Archive for October, 2010

Adieu, Monsieur Mandlebrot

How long is the coastline of Britain?

It sounds like a simple question. We have maps. We have rulers. So just take out a map and measure! But which map do you use? The problem is, the more detailed a map you use, the greater your answer will be, because a coastline is not smooth. It is jagged. There are river mouths and bays and promontories to account for. The answer changes as the resolution of the map increases. Do you chart a path around each rock? Each stone? What about every grain of sand?

This is not the simple math problem of computing the circumference of a circle given the diameter. As a math problem, this is turned out to be an entirely new kind of beast that its discoverer Benoit Mandelbrot called “fractal geometry.” Mandelbrot assigned a “fractal dimension” to measure jaggedness in general.

Since most things scientists want to study in nature, such as clouds, proteins, galaxies, earthquake faults, are neither tiny particles nor smooth Platonic objects, of course it was important to have some kind of mathematical language for describing them.

Thanks to Mandelbrot, now they have one.

Fractals are also great for generating cool pictures like this one:

Mandelbrot set

Mandelbrot set

Mandelbrot passed away Thursday in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was an instigator rather than a rigorous investigator, a rogue mathematician who left the proofs for those who followed in his maverick footsteps. He will be missed, but hopefully he’s inspired other rogues and mavericks out there to come and do their bit to shake things up.

One last thing — in the name of alumni pride, I’d like to point out that in addition to all the other famous places in America and France where Mandelbrot worked and studied, he found time to earn a master’s degree in aeronautics at my own alma mater Caltech.

Good job, Science is Vital

It’s normally hard to get scientists out of their labs for anything other than food or caffeine, but about 2,000 of them managed to make it to a demonstration outside the British Treasury today to protest the drastic cuts being made to the UK science budget in the name of deficit reduction.

Students of science around the world end up having to learn a lot of British names, like Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin anmd Stephen Hawking, just to name three. That’s because UK has produced far more than its fair share of the world’s cumulative scientific knowledge, even while spending less on science per capita than other modern countries.

A scientific community has to be grown and nurtured across many generations. You can’t just add money to smart people and grow one overnight.

And scientists are mobile — they travel very easily from countries that don’t want them to countries that do. The countries that do want them end up more prosperous than the countries that don’t.

Now I have to be honest — there are a lot of British physicists I would be happy to see more of in America. But my pleasure will come at the UK’s expense, and I think the government needs to reconsider this decision.

You can read more about this topic at the Science is Vital website.

This is what everyone seems to be wondering today. Why Mario Vargas Llosa and not Joyce Carol Oates? Why didn’t Nabokov ever get one? What about Flannery O’Connor or Salman Rushdie or Phillip Roth?

Please check this page before you register your own complaint.

Note that Alfred Nobel specified in his famous will that he leaves “one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency…”

Work of an idealistic tendency. Meaning work that deals with politics, with social issues, with matters of conscience.

This is why Mario Vargas Llosa and Jose Saramago and Orhan Pamuk and Herta Muller qualify for the Nobel Prize, but Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, Salman Rushdie and Philip Roth sadly do not.

It’s hard to combine politics with art. You have to strike a very fine balance between the two. If you veer too much in either direction, you fail at both jobs at once.

A good example of this would be Tolstoy. Later in his career when he became very idealistic, his writing suffered a great deal. “Resurrection,” his most idealistic novel, is so filled with social commentary that the plot and the characters sink beneath the weight of it all, making the novel virtually unreadable to all but the most dedicated Tolstoy fans.

That’s one reason why Tolstoy never won the Nobel Prize. “Anna Karenina” is outstanding work, but it’s not idealistic. “Resurrection” qualifies as idealistic, but it’s not an outstanding piece of work at all.

It’s very difficult to combine art with a social conscience. Tolstoy found it so difficult that he issued a manifesto against all art. Shakespeare, Beethoven, his own earlier works, all of it.

Indeed, if Tolstoy had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, given his political beliefs in anarchism and his open disdain toward any form of organized authority, it is highly likely that he would have turned it down, and made such a huge public display of turning it down that those on the Nobel Committee who voted for him would have come to regret their decision deeply.

The Nobel Prize in Literature is reserved for writers who have managed to fight the battle between art and morality and win that battle by producing works of literature that are both outstanding achievements in art and also outstanding achievements in social conscience.

That’s a very difficult job and writers who manage to pull that off deserve to be singled out and honored in their own category apart from other great writers.

That’s what Alfred Nobel decided when he wrote his will and established the Nobel Prize in the first place.

I remember back in the Yeltsin years when a group of young Russian scientists decided to exhibit themselves in the Moscow Zoo as an example of an endangered species.

We see now that this brilliantly adaptive species has managed to survive and even thrive by migrating to climates more favorable to supporting science and the kinds of free-thinking people who love to do it.

The ball is now in Putin’s court to determine the future of this species in its native land.

