The Worth Of Science

Ok, I never do this–it is tough enough to come up with one post a day (I usually can’t, so you get a few a week, but rarely as many as seven!), let alone more than that. But the NPR comment thread includes people asking what tangible value we get from the amazing discovery of the new (ok, newly found) ring around Saturn. And other commenters are taking the bait, giving answers framed in terms of dollars or other pragmatic criteria.

It is in times like this that I am thankful to both History and Winston Churchill. History, because scientific discoveries so often prove practically useful–sometimes long after they are found (the recent Nobel prizes show that practical applications certainly can come from pure research), and Churchill for one quote. Asked if he would suspend Arts subsidies in order to help the war effort, Churchill replied “What the hell do you think we’re fighting for?”

If Churchill can use that reasoning, so can I.

What use is this discovery?
How many will it feed?
How many will it rescue from their poverty and need?
How many of my dollars went
To see this plan succeed,
While all around the globe, the people starve, the people bleed?

This money could be better used—
We could have gotten more!
Let’s fix the problems here at home, before we go explore!
The piles of money spent on this
We cannot just ignore—
A tenth of a percent* of what we spent on Iraq’s war!

Let’s question all the cost, of course,
And effort that we’re spending,
Against the gains in science, and the knowledge we’re extending.
It may not help to win a war,
If that’s what we’re pretending,
But stuff like this can make our culture one that’s worth defending**.

*ok, slightly less. Poetic license. Total cost of Spitzer telescope: 720 million dollars, according to Caltech. Total cost of Iraq war so far: 860 Billion as of February of this year, according to the NYTimes.

**not my idea—Winston Churchill’s.

Oh, I forgot! This and the last post were also posted as comments on an NPR story here.


New Bling For Saturn! (Galileo’s Revenge)

When Galileo told the Pope
“Here, look into my telescope—
You’ll see much beauty there, I hope.”
His Holiness, the Pope, said “Nope.”

“Now kiss my ring, instead, and swear
That nothing of the sort is there—
I know you think it is not fair,
But I’m the Pope, as you’re aware.”

The Pope’s command was quite absurd,
But Galileo gave his word,
(Though some report him undeterred:
“E pur si muove” overheard.)

In hindsight now, with great delight,
We know, despite his Papal might,
That evidence would come to light
To prove the heretic was right.

With Urban’s ring already kissed,
The chance to get it right was missed,
Just one more error on the list—
But now, we find another twist!

What wonders will the cosmos bring?
Now Saturn sports another ring!
Much bigger than the Pope’s, this thing
Is interplanetary bling!

Four centuries have come to pass
Since Galileo ground his glass;
Far too much time for him, alas,
To tell the Pope to kiss his ass.

But now, the kids will learn in school:
That Saturn sports another jewel;
That telescopes are really cool;
One may be Pope, but still a fool.

I hope you will all, by now, have heard the very cool news: a new ring has been discovered around Saturn–a very different ring than any of the others; thicker, wider, in a different orientation than the other rings. The infrared imager on the Spitzer Space Telescope detected the faint image; the density of this ring equates to about 20 grains of material per cubic kilometer. You would not see it if you were standing in the middle of it; as Gertrude Stein said about Oakland, “when you get there, there isn’t any there there.” Once again, science and technology stretch the limits of what humankind can perceive… when we are willing to look through the eyepiece.


Archie, Betty, Veronica, and the Many-Worlds Hypothesis

Two paths play out in a comic book,
When Archie walks down memory lane
“The road not taken” is the hook;
So now, the writers take a look
And re-write Archie’s life again,

This time with Betty as his bride;
Veronica the woman spurned,
Who once upon a time, with pride,
Was wed to Archie. Thus allied,
They lived while many seasons turned.

With either girl, he could not fail,
And Archie lived a happy life.
No matter which one wore the veil,
They were the toast of Riverdale,
Young Archie and his lovely wife.

Oh, we shall be buying them in the stores,
And looking to see what we shall find:
Two girls, whom Archie both adores,
Are made his mental paramours
Within the redhead’s tortured mind.

The New York Times reports that Archie is getting married. Again. This time, to Betty. Last time Archie made the NYT, he was getting married to Veronica.

