Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Advice to a Young Scientist by P.B. Medawar

   My vast book collection is swollen largely due to the fact that when I read or hear a reference to a certain author or book on the radio or in the newspaper (I’m a devoted Wall Street Journal reader.  Their book reviews have cost me a lot of money.) I race to my trusty computer and set the search engine hounds on the scent of a particular author and, as often as not, end up buying the book.  (Of course it’s always a major score when the book is in the public domain and I can get it for free on Kindle.)

That is how I came to discover a delightful author by the name of P.B. Medawar.  Peter Brian Medawar was a scientist (he died in 1987) who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960 for his work on graft rejection and acquired immune tolerance which fundamentally contributed to organ and tissue transplants. 

 He is also a really funny writer. (Richard Dawkins calls him “the wittiest of all science writers”- which proves that you can agree on some things with anybody.)   

This is why a non science person like myself came to buy and very much enjoy a book geared towards scientists.

Even though his target audience is young, green behind the ears, science students at the colleges where he taught, his points are written in a format that even the most ignorant lay men (that would be me) can understand and laugh at.

He gives all sorts of advice from “How can I tell if I am cut out to be a scientific research worker” to what to research on; how to equip oneself to be a better scientist; sexism and racism in science; the difference between younger and older scientists, and how to make a presentation without boring the audience into a coma.

(He advises practicing on children, whose attention spans he compares to mice. If they’re fidgeting and crawling all over each other, you’ve lost them.  If they’re still and attentive, your presentation will pass muster with an adult audience as well.)

And he gives advice to the scientists who make up the audience of those lectures.

Scientists should behave in lectures as they would like others to behave in theirs.  It is an inductive law of nature that lecturers always see yawns and a fortiori those hugely cavernous yawns that presage the almost complete extinction of the psyche.

A member of the audience thought to be an expert on the topic of the speaker's discourse is well advised to think of a question to ask in case the chairman turns to him and says, “Dr._, we have just a few moments for discussion, so why don’t you set the ball rolling?”

The person to whom this invitation is addressed cannot very well say, “I’m afraid I can’t-I was fast asleep,” but if he merely says, “What do you envisage as the next step in your research?” the audience will take it for granted that he was. (pg. 62)

Medawar gently guides these young men and women away from the temptation to cultivate an arrogant attitude-especially against older scientists.

He admonishes them to be careful not to assume that because they are experts in their field that they are experts on anything else.  He warns them that non scientists believe one of two things about scientists.  

  “his judgment on any topic whatsoever is either (a) specially valuable or (b) virtually worthless...An attempt should nevertheless be made not to acerbate either condition of mind. 
 ‘Just because I am a scientist doesn’t mean I’m anything of an expert on...’ is a formula for all seasons; the sentence may be completed in almost as many different ways as there are different topics of conversation.  Proportional representation, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the fitness of women for holy orders, or the administrative problems of the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire...but when the subject is carbon dating or the likelihood of there being constructed a machine of perpetual motion, a scientist may allow himself the benefit of a few extra decibels to give his voice something of a cutting edge.”(pg 28)

I found his views on religion and God especially interesting. Not religious himself, he nevertheless contends that science is not qualified to make any assertive statement towards either.

There is no quicker way for a scientist to bring discredit upon himself and on his profession than roundly to declare...that science knows or soon will know the answers to all questions worth asking, and that the questions that do not admit a scientific answer are in some way "non questions" or “pseudo questions” that only simpletons ask and only the gullible profess to be able to answer...

....Philosophically sophisticated people know that a ‘scientific’ attack upon religious belief is usually no less faulty than a defense of it. Scientists do not speak on religion from a privileged position.. (pg. 31)

...Young scientists must however never be tempted into mistaking the necessity of reason for the sufficiency of reason.  Rationalism falls short of answering the many simple and childlike questions people like to ask:  questions about origins and purposes such as are often contemptuously dismissed as "non questions" or "pseudo questions", although people understand them clearly enough and long to have the answers.  These are intellectual pains that rationalist-like bad physicians confronted by ailments they cannot diagnose or cure- are apt to dismiss as “imagination.”  It is not to rationalism that we look for answers to these simple questions because rationalism chides the endeavor to look at all. (pg. 101)

An astute observation that I wish Richard Dawkins would wrap his mind around.  It angers me that his books take up whole shelves of the science section in my local bookstore when his writings are philosophical NOT scientific.  Science can only give us the sum of the parts, not the gestalt.  It strives to explain “how”, not “why”.