Here is the official Nobel site where you can read more about the winners and their fascinating work on graphene, the lightest and strongest material in the world, despite being only one atom thick:

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2010

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a new show on HBO that is reputed to be the new “Sopranos.” I disagree with that praise because it doesn’t go far enough. “Boardwalk Empire” is like “The Sopranos” with Ph.D.s in history, political science, sociology, American literature, and, last but not least, mass media studies.

You don’t just get a gritty gangster drama here, with desperate men making desperate decisions. You get the entire world of the 1920s, complete with traumatized WWI veterans, the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, incubator babies, the newly-invented vacuum cleaner, women’s rights, and even contemporary literature.

The story begins on day one of that grand, disastrous American social experiment we now call Alcohol Prohibition. A hungry crew of pimps, racketeers, loan sharks and corrupt politicians has gathered in Atlantic City to carve up their respective territories in the newly-illegal alcohol business and celebrate the idiocy of the good moral folks in Congress who voted for an alcohol-free America.

There are many bloggers elsewhere doing episode recaps and pop culture analysis and so on. I don’t want to repeat their work. But there is one thing I’d like to point out here and that’s the way the American novel has been featured in the show.

The second episode is titled “The Ivory Tower.” It becomes apparent right away that this term refers not to the hallowed halls of academe, but to the novel by Henry James being read by recent Irish immigrant Mrs. Margaret Schroeder in her hospital bed, where she is recovering from a severe beating by her late husband Hans that caused her to miscarry their child.

Hans’s death was ordered by the show’s lead character, the crooked wheeler-dealer with a heart of gold, Nucky Thompson. He ordered the hit not just to retaliate for Hans’s savage act of spousal abuse, but also to throw the police a suspect for a even more savage murder committed during a hijacking of an illegal booze shipment by Nucky’s disobedient protege Jimmy Darmody.

Margaret comes to understand that the huge wad of cash delivered to her hospital bed by Nucky’s sheriff brother Eddie is a payoff for her silent complicity in the fiction that drunken, abusive Hans, a baker’s assistant, was the mastermind of the whisky heist and the murderer of the four hoodlums found dead in the forest.

Margaret quietly plays along with this lie, but in the end, returns the cash to Nucky, quoting George Sand on charity. Nucky, of course, thinks George Sand is a man, but the highly literate Margaret, once the parlormaid to a barrister, quickly sets him straight.

The brilliance that I’d like to draw attention to here is the role played by the novel after which this episode is titled. James’ unfinished novel attacks the corruption and privilege of the wealthy of the Gilded Age. James found himself unable to finish the novel when WWI broke out and brought real tragedy and sacrifice to the gilded selfish world he’d sought to indict as folly.

Henry James died in 1916. If he’d lived into the 1920s, he might have found the inspiration to finish his novel. Margaret certainly seems to find moral inspiration from reading James’ novel, enough to refuse the financial largesse being offered to her by the wealthy and corrupt and gilded Nucky Thompson.

As it turns out, the feds don’t buy the idea that Margaret’s drunken husband masterminded a robbery and a quadruple homicide, so Jimmy Darmody has to leave Atlantic City. Before he leaves, he has a painful argument with his girlfriend. Jimmy met her when he was at Princeton, before the war. They used to talk about books, she complains. What happened?

As Jimmy heads north on the train to Chicago, where he’ll hook up with his new partner in crime Al Capone (who suggested the booze hijack in the first place and did most of the killing), he’s reading “Free Air” by Sinclair Lewis. In “Free Air,” a woman travels by car across America from from New York to the Pacific Northwest, learning through the love of a good working class man to give up the snobbish ways of her upper class family.

“Free Air” was one of the first road trip novels in America, a predecessor to “On the Road” by the late, great Jack Kerouac, which in turn gave rise to road trip TV shows like “Route 66″ and “The Fugitive,” and road trip movies like “Easy Rider” and “Little Miss Sunshine.”

There was no TV back in the 1920s. There was no HBO. People had to satisfy their craving for complex engaging human drama from the printed page in the form of the novel.

It’s very pleasing to see that “Boardwalk Empire” is paying homage to the American novel in such an intelligent manner that both informs us about history and adds layers of subtle irony to plot and character development alike.

Nergis Mavalvala’s work is in quantum interferometry and its applications in the detection of gravity waves. She’s been a great help to the LIGO project. One of the obstacles to the detection of gravitational waves is the demand for a precision that exceeds the quantum limits of devices constructed to detect wave interference. Mavalvala has been developing a bag of tricks for evading those quantum limits.

Michal Lipson is an expert on etching optical waveguides into silicon chips in hope of creating information systems based on moving photons rather than elections. She works on both the theoretical and engineering sides of the field, showing the daring and flexibility of thought and practice that the MacArthur Foundation likes to reward.

To see the rest of the 2010 MacArthur fellows, go here.