In an attempt to be classier than Dallas (“it was all a dream?”), the writers (at least according to the NYT; I would not be surprised if this is their own attempt to salvage respect) claim that one of their inspirations was Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”. I’d claim it as one of my inspirations, too, but you would all know better.

Rather, my inspiration is quantum physics. In particular, Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (which, for all I know, got its inspiration from Frost–at least in some branches of the wavefunction), and the popular “parallel universes” framing of the interpretation.

In fact, I wrote a song (many, many years ago, long before I was a cuttlefish) using the notion of parallel universes as a metaphor for our (my? I doubt it) tendency to re-live important conversations (or other interactions) many many times after the only “real” conversation (in this universe, anyway) was long over: “If only I had said this instead of that”; “If only I hadn’t stuttered and stammered so much”; “what if I had kissed her?” These important conversations get one shot in our universe, then get replayed over and over again countless times with small but important variations in our obsessive thoughts.

Or maybe it’s just me.

But I know I am not the only one thinking of many-worlds and being wistful about the wonderful things happening to some other me, some other universe. I am in very good company with Emmy.

I’m sitting at the computer typing, when the dog bumps up against my legs. I look down, and she’s sniffing the floor around my feet intently.

“What are you doing down there?”

“I’m looking for steak!” she says, wagging her tail hopefully.

“I’m pretty certain that there’s no steak down there,” I say. “I’ve never eaten steak at the computer, and I’ve certainly never dropped any on the floor.”

“You did in some universe,” she says, still sniffing.

I sigh. “I’m going to move the quantum physics books to a higher shelf, so you can’t reach them.”

I’ve read the book, so I know that Emmy is going to get a better explanation than I can give–seriously, I recommend it highly. (even wrote a review.) But Emmy is more of an optimist than I am:

“Hey, look on the bright side,” I say. “In the universe where a version of me dropped a piece of steak on the floor, there’s also a version of you.”

“Yeah?” Her head picks up.

“Yeah. And you’re a mighty hunter, so you probbaly got to the steak before I could pick it up.”

“Yeah?” Her tail starts wagging.

“Yeah. So, in the universe where I dropped steak, you got to eat steak.”

“Oooh!” The tail wags furiously. “I like steak!”

“I know you do.” I save what I was working on. “Tell you what, how about we go for a walk?”

“Ooooh! Good plan!” and she’s off, clattering down the stairs for the back door and the leash.

She’s really a very silly dog.

Me? I want the universe with the perfect conversation, and the kiss, to be this one. I don’t particularly care about some other Cuttlefish, even if it happens to be another me.

And I really don’t care about Archie.

(excerpts from “How To Teach Physics To Your Dog” are not actually from the book, but from the blog-post that inspired it. I like the book version better, but I am much too lazy to type it all in.)


Happy 40th, Monty Python! (And Now, For Something Completely Different)

A word or two was often all it took,
Just “Crunchy frog?” or “Dinsdale!” and we’re off;
Skits, recited like our holy book–
“Nudge, nudge, wink, wink”, or Anne Elk’s nervous cough.
The parrot sketch; a cheese-shop free of cheese,
Mrs. Premise’s chat with Mrs. Conclusion;
Michael Baldwin’s name–which means, if he’s
Not Bruce, that’s going to cause a little confusion.
“Albatross!” “What’s brown and sounds like a bell?”
The stirring song of Eric the Half a Bee
Deleted scenes, with Satan up from Hell
And crucifixion not for us to see.
You’ve influenced us more than you may know:
Happy Birthday, Monty Python show!

Oct. 5, 1969–Monty Python’s Flying Circus premiers. BBC story.

For your one-stop shopping, the Monty Python YouTube Channel. Revel in it.


Ode To Bulgarian Beer

I’ve enjoyed a tasty pizza
With a glass of Kamenitza
In a restaurant on Shipka street, one perfect summer night.
I have had a friend uncork a
Giant bottle of Zagorka
As we argued over politics (we both, of course, were right).
I’ve found arguments intense go
So much better with Shumensko
So I asked my local grocer “can I special-order beer?”
When I told him what I wanted,
Had my fantasies confronted
With the tragic information: “No, you cannot get that here.”


