Monthly Archives: June 2010

A brief hiatus

Trying to post frequently on this blog has been a little harder than I’d anticipated: I’ve been caught up in my daughter’s end-of-school events, derailed by afternoon-swallowing books (Justin Cronin’s The Passage is deservedly going to get a lot of people’s attention this summer), and busy laying the groundwork for a new business venture. Eventually I’ll pick up the pace around here, exploring some new themes I have in mind and revisiting some old ones, but first things’ll have to slow down a bit more for a couple of weeks: we’ll be entertaining family, then traveling to Hawaii. (Where we hope to catch a glimpse of the Black Pearl sailing in the waters off Oahu, hurrah!) I’ll be away from Internet access then — which will be both strange and wonderfully refreshing, I hope — after which I’ll return with renewed purpose, to bother the great oblivious bull of the blogosphere with my gnat’s worth of profundities.

Happy summer. The heat has broken! Ah, this breeze!

(Image by Don Daily)

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If I’d known my AT-AT could do this…

…I’d never have sold it.

I’m seeing Toy Story 3 this weekend with my family. And while I’m looking forward to it, I’m also bracing myself to be devastated. I’ve been avoiding spoilers, but I do know that it involves Andy giving up his toys — and his toys, being alive, feeling (probably?) the deep cut of abandonment and betrayal. Just what I need, in conjunction with this video: an intense guilt trip over selling off my childhood Star Wars collection before moving to the States, as if I’d abandoned a beloved pet.

Excuse me while I find my cats and give them some love…

(h/t AICN)

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On letting go of meaning

“A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out, it is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept the mystery.”

— John Keats, in Jane Campion’s Bright Star


Introduction To Poetry
by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s
name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.


Maybe this explains why most of my college literature courses never really helped me appreciate poetry: we were trying to hunt the unicorn, rather than letting the unicorn come to us. (The exceptions being the courses I took with a certain Professor Ralph Williams, about whom more later.) For the most part, reading poetry for the joy of it was something I had to learn on my own, in quiet moments, alone: as if I were Keats’ Cortez discovering new realms, but also as if I were a silent continent myself, awaiting discovery, the ships of the conquering poets appearing one by one on the horizon.

This also makes me think, once again, of the misconception that science and poetry don’t mix. To take joy in uncovering some hidden aspect of a thing is neither to kill its meaning nor to ascribe false ones. Science doesn’t destroy mystery; it destroys ignorance, but increases awe and wonder.


“The realization that I needn’t have answers to the Big Questions, needn’t seek answers to the Big Questions, has served as an epiphany. I lie on my back under the stars and the unseen galaxies and I let their enormity wash over me. I assimilate the vastness of the distances, the impermanence, the fact of it all. I go all the way out and then I go all the way down, to the fact of photons without mass and gauge bosons that become massless at high temperatures. I take in the abstractions about forces and symmetries and they caress me, like Gregorian chants, the meaning of the words not mattering because the words are so haunting.”

— Ursula Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature

(Photo credit: J. Dennis Robinson for

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Random thoughts after seeing “Agora”


The glory of the Alexandrian Library is a dim memory. Its last remnants were destroyed soon after Hypatia’s death. […] The loss was incalculable. In some cases, we know only the tantalizing titles of the works that were destroyed. In most cases, we know neither the titles nor the authors. […] It is a little as if the only surviving works of a man named William Shakespeare were Coriolanus and A Winter’s Tale, but we had heard that he had written certain other plays, unknown to us but apparently prized in his time, works entitled Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet.

— Carl Sagan, Cosmos

There’s a small moment in Alejandro Amenabar’s excellent film Agora — a fleeting bit of dialogue nearly lost in the swirl of action around it, that for me perfectly captures the tragedy of the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. The mob of fundamentalist Christians is battering down the city gates. Inside the Library, under the direction of the philosopher Hypatia, people are frantically pulling scrolls from the shelves and tossing them into baskets, to be carted away to safety before the mob arrives to tear and hack and burn. The camera pans across the walls lined with shelves, the shelves bursting with scrolls: there is simply too much to rescue. A group of slaves stands baffled before a shelf; a librarian hurries past with an armful of scrolls, and shouts at them: “Leave the lesser works!” A slave looks at the scrolls, and looks back, confused: “Which are the lesser works?”

And watching that exchange I felt a pang of grief for all that was lost when the Library fell. Continue reading


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Arthur Benjamin doesn’t need any stinking calculators.

At last weekend’s World Science Festival, what I’d hoped would be a personal highlight — a star-gazing party in Battery Park — turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, as a completely overcast sky blocked out any view of the stars. It was, however, fun to walk around the full-scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope — Hubble’s eventual replacement, scheduled to launch in 2014 — as well as to hear the distinguished panelists discuss advances in astronomy, and to see the always-entertaining Neil deGrasse Tyson play host to the crowd. Still, I wanted to see stars.

On the other hand, a casual family outing to Sunday’s festival events in Washington Square Park led us to one of the most astonishing demonstrations of mental power I’ve ever seen.

Meet Arthur Benjamin, a.k.a. the Mathemagician. This is a clip from his 2005 TED talk; at the festival, he performed these acts and more, and even let us in on some of his strategies and shortcuts:

The rock-star ovation he received at the end of our event was at least twice as loud as this. I’d never seen so many kids — and grown-ups — get so excited about math, and the prospect of improving our math skills; thanks to his tips our daughter is now proficient at doing magic squares, and I’m itching to wow people with my new “I can multiply 11 by any two-digit number” trick at the next dinner party.

No surprise that Benjamin is also a mathematics professor. Here’s what he has to say about the state of math education in America:

Arthur Benjamin does for math what Carl Sagan did for science, and what every teacher should do with their chosen specialty: make the subject come alive. He should be cloned and put into every math class in the country. Because if you can get kids to fall in love with what they learn, you make the rest of their education a whole lot easier.

(And kudos to the young man in the audience who won a digital camera during the pre-show, for correctly stating the quadratic equation. Knowledge is rewarding, of course, but the reward isn’t often this immediately tangible!)

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“Cutting libraries in a recession is like cutting hospitals in a plague.”

Just a reminder that New York’s public libraries are in deep financial trouble; details here. The good news is that you (yes, YOU, reading this post right now, wherever you are in the world) can help — and you don’t even have to leave your computer. But do it now — the budget will be voted on this month. Here’s how to help:


The most important thing you can do is let New York’s elected officials know how much you value the libraries, and demand that their funding be restored in the city’s budget. Even messages from out-of-towners will be sent to the mayor and the city council speaker. Go to the links below (all three links, for three separate library systems) to send a personalized e-message.

New York Public Library
Brooklyn Public Library
Queens Library


Click the above links to donate online. You can also text NYPL to 27722 to give $10 to the New York Public Library. A $10 donation will be added to your mobile phone bill. Go to for details; message and data rates may apply.


Any way you know how.


(Image credit: Daniel Solis)

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To Mars!

The latest excellent video from Symphony of Science:

Robert Zubrin makes a compelling case for Mars even when he isn’t autotuned. I saw him speak at this year’s Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate (see my notes here, and video here) and he had quite a lot to say.

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