Saw Hidden Figures tonight. (Thanks to the generous readers who bought our tickets and popcorn.) I think it was a very good movie. I think it was. I’m not sure it was because I feel like it was a great one. It really hit me where I live. But it wasn’t just the subject. There was the nostalgia factor, of course. But the nostalgia was personal as well as generational. These photos might explain.
Here’s Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician and physicist who’s the main character of the film, with other members of the Space Task Group whose job was doing the math and science that put the first Mercury astronauts, including John Glenn, into space.
This is one of my favorite images from the movie, because of it’s symbolic import, and because it reminds me of this…
It really was a uniform.
I’ve posted this picture before, but in case you don’t remember or didn’t see it, this is General Electric’s Knolls Atomic Power Lab champion softball team circa 1960. The 14-0 on the blackboard is their record for the season. The short guy with pompadour in the center is the team’s captain and manager, Pop Mannion.
You can tell by their ties that some of these guys were rebels and mavericks compared to the guys in the photo from the movie. Pop Mannion’s brightly striped rep tie, for instance, is a pretty bold fashion statement for the time and place, but get a load of the tie on the cat to Pop’s right! I’ll bet he had a jazz collection. Beatnik.
Pop and his colleagues didn’t do any work for the space proram that I know of. They helped build the power plants for nuclear subs.
Updated below, Tuesday afternoon, January 24, 2017.
Adapted from the Twitter feed December 10, 2016. Posted January 23, 2017.
Math ain’t natural. But it is beautiful.
Taraji P. Henson as NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson doing some of the math that would send the Mercury astronauts into space and bring them home again in the movie about the team of African American women computers who helped get the United States space program underway, Hidden Figures.
Personal prejudice: Most people can’t do math. What we call math is actually simple arithmetic. Adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. Calculating. What Jethro Bodine in his pride at his sixth grade education called cipherin’. Nobody does math, and can do math, until they understand why multiplying two negative numbers together produces a positive number. I’ve never understood that one. So I can’t do math.
I can cipher like a wiz, though. Like a sixth grader, at any rate.
This Paley Center panel discussion on Hidden Figures was interesting and I can't wait to see the movie but I was a bit disgruntled by the way people on the panel who know better talked about math as if it's all arithmetic and anybody can do it and do it well if they put their mind to it and get over the idea it’s too hard.
The panel included the movie’s director Ted Melfi; author Margot Lee Shetterly, who wrote the book the movie’s based on; Dale Davis Jones, a Distinguished Engineer at IBM; astrophysicist Jedidah Isler; and actor Aldis Hodge, whom I know best as the supernerd and hacker Hardison on Leverage and who was introduced, to my delight, as a “micro-mechanical engineer”---he designs and builds watches. The moderator was Dr. Knatokie Ford, senior policy adviser in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, a post you have to wonder’s going to exist in the Trump administration. If it does, it’ll probably be held by a Baptist Minister. The audience seems to have been made up of junior high and high school students. I think the panelists were trying to encourage kids, particularly girls and young women, and even more particularly girls and young women of color, to take up math and stick with it in order to go on to careers as scientists and engineers. This is a good thing.
But I didn’t like it that learning to do math got implicitly compared with learning how to write a sentence that parses.
As the son of a physicist and computer scientist who, hard as he tried, never could get me to follow his math when he helped me with my homework, and as someone who was an A student in math in grade school but was stymied by ninth grade algebra and defeated in eleventh grade by calculus, and as the father of someone who has struggled with a severe math learning disability---dyscalculia they’re calling it these days---and is two daunting math courses shy of completing his degree, I’m here to tell you...
Math ain’t natural.
We don’t think in numbers. We’re not good at holding them in our heads. Most of us count “One, two, three, many” and then, if we’re forced to go higher, “Many more, and a lot!” and that’s as high or as complex as our numbers get.
Some of this is the result of biology, anatomy, and evolution---the evolution of bodies, and then the evolution of culture.
Evidence suggests that humans were talking to each other from the start, putting words to their feelings, coming up with ideas that could only be created with words, naming things. Naming things is what made us human. We evolved to speak and we evolved from speaking. Culture, art, and society are the result of words. We didn’t start counting until later when societies became more complex and more things needed to be sorted out. We can see our ancestors inventing math.
Some of it is a matter of habit and training.