I’m was looking, strictly for educational purposes, to find a place I can buy Bulgarian beer. I know, it won’t be the same here in the US, but over there it was wonderful stuff. At the “O Shipka!” restaurant on Shipka street, it was perfect. At Boyan’s apartment, it was perfect. At Veliko Tournovo, shared with new friends while preparing to watch the light show, it was perfect. In Bourgas. In Plovdiv. It helped that we were near the breweries, and it was always fresh. It helped that it was summer. It helped that we were with friends. But still, it was damned good beer. And I can’t get any here.

So if you are where you can get some, and want to take pity on a poor, thirsty Cuttlefish…

Oh, just for fun, some of the Bulgarian beer ads are interesting. Very different target audiences, I think.



Ardi, You Gorgeous Creature!

If my blog is the first you have heard of Ardi, you need to get out more. Ardipithecus ramidus is her species, “Ardi” is her nickname, and I love her. She is, I will admit, a bit old for me, and a bit dead. Four point four million years dead. So it is a bit of a Platonic love, even if she predated Plato by more years than the gent could have imagined were possible. She made the front page of the New York Times today (that’s the link above), with a photo spread online and everything, and I knew exactly what I was getting into when I clicked to look at the comments. I swear, the experimental studies on cognitive dissonance prove that creationists know they are liars: Festinger knew that we tend to look for confirming evidence–things that support what we already believe–and tend to avoid discomfirming evidence… but creationists are all over this story like stupid on Ken Ham, making excuses for what seems like the millionth nail in their pathetic coffin.

For those of you who love the archaeology/anthropology bit, have fun with all the wonderful articles and commentary. For those of you who also enjoy watching a nice train wreck… don’t forget to read the comment threads.

It’s predictable as sunrise; it’s predicable as tide;
As the evidence is published, it is just as soon denied.
“It’s the fossil of a monkey!” “Hey, my brother’s also short!”
“There is nothing in the Bible that’s denied by this report!”
“Evolutionist conspiracy!” I cannot list them all,
As if Ardi acts as proof there was Creation, and then Fall.
There will never be a fossil found to calm the silly storm,
That’s accepted as example that’s transitional in form.
The specimens were numerous, but never quite enough—
Unless you’ve found “the missing link”, they’re gonna call your bluff.

Our family tree has changed again, as many times before;
Each fossil was disputed in its turn, so what’s one more?
How comforting—there’s one thing that’s consistent from the start:
Creationists and ignorance will never, ever part.

As an aside… The NYTimes article, in part, states

The Ardipithecus specimen, an adult female, probably stood four feet tall and weighed about 120 pounds, almost a foot taller and twice the weight of Lucy. Its brain was no larger than a modern chimp’s. It retained an agility for tree-climbing but already walked upright on two legs, a transforming innovation in hominids, though not as efficiently as Lucy’s kin.

In one sentence, they identify Ardi as female; in the next and following, her pronoun is “it”. Wha? My pets have the privilege of gendered pronouns, but not my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-…. great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother? (bonus points for whoever can fill in the ellipses within an order of magnitude) This is just not fair!


News Item (Australia): Churches Allowed To Discriminate

In the Sydney Morning Herald a few days ago, a brief story on a legal compromise; in exchange for church groups being forbidden “to discriminate on the basis of race, age, disability, political beliefs, breastfeeding and physical features“, they will be allowed “to discriminate on grounds of sex, sexual orientation, marital status and parental status“.

My favorite juxtaposition: the opening paragraph and the church spokesweasel reaction.

The Victorian government is expected to announce today that religious groups will be allowed to discriminate against gays and single mothers in a controversial compromise reached on workers’ rights.


The changes have angered critics, but church leaders applauded the decision.


Good News, Today, for those who hate;
The Church may now discriminate!
(It did, before, and that was bad,
But now it’s good, so please be glad!)
There are some limits, let’s be clear,
For instance, say you’re old and queer:
Age is protected, but as of today,
They’ll kick you out for being gay.
Or if you’re female, and you’re black,
The key’s the penis that you lack—
Discrimination based on race
Is now forbidden. Not the case
With sex, or with sexual orientation,
Parental, or marital situation.

So remember, Church, the change this season,
And cite the appropriate legal reason.
With so many options still left on the table
I’m sure, if you’re willing, you’re bound to be able.
For any employee, just make a list,
And check for any you may have missed,
And something, somewhere is bound to fit
On the list of the sins you’re allowed to commit,
Which will make it all legal—they won’t get to sue

I’m sure it’s what Jesus would want you to do.