Roundup – March 6, 2016

Previous editions here.

1. The irrepressible lightness of Umberto Eco – “The actor and musician Moni Ovadia alluded in turn to Umberto’s ironic transformation from a leader of Italy’s Catholic Action Youth to committed atheist. Umberto, for all that, ebulliently indulged reasonable clerics, even co-publishing a book with Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini. Ovadia offered a benediction “from a believer to a nonbeliever,” announcing, “God blesses you above all because you are not a believer. God supports believers, but he definitely prefers atheists. That Umberto would be cremated later in the day surprised some people. Not me. Umberto exulted in hurtling into the past through texts, in fulfilling Kierkegaard’s admonition to understand backward but to live forward. Umberto once observed, “The person who doesn’t read lives only one life. The reader lives 5,000. Reading is immortality backwards.” With typical Umberto mischievousness, he probably thought of cremation as his one chance to experience an auto da fé.”

2. Is this the trailer for the upcoming LHC blockbuster? – “An anomaly was observed in the decay of a B meson containing two muons among its products. Describing the final state of this decay requires up to eight parameters that define the angular distribution of decay products—that is, at what angles they will be flying. The traditional method of determining these parameters can produce false results for the small number of such decays observed. Dr. Marcin Chrzaszcz from IFJ PAN, one of the main authors of the analysis, proposed an alternative method in which each parameter was determined independently of the others.”

3. A conversation on the future of civilisation with Stephen Wolfram – “The thing that makes this more poignant for me is that I’ve spent a lot of time studying basic science about computation, and I’ve realized something from that. It’s a little bit of a longer story, but basically, if we think about intelligence and things that might have goals, things that might have purposes, what kinds of things can have intelligence or purpose? Right now, we know one great example of things with intelligence and purpose and that’s us, and our brains, and our own human intelligence. What else is like that? The answer, I had at first assumed, is that there are the systems of nature. They do what they do, but human intelligence is far beyond anything that exists naturally in the world. It’s something that’s the result of all of this elaborate process of evolution. It’s a thing that stands apart from the rest of what exists in the universe. What I realized, as a result of a whole bunch of science that I did, was that is not the case. My children always give me a hard time for this particular quote: “The weather has a mind of its own.””

4. Albert Speer, architect of the Third Reich – “Speer’s highly theatrical architectural scenography was yet another instrument [of Hitler’s persuasion of the people]. Moreover, unlike those other dictators, Hitler had once intended to be an architect, and had spent much time studying and drawing the buildings of Vienna; in every respect he was an exceptionally well-informed client. This did not make it a collaboration of equals. Hitler continued to work with other architects, such as Speer’s rival Hermann Giesler, who was assigned the remodeling of Munich and was even promised the commission for Hitler’s sarcophagus—which Hitler offered in the presence of Speer, a humiliating gesture but characteristic of Hitler, who enjoyed keeping his subordinates off balance by playing them off one another. Still, when it came to his most visionary project, the remodeling of Berlin, Speer was his architect of choice.”

5. Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 has been adapted for the stage – “[Director Robert Falls] perhaps overemphasized the apparent range of the novel’s style, the shift “in tone from Pedro Almodóvar-like comedy to film noir to frenetic hyper-realism, finishing with an extraordinary ‘fairy tale’ section.” The shift in tone, which Falls picked up on as a defining feature of the adaptation, is jarring for the play audience much more so than for the reader, who maintains Bolaño’s rather consistent prose style. It’s most unfortunate in play’s last act, “The Part About Archimboldi,” the lynchpin of the book. Here, Bolaño reveals not a maudlin fairy tale of the 20th century, but rather a secret history filtered through the panopticon’s eyes, through which it’s possible to understand how a man like Klaus Haas, the nephew of Archimboldi, could be an evil killer. Instead, Archimboldi and Haas, both played by Mark Montgomery, turn out to be inscrutable plaything giants, monsters without any apparent real will, so much so that it’s impossible to understand, through this portrayal, the academics’ Act One obsession.”