The writing skills required to write a decent cover letter or quarterly report aren't much different than those required to write a novel. But the math the heroines of Hidden Figures do to send astronauts into space and bring them home again is a little different than what you use to balance a checkbook. I can teach students to write a good cover letter using a poem by Adrienne Rich, or a play by William Shakespeare, or a blog post by Ta Nehisi Coates. In fact, I have. But I would be in awe of the professor who can teach her students how to do math using the General Theory of Relativity. And in the course of a day having to know what words mean precisely and how to use them effectively---having to make yourself understood and having to understand what others are trying to mean by using the words they’re using---comes up more often than having to cipher.
Sometimes “You know what I mean” covers it. But, generally, “you” doesn’t. That kind of sloppiness with words leads to fights, lawsuits, and messy divorces. People have to be more precise in their use of words, if only to stay out of trouble. More precise than they usually have to be with numbers. To take care of most of our daily business we can get by with simple arithmetic. Often, we’re not really using numbers at all. We don’t calculate. We don’t cipher. We don’t have to. We remember. If we paid attention and studied and did our homework in grade school, we memorized just about all the calculations we’ll ever need. We don’t have to calculate that 2 + 2 = 4 or 10 x 10 = 100 every time. And handling more complex numbers is a matter of remembering our way through columns of numbers. If we remember to carry and know how to round off, we’re usually fine. Close enough is good enough.
That’s in casual conversation. In practical situations, when numbers matter, we still get by without doing math or, much arithmetic. Instead, we guesstimate. We eyeball. We measure by matching the lines on a measuring cup and count out the required amounts according to the instructions. We look for the sign that says “SALE” and---if we can’t remember what we paid for the same item last time, and we probably can’t, because, like I said, we’re not in the habit of keeping numbers in our head---trust that “SALE” equals “cheaper”. To “do” a lot of everyday math, you need to be able to read more than add and subtract, and tell a good story.
If you’re painting your living room, it’s useful to have a rough idea of how many square feet of wall you have to paint so you can estimate how many gallons of paint you have to buy. Saves money and extra trips to the paint store. But an important part of the job is telling the clerk mixing the paint what you hope the room will look like when you’re done and another is describing the result to your friends at work when the photo on your phone doesn’t capture the full effect. And you don’t need to keep whatever measurements and calculations you started with in your head once you’re done. Nobody at the office wants to hear exactly how many square feet of wall you turned from taupe to eggshell white. They might want to know how many gallons of paint you had to buy and what that cost, but they’re more likely to ask you to define taupe and eggshell white and explain why you chose the color change. What they’re really asking for is a story. “Tell us the story of how you painted your living room.”
Learning to write is learning how to tell a good story. Sometimes it’s a better story if there are numbers to illustrate it with. Sometimes the stories are about the numbers. But the ability to tell the story gives the numbers meaning, purpose, and effect.
Even at work, if you’re not a scientist, engineer, or an accountant, and math is called for, you don’t have to do the math yourself. You can use a calculator, ask Alexa, read the fine manual, check the price list, or call Bob over, he’s good with numbers. But then you better be able to explain to Bob what the problem is and what you’re looking for him to help you with. You need to be able to tell him that story.
So...as a self-important writer and as someone who has taught writing, I can’t help thinking that after elementary school, taking courses in composition, rhetoric, and literature is more not only more useful than taking classes in math, I think it’s more important!
The ability to think clearly requires you to have the words for you mean and be able to put them in the best possible order. But communicating effectively, telling good stories, requires a breadth of knowledge about how the world works and what makes people tick and that imagination that requires a liberal education and the development of a sympathetic imagination. After a certain point, teaching reading and writing becomes teaching history, philosophy, psychology, ethics, and morality, and even science. Teaching math is always a matter of teaching harder and harder math.
Math is about itself. Reading and writing are about everything else.
So, as someone who’s earned his bread teaching in the humanities, I’m jealous of the attention and the money directed at the math and science and engineering departments. I resent that the humanities have to justify their continued existence with crass economic arguments.
“Hey! Our students can get good jobs too! Well, at least they learn some stuff that can help them once they get good jobs, like how to write a memo or make an effective sales pitch!”
I hate the word neoliberal. But I only know it as an online epithet. Certain cadres of internet "Progressives" like to use it as an all-purpose insult for liberals and Democrats who don’t adhere to any point of their programmatic political doctrine, and as such it has whatever meaning the user gives it because it suits his purposes or feelings at the moment. Which is to say it has no real meaning. But if it does have any meaning in the analog world, it’s when it describes the self-interested principle that social good is best achieved by letting capitalism take its natural course. If it saves money or makes money and some of that money is used to promote the general welfare, then hooray! And if that’s what it means, then our colleges and universities have become hotbeds of neoliberalism.
