Time for another traipse through the scientific undergrowth, scuffing our way along to see if we can scare up something interesting. Science reports that N IH grant reviewers are feeling squeezed as they try to make good calls on the very, very large number of submissions, which have to be shoehorned into a much smaller budget. It’s no bed of roses. Nature asked the main candidates in the French presidential election about their views on the state of science and scientific research in that country, and what they would do about it all in case of their election. French pols are starting to sound very much like American pols, or maybe all pols are the same, but the answers were safe, and unexciting, as you might expect. Still, even in translation, the replies, somehow sounded more elegant. Nial Ferguson, who writes modern history, considers a new book by N. N. Taleb…The Black Swan. It’s a critique of forecasting, modeling and predictive studies and excercises generally. The shtick is that events out of left field, the black swan of the title, play a much bigger role in human events than we like to think. The Rumsfeldian “Stuff happens” is appropos. By the way: why does nothing but Stuff happen, and why does the same old stuff keep happening, over and over? I would like somebody to tell me that. Anyway, sort of on the same track is a piece in The Guardian by Dr. Ben Goldacre, of Bad Science. He discusses some common notions about luck and randomness, and our reliance on intuition, which can get us into trouble. Try evidence instead. Robert Fulford of Canada’s National Post reviews a new book about email, called SEND, and opines that SEND may be the most dangerous four letter word of our era. There are some stories of SEND booboos, and apparently a good deal of prescriptive advice about dealing with email’s perils. I think the SEND button should have some kind of cap or shield, like the firing trigger in a fighter plane, which the pilot has to remove deliberately before you pressing the trigger. Might save a lot of embarrassment. And, Fulford quotes NY’s Governor Elliot Spitzer about keeping your head on your shoulders in politics; never talk when you can nod, never write when you can talk, and never, never put it in an email. And so endeth the Lesson.
It’s a newspaper joke: “dog bites man” is not news, but” man bites dog” is. So, what are you pitching at us today that’s so unusual. OK, let’s roll it out. A publishing company from Iceland, that island with the volcanos and the fish, is planning to start TEN new newspapers in the USA. When you consider that the news from newspaperland has been pretty gloomy, the suggestion that anybody would want to start one new paper is very unusual, but to want to begin ten of them is a virtual sensation. You say there has to be a gimmick, and you, sly reader that you are, have it taped. There is a gimmick. Much of the content of the new paper(s) would be posts or summaries from contributors’ blogs. The first paper in the Icelandic venture is BostonNOW and you can guess in what city it appears. Bloggers are being offered the chance to get visibility and respectability by having their words circulate on the street. The paper gets the cachet of being “with it” and “now” by showcasing the blogging world and some of its principal writers. It’s all a little, or a lot, iffy to my mind. But in a way it makes a crazy kind of sense. Unless your blog is up there in the hit stratosphere, you probably don’t get more than a few dozen hits per day, and many of those are the results of crawls by search engine robots. So, to have your stuff appear in print and get, maybe, 100,000 sets of peepers looking at it over the morning Verona could be a plus for you. A lot has to be worked out yet, not the least of which is the question of compensation for the blog writers. NPR had a bit on this, with an interview with BostonNOW’s editor, John Wilpers, and some journalism profs who are walking rather cautiously around the new thing. It will be interesting to see how bloggers submit to things such as spelling and grammar standards, style rules and other features of main stream journalism. Some bloggers will regard this as the Devil’s Bargain, and will refuse to “sell out”, preferring to remain true to their concept of “popular journalism”. We’ll see.
Dinosaur bones that is. A lot of them came from the discoveries of an intrepid American paleontologist who went out into the remotest, most desolate, uncomfortable and dangerous areas of the globe to dig them up. Throw in a little espionage, an eye for the ladies, some ties to Big Oil and you get a good idea of the life and exploits of one Barnum Brown, a guy who sounds as though he belongs in a movie or a comic book, but who actually lived and did some amazing things. The parallels to moviedom’s Indiana Jones are pretty strong and a little bit scary. I wonder if Mr. Spielberg and friends knew about BB. Of course the two differ in what animated their passionate pursuits. For Jones, it’s archaeology, the works of Man, preferably rare, or even unique, objects of great beauty. For Brown, it was bones. Fossils. That’s what made him tick, lust for fossils. And the guy delivered. Although he’s largely forgotten now, there was a time in the era between the two World Wars that BB was going all over the earth and finding paydirt, or paybones. Tyrannosaurus rex? Meet the guy who dug him/her/it up and named the critter. Triceratops? Ditto. The list goes on. BB was energetic, focused, well read, well trained, very good at his profession. He was also incredibly lucky. Wherever he went he found bones. Success made it easy, or at least easier in the era of the Great Depression and the runup to WWII, to get funding. He traveled everyplace and made detailed notes of the places he visited. During the second of the two big wars, he worked for US Intelligence, helping to evaluate and plan attack routes for campaigns, intepret aerial photograps or just share his “ground knowledge” of places in the Back of Beyond which suddenly assumed strategic importance. After all, he had actually been there, walked around, knew where to find water and what kind of soil made up the land. Since finding bones meant knowing rocks, he became a first class field geologist and parlayed his knowledge into some profitable consulting deals with oil companies. He was quite the ladies’ man as well. In fact one reason he spent so much time outside the USA was to avoid various legal entanglements resulting from les affaires de coeur. But in the end, it was bones that mattered, and those around him had to accept that. He opened up places that are still being invesitgated by paleontologists more than half a century after he discovered them. The first name “Barnum” recalls PT, he of the famous aphorism that “there’s a sucker born every minute, and two to take him!”, but this Barnum seems to have been the real thing, not cutting corners or peddling fakes. Although his skills were unquestioned, he didn’t publish very much. His papers are good, but there were many more that he started and never finished. I guess he was having too much fun. Despite a liftetime spent in demanding places and circumstances, at a time when travel really was an adventure, he lived into his nineties. I hope he had a leather jacket. And the hat, don’t forget the hat.
