Category Archives: Science and Technology

>Fractal Patterns

>A few days ago I posted about patterns and mentioned the designs at Alhambra among others. The next day my spouse told me about a video he watched at the TED site. This is cool. Video is about 15 minutes. Professor Ron Eglash, discussing fractals in African village design:

I am fascinated by this idea of mathematical patterns having a spiritual aspect. Wish I understood more about it.

From the Amazon web site:

Drawing on interviews with African designers, artists, and scientists, Ron Eglash investigates fractals in African architecture, traditional hairstyling, textiles, sculpture, painting, carving, metalwork, religion, games, practical craft, quantitative technologies, and symbolic systems. He also examines the political and social implications of the existence of African fractal geometry. His book makes a unique contribution to the study of mathematics, African culture, anthropology, and computer simulations.

African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Designs, Ron Eglash, Rutgers Univ Press, 1999.

This book is now on my wishlist.

If you aren’t familiar with TED, go here. Pretty amazing stuff! This is one of those sites I can’t click to at work. Not that it isn’t safe; it isn’t conducive to getting the stuff done I need to do. I could spend hours listening to these lectures. And they add more all the time. I’ll never catch up!

My 3 beautiful things today:

  • Mathematics
  • Finding my forgotten Wine Notebook which reminded me I’ve bought some pretty great vino in the past. Fermented grapes are a wonderful thing.
  • Spending the afternoon “watching” football with husband. Translation: he watched; I napped. A wonderful lazy afternoon.
  • >Book Review: Hell and High Water

    >Hell and High Water: Global Warming — The Solution and Politics — And What we Can Do Joseph Romm. William Morrow, 2007.

    I so wanted to give this book a hearty recommendation. Its topic is one that I am very interested in –I think we all should be concerned about the global warming and need to take individual grassroots-level action to help find remedies. I was curious by the subtitle. Besides being one of the longest subtitles I’ve come across recently, I was concerned that the book might do a little over-reaching in it’s purpose. And that was confirmed as I read through it.

    Romm’s book presents a worse-case scenario for the implications of society not doing anything to curb the effects of global warming. This book presents lots of well-footnoted facts — facts I’ve read elsewhere, ones I find convincing, although I do not have the technical background to refute any scientific flaws that may exist. In addition, Romm’s book is a analysis of what hasn’t been done by our government to implement means of reducing activities that are leading to global warming. It is this part — the attack on politics — where the book disappoints. While Romm is good with presentation of the data supporting the global warming trends, he relies more on unsupported (although not untrue) and suggestive attacks on the current administration, than on persuasive argument to convince the reader that the government is not doing enough to enact needed legislation. (Note: I’m not a supporter of the Bush administration, and can’t disagree with Romm’s premise, so bear with me here….)

    Most of the facts on global warming have been presented elsewhere (Gore’s recent movie, An Inconvenient Truth comes to mind although it is not the only example), so Romm isn’t adding anything new to the body of knowledge for the lay reader who is aware of the situation and the overwhelming support in the scientific community for the need to address causes of global warming trends. But, Romm’s writing slants so much to attack — at points even seeming to contradict the point he is making. (e.g., at one point Romm writes of how a government representative made a statement which contradicts his (Romm’s) point in the previous chapter, but then states that they only agreed as a delaying tactic, not because they sincerely want to believe there is a problem.) I think that it is here that Romm could have been most effective if he hadn’t relied on attack-ad style tactics and hyperbole. He isn’t going to convince anyone who doesn’t already believe the facts about global warming that the US government is burying our collective head in the sand. But shouldn’t that be the point? If not, he is no better in advancing arguments for correcting the situation than the vocal and attention-grabbing mouthpieces of some oil companies who manipulate the data to disprove Romm’s scientific allies. The data about global warming is convincing enough that he should have changed the tone here. Instead, a reasoned voice is one that is more likely to be heard and to encourage action.