STEM is a neoliberal dream.
Promote STEM and the government will throw money at your school. Promise the kids good jobs and they’ll flock to your school and more government money will follow. Target minorities and girls in particular and even more money sluices in. And look at the good you’re doing while you build the endowment and hire more administrators. Those kids get a first class education (Never mind that most of their classes are taught by grad students and adjuncts.) and will likely get good jobs when they graduate. They’ll become productive members of the wealth producing elite and isn’t that the whole purpose of education and of life, in general?
I don’t like any suggestion that the reason for going to college is job training. Students shouldn’t learn the principles of science, technology, engineering, and math just because that’s where the money is.
In no way am I saying students don’t need to learn to do math. It’s critical to critical thinking. It teaches them to recognize patterns, make associations, see things individually and grouped rather than lumped together.
The country would be better off if everybody knew how to use words precisely and how to think with numbers.
Like I said, we often get by with “You know what I mean.” Donald Trump ran his whole campaign depending on it. Of course what he really depended on was people not knowing what he meant and, it turns out, they didn’t.
Trump may not have won even the first Republican debate if more people knew how to use their words and knew when others didn’t or were using them to mean what they don’t mean, they being the words and politicians on the make using words to dissemble, distract, and deceive.
And he might not have won if more people could handle numbers on the fly.. If they could evaluate the numbers politicians throw around instead of react to them. “Gee, that sounds like a lot!” But is really it a lot? Is it too much? Or too little? Better if they understood the system and how things work and have worked or ought to work, realistically as opposed to how they wish it did. More of those more people should include journalists.
“Drain the Swamp means what? The alligators get to come live in my swimming pool?”
“You’re not going to cut Social Security or Medicare but you’re going to sign Paul Ryan’s budget? But destroying Social Security and Medicare is built into Paul Ryan’s budget. Paul Ryan’s budget doesn’t balance unless there’s an economic miracle but it’s that balancing of the budget that brings about the miracle. Which is circular non-reasoning, but on top of that, in order to even come close to the point where the economic miracle will take care of things, Ryan has to get rid of Social Security and Medicare.”
Now, of course, the world needs scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. More of them and better ones. The world needs poets and painters and musicians and actors and dancers and historians and philosophers too. More of them and better ones too. The world must be peopled and the people must be educated, liberally, so that they know to treat each other as people and how to do that. Which sounds very egalitarian of me but my idealism has an hard, pragmatic, elitist, and, well, neoliberal core.
One of the goals of good teaching is identifying, nurturing, and helping to hone talent. And while talent has a way of discovering itself sometimes, often it needs someone to come looking for it. A kid might not know she has the talent. He might not know he’d enjoy using that talent. They might not know opportunities are there for them to live lives built around and out of using their talents. And then they take a class, the get a teacher, they meet a friend and...their world opens up! They’re not just on their way up and out by way of a good job. They’re on their way to careers that will make them happy and productive, productive in the sense of making the world a better place to live in and not just a place with more money circulating. Their happiness and the hopefulness that follows from it spreads and the moral and spiritual wealth of the People increases. That’s true for children with any sort of talent, not just a talent for doing math.
That’s the ideal reward of good teaching. The practical side of the job includes teaching skills that allow less talented and untalented students how to do competently what their talented classmates do with mastery. This helps them to be better in the fields where they are the talented ones and, where it doesn’t help with that, a sense of competency---real competency, being able to do something well if not expertly---it still helps them on to happier, more hopeful, more productive lives.
There’s more. In learning the skills that allow the less talented and untalented to do competently what their more talented classmates do with mastery they learn what it takes to be a master of a talent or a skill. They learn how things work, and they learn what it takes to make things work. They don’t learn to be experts themselves, necessarily, but they learn what expertise is and where it comes from.
You can’t confidently hire an expert and put their expertise to work for you if you don’t understand what beyond their degrees and credentials make them expert. You either take them at their word that they know what they’re doing or...you don’t. You resent and reject them on principle, and get Brexit and Trump as the reward for your skepticism.