6. The Four Horsemen of the Internet – “The trap publishers can fall into is to think that a legal victory or even a series of such victories is a substitute for planning the next steps of the industry’s future or that the primary focus should be to set up more roadblocks to the Sci-Hubs of this world and lobbying organizations like SPARC that tacitly support them. One way publishers are likely to respond is to make it harder for pirates to get access to published materials. Angela notes, for example, that some publishers may stop producing PDFs. I think this is highly likely. A PDF is a weapons-grade tool for piracy: a fixed document that can be passed around the conversational channels of the Internet without alteration (it is the PortableDocument Format, after all). But here we have to ask whether it is in a publisher’s long-term interest to make its service any less valuable to its authorized users in order to stymie the unauthorized ones. A bulwark strategy alone may not be enough to carry the organization into the future.”

7. Generalising Moore’s law to various technologies (paywall) – “Many people have likened technological advance to an evolutionary process, advancing as older techniques, components or ideas get combined in new ways. Biologists know that some organisms evolve and adapt more rapidly than others due to features that make it relatively easy to alter some elements — cell surface receptors in bacteria, for example — without undermining other underlying functions. Such independent flexibility enables fast, profitable experimentation, and creates the capacity for rapid evolution. In a recent study, Subarna Basnet and Chris Magee at MIT find evidence that something very similar seems to be true with technologies (preprint at; 2016). The faster evolving ones seem to have fewer interactions or complex interdependences between their elementary components.”

8. Don’t trust an image in a scientific paper? Manipulation detective’s company wants to help. – “I have long advocated that journal editors should take on the responsibility of screening images for evidence of manipulation before publishing articles in their journals, and there are now vendors who provide screening as a service. IDI does not offer systematic screening at the journal scale but offers consultation in cases of suspected manipulation. This can include examination of the data in question and/or advice on how to proceed with an investigation, such as when and how to request original data, and when and how to contact a journal, institution, or funding agency. IDI is willing to undertake that communication on behalf of a client if they so choose.”

9. A world where everyone has a robot: why 2040 could blow your mind – “In March 2001, futurist Ray Kurzweil published an essay arguing that humans found it hard to comprehend their own future. It was clear from history, he argued, that technological change is exponential — even though most of us are unable to see it — and that in a few decades, the world would be unrecognizably different. “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate),” he wrote, in ‘The Law of Accelerating Returns’. Fifteen years on, Kurzweil is a director of engineering at Google and his essay has acquired a cult following among futurists.”

10. Are gamma rays obscuring our view of where neutrinos come from? – “Neutrinos are not knocked off path by electromagnetic forces as they traverse space. That means neutrinos detected here on Earth can be traced directly back to their remote astrophysical sources. Furthermore, these neutrinos rarely come in contact with other kinds of matter and many pass directly through the Earth without touching other particles. This makes them incredibly challenging to find, but their elusive nature means they can escape the extremely dense environments where they are generated. The robust cosmic neutrinos found by IceCube are thought to come from cosmic-ray interactions with matter, interactions with radiation, or from the break down or destruction of dark matter. Because these operations generate both high-energy neutrinos and high-energy gamma rays, the researchers analyzed the IceCube neutrino information to high-energy gamma rays found by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. If all of the high-energy gamma rays are allowed to escape from the sources of neutrinos, we had expected to find corresponding data from IceCube and Fermi,” said Murase. However, the researchers found the data did not correspond.”

11. Is India equipped for Big Science? – “Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship Atal Innovation Mission (AIM) announced during the Union Budget, is seeded with an initial grant of Rs. 150 crores for this fiscal and is expected to generate a massive fund of $300-$500 billion over the next five years. AIM can be an indispensable interface between academic-scientific institutions and the private sector, especially vis-a-vis philanthropy and CSR. Basic science remains a hugely untapped sector in Indian philanthropy and CSR. Academic and scientific institutions and philanthropists must comprehend each other’s needs, reduce incompatibilities, and together acquire regulatory symbioses in the greater interest of the nation.”