    Another way in which the book disappoints is that it is very slim on the ‘what to do about it’ portion suggested by the title. A few paragraphs in the closing chapters is all that is presented. As someone interested in the topic who has read enough to convince me that something needs to be done, I was looking for something that would give reasoned, valid options for moving forward, rather than finger pointing.

    I’m tired of divisive politics. I don’t think the issue is so one-sided that we can only blame one political party — I don’t see the other political party stepping to the forefront on this either.

    The chapter, “Missing the Story of the Century”, did grab my attention though. Romm makes the point that as news media seek to ‘balance’ stories, they often give equal footing to both sides of the debate despite the preponderance of evidence. This is a different twist on the lament about so-called ‘media bias’, and I think that Romm has a valid point here. If the overwhelming number of scientists agree with the data on global warming and are in concurrence as to the root causes, why does the media give equal footing to those who oppose such data, including those that may be funded by the same industries that have the most to lose if we impose stricter governmental regulations? Romm uses the example of a recent (2005) segment on Meet the Press where there were four experts discussing avian flu. Romm’s point was that all were in agreement regarding the potential for a catastrophic bird flu outbreak, yet there are some who might disagree with the likelihood of such an occurrence. His point, specifically, is that the press wouldn’t think to have an opposing view since the majority concur; yet with global warming, they always give air to those who disagree. This may explain why studies show that few Americans think there is concurrence among scientists on global warming, while there are also studies that show that the majority of scientists do concur. I don’t know what the solution is — what percentage constitutes a majority opinion that dictates that we should listen to flat-earthers, regardless of the topic? Romm doesn’t offer a solution either, and I’m not sure that Romm’s reasoning behind the equal opportunity media time is because the media doesn’t want to be blasted for bias. This chapter could easily be a book; I’m sure that this isn’t the only topic where this is occurs.

    While the above paragraphs might make you think that I wouldn’t recommend this book, that isn’t completely accurate. I think that Romm adequately lays out the facts regarding global warming trends, environmental impact of melting polar ice, and the reasons why we should reduce CO2 emissions (and sign the Kyoto treaty). He does make an argument about the dissembling actions of our government, although he seems more interested in painting the Republicans with a broad brush as ‘bad guys’ than in honest debate about how we should go about changing the situations and what types of economic plans we should have for doing so. He just seems to have taken on too much in one small book to make a strong case for how to change the problems — both politically and technologically/environmentally.

    TWO NOTES: 1) If you are interested in a concise Q&A regarding environmental issues and how to defend against contrarians, check out this link. Courtesy of Rev Sam at Elizaphanian.

    2) Some in the blog universe have posited recently that it’s important to disclose if a copy is a review copy. Here is my disclaimer in case you didn’t notice the 2007 pub date indicated above. I received this book as part of HarperCollins’ FirstLook program. Disproving, at least in this one case, the opinion that only positive reviews are done by bloggers when the book is free.

    >Poetry and Technology

    >I don’t usually connect my work life and my reading/blogging life. In fact, few people I know professionally know that I blog — and I want to keep it that way! But, I do tend to gravitate towards readers and I will miss the readers with whom I had interesting lunchtime discussions at my last job. Sometimes, I have people comment that they think that technology (my work life) seems so different than my reading and writing interests. I don’t think that the two are mutually exclusive, but I’m frequently frustrated with my inability to adequately explain how they are complementary.

    Here are two different postings I came across recently that deal with the intersection of poetry and technology:

    First, Frank Wilson at Books, Inc. linked to this article about the Poetry at Tech program at Georgia Tech. Those engineers realize that there is more to poetry than their rhyming fight song: “I’m a rambling wreck from Georgia Tech…”.

    In the article, Georgia Tech President Wayne Clough is quoted:

    “The pursuit of science and technology is just as creative a process as poetry and the arts,” Clough says. “Both require intensely creative people who can think outside the box, look at the same things everyone else sees and imagine something more, and put the pieces together in new ways.”

    The Director of the Poetry at Tech program, poet Thomas Lux is quoted:

    “Poems are made things. They have everything to do with intense emotions … but poems are made things. They don’t just happen.”