At any rate…
Jedidah Isler was the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Yale. Dale Davis Jones is the first African American woman to be named an IBM Distinguished Engineer, which is a job as well as an honor. Mentoring younger engineers is one of a Distinguished Engineer’s responsibilities. I would guess this is the basis of Jones’ and Isler’s stake in STEM education and in education in general. They want kids to have the same opportunities they’ve had.
And it appears that that’s one of the lessons of the movie Hidden Figures. More than being able to do math that sends the Mercury astronauts into space, it’s about being able to put your talents, skills, brains, ambitions, and dreams to work for your own happiness and for the betterment of the world, and that requires getting an education and making the most of your advantages and finding the courage and strength---in yourself and from the company of others of like minds and like dreams.
So, despite my disgruntlement, I’m as whole-hearted a champion of kids taking math as I am of their taking every other subject.
But there is one more thing, another reason for taking math classes all the way through grade school and up into college.
I can’t do math. But I’ve seen it done often enough to know something about it.
Math isn’t natural. But it is beautiful!
And I think everyone can and should learn to appreciate its beauty
I wouldn't compare learning to do math to learning how to write. I'd compare it to learning how to compose music.
Maybe this is why so many mathematicians and scientists are also good musicians.
I don’t know about engineers, but I have this about mining engineers.
Updated to reflect my final grade: I liked this post when I was finally done with it, but Sherri's comment had me feeling like I didn't read the question correctly and blew the assignment, and now that PZ Myers has taken his red pen to it, I feel like I flunked the final. To tell you the truth, though, I haven't had this much fun being wrong in a long time. Here's Professor Myers' corrections: Being Human Ain't Natural.
“It is worth noting that international politics has reacted weakly — albeit with some praiseworthy exceptions — regarding the concrete will to seek the common good and universal goods, and the ease with which well-founded scientific opinion about the state of our planet is disregarded,” the pontiff said, according to a translation provided by the Vatican. He added that the “‘distraction’ or delay” in implementing global agreements on the environment demonstrates how politics have become submissive “to a technology and an economy which seek profit above all else.”
Won’t it be ironic if we liberals wind up looking to Francis for leadership in the fight against the rising tide of Trumpism here and in Europe?
“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me….’”
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also…”
The idea is simple. When examined close up, a moth’s eye contains a very fine array of small tapered cylindrical protuberances. Their job is to reduce reflection, allowing these nocturnal creatures to absorb as a much light as possible so that they can navigate even in the dark…
Deep in a sinkhole, buried in a pile of sand and mastodon dung, was a small, ancient knife used for hunting and cutting carcass meat from the bone. The dung dates back roughly 14,500 years — some 1,500 years before the Clovis people, who were long thought to have been America’s first human inhabitants. Discover caught up with [Florida State archaeologist Jessi Halligan] to learn more about the find and the murky world of underwater archaeology.
To jump straight to Steven Potter’s interview with Halligan, follow the link to “Something in the Water” at Discover Magazine.
"In early August, LHC scientists had their answer, and the news was not good. The diphoton bump had vanished back into the noise. It was a random fluctuation after all. That meant more than 500 papers now contained detailed dissections of a signal that did not exist."
The Cottingley Fairies. “The first of the five photographs, taken by Elsie Wright in 1917, shows Frances Griffiths with the alleged fairies.” A world-famous doctor believed that the fairies in this picture were real. He also believed in ghosts. Awfully credulous of the man who created Sherlock Holmes. Photo via Wikipedia.
Doctors have to know science. To a great degree, they have to think scientifically. That doesn’t make them scientists, although some of them are. In my experience, one of the differences between scientists and doctors is that scientists tend to be smart about many things while doctors tend to be smart mainly in their field and rather ordinary in their thinking and apprehension outside it. Obviously, someone like Oliver Sacks proves you can’t generalize from my experience. But that’s still my experience.
The scientist I knew best growing up was a physicist who taught computer science and wrote books on programming. He was also a smart and savvy politician and a brilliant local government executive---Pop Mannion was our town supervisor for a total of nineteen years. Uncle Merlin’s father, a metallurgist with a Ph.D. from MIT whose work as director of the ceramics department at General Electric’s Research and Development Lab required him to be equal parts physicist, chemist, and engineer, composed music, was an avid amateur astronomer and arborist, an active local conservationist, and in his retirement set out to teach himself computer programming so he could design software.
Our family doctor spent his free time building model airplanes.