And yet it’s those “simple questions” that imbue our life with meaning.  Non sentient beings don’t ask those questions.  Or turn to drugs, alcohol, or stay busy all the time in order to avoid them.

This book is short, a mere 100 small pages, but I’d recommend it to anybody science-minded or otherwise.

I bought this book.

Other sources:

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Europe Trip: Pisa and Cinque Terre

Outside the Uffizi

Lisa enjoying some down time at the end of a long day.

View outside of train on the way to Pisa

The prerequisite photo that everyone has to take with Pisa's leaning tower.

Hello!  We left Florence this morning and took the train to Pisa.  Spent a couple of hours there.  Looked at the tower and quick glance through the Cathedral.

From there we went to Via Reggio, a beach on the Mediterranean.  Just chilled in the sun for the afternoon.  I'm spoiled with Florida beaches so, it was OK, but twenty euros just for the privilege of the beach, change room and toilet wasn't really worth it.  Florida beaches are far superior and it's free.  But Lisa, Ethan and Derek really enjoyed themselves.

This evening we arrived at Cinque Terre.  Our hostel is on a cliff over the coast.  This is probably one of the most magical places I've ever been to.  If I ever return to Italy, this is where I'll come.  

The village is medieval with streets so narrow the buildings are practically kissing each other.  We almost have to walk the labrynthine cobblestone pathways sideways. 

Lisa and I enjoyed a cappuccino (I've become addicted to those) on our balcony.  Must go to bed now.  We're hiking along the cliffs and coast tomorrow before heading out to Venice.
Love to all,

Monday, August 12, 2013

Eiffel's Tower by Jill Jonnes

Jill Jonnes gives the reader a delightful and enlightening account of how one of the modern wonders of the world was built and the history surrounding it.

 Gustave Eiffel was commissioned to build an edifice to celebrate the Republic of France in time for the Paris World Exhibition of 1889.  Something that would impress the rest of the world and prove to the rest of Europe that a country did not need royalty to govern her people.

Predictably, most of Europe boycotted the Exhibition in protest, since they all still had Kings and Queens, even if, like in England's case, the royalty was largely a figure head and the country was practically run by a Democratic parliament.  Still, Queen Victoria and her retinue stayed ostensibly away.  (Her son and his wife sneaked into Paris to see it.  If Queen Victoria knew it, she didn't acknowledge it.)

Very much on France's side was America.  They not only attended in abundance but were amply represented in the Fine Arts section and especially on the cultural side.  One of the most interesting aspects of Jonnes' book is the side stories about what happened peripherally around Paris' Tour en Fer.

For one, William Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, and his Sioux Indians came.  They made a huge sensation with their Wild West reenactments, even if they presented a romanticized version of how the West was one.  We learn quite a bit about Annie Oakley, a person the French came prepared to be bored with, but were completely won over with her sharp shooting skills.  She not only shot holes in cards while racing around the tent on horseback but could shoot and slice the card in half sideways.  Jonnes also gives the back stories of these legendary figures which adds interest to the characters.

Another American that came and was feted was Thomas Edison.  He was continually  given dinners in his honor and was the toast of the town.  His inventions, such as the phonograph, were on display at the exhibition and lines wrapped around the fairgrounds as people waited their turn to speak into a device and then hear their own voice repeating their words moments later.

James Abbott McNeil Whistler is mainly the only American artist that Jonnes describes and he spent most of his life in France.  We learn about his temperament (fiery and atrocious-Degas said if he could paint with his tongue he'd be a genius) and his works.  His most famous work, Whistler's Mother, can still be seen in the Louvre.

