Local author does good

Chrissy Kolaya, who teaches writing here at UMM, go a nice write-up for her new book in the Chicago Tribune. Her book is Charmed Particles: A Novel, and it’s about people and super-colliders.

You should read it, and then you should come to the Cafe Scientifique in Morris on 26 January, because she’s the speaker and she’ll be telling us all about it, and taking questions. It’ll be a great start to a new semester!

What? Another book I don’t have to read?

It’s true: there are far more books in the world that I have not and will not read than books that I have read. I scratched off one yesterday, and here’s another one I can toss in the trash: Rafael Cruz’s promo for his son Ted’s candidacy.

Rafael talks about the dangers of secular humanism and makes a glancing reference to Seven Mountains dominionism, the belief that conservative Christians must gain control over the “seven mountains” of American culture.

In no way, shape, or form was Jefferson implying that the church should be restricted from exerting an influence upon society. On the contrary, the Bible tells us that we are the salt of the earth and light of the world…Doesn’t that suggest that our influence should touch every area of society – our families, the media, sports, arts and entertainment, education, business, and government?”

Like Barton and Lane, Rafael makes his case for the Christian nature of the U.S. government by conflating the Pilgrims and Puritans with the founding fathers who gave us the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution more than 150 years later. Rafael declares that “the concept of separation of church and state is found nowhere in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States of America,” which leads into this:

To understand this clearly, we need to go back four centuries to the time of the first settlers in America. If you lived in England in the early 1600s and were not a member of the Church of England, you would be considered a heretic and subject to persecution. So the early settlers immigrated to the New World in order to freely worship the Lord their God. What a remarkable heritage of religious freedom this exceptional country gives us! The only country on the face of the earth founded on the World of God!

It looks awful and inane. I’m satisfied by a small taste to know that I’d rather not consume the whole feast.

But all the Sam Harris fans who spent the evening dunning me with demands that I have to go read his book, who accused me of intellectual bankruptcy because I dismissed his pompous nonsense out of hand, well, I’m sorry…to be consistent, you now have to go read Rafael Cruz’s A Time for Action. You can’t possibly criticize it on the basis of a few ahistorical quotes snipped out of context, don’t you know.

Saturn Run


Yesterday was Christmas, so I did nothing much at all. Well, I did a few things.

I have rediscovered the joy of a pair of good thick wool socks. Seriously, people! Warm wool on a cold day? You cannot go wrong.

We spent the evening in the big city of St Cloud, having a traditional Christmas dinner with our son at a Chinese restaurant.

And I spent most of the day reading a book. Not any of the science books piled up on my desk, but a thriller. I felt a bit guilty about it, but then decided that nah, I get to take a full day off and screw around. It’s good for the brain to take a break. Also, cozy warm feet take an amazing amount of tension out of your life.

If you’ve visited the Pharyngula store, you may have noticed that one of the items on my “What I’m reading now” is Saturn Run, by John Sandford and Ctein. A little backstory: my daughter knows Sandford’s son (he was at her wedding, for instance), and he has indulged us with his father’s books. We got sent the whole catalog of Sandford’s novels several years ago, and I went through them all like popcorn. Going on a trip? Grab a random paperback out of the Sandford box. They’re a good, fast read: serial killers and maverick detectives, you know the genre, set in Minneapolis.

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No more Howard

The winners of the World Fantasy Award for 2015 have just been announced, so if you’re looking for interesting reading, there you go.


The winners are given that hideous statuette to the right, a bust of HP Lovecraft. Now we’re all winners, because it has just been announced that the caricature of the goggle-eyed racist will not be handed out in the future — winners in 2016 will get something that they won’t tuck out of sight and turn towards the wall (and here’s another take on the controversy over HP).

I’ve been a big fan of the Cthulhu mythos, but I agree with this change — if it were a statuette of Cthulhu, I would approve, but a statuette of HP Lovecraft the man is honoring the wrong thing, not the creation, but the horrible complicated twisted creator.

