Friday Link

Well, less of a link, more of a picture. You remember yesterday I said that Neil deGrasse Tyson showed us a Periodic Table with the nationality of each element’s discoverer? I found the image (though I couldn’t find the original source). Click to enlarge:



Have a great weekend. And if you’re living in Ohio, like I am, try to keep the frostbite to a minimum.

An Evening with Neil deGrasse Tyson

There are basically two scientific rock stars in America today: Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson. I heard Bill Nye speak when he came to Columbus during my Ohio State days.

Last night, I got to hear Tyson, too.

His talk was at the Detroit Opera House. (The photo above isn’t from last night. No photos were allowed, and anyway, we were way up in the balcony.) The place was packed, and you should’ve heard these people lose it when he came on stage. I should know. I was one of them.

Dr. Tyson opened with a long preamble on various topics, including shameless self-promotion of his books (it was funny), the apparent irony of Cosmos airing on Fox (he actually fell to his knees on the stage – it was funny), and the controversy over Pluto’s planethood. (“Pluto. It’s still not a planet. Get over it.”) He showed us a wonderful letter that some grade-school child had written him, complaining about Pluto’s demotion, and said he had hundreds more like it at home.

He also claimed that, although he was in an opera house, he would not be singing. That turned out to be a lie.

The main topic of his talk was “The Cosmic Perspective,” or how science affects our view of the world. He brought up the Apollo program, which he argued may have sparked the environmental movement. And he ended with a discussion of the Pale Blue Dot, and “a reading from the Book of Carl.” (That would be Carl Sagan, the man behind the Pale Blue Dot photo, as well as the previous host of Cosmos, Tyson’s mentor, and all-around great scientist and writer.)

In between, Tyson spoke on an incredibly wide range of topics.

He showed us a Periodic Table where each element had the flag of the country that discovered it. Sweden had a lot of discoveries – but partly because a single cave in the single Swedish town of Ytterby just happened to contain four entirely new elements. (Creatively named ytterbium, terbium, erbium, and yttrium.)

He showed us currency from all different counties that depicts famous scientists and their discoveries. England with Darwin, Israel with Einstein, Germany with Gauss. (He noted that the German bill has a graph of a normal distribution curve on it.) He pointed out that the only scientist on American currency is Benjamin Franklin, and that was emphatically not because of his scientific accomplishments.

Tyson goes off on long tangents when he talks, and he spent a good while discussing Franklin’s invention of the lightning rod. He said that it works mainly by dissipating charged particles and preventing lightning strikes, and only secondarily by “catching” the strikes that do happen. (I had never heard that before.) He also said lightning strikes from the ground up, not from the sky down, which I believe is actually wrong. (Wikipedia says the strikes are ground-up 75% of the time, not 100%, though obviously that’s not an authoritative source.)

Some of his points weren’t even science-related. He talked about the sheer audacity of the U.S. dating its independence, not from the date we defeated England, ratified the Constitution, or inaugurated the first President, like any sane nation would do, but – astoundingly – from years earlier, the date when the country’s future leaders decided on paper that they were free. Cool stuff, and thought-provoking.

Speaking of the U.S. of A., he argued that the 21st century may be the start of a scientific decline for us. He pointed out a variety of examples, some serious (major engineering failures like the levees during Katrina) and some funny (like the missing 13th floor in many American buildings. “I don’t mind if you have a fear of the number 13. But why would they put you in charge of designing the elevators?”)

There was a Q&A session at the end, too. He pointed out to a 31-year-old question-asker that his billionth second of life would come when he was 31. (As a 29-year-old myself, that is handy information.) He talked to a ten-year-old boy about the supremely cool Island of Stability predicted to exist way beyond the current Periodic Table. And, at the request of a woman from up in the balcony, he actually sang for us a song that he previously did, years ago, in an episode of NOVA. (He was just going to recite the words, not sing them, but the “Awww” of the crowd changed his mind. After he finished, they went nuts.)

Overall, I found Tyson funny, engaging, and very intelligent. There were some hiccups, though.

For instance, after about 90 minutes packed with jokes, he switched abruptly and jarringly to a frame-by-frame analysis of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. This included a discussion of the physics of the plane crashes, which felt distasteful, to be honest – especially since it had almost nothing to do with the rest of his talk. I understand that it’s personal for him, since he was there, I just think he handled it in a very weird way.

He also went on for an uncomfortably long time about how the Muslim world has made essentially no major scientific contributions in the last 700 years. Not saying it’s an invalid topic, but after a while, it starts to feel like he’s rubbing it in your face (especially, I’d imagine, for any Muslims in the audience).

