So I was in NYC over spring break. Had a lot of fun. One night, I was waiting for my host to get out of work. I have spent much time in Greenqich Village so I went to check it out. I went to a Greek restaurant to get some dinner and a couple drinks. I was eating my very huge and very good gyro when I overhear these two folks talking about southern Indiana. Then they start talking about Bloomington. I had to ask. I even threw in the southern vernacular: "Are ya'll from Bloomington?" The woman answered "Yes, are you?". "Yep. Wow, that's pretty wild."

"Are you at IU? What's you're major?"
"I'm actually working on my PhD. in the History and Philosophy of Science Department."
"NO SHIT! That's my department!"
"Who are you?" I honestly thought it was Ann Carmichael. I've never met her.
"I got my PhD there. I worked with Fred Churchill. Cell theory."
"No shit."

I didn't really understand what she does for a living now but it has something to do with IUPUI and Ivy Tech and bioethics. Anyway, her name is Natasha Jacobs. She said she was in school with Jane Manschien (sp?). So I went looking for her dissertation in the office today out of curiosity, as I am interested in history of biology. Didn't find anything. But I imagine perhaps she had a different last name then. So I got a copy of the excellent Kevin Grau paper in ISIS about the department and looked at the list of folks who have gotten their degrees here. There were no Natashas. Hmmm.

Jim Capshew said he recognized the name and seemed to intimate that she was a student here a bit before he arrived.

Strange.

---------------
EDIT:

JANE MAIENSCHEIN is a well-known bioethicist who teaches biology and philosophy at Arizona. She published something with Michael Ruse recently.

NATASHA X. JACOBS was at Indiana in the late 1980s. She focused on protozoology and cell theory. She was still living in Bloomington in 1997.

Friday, March 11, 2005

History and Philosophy of Science Greeting of the Day

To all: have a good break :-)

- Cesare

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Restaurant Tallent Combines Local Flavors and Haute Cuisine

At the corner of 620 W. Kirkwood and Fairview stands one of two (arguably three) serious restaurants in Bloomington. Restaurant Tallent, which opened its doors on November 7, 2003, is owned and operated by Bloomington natives Kristen Tallent (Pastry Chef and General Manager) and David Tallent (Executive Chef), both of whom attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York. In collaboration with Danny Tallent (Sous Chef), Kristen and David have assembled a menu that showcases local meats, cheeses, and produce, as well as classical French culinary techniques, making for an unparalleled Bloomington dining experience.

My most recent trip to Tallent was about a week ago. My dining companion and I were served by the very able Katie. The first thing one might notice is the lackluster wine list. Most of the vintages are recent and the selection is not very wide. Bordeaux and Burgundy are underrepresented on the wine list and mostly mediocre Californian wines dominate the selection. Unfortunately, in Bloomington (and elsewhere in IN?) it is illegal to bring in your own wine, which is how one usually deals with such an issue. Nevertheless, there are some palatable choices and the servers are quite knowledgeable about the wine list and what wines to pair with what dishes. I selected the featured red wine of the evening, which I recall being a Pinot Noir.

My first course was the La Belle Farms foie gras with Bobbi Boo’s Maple syrup glazed chestnuts, brioche pain perdu, and -8 degrees vinegar ($16). This plate comes with an ample portion of seared foie gras atop brioche pain perdu drizzled in maple syrup. The sweetness of the syrup nicely compliments the richness and silky delicacy of the foie gras which is top quality. This dish is far superior to its Scholars Inn counterpart. I recommend a sweet white wine with this dish, e.g., Sauternes or California Chardonnay.

The main course I selected was the pan roasted sea scallops with truffled parsnip puree, mustard greens, and wild mushroom stew ($25). Several fresh, large scallops crowned with mustard greens come nestled on a bed of pureed parsnips infused with the flavor of truffles (or truffle oil, most likely). Surrounding the parsnip puree is the wild mushroom stew. This dish is a sight to behold, truly. Any one of the components of this dish could fly solo: the stew is bold and complex, the parsnip puree nutty and slightly sweet, the scallops are fresh and large. However, in concert the components of the dish come together like an entrancing melody seemingly simple in structure, albeit complex in tonality. This second course was a symphonic achievement unmatched by any culinary experience I have had thus far in Bloomington.

Other than the wine list, my only complaint is that we were served stale bread. However, when I informed Katie that the bread was past its time, she promptly replaced it with bread fresh from the oven. Hardly could this be considered a serious infraction. It was, afterall, nearly 8:45 p.m. when we were seated. In sum, I highly recommend Restaurant Tallent. There is no other restaurant in its class in Bloomington.