    Follow the link to read the article. Lux makes some interesting comments regarding hip-hop and poetry slams. Registration is required, but it’s free.

    At Robert Peake’s blog, Peake makes a comparison between programming and poetry:

    What poems and code have in common is compactness…Both require precision, and poetry usually also involves some degree of linguistic compactness….Subtlety, clarity, and intimacy with the language are all required traits that get amplified through the power of each discipline.

    Be sure to check out the comments on Robert’s post as well. I’m not sure that I agree with his correlation of poets and programming language, but, while I am a technologist, I’m not a programmer. I’ll be checking his blog for future posts for more data.

    >Physics for Scientists and Poets

    >Place: The 12th annual Back-to-School night (for this parent at least):
    Setting: 2nd year AP Physics Class
    Timing: Mid-way through the teacher’s 7 minute speech


    “The text is this book. (Holds up book for viewing) It’s the best text there is. Physics for Scientists and Engineers

    “Named so because it’s for, well, scientists. And engineers”.

    (Long pause to allow teacher to do a reality check, assessing the following:

    a. Parents who are not listening;
    b. Those who take this W-A-Y too seriously;
    c. Anyone with a dry sense of humor.

    Teacher continuing….)

    “As opposed to the Physics for Poets and Lovers, which is a much easier text. Too easy for your kids.”

    But probably better written! I think. I was the only one who laughed out loud.

    Earlier in the day, I had read Jim’s wonderful poem “Contemplating God in the 11th Dimension / String Theory / Mottled Ducks”. In response, I was inspired to write the following poem (now slightly revised) in the comments section.

    Jim, maybe one of us should write that Physics for Poets and Lovers book. What do you think?

    Twisting Physics Makes a Poem
    I thought about writing a poem
    about a mobius strip
    –or a Klein bottle
    for added dimension–
    No direction to start,
    so I jumped right in
    along the thin edge,
    around and around,
    until I came back to me,
    twice as long again
    at the beginning
    and the end.

    If you haven’t visited Jim’s site before, click on over to I Am Big. It’s the Pictures That Got Small. He’s a wonderful poet.

    >There Are Some Things You Come to take for granted…

    >….like the planets revolving around the sun. All 9 of them!

    Reuters posted this story a few hours ago.

    Two weeks ago we all knew what we had learned in 2nd grade: That there were 9 planets in our solar system. Then last week, they proposed adding 3 more. Now we have 8? I think Pluto deserves to be grandfathered in. Don’t you?

    And, as for the old mnemonic, what will we do without My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas? (Or Pickles as those of us babyboomers, who grew up before Pizza Hut & Dominos were regular meal options, learned it…)

    Maybe this: My Very Egocentric Mother Just Served Us Nothing???? Cynical, but with a very contemporary feel of victimization to it. Maybe someone will come up with something better…

    >Old Sol’s Planets are not fixed marks?

    >All you clever wordsmiths: check out this contest: create a new planetary mnemonic for our expanding universe — well, uh, solar system. The prize, apparently, is galactic recognition.

    Check out the comments section for link above for already submitted suggestions.

    This article, explains the sequence (MVEMCJSUNPCX). If you’re too lazy or pressed for time to follow the link, ‘C’, ‘X’, and ‘C’ stand for Ceres, the largest asteroid, the body dubbed Xena, Charon (once considered Pluto’s moon). I am surprised that as of this morning, nobody has suggested an alternate spelling for xenophile, xenophobia, etc. Wouldn’t Xenaphile be more appropriate, because, yes, Xena is named after the goddess with her own television program. Why stick with those old myths?

    >Precious Gems in the Night Sky: The Planets by Dava Sobel


    “For myself, I confess that none of the truly staggering data I have been privileged to share here has altered the planets’ fundamental appeal to me as an assortment of magic beans or precious gems in a little private cabinet of wonder — portable, evocative, and swirled in beauty.” — Dava Sobel, The Planets

    Three things recommended this book to me: the eye-catching cover depicting a map of Tyco Brahe’s universe, the author Dava Sobel whose books Longitude and Galelio’s Daughter I thoroughly enjoyed reading, and its simple title: The Planets. A wonderful science writer writing about the cosmos, with a cool cover to boot. There was much to expect, but, it turns out, plenty to disappoint.