The Grouch has suspected, and for quite some time now, that this century and the last one need to be taken down a peg or two. It has seemed that these two centuries were getting way too big for their britches. Instead of all this fussing and preening about modern wonders and miracles and all the rest of the jabber, our people should wake up and realize that they need to be much more modest than has been their custom. Even leaving aside such 20th Century triumphs as the concentration camp, mass starvation as a political weapon, Fascism, Communism, and so on, it’s time for us all to realize that, in many ways we are living on the intellectual capital of the Nineteenth Century, and we should acknowledge our debt more freely, and more openly, than we do, instead of dislocating our arms patting ourselves on the back . Think about it. Most of what we call “science” really got going during the Great Nineteenth. The procedural and methodological basics were laid down, and numerous, real, lasting discoveries were made, in every field, and discipline. Mass literacy was made possible by the steam-driven printing press. History exploded as a field of study, with path-breaking accounts of the histories of England, France, Germany, Pre-Columbian America, the Papacy, and on and on. In all too obvious contradistinction to academic writing nowadays, many of these histories were models of style and elegance and forecful expression. Who could forget Francis Parkman’s remark on the treaty concluding the Seven Year War: “Half a continent changed hands, at the scratch of a pen”. Hieroglyphics were deciphered and then long march of Egyptology began. The Cities of the Plain…Ur,Nineveh, Babylon were unearthed, and their languages deciphered, for the first time in millenia, read again. Art, Music, Engineering, all had almost explosive flowerings during the Nineteenth Century. Am I getting carried away? Well one other guy at least doesn’t think so and he wrote two books to prove it
Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact. Vaclav Smil. x + 350 pp. Oxford University Press, 2005. $35.
Transforming the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations and Their Consequences. Vaclav Smil. x + 358 pp. Oxford University Press, 2006. $45.
These are the subject of a generally sympathetic review by Prof. David Nye in the American Scientist, which continues to earn the Grouch’s rarely bestowed praise for its enlightened practice of reviewing lots of books very well. Keep it up. AS! Nye has his own ideas on various points of interpretation, and he speaks his mind. All the better.
PPS: speaking of history, let’s not forget Charlie D. and the greatest History of them all.
We almost missed this one. This is the tri-centennial year of one Biology’s great figures…Carl von Linne’, or Linnaeus to you, that interesting Swede whose work on classification of all species serves as the basis for modern taxonomic description. Nature had several articles on Linnaeus and on the advances and woes of modern taxonomy in the March 15 issue. The cover art is cute. It shows Linnaeus squatting on a beach or rocky expanse someplace, dressed in his Patagonia or North Face down vest and backpack while holding up, I guess, an IPOD. Too cute maybe. The contributions talk about current problems and questions affecting taxonomy. The impact of genomic science on taxonomy has already been very great and is likely to be even greater in the near future. How can one balance these contributions against the methods of tradititional systematics? One of the most interesting of theses has to do with the role of amateur taxonomists. On the one hand, the vast army of the bird-bug-and-bee happy provides a lot of free labor. On the other, some experts complain that the identifiications and descriptions of the amateurs are inadequate and don’t convey enough information. And, according to the rules of the International Commission on Zoologic Nomenclature, whoever publishes first gets to name the critter permanently. Egos and priority claims intrude, of course, but there are weightier matters. The most evident of these are the brute facts that a lot of small publications do perfectly acceptable work, and that there are too few peer-reviewed publications to handle the work. So, as we sing Happy B-Day to CvL, we, and he, can take comfort in the fact that there is still plenty left to work with, fiddle with and figure out.