The other difference I’ve long noted between doctors and scientists is in their eccentricities. Scientists are the more notorious oddballs. But I think doctors are just better at keeping their oddness to themselves. Scientists don’t seem to care what other people think of them. Richard Feynman practically declared this a professional motto: What Do You Care What Other People Think? If this indifference to others’ opinions and judgments is a virtue, it’s a neutral one. It can lead to lives of integrity and principle. It can also lead to extreme heartlessness and even contempt for other people’s feelings and needs. But doctors can be just as unfeeling and even crueler. There are many more famous murderers with M.D.s than with Ph.D.s. That’s extreme, of course. Anti-social doctors are usually just casually mean or rude. But, possibly because they have to master at least minimal social graces---you can’t build a practice by offending or disturbing prospective patients---possibly because the authority they’re granted over our bodies and health encourages us to overlook or take some comfort in their brand of kookiness---we take it as a sign of the intelligence and wisdom we depend on them to possess---doctors can more commonly pass or pass themselves off as regular folks.
That doesn’t stop them from being nuts outside the examination room.
Or in it, if their patients only knew what to look for.
Many of them are deeply weird.
I don’t know why that is. Might be who's attracted to the profession. You have to have a rather peculiar interest in other people’s inner workings, to begin with, no matter how otherwise sensible and sane you might be.
Yep. You’re ahead of me. I am thinking of Ben Carson.
But I’m not thinking of him as a question. I’m thinking of him as just another example.
[Dr. Mark and Josephine Richardson] were two of Dr. Crandon’s closet friends. Mark and Roy [Crandon] had met fifteen years earlier, when both were examiners for the same medical insurance company. Around that time a heartbreaking tragedy occurred, when the Richardsons’ two young boys died of polio three weeks after contracting the disease. Devastated, the couple saw Boston mediums who attempted to contact their sons. A skeptic at the time, Dr. Crandon had always felt the Richardsons were blinded by grief; one could only walk along the river for so long before it was time to let them cross. But the Richardsons did not let go. For years they were the only Spiritualists among Roy’s friends and he saw in Mark the same paradox he would one day encounter in Sir Oliver Lodge. A notable scientist as well as a physician, Richardson was a pioneer in the development of a vaccine for typhoid fever; he described séance phenomena in the same clinical tone with which Roy once heard him lecture on the cultivation of the typhoid bacillus from rose spots…
There it is, a two-fer. Richardson was a doctor and a scientist who not only believed in ghosts, he talked to them. And he was sure they talked back. The Witch of Lime Street is set in the 1920s and I’m more sympathetic to an early 20th Century grief-stricken father’s hope that life continues after death and his children are on the other side, happily waiting for him to come play than I am to an early 21st Century Presidential candidate’s insistence that the pyramids were built to store grain at the direction of a fictional character, not to mention his thinking the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened if Anne Frank had packed a gun instead of wielded a pen, Obamacare is worse than slavery, and Syrian refugees are like rabid dogs. But more to the point is the phrase I emphasized in that quote, “at the time”.
Crandon, a highly-regarded surgeon living in Boston, right across the river from Harvard and MIT, his home on Beacon Hill within shouting distance of one of the best hospitals in the Northeast, was a skeptic until his wife began contacting the spirits of the dead. Margery Crandon was the Witch of Lime Street. The ghosts not only dropped in from the beyond for chats at her invitation, they did things like rearrange the furniture:
Evidently the spirit of a Mrs. Caldwell, mother to two in the group---Kitty Brown and her brother Frederick Caldwell---had taken possession of the table. What happened next, however unbelievable, was attested to by everyone in the circle. As if dragged by spectral force, the table suddenly lurched toward Caldwell. Whether invisibly propelled or not, the effect was terrifying. According to the séance record, the table pushed Caldwell out of the den, through the dark corridor, and into the Crandon’s bedroom, where it forced him onto the bed---after having smashed wall and rumpled all the rugs in transit. While [another member of the group] went into hysterics and Josephine screamed, the other sitters followed the table that was chasing Caldwell. “On request for more the table started downstairs after him,” wrote Dr. Richardson, “when we stopped it to save the wall plaster.” Dr. Crandon didn’t want to see his home wrecked by a poltergeist---which was what seemed to have been unleashed.
To what else could stunned witnesses attribute such phenomena?…Or were four respected physicians and their wives collectively hallucinating? All members of the [club] dismissed the idea they were seeing things that night.
Of course they dismissed the idea. They were doctors! Men of science! The key thing, though, is that it wasn’t just this the doctors in this particular group who were looking to make contact with the spirit world and even believed they had.