    The Planets is divided into 11 chapters — one for each planet, an intro & a coda. But the titles of each chapter suggests something different: Mythology, Beauty, Geography, Night Air. Each chapter discusses a portion of our Solar System in conjunction with a corresponding theme. Part history, part lore, part scientific discussion, each chapter discusses not only the heavenly body referred to in the chapter title, but also a history of how the heavens have been defined otherwise throughout the history of western thought.

    In some chapters this works well, such as the chapter on Mythology and Mercury, or the chapter on Sci-F and Mars. But elsewhere, this device seemed too contrived and annoyed me. For instance, in “Music of the Spheres”, Sobel writes of Holst symphony “The Planets” and Saturn. After a few paragraphs the connection becomes overworked. Perhaps Holst’s well-known piece did represent a view of our universe, but what does it tell us about the universe? Isn’t the music really just inspired by the planets, not descriptive of them — not in a scientific way at any rate — although ancient astronomers may have written of the music of the stars? Maybe there are solar sounds and ratio in orbital patterns similar to music, but is there really a connection, a harmony more physical than metaphysical? If so, I didn’t get it from Sobel’s writing.

    Similarly, while Sobel’s description of astrology is interesting, she seems to both support and refute its validity. From a historical perspective, the book discusses astrology’s importance throughout history, and how the scientific revelation the the earth was not the center of the universe made astrology obsolete. Yet, she writes of a ‘star chart’ for a satellite’s launch date and how ‘accurate’ it was. Elsewhere she begins with an elaborate description of an Ellis Island immigrant and likens it to ‘false memories’ of those who claim to be victims of alien abductions. She then makes a quantum cognitive jump into the cosmos to discuss the search for Pluto and the discovery of the Kuiper Body Objects. Once the leap is executed, the reader doesn’t return to the alien kidnappings; there is no connection and perhaps the only thing worse than this preposterous association would have been if Sobel DID loop back in some sort of literary mobius strip way to the world of aliens. If Sobel wants to believe in astrology or Roswellian creatures performing surgeries on the human populace during REM sleep, fine with me, but I don’t like the scientific mysticism attributed to it in this book.

    Lastly, in a few places I tired of reading information from Sobel’s other books. Intrigued as I was in learning about Harrison’s clocks and his efforts to solve the ‘longitude problem’, the information regarding maps and efforts to define longitude seemed repetitive. Information that seemed almost a recitation from Galileo’s Daughter, while not completely irrelevant, read as if a lazy editor had cloned the earlier text in order to lengthen this book.

    I like the idea of this book — science facts regarding our universe coupled with a history of how the universe has been understood throughout the ages by art, literature and religion. That there was a time — long before we had the words to define and describe our solar system in today’s scientific terms — when the arts and science and faith were so intertwined that they were inseparable. But, because it can’t always be connected specifically to current scientific knowledge, the book in its execution becomes too disjointed.

    Yet, to return to the passage quoted above: “…[N]one of the truly staggering data I have been privileged to share here has altered the planets’ fundamental appeal to me as an assortment of…precious gems in a little private cabinet of wonder…” If Sobel’s intent is to evoke wonder and awe of our universe, perhaps she is successful in showing how it has inspired throughout the centuries. Those precious sparkling gems in the night sky have symbolized an abundance of human thought and experience. Maybe the poets and the scientists marvel at the same thing, but for different reasons, in different voices, in different times….

    Postscript — On a readerly level, I most enjoyed the first half of Chapter 10, ‘Night Air’ in which Sobel writes a ‘fictionalized’ letter from astronomer Caroline Herschel (1750 – 1848) to astronomer Maria Mitchell (1818 – 1889). In the notes section Sobel indicates that the facts in the letter are true although it is unknown if the women corresponded. Maybe Sobel should try her hand at historical fiction next time.