East 2 degrees 20 minutes 57 seconds

 books, science  Comments Off on East 2 degrees 20 minutes 57 seconds
Sep 062011

Today it is possible to pull out your telephone and know immediately where you are and what time it is, so the prospect of, say, setting one’s watch by Immanuel Kant’s daily walk seems intrinsically absurd. Yet, before the turn of the century, it was not unusual for the time in one town to be very different from the time in the next town down the road, and the only unification of clocks came from the local rail line. Lacking a global idea of time, our knowledge of longitude was uncertain, so much so that cartographers could not pin down even the distance between London and Paris, much less that between the Americas and Europe. Our transit from “here there be dragons” to your iPhone’s GPS function owes much to French mechanist Henri Poincaré and physicist Albert Einstein, contributions Peter Galison examines in his book Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps [Amazon].

Einstein comes first in the title, but it is clear from early on that Galison’s real interest is in Poincaré. Most Americans have an opposite preference, and it’s easy to understand why. Einstein’s peregrinations and iconoclasm speak to certain American sensibilities. Poincaré, by contrast, was French, and fiercely so, a student of the École Polytechnique, a member of many Academies and Societies, and an important member of the Bureau of Longitude.

That last may seem faintly hilarious, now, but at that time the determination of longitude was no small task. One of the first tasks of the mighty transatlantic telegraph cables was to fix the time of events at two distant spots, thus determining the longitudinal difference between them. Following on the international adoption of the metric system, the French hoped to have the Prime Meridian fixed to Paris, where the meter, kilogram, and associated measures lay. Poincaré even became involved in an effort to create a metric system of time. Rather than bothering much with Relativity, Galison devotes most of the book to examining the multiple levels where one if its key insights (the synchronization of clocks) played a role. As he puts it:

In to the precision swing of master clock pendulums, out to the undersea telegraph cables crisscrossing the oceans. In to follow the minutiae of individual train schedulers, jewelers, and astronomers; then back out to the legal recalibration of  national and world-covering time zones. In this process of scrutiny, historical light necessarily plays off the very different scales utilized by technological, scientific, and philosophical activity. Between 1870 and 1910, conventions of space and time scintillated with a critical opalescence.

One can see that Galison is not afraid to engage flights of fancy, and also that he is unusually fond of the word “opalescent”, which I saw more times in this book than in the preceding 30-odd years of my life. Niggling about style aside, the passage does give a feel for the many lenses needed to capture the drama. In Europe, intellectual titans like Poincaré were involved in the struggle to map the world and unify time, while in America, time became the province of businessmen and rail magnates, eventually resulting in the creation of the time zone system we find familiar (albeit not without digressing into some curious permutations along the way).

If you’re wondering how time itself could be so confusing, Poincaré did not. One of the central beliefs of his life was that systems, like time, were just conventions, only to be used until another, more convenient tool came along. If he had been able to follow this belief to its logical end, perhaps it would be he who was remembered as the discoverer of Special Relativity. Certainly his modifications of the Lorentz transformations were essential. Yet he ultimately became too attached to the familiar ether, insisting that there was one “true” time, while Einstein managed to punch through that barrier and recognize that time itself was variable. Galison seems to like Poincaré just a bit too much to judge this failure harshly, but that’s a forgivable flaw in a work that shines a much-needed light on a somewhat-forgotten genius.


 books, environment  Comments Off on Arcology
Mar 092011

When I was a boy my family used to joke that crows didn’t fly in Vestavia. Our suburb, like so many others, had a knotty system of streets that made direct travel impossible, and zoning that made driving a necessity. My high school was less than 2/3 of a mile direct distance from my house, but it was a two-mile drive down a road that became pretty backed up around 7:45 AM. Of course nobody rode the bus. Suburban living allowed my brother and I to go to a good school, live in a big house, and play in the woods frequently as we grew up. It also used a lot of gas.

I recently finished reading Green Metropolis [Amazon] by David Owen, a book that I enjoyed in part because it told me so many things I already agreed with. Cities are often derided for being big and dirty, and this is true, but because of their size, their dirtiness per capita is substantially less than that of the suburbs. Owen models his argument off New York City, noting that its residents use less electricity per year than people living in any other part of the country, and produce greenhouse gases at a rate 67% less than the national average. Large multi-unit buildings use heat more efficiently than drafty, oversize suburban houses, and small apartments discourage tenants from acquiring (or keeping) junk they don’t need. Mixed-use neighborhoods encourage people to do much of their travel on foot, and public transport combines with the sheer inconvenience of using a car to discourage driving.