12. The first sounds of merging black holes – “Up until a few decades ago, detecting gravitational waves was considered an impossible task. In fact, in the 1950s, physicists were still heatedly debating whether the waves were actual physical entities and whether they could carry energy. The turning point was a 1957 conference in Chapel Hill, North Carolina [2, 3]. There, the theorist Felix Pirani pointed out a connection between Newton’s second law and the equation of geodesic deviation, which describes the effect of tidal forces in general relativity. This connection allowed him to show that the relative accelerations of neighboring particles in the presence of a gravitational wave provide a physically meaningful—and measurable—way to observe it. Sadly, Pirani, who laid the groundwork for our modern thinking about gravitational waves and how to detect them, passed away on December 31, 2015, just weeks before the LIGO scientists announced their discovery.”

13. What do chimp ‘temples’ tell us about the evolution of religion? – “But most pertinent to the discovery of the “shrine trees”, we’ve seen evidence of chimps displaying strange ritual-like behaviour in the last few years. First, a “ritual” dance performed during rainfall. Then a peculiar slow-motion display in the face of a bush fire in Senegal. Jill Pruetz of Iowa State University, who observed the “fire dance” in 2006, said that the behaviour seems to suggest that chimps have a conceptual understanding of fire. Perhaps they are paying respect to it, in some way. I’ve also heard stories of chimps performing dances in front of waterfalls.”

14. The secrets of surveillance capitalism – “The very idea of a functional, effective, affordable product as a sufficient basis for economic exchange is dying. The sports apparel company Under Armour is reinventing its products as wearable technologies. The CEO wants to be like Google. He says, “If it all sounds eerily like those ads that, because of your browsing history, follow you around the Internet, that’s exactly the point – except Under Armour is tracking real behavior and the data is more specific… making people better athletes makes them need more of our gear.” The examples of this new logic are endless, from smart vodka bottles to Internet-enabled rectal thermometers and quite literally everything in between. A Goldman Sachs report calls it a “gold rush,” a race to “vast amounts of data.””

Highly recommended: 15. Atoms in antiquity – “In the world of Greece and Rome, there was a total lack of contact between the useful arts (cookery and brewing, dyeing, metallurgy, tanning, ceramics, even medicine), which were delegated to the laboring classes, and the speculations of gentlemen. When labor is cheap, there is little pressure to improve technology, and when thinkers despise manual activity, they will not develop any experimental technique. Lucretius himself often appeals to observation, but experiment involves more than simply observing what presents itself. It is the deliberate setting up of situations in order to observe them, and no Greek or Roman gentleman would be likely to soil his hands in such a business.

Secondly, there was what Russell calls a failure of nerve. Leucippus and Democritus were great intellectual innovators; Epicurus and Lucretius were not. Leucippus and Democritus wrote as citizens of free city states at their most confident, during and immediately after Greek successes in the Persian Wars. By the time of Epicurus, these city states had been subdued by Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander. Lucretius wrote when the Roman Republic was degenerating by way of civil war into a despotic empire. Later centuries saw the decline and fall of Rome, the chaos of Europe’s Dark Ages, and the subsequent medieval reverence for authority and verbal argument rather than experience.

As Lucretius repeatedly reminds us, if everything happens according to natural laws, there is no need to fear the gods. Indeed, he regarded religious belief as a source of evil, and gave as an example how Agamemnon had sacrificed his own daughter to the gods in order to secure a fair wind for the Greeks on their way to attack Troy. He also regarded the mind as the product of subtle atoms within the body, rather than a separate immaterial entity. As for the murderous political struggles of his time, these were the expressions of misplaced ambition, itself the product of incomplete understanding.”