It has been very hot here, and very dry as well. So the pace of things has slowed a little as people try to keep hydrated and out of the sun as much as possible. Still, we can’t just stop and throw in the (sweaty) towel, now can we? So, here are some interesting things from our friends over at Lablit. I want to mention that the founder of the site, Dr. Jennifer L. Rohan, has published her first novel, a romantic thriller called Experimental Heart. It seems to have all the makin’s…romance, rivalry, research, a mystery with dark doings in high places, a quest. Then, a more careful exam of the site shows me that the managers have an ambitious plan to review every work of fiction in which scientists or scientific work appear, without regard to publication date. So, they’re digging up some interesting books. The one that’s featured now is Copernicus by John Banville, and that appeared in 1976. It’s easy to forget the flesh-and-blood side of science when you read the accounts in a history: Doaks observed, conjectured, theorized… But what else was going on with Doaks? Did his feet hurt? Was his child sick? What was the guy really like? What kind of place was Restoration London, or Imperial Vienna? The science did not happen in a vacuum. Visit Lablit, and look at the review. It’s in the lefthand column, labeled Hell and Heliocentricity. Then, scan up to the top of that same column and read about the AllResults Journal or ARJ. This is a planned new publication which will bring to light interesting but unpublished findings, now unavailable, because “nobody publishes negative results”. It’s certainly an interesting take on things, and we wish them well.
We hear about them a lot, but a lot of what we hear is wrong. The e-Sceptic has an article which summarizes the situation and discusses some of the more interesting studies. The writer also ponders some of the odd things connected with the use of placebos: those treated have to be aware of the fact. A patient can’t be asleep or unconscious. Finally, some possible mechanisms of action are explored which might help everyone understand this puzzle.
Well is a relative term and its “well” in reference to Time and Newsweek, which are not doing very well at all. An article in The Atlantic tries to figure out why the doughty British weekly is surviving and even growing, at a time when the bell seems to be tolling for the whole notion of a weekly Newsie. The answer is not very clear, or better, it’s not clear at all. The author seems to bounce around in the “fair and balanced” mode, saying The E is not so brilliant as its supporters claim and on the other hand, it’s not so shallow as its enemies assert. Various reasons for success are trotted out and dismissed: itâ€™s not this (the writing, say) it’s not that (the layout, say). So, what is the reason? It seems to me the author is saying that The Economist has somehow managed to convince people that they should read it. I got that far on my own Mr. Holmes, thank you. So, there is no explanation as to why a tony, not especially user-friendly, expensive, British mag of center-right economic orientation is such a commercial success. I think I can do better, at least in explaining why the item is popular here: we have come to distrust our own media as more and more of it chases after People’s format of lotsa pix and very, very little text. We think our press is shallow, sensationalist, biased or just unfit to handle serious matters. Americans want a diet of sleaze, scandal, Branjolina, doping scandals, and the rest. But, we hate ourselves for wanting it, and we hate the media for giving us what we want, for pandering. When it comes to serious matters, who would trust a weakling, and a pander? So we look elsewhere. The Economist makes no concessions, and there are no celebs, few pictures, nothing about Hollywood, or TV or pop music and the tone just assumes you are a serious person, who already knows that the British used to rule India, but left in 1947. You don’t have to have these things explained to you. You went to a good school and you paid attention. We don’t write for jerks or dweebs. The philosophy seems to be: “we write about things that are important and you need to know about them, so read this. Or don’t. We don’t care. We’ve been doing this since 1843 and we’ll be doing it long after you’re gone”. And, increasingly, people do read it and pay for privilege. Read:
It may be hard to believe now, when scientific literacy is at a very, very low state in the Great Republic, but there was a time, in the Nineteenth centrury, when there was a general enthusiasm for and desire to learn more about, science in all its forms. And, in response, a whole new class of writers found occupation and not a little fortune by answering the demand for help in understanding the discoveries that were visibly changing the world. Britain was at the center of this wave of popularization. Respected scientists did not scorn lecturing at meetings of working men and other self-help societies, partly because the hall was packed with eager auditors, there on their own dime after a long day on the job, and really wanting to learn something. Show me an academic who can turn away from a deal like that; a lot of people who really want to listen to him talk. And the “talent” approched the task very seriously, as Huxley’s letters to Darwin on his working men’s lectures prove. Bernard Lightman is an established scholar working in the history of science, with special reference to Nineteenth century Britain. His recent Victorian Popularizers of Science traces the rise and influence of this new kind of writer, and how the writers functioned amid changing social roles, technological innovation and economic developments. Many of the best popularizers were women, encouraged in that work as part of the nurturing and fostering widely thought to be particularly womanly tasks. The introduction of the steam press made books easier to produce and cheaper to buy, so the material side of book publishing was able to meet the demand for “popular” science, provided writers could be found who understood the material and could write in a way that explained it to others. Lightman’s book tells the story of where the writers came from and how they, sort of, made things up as they went along, acting in the play and writing it at the same time. Today, we know what a “science writer” is, but back then there was no such thing. They had to create their own profession, keep up with the dizzying pace of events and make a living all at once.