The American environmental and conservative movements may seem to have little in common, but both romanticize a life close to the land and far from the city, albeit for different reasons. Their mutual straining has, without question, been environmentally ruinous, producing the unsightly sprawl that swaddles cities like Atlanta and Washington D.C. like a spreading tumor. The result is misery and waste: hours of productivity lost to endless commutes, acre upon acre of ugly strip malls moated by asphalt, and vast quantities of duplicated infrastructure tea-partying suburbanites don’t want to pay taxes to maintain. All this so people can work two jobs to pay off mortgages they can’t afford for drafty, energy-inefficient houses much larger than they need and enormous water-sucking, pesticide and fertilizer-coated lawns they won’t even let their children play in anymore because of skin cancer and chemicals and sexual predators.

Owen shares my skepticism of popular idiocies such as ethanol, a technology that still consumes more energy than it produces and is only likely to work if we tear up the suburbs that made it necessary in the first place and repurpose the land for agriculture. He also justly ridicules much so-called “green” architecture and LEED certifications that don’t accurately measure a building project’s environmental costs. As he notes, environmental assessments of buildings rarely acknowledge that windows are inherently wasteful of energy, or that elevators are one of the world’s most efficient forms of mass transit.

Yet, there is much to criticize in Owen’s work as well. He derides the phenomenon of tiny “urban” cars, and in the case of New York alone that might be justified. But such vehicles may be helpful, perhaps even essential, to re-urbanizing areas like Atlanta, where lack of efficient public transportation and an unfavorable climate would make city living unbearable for much of the year. Owen acknowledges that efficient cities like New York often came to be that way due to geographical accidents, which does little to guide us towards solutions that might allow us to recentralize America’s sprawled-out suburban dystopias. Although Owen easily enough points out the factors that made city living seem unappealing to him, he has trouble converting that recognition into recommendations that make cities more palatable to the suburbanites who fled them long ago.

The simple fact is that New Yorkers don’t use less energy or produce less greenhouse gas because they’re uniquely virtuous. They’re energy-efficient because they’re forced to be that way by the nature of the place where they live. No quantity of “green” appliances, extra insulation, solar panels, or corn ethanol will ever suffice to make suburban living efficient enough to challenge the environmental benefits mandated by city living, even if every household in America was convinced to adopt all these measures. Our national addiction to cars and big houses will be the ruin of any plan for energy independence or sustainability. Any comprehensive plan for meeting these goals will require some degree of re-urbanization (or de-suburbanization), and that means finding some way to make city living more appealing, more economical, and more convenient than it currently is. That’s a hard sell, and Owen knows it, but he doesn’t seem to have any idea how to close the deal.

Feb 182010
In 1951, Henrietta Lacks died of an incredibly fast-growing and invasive uterine cancer. She is still alive today, making vital contributions to our understanding of cancer and cellular biology. How a dead, uneducated black woman continues to live and provide valuable scientific insights, and why her children and grandchildren have not benefited from her legacy, is the subject of Rebecca Skloot’s new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (which you can buy from Amazon here).

Henrietta Lacks’ tumor gave rise to the HeLa cell line, the first cells that could be grown indefinitely in culture. Ordinarily, cells isolated from a living creature divide only a few times in culture and then die out, a consequence of telomere loss. The cells isolated from Mrs. Lacks’ tumor, however, had an active telomerase enzyme and were very robust, besides. They grew happily in culture then, and continue to be cultured in labs around the world to this day. Various obfuscations, some intentional and some not, have hidden the originator of the cells behind pseudonyms such as “Helen Lane” (the name I first learned). Scientists weren’t the only ones who didn’t know where HeLa came from, though.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about science, but it is not so much about the science. We learn that Mrs. Lacks’ cells contributed to many significant advances, but the book provides little detail as to how. Skloot focuses instead on the Lacks family and the small set of scientists and doctors surrounding her case. She traces Mrs. Lacks’ brief trajectory in life, from Clover, Virginia to Turner Station, Maryland, and then the sad history of her children, who endured poverty and various kinds of abuse. Neither they, nor Henrietta’s husband Day, knew of the cells or their importance until the ’70s, even though scientists took blood from them in an effort to stem HeLa’s invasion of other cell lines.