Dress is casual and I recommend sitting upstairs where the setting is a bit more intimate (i.e., less noisy and open).
First courses:$8-$16
Main courses: $15-$27
Dessert: $7-$10

Vegetarian and vegan selections available.

Reservations recommended
812-330-9801
http://www.restauranttallent.com/index.htm

-Brian.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

What's in a line

If you were interested by last Friday's talk, here I found the pictures and the draft chapter from Norton Wise's book:
http://oregonstate.edu/dept/history/lunchbunch_wise.htm

- Cesare

Monday, March 07, 2005

Darwin Loves You! George Levine and the possibility of secular enchantment

Gotta love those english types. Have funny words for everything, like enchanted. This apparently means 'having a rich meaning' or something of this sort. Not sure if you could make sense of 'rich', but I think its meaning becomes intuitive in some sense. Levine is concerned, and rightly so in my opinion, with the perceived 'disenchantment' of nature by Darwin's naturalistic explanation of life. If nature is nothing but a mechanism operating on and organizing inanimate pieces of matter, nothing means anything in any 'rich' sense. You need some sort of transcendental grounding of nature to give it meaning.

Levine wants to argue that Darwin was perfectly enchanted with nature eventhough he had stripped it of any transcendental meaning. It's possible to be enchanted with nature, and presumably to build some ethical system from this enchantment, without any trancendental grounding. As humans we are simply moved by some things. We can think things are beautiful and good and right without any transcendental grounding.

Levine argues that Darwin never actually thought of natural selection (Levine's main example) as some impassionate mechanism, but that he saw it as tending (as a shepherd does his flock) organisms for their own good. He cites some bits of the Origin where Darwin says as much. As Sandy Gliboff points out, though, Darwin also had lots of other metaphors like 'species manufactory' etc. that aren't quite so warm and fuzzy. One that I thought about: '10000 sharp wedges packed close together and driven inwards by incessant blows'. But Levine certainly realizes this and mentioned some of the bits about parasites in Darwin in the question session.

Levine also emphasized Darwin's choice of language. He shows that Darwin constantly used words like 'wonderful', 'marvelous' etc. This is certainly true, but I wonder if it's not simply an artifact of Victorian culture? Most pieces of Victorian writing that I've read have this kind of hyperbolic language in them. The use of this language was the baseline. Everybody used it. I think the real work needs to be done in figuring out just what enchantment means and how using certain language means you're enchanted vs. believing in God means you're enchanted. Was the straight-laced clergyman-compiler of data (Mendel perhaps?) who was just data-recorder personified and was not 'outwardly' enchanted with nature, as Darwin, was this person enchanted simply because nature had some rich, transcendental meaning? I think this begs the question: do modern day evolutionists that talk about selection as simply a parameter in a model, are they disenchanted if they don't have a trancendental meaning-giving-structure-thing? Has the world lost all meaning for them if they aren't WOWED by nature like Darwin was?

I really don't think you need to explain how something like non-transcendental enchantment with nature is possible, as in Darwin's case, but how it is a product of our brain. Clearly it's possible. I experience it everyday (I think). As does everybody else, whether they're conscious of it or not.

As for interdisciplinarity, I'm not sure what's going on. Levine is quite impressed with Bob Richards, clearly a historian of science, and probably could be considered an HPSer as well. What does this mean? Well, that Levine has read Richards.

Levine certainly knows his Darwin. What does that mean? That he's read Darwin.

Sure his argument has some holes in it, some big ones, but this isn't exactly uncommon in HPS (Norton Wise...?). So I am left unenlightened as to why I haven't ever heard of Levine. Do we need to start looking for 'external' factors...?

Or perhaps I need to think more about what HPS actually is.

- Matt Dunn

Interdisciplinarity

So I'll kick this blog off with a few words about interdisciplinarity. I'm going to see a talk given by George Levine at 4:00pm today. It is sponsored by the English department here at IU. Apparently Levine is quite the authority on Darwin and Victorian science in the 'cultural-criticism' world (for lack of a better term). And yet in HPS, we just don't encounter his work. At least I haven't. I learned about him in a course I'm taking in the English dept on sexual selection. I've run across Gillian Beer 'in HPS' who might be considered a 'boundary crosser' and does work in the same spirit as Levine. James Secord as well. But why not Levine? His book Dying to Know, from the one review of it I have read, seems to be an argument that a certain moral epistemological culture dictated much of the science conducted in the 19th century. Sounds a lot like HPS to me. I also just read a paper of his called "'And If It Be a Pretty Woman All the Better'—Darwin and Sexual Selection" which is a survey of Darwin historiography that comes down decisively in favor of 'internal' histories.

Hmmm. I'll report back after the talk.

-Matt Dunn