A main character in the book is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
That’s right. The creator of the most rational mind at work in English literature, who was himself both a doctor and scientist and a pretty good amateur detective in his own right, believed in ghosts. Talked to ghosts. His dead brother and son among them.
Doyle was good friends with Harry Houdini, the main character in the book along with Margery Crandon, her antagonist as things developed. But the two men fell out over spiritualism. Doyle didn’t just believe in Spiritualism. He proselytized for it, preaching it as a new religion, and a far more rational and scientifically-based one than traditional Christianity. Houdini didn’t think spiritualism was all stuff and nonsense. He wanted it to be true. He believed in an afterlife and he had his own dead he was desperate to contact. He just never met a medium he couldn’t spot at a glance as a fake and a charlatan. Houdini made it a mission to expose the frauds. That included Doyle’s wife who was often possessed by spirits who used her to write letters on their behalf to those they’d left behind in this world. One of those epistle-ating ghosts claimed to be Houdini’s beloved mother.
The spirits that had brought them together were precipitating their clash, and Houdini implied that his friend was not handling their disagreement sportingly. "You write you are very sore," he answered Doyle. "I trust it is not with me, because you having been truthful and manly all your life, naturally must admire the same traits in other human beings."
He then expressed his doubts---"The letter was written entirely in English, and my sainted mother could not read, write, or speak the English language"---that led him to reject Lady Doyle's communication. Houdini expected a genuine message from his mother to be in her native tongue---which Sir Arthur, who knew few Jews, assumed was Hebrew.
Doyle---Doctor Doyle, Sherlock Holmes' creator---had a perfectly rational explanation. "[T]here was no language in the next life: psychics like his wife received transmissions in 'a rush of thought.'"
But leaving aside the debate about who’s smarter, brain surgeons or rocket scientists---I think I’ve made it clear which side I come down on---and without getting into something else I don’t understand, which is why so many doctors who go into politics are Right Wing kooks, the question I want answered isn’t how someone as smart as Ben Carson must be or must have been when he was in scrubs could be so astonishingly blockheaded on the campaign trail.
The answer to that one isn’t much of an answer: he’s a typical doctor.
But I think it may also be the case that Carson is so dumb because he’s so smart. And that’s typical of many smart people whatever their profession. They're so used to being smart that they can’t imagine themselves being dumb. And most doctors aren’t scientists. They aren’t in the habit of testing their own ideas. If they think it, they think, it must be worth thinking. “Hey, I’m a brilliant person, therefore whatever idea my great brain comes up with must be a brilliant idea.”
That’s due, I think, to the pass people tend to give to doctors. We believe them to be smart and wise because we need them to be smart and wise. With Carson, there’s even more to that because he made a second career---politics is his third---and a vocation to sell himself as a role model for success against all odds. “If I can make it through hard work, study, and prayer,” has been his sales pitch, “so can you.” People who have depended on his example to inspire them in their struggles to survive and thrive, spiritually as well as financially, don’t want consider that they’ve been emulating a fool and a crank.
I'd like to think evidence gathering that it is dawning on people that he is a fool and a crank and not someone they want as President of the United States, however much they admired him before, but at this point the polls are still unreliable. Just a few weeks ago he was taking over the lead for the nomination from the Donald.
Nope. The question I want answered is why the political press corps seems to be just getting around to noticing that he is in no way fit to be President.
Just a month ago, the New York Times was running “analyses” like this one, explaining how Carson’s popularity was due to his calm and charming personality and that all the jes’ plain folks on the Right liked him for his beautiful smile.
The political press needs to believe Republican politicians are sensible and moderate the way people need to believe their doctors are smart and wise.
But the thing is, if Carson had never run for President and I’d come to hear of him because of his fame as a surgeon and his popularity as an inspirational speaker and writer, I wouldn’t have wondered so much about his stupid and crazy ideas and eccentric relation with the truth.
I’d have just shrugged it all off as typical for a doctor.
Then I’d probably have thought he’d have been better off if during his spare time he contented himself with building model airplanes.