Skloot also provides some context on the use of human tissue by scientists, a practice which in Lacks’ day did not even require consent, much less “informed” consent. Although the researchers who initially coaxed HeLa to grow in culture gave the cells away for free, the mass production of HeLa has grown into a major industry. The cells themselves, and specialized products derived from them, are routinely sold as reagents at high prices, with no benefit to Henrietta’s descendants.

Skloot describes some similar cases for context, including the case of the Mo cell line, in which a man was subjected to procedures that had little purpose beyond improving a cell line from which he received no benefit, then denied a stake in the resulting commerce by the Supreme Court of California. As our capacity to reap massive quantities of data from tiny amounts of biological material increases, the question of who owns tissue samples and whether patients are due compensation if those samples prove scientifically useful will become ever more relevant. Striking a balance between the rights of the patient and the need for vital research is a question that should be confronted, but the history Skloot recounts suggests that governments would rather ignore the problem than reach a probably unpopular conclusion.

Regardless of the direction bioethics laws take, the genie has firmly escaped the bottle in HeLa’s case. It’s unlikely that the Lacks family will ever directly benefit from the industry that has grown up around the last remains of their matriarch. Maybe that’s a crime, and maybe it’s just bad luck. Either way, if you are one of the many who has benefited from Mrs. Lacks’ involuntary contribution to medical science, you may wish to give back via the Henrietta Lacks Foundation set up by Skloot to provide scholarships and health care for the Lacks family.

Feb 262008
I recently read Arieh Ben-Naim’s book Entropy Demystified, a book I feel would have benefitted greatly from being more somewhat more focused on the task of explaining entropy than it actually was. While Ben-Naim, as promised, does a good job of reducing the second law of thermodynamics to “plain common sense”, he makes confusing decisions to include arguments better meant for experts and diatribes that serve nobody. As a result I feel the book, though largely useful, may ill-serve the lay audience for which it is apparently intended, especially as regards the areas where non-scientists are most likely to encounter the concept of entropy.

In my view, the purpose of a popular book on a scientific subject is twofold. First, it should provide readers with enough good science to understand the subject as it appears (if it appears) in their lives. Second, it should provide the lay reader with a framework that allows him to interpret the words of experts. That is, the reader should come away with an understanding of what scientists mean by (in this case) entropy. Thus, popular books on any subject are not a reasonable platform to argue for paradigm shifts. First of all, you’re not talking to your target audience (i.e. experts) when you do this. Second of all, the lay readers that agree with you will now be thinking of the subject in a very different way than most of the scientists they will encounter. So not only do you fail at what you’re intending to do in terms of serving your new paradigm, you also fail at one basic task of the popular science book. The unfortunate thing with Ben-Naim’s book is that it fails at the second task and ends up with mixed results on the first, for no real reason. He could have done just as good a job explaining entropy without introducing the new paradigm at all.

Entropy, despite its importance, is not a topic that lay people encounter very often. The transfer of heat from warmer to cooler bodies is a common example, as is the diffusion of dye in a liquid, or the mixing of two liquids or gases. Ben-Naim does an excellent job of explaining the role of entropy in these processes, building up from relatively simple dice games to complex discussions about temperature and gaseous mixtures. However, he does not do any job at all of explaining the role of entropy in reactions. Consequently, he fails to explain how apparent counteractions to entropy occur. A layman reading this book will understand why a gas expands, but not why it was possible to compress it in the first place. Also, Ben-Naim’s approach and focus on mixtures and the like will also leave the reader utterly unprepared to encounter discussions of entropy in connection to the hydrophobic effect. Could the framework here introduced be extended to explain micelle formation and protein folding? I don’t doubt that this is so, but Ben-Naim doesn’t do it, to the detriment of the book and its readers.

What’s Ben-Naim doing with all this space that he’s not using on talking about the role of entropy in chemical reactions? Well, he’s arguing for a view of entropy based on information, specifically defining entropy in terms of “missing information”. Although this position has some merits, this book is an entirely inappropriate place to make the case for it. Why? The most pervasive popular misuse of the second law of thermodynamics is in creationist canards about the thermodynamic impossibility of evolution. These misinterpretations often rest on ideas related to information (as colloquially used) or distortions of information theory. Although Ben-Naim repeatedly states (correctly) that information has a precise scientific meaning, he never graces his readers with it. I fear this leaves them more vulnerable to creationist distortions than before they started reading. That Ben-Naim says little to emphasize the meaning of “closed system” or the other parts of thermodynamics exacerbates the problem. The discussion of information was not strictly necessary to his overall point—his excellent introduction of probability would have sufficed—and it is easily misread and misused. In my opinion, he should have held his tongue here and allowed his book targeted at the academic audience (A Farewell to Entropy: Statistical Thermodynamics Based on Information) to make the case.