Why did it have to be physics?

Tom Levenson has a new book, The Hunt for Vulcan:…And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe, and it’s getting interesting and positive reviews. I’ve also got two flights coming up at the end of this week, so I need something tasty to read.

But it’s physics. There are a heck of a lot of good physics books coming out all the time — one of my colleagues here at UMM, Chrissy Kolaya, also has a new book, Charmed Particles: A Novel, also about physics, wouldn’t you know it. I’ll have to read both, I think.

But people! Don’t you know that developmental biology is the most interesting subject in the universe?

Another children’s science book

We need more of these, and here’s another: Great Adaptations: A Fantastical Collection of Science Poems. It contains short rhyming summaries of scientists’ work on adaptations, all nicely illustrated.

Here’s one from Sarah Hrdy’s work on empathy and cooperation.


Doesn’t that make you want to run out and buy it right now? How much would you pay? $5? $10? $25?

Well, you can’t. Instead, you have to go to this website and download it for free.

Writing the book was a labor of love, so I hope you love it too! Lastly, because our objective is to get as many people reading and learning about evolution, we’re offering the E-book for free.

Those wacky scientists. They know nothing of capitalism. Isn’t it great?

Just doing my part

A clinic in Virginia took a pro-active stance against the anti-choicers preaching and sermonizing outside: they tried to drown them out with a recording over a loudspeaker. I don’t actually approve of that tactic — the first consideration ought to be welcoming patients, and compounding cacophony isn’t helpful. Interestingly, though, their choice of a recording was the audiobook of The Happy Atheist, as read by the resonant Aron Ra.

“We are apes and the descendants of apes,” the recording of Meyers’ book “The Happy Atheist” declared. “We’re the descendents of rat-like primates, who were the children of reptiles, who were the spawn of amphibians, who were the terrestrial progeny of fish, who came from worms, who were assembled from single-cell microorganisms, who were the products of chemistry.”

“Your daddy was a film of chemical slime on a Hadean rock and he didn’t care about you—he was only obeying the laws of thermodynamics,” it continued. “You aren’t here because of grand design, but because of chance, contingency and selection.”

Not only was Aron Ra given no credit, they also…misspelled my name. I guess I should learn to expect that. When I got married, I suggested that I adopt my wife’s name instead, but she squelched that. No one would ever misspell “Gjerness”, would they?

But actually, much as I appreciate the attention and the anger of Christians, don’t blare my words at women just looking for care. It’s not appropriate and is counterproductive.

The Hugo Awards for 2015


You’ve all been wondering about these awards, haven’t you? Even some people who don’t care about science fiction have been curious. This is the year politicking and block voting came to the fore, with several categories tainted by a slew of nominations from two right-wing niche voting cliques, the Sad and Rabid Puppies, led by people like the Odious Vox Day. If they couldn’t win a popular vote by, you know, being popular, they were determined to conquer by being disciplined.

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Punks and anarchists unite!


I’m a bit shell-shocked today — man, that was a long drive yesterday — and I stumbled into work today thinking this might be a really good day to bag it early and take a nap. And then I found something in my mailbox that perked me right up.

As a little background, I’ll summarize my talk in St Louis. I pointed out that there was more to evolution than natural selection. Natural selection answers the question of adaptedness — how do organisms get so good at what they do — but there’s another important question, about diversity and variation — why do organisms do so many things in so many different ways? And I made the point with stories about people like Spencer and Galton, who so emphasized optimality and how Nature, red in tooth and claw, ruthlessly culls the weak allowing the survival of only the fittest. Spencerian evolution is a very narrow and limited kind of biology, but unfortunately, it often seems to be the only kind of evolution the general public has in mind.

And then I contrasted it with Kropotkin’s ideas about Mutual Aid (pdf), and the greater importance of cooperation in survival.

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