Kept myself awake, alert, and entertained driving the long road to and from Syracuse yesterday listening to Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention That Launched the Military-Industrial Complexby Michael Hiltzik. This is my favorite passage of many terrific passages so far, because it’s vivid and well-written and seems to capture the men described so well, and because it strikes me as very Plutarch’s Lives-ish, just waiting for some upstart crow of a playwright to come along and turn it into a tragedy for the stage:
It is the emblematic photograph of Ernest Lawrence and Robert Oppenheimer together in the full bloom of their friendship, long before their personal relations became soured by rivalry, suspicion, and politics. Snapped at Perro Caliente (“Hot Dog”), the New Mexico ranch Oppenheimer leased with his brother, Frank, it is undated, but the time must have been the early 1930s. The friends are both wearing riding boots encrusted up to the calf with desert sand from a recent outing on horseback. Ernest stands evenly balanced on the balls of his feet, like a youthful Mark Antony, in command of his surroundings; he wears a neat checked jacket over a V-necked sweater and a knotted tie, grinning broadly at the camera. Robert slouches against the fender of is Packard automobile, his shapeless dark jacket covered with dust, his hair an unkempt mop, his eyes glaring mistrustfully at the lens from under hooded brows.
What was it that united these men from irreconcilably divergent backgrounds? To those who knew them both during the quarter century in which they joined to create Big Science and dominated American physics, Ernest Lawrence and Robert Oppenheimer were a most enigmatic pair; Ernest, the offspring of Lutheran schoolteachers, raised in the upper Midwest and educated at a land-grant college; Robert, the scion of a Jewish merchant family, the product of Harvard and the great European temples of learning. Lawrence was broad shouldered and athletic (Robert would marvel at his “unbelievable vitality”) and always neatly groomed; Oppenheimer was alarmingly thin and permanently disheveled, a cigarette almost invariably drooping from his lips. Even their personal inconsistencies seemed like photographic negatives of each other’s. Ernest projected the air of worldly bon vivant, but in truth, the work of his lab always came first. Robert projected the air of an ascetic, but his indulgences were manifold and libertine: wine, women, food, music, and politics. Around te time they first met, the extroverted Lawrence was preparing to become engaged to the woman to whom he would remain married all his life; the introspective Oppenheimer arrived in Berkeley with several love affairs under his belt and with more yet to come.
The common force in their lives was physics. But that is an incomplete answer, for their approaches to science were also divergent: Oppenheimer was a theorist who could barely turn a bolt with a wrench; Lawrence an experimentalist whose inspired gadgetry transformed how physics---including Oppenheimer’s physics---was done. Perhaps that was the secret. They seemed to be complementary pieces making a whole, the way particle and wave manifestations together defined a photon.
One of the best Twitter feeds is that of Sarcastic Rover reporting from Mars on its lonely, forgotten study of the red planet. Although generally neglected by NASA, Sarcastic Rover somehow still gets news of goings on back here on Earth, and it's heard about Cecil the Lion.
Why the hell am even bothering to look for signs of life when some impotent rich idiot will just rocket up and kill it with an arrow?
“This skychart shows the view of the Venus-Jupiter conjunction on July 1, 2015 and what the pretty pair will look like through backyard telescopes.” Illustration by Andrew Farekas, courtesy of National Geographic.
I should start a new category for the archives. “The View from the Front Porch.” Venus and Jupiter are on their way to a conjunction Wednesday. Tonight they’re looking pretty close to bumping elbows. I just tried looking at them through binoculars. Didn’t see much more than I can with my naked eye. No Jovian moons, darnit. But I still felt very science-y.
While limited in their scientific interest, historically Venus and Jupiter conjunctions may be a possible answer to the Star of Bethlehem legend. In the years 2 and 3 B.C. there was a similar series of three stunningly close pairings between the planets that would have caught the eye of ancient astronomers.
Today, the best bet to catch sight of the pretty pairing is to look westward and high the sky beginning a half hour after local sunset. As darkness falls, beacon-like Venus will make its appearance first. Both planets shine so brilliantly, however that observers should have no problem spotting them at dusk. Some novice skywatchers may even mistake them for oncoming lights of airplanes.
Venus will appear about 6 times brighter than Jupiter even though it's only a tenth the size. That’s because Venus is eternally enshrouded with highly reflective white clouds and is much closer to Earth. It's about 56 million miles (90 million kilometers) away while Jupiter is much more distant—some 550 million miles (890 million kilometers). So their apparent proximity to each other is just an optical illusion.
With even the smallest of backyard telescopes, you will be able to spot Venus’s disk, which resembles a miniature version of a quarter moon. With Jupiter, high magnification will showcase its dark cloud belts and four of its largest moons, sitting beside the planet like a row of ducks.