Ben-Naim also devotes pages and pages to complaints about other authors’ (Atkins particularly comes in for criticism) presentations of entropy. These sections contain a few good ideas, but on the whole read like petulant complaints about more popular writers. That these pages serve any real purpose at all is debatable; that they weaken Ben-Naim’s case is certain. No matter how much he disagrees with these authors it would be better for him to disregard them and focus on constructing his own case than deconstructing their books. I agree with him that science writers are too eager to portray entropy as mysterious, but clearing up the mystery is sufficient. His detailed rebuttals of their language are unnecessary.

It’s a pity, because Ben-Naim really does pack in some useful and important concepts. Strip away the unnecessary information theory, and his book does an excellent job of reducing the law of entropy to common sense. Entropy Demystified explains what entropy actually means for certain physical systems, and excels at building this picture up from very simple games that anyone can intuitively understand and model. That said, Ben-Naim does not tie entropy into real processes nearly as well as he could, and his insistence on representing entropy in a way that has not yet gained mainstream acceptance may mitigate his readers’ ability to apprehend what scientists are saying about the subject. Moreover, the fact that this alternative presentation is “entropy as missing information” is more likely to perpetuate misunderstandings about entropy (especially with regard to evolution) among the lay audience than to clear those misunderstandings up. As such, I cannot recommend this book, despite its virtues.

Jan 102008
The two or three of you that have perused my link section have probably come across the oddly-named Ray Bradbury’s Love-Camel, Eric’s teamblog about pop culture. In a moment of insanity, he invited me to cross-post my own economy-priced cultural musings, and I’ve decided to do so until the comments get too mean or he returns to his senses.

As it turns out, my first post for rblc is actually inspired by Eric’s post yesterday about Blankets, which reminded me of one of my favorite graphic novels, and so even though it was a little early for me to hit it on the decadal rotation I went home last night and re-read Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse. Although it’s a work of fiction, Cruse admits that it is heavily influenced by his time in Birmingham in the sixties, and this shows through in much of the plot and also in some of the characters. The inspiration for Sutton Chopper, for instance, will be immediately obvious to anyone who remembers any part of their Black History Month lessons. But Stuck Rubber Baby is not about the Civil Rights Movement, except to the degree that the characters’ reactions to it help define their relationships with each other. This story is about a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality in an extraordinary and difficult time, and the mistakes he and others make in the course of that effort.

This isn’t a subject that everyone wants to read about, and I’ll forgive you if it turns you off, while warning you that you are missing out on a wonderful story. On the other hand, both civil rights and gay coming-of-age are hardly topics lightly served by literature; it’s tempting to dismiss this book (if you haven’t read it) as a retread of overdone themes. Yet Cruse manages to avoid the all-too-easy trap of populating this kind of story with saints and sinners. Despite the enormous cast, almost every character who appears on more than one page comes across as realistically mixed. You will find something to criticize in every protagonist (especially the main character), and also something to like, or at least a basis for forgiveness, in the villains. The saintly black preacher unleashes a sarcastic, acid tongue, and the obese bigot who commits one of the book’s worst acts comes across as genuinely remorseful and ashamed at the end.

The black-and-white art reflects this sensibility. The characters are highly detailed, and the lines used to draw them are very curvy. This style allows Cruse to create very expressive faces, and yet at the same time it seems to highlight physical imperfections. These characters are not supermen, nor are they ostentatiously ugly. They simply seem real—not in the trivial way one associates with photorealistic artwork, but rather the deeper reality of memory and emotion. Even the sexual content works, a rare example of art avoiding pitfalls I have mentioned before.

Who knows how much of this tale is drawn from Cruse’s experience and how much is entirely made up? The strength of Stuck Rubber Baby is that you simply can’t tell. This story, though it is fiction, feels real, almost frighteningly so. It has no perfect heroes, no perfect villains, and the last page holds no happy ending… only the impression that someone else’s memories, with all their joy and sorrow, have been made your own.