And, to be honest, the overall talk did go on a little long. The whole thing, Q&A included, ran about three hours, which was about an hour longer than it probably needed to. Some of his digressions were interesting, but some felt more like he was just rambling.

But I don’t want to imply it was a bad experience, or that I didn’t like him. To the contrary. It was great, I’m glad I went, and he seemed like a smart, funny, and all-around cool guy.


Postmortem: The Imitation Game

Alan Turing is one of the patron saints of computer science. I should know. I spent four years getting a degree in the subject, studying Turing Machines, reading about the Turing Test.

I knew the broad outlines of his life: foundational work in the theory of computing, instrumental in cracking the German Enigma code in World War II, chemically castrated for being a homosexual, died soon after by an apparent suicide.

But The Imitation Game – a Turing biopic focusing mainly on his work breaking Enigma – made me see him in a whole new way.

It’s a dramatization, of course, not a documentary, and it certainly takes liberties with the facts. Most notably, it portrays Turing as far more arrogant, antisocial, and humorless than he really was. Certain events are fabricated or exaggerated. And so on. I’m not exactly outraged. They wanted to make a good story, and they did.

For me, the film succeeds on every level. The script is funny, stirring, and sad. The acting (by Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, Keira Knightley as a fellow code-breaker, and really, everyone) is brilliant. Visually, it’s very well done. I’m about as good a film critic as I am a master chef (i.e., not, for those wondering) so I won’t go into enormous detail, but it’s really just a beautiful movie.

Beyond that, it made Betsy and me curious about the actual person, the actual events. What was it really like, cracking Engima? Did Turing really write that letter to Churchill? What was his real relationship with Joan Clarke?

A work of fiction that moves you, and spurs you to learn about the facts. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Highly recommended.

Friday Link

Did you know Ellis Island has an online, searchable archive of millions of immigrants who have entered the U.S. there? You have to register, but it’s free. Could be interesting.

Have a great weekend!

Family Treeing

One of the (admittedly few) perks of working in the genealogy section of the library is that it gives you a chance to do some family tree research of your own.

In the past, I haven’t been that interested in tracing my ancestors. But I guess I never realized (or thought about) what great resources exist, and how far back you can really go.

Among other websites, I’ve been using Ancestry Library Edition (link here but it’s a paid login) and I’ve found a ton of information, including a lot more original source documents than I expected. Scanned census documents, yearbook pages, and more, from the 40s, 30s, 20s, and even earlier.

I found a scanned copy of the 1918 draft registration card for my great-great-grandfather (that’s my mother’s mother’ mother’s father), complete with his signature, occupation, and a physical description. He was a Kansas farmer; he had brown hair, “gray” eyes, and was tall, of medium build.

I’ve been researching my wife’s side as well. Whereas my ancestors have lived in the U.S. for as long as I can discover (so far), hers are relatively recent immigrants. Her great-grandfather on her mom’s side immigrated from Sweden as recently as 1901, and the situation is similar on her dad’s side (but from Italy instead of Sweden). Again, I’m amazed how many scanned source documents exist.

Have you done any research like this? What did you find?

On Writing Again

I met with my psychiatrist last week. For the first time ever, we didn’t make any changes to my medication. I’m doing pretty well as is.

That’s a tremendous milestone, and Betsy and I celebrated that night with a glass of champagne each – the first alcohol I’ve had in many months. (Doctor-approved.)

Slowly, slowly, things are looking up. And the writing is coming back.

First, my journal, which started up again – first sporadically, now every other day or so.

Then, the blog, which has been going more or less daily for weeks now.

Around Christmas, I started reading books again in a big way.

On January 1st, my mom and I started a Haiku 365 challenge, writing one a day for the entire year. I may post some of those soon.

And now – after what seems like forever – I’m writing stories again. And not just grinding them out a word at a time, but loving it. I’ve finished two little stories already. The one I’m working on now is seventeen pages and counting, and that’s all in the last three days. That’s a pretty good pace even by my old standards.

And I’m not just dumping words on paper. It’s serious, careful writing, the way I used to do.

Maybe best of all, my obsessions are coming back. I spend all my free time writing, and my non-free time thinking about writing – mentally arranging scenes, playing with dialogue.

It’s a little on the crazy side, but it’s the best kind of crazy I’ve been in a while.

So, any good news you’ve gotten lately, put it in the comments!

Can’t Talk, Must Write

Or, since this is a blog, I guess technically that would be “Can’t write, must write.” This story ain’t gonna finish itself!

The extra forty-five seconds you get from not having a post to read today – consider that a late Christmas present from me to you. You’re welcome.