Victorian Popularizers of Science, by Bernard Lightman. University of Chicago Press. 978-0226481180
I’ve been falling behind on some news that I really should be sharing with our regular readers, so let’s do a quick run-down of some of them. The New England Journal of Medicine is available to Kindle 1, 2 or DX owners on a subscription basis at a rate of about 9 dollars per month. My source for this is an item on the Medical Librarians’ discussion list. I’m sure other professional and specialty journals will follow, if they haven’t signed on already. The Apple I-phone also has a Kindle application which one can download at no charge from the company’s web site. It won’t have the same screen quality as a proper Kindle reader, but, maybe, just good enough for the commute or the wait in the dentist’s office. Things are moving rather quickly. Twitter is something that I have frankly viewed with some puzzlement, since the notion of “following” a celebrity while s/he makes a cheese sandwich or walks the dog seemed just one step shy of complete absurdity. But, events in Iran are wiping that smirk off my face as Twitter emerges as one of the few reliable ways to get news about the dramatic struggle going on there. And, it seems that someone has created a utility which monitors tweets for mentions of papers deposited in arXix, the online repository in science and math, and then creates a record of which ones are the most discussed, on Twitter anyway. So, as so often in the past, I find myself forced to reconsider.
Tweets on arXiv
Every summer, various groups, persons or agencies compile lists of what they hope will be both useful and relaxing vacation reading for their associates. Science in the June 5th issue releases this year’s list, which was selected from recommendations forwarded by grad students. The entry requirements are rather loose: the books should have appeared in the last few years and should have some connection to science, quite broadly understood. It seems to me that some of the titles are quite venerable and almost chestnuts and warhorses…the Asimov books for example. Richard Feynman makes a couple of appearances, and I’m pleased to note that Neal Stephenson gets a nod for one of his blockbuster novels about the early days of the Scientific Revolution…blockbuster in the sense of big, not in the sense of runaway sales. There is the usual admixture of dystopian “we’re all gonna die” stories, and on the non-fiction side a book by Richard Fortey about Trilobites. I can recommend him as a writer on the basis of his book about the Natural History Museum in London. Doris Lessing is on the list and so is Margaret Atwood. Take a look:
It’s starting to seem that the Blogger will be added to the list of Endangered Species. In an article dated June, 7, a New York Times reporter details the downward curve of the whole blogging thing. The Timesman informs us that of the 133 million blogs being tracked by the online monitoring service Technorati, only 7.4 million of them had been updated, even once, in the past 120 days. That’s a pretty high mortality rate, much worse than that of The Black Death, or the Plague of Justinian. You can mourn about this loss of citizen journalism, or you can take some comfort from the fact that, even now, some 7.4 million blogmeisters or citizen journalists or whatever are still cranking out the commentary. Most people really, don’t have a whole lot of interesting things to say, especially when talking about themselves. There is not enough time, leisure, material or talent, and that’s all there is too it. On top of this, many bloggers were, it seems, looking for ways to make money and gain reputation and influence from their blogs, so their disappointment is even keener, I’m sure. The strained circumstances of the last couple of years may forcing many people to reassess what they want to do and and blogging is not one of them. And a steady diet of bad news is not conducive to writing funny or profound things about yourself and your day.
I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so. The new sheriff is serious about the new look in antitrust enforcement. A story on the front page of today’s Wall St. Journal reports that Federal officials from two agencies, the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission have been looking quite sharply at Google, and in particular, at the Google Book Deal. DOJ has sent letters to publishers who accepted the terms of the settlement, demanding certain information about prices, plans for digital operations, and preliminary conversations. A number of US publishers have been served with the letters, but everybody is keeping mum about it all, apart from terse confirmations that, yes, the mailman had been by, but things are still peachy. Google is getting Federal attention in other areas as well, but the Deal is what concerns us most. The G shrugs it all off as part of being the Biggest. But, unless the Google chorus sings oh so sweetly, there may have to be modifications in the Deal. Nobody really wants that, but they may have no choice. In the meantime, Google is sending its ambassador to DC to tell them: “Hey, we’re big but we’re not bad”. But, I’m not so sure. The WSJ story is subscriber content only, and I read the article in the printed version, so I can’t post a link.
PS: This is the link to a similar story on the New York Times site:
University College of London has adopted an open-acess policy for publications emerging from research conducted at that institution. The policy directs UCL researchers to place copies of their publications on the school’s institutional repository, but instructs them also to observe publishers’ copyright guidelines on this matter, so it winds up being a sort of “mitigated” OA mandate as opposed to the more sweeping stance adopted at other institutions, such as Harvard or MIT. The issue of Nature for this work carries a short article on the policy, in which one analyst opines that a major impetus to the recent surge in OA mandates results from the realization that institutions must make themselves more visible on the Internet, and one way to do this is to make the research publications of faculty more generally accessible. This is especially important in times of severe competition for funding support.
That’s an attempt to mimic the headlines in Variety, the show biz newspaper, which was famous for colloquial, concise and punchy lead-off sentences. I was watching something on our new TV last night and one of the commercials turned out to be a pitch for Bing, Microsoft’s new search engine. It was pretty slick, with lots of rapidly changing images, but I couldn’t figure out what they were selling until the very last image. I had the mute on, so maybe I missed something. Anyway, it’s true. MS is doing some big-ticket spending on their new product. I’ll have to pay more attention to the reaction among informed observers and see what the judgment is.