But this is the Paris Exhibition, after all.  Even though Jonnes spends a generous amount of the book describing the visiting Americans, she also gives us insight into contemporary attitudes towards what today is considered some of the world's greatest art: The Impressionists.

The French Impressionists, Monet, Degas etc...were completely cut out of the Official
French Art Exhibit by the French jury.  So they bought their own venue at the Fair to exhibit their works and called it the Salon des Refusees (Salon of the Refused).  Vincent Van Gogh and his friend, Paul Gaugin, also set up their own venue.  History, of course, tells us whose art has endured.

But the most important part of the book is about Gustave Eiffel himself.  Throughout the book we learn of his life, his background, his other engineering feats-both the good and the failed (such as a disastrous attempt to create a canal and locks across Panama that left thousands bankrupt and impoverished and for which Eiffel was sent to prison).

We vicariously experience his struggles to finance his vision of the tallest tower in the world.  An engineering feat that would prove France's dominion as a Republic and reign in modern technology.  We are rooting for him as he and his workers labor desperately around the clock to have the tower built in time for the fair.  We learn how he used his concepts for railroad tracks and basically applied them vertically to create his tower.

It's amusing to us now to know that there was such protest against it.  Here's a sample of some of the remarks by certain well known contemporaries such as Guy de Maupassant, Alexandre Dumas  fils (son of the famous writer), and Charles Gounoud.

For the Eiffel Tower, which even commerical America would not have, is without a doubt the dishonor of Paris.  Everyone feels it, everyone says it, everyone is profoundly saddened by it, and we are only a weak echo of public opinion so legitimately alarmed....

  And for the next twenty years we will see cast over the entire city, still trembling with the genius of so many centuries, cast like a spot of ink, the odious shadow of the odious column of bolted metal.

It seems contemporary France did not possess much vision concerning its artists or engineers.  I'm sure the average French man thinks differently today.

Interestingly, the original agreement was that the tower would remain for twenty years after the fair and then be dismantled.  Fortunately, Eiffel was able to prove it's value as a telegraph tower during WWI.  By the time Eiffel died of a stroke at the ripe old age of ninety-one in 1923, his tower had become a permanent fixture of the Paris skyline.  "I ought to be jealous of the tower," he joked.  "It is much more famous than I am."

At 915.7 feet it surpassed the Washington Monument to become the tallest building in the world at the time.  The Americans, Thomas Edison the most vocal among them, promised to surpass the tower with something even taller in time for the Chicago's World Fair.

This was not to be, although a giant wheel  with gondolas which  took people up and around was invented by George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr for the occasion, it only topped out at 264 feet. It would take another forty-one years for American engineers to develop what would become  known as the skyscraper and the Chrysler building would finally dethrone Eiffel's famous tower.

But Eiffel should be jealous.   How many people know that the name "Eiffel" should have a possessive written after it? (The French still call it the Tour en Fer, "Tower of the Fair").  And let's not forget that it is also Eiffel's Statue of Liberty that greets people on a little island off Manhattan.

I bought this book.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Florence: Second Day

Enjoying a Cappuccino and the view outside our hostel

 Yesterday Derek and I spent the day walking up and down the hills opposite the city of Florence.  I took tons of photos of the narrow streets, stone houses with flowers and plants pouring over them. 

In front of the famous bridge Ponte Vecchio across the river Amo.  Like the London Bridge, this bridge is lined with shops.

The following photos were taken in the hilly neighborhoods across the river.

Derek and I ate our lunch sitting on the curb of this secluded alley.

Walking down an avenue

Galileo's home

As you can see, I like picturesque walls and doorways.

 We also walked through a monastery and another Basilica. 

We got to a place called the Piazza del Michelangelo that overlooks Florence.  Beautiful scene! 

These water fountains were all over Italy and provided fresh drinking water.  We kept our water bottles filled, thanks to them.

This morning we had a little bit of tension when a  man below came up to our room to complain that our shower was flooding his room but our hostel manager, a tiny little girl, exchanged a lively conversation with him in Italian and it resolved.  She was very apologetic to us and told us not to worry that there is no problem. 

  Tomorrow I will tell you about the Uffizzi.