Making Physics Funny.

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NYC's Latest Evil: Trans Fats

The New York Times reports today that NYC's board of health has decided to ban trans fats from each and every restaurant in the city--including McDonald's. Trans fats, which are derived from partially hydrogenated oils and are found in just about every kind of junk food from doughnuts to french fries, have been shown to increase the risk of heart disease.

As Lynne D. Richardson, professor of emergency medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine told the NYT:
“...human life is much more important than shelf life,” she said. “I would expect to see fewer people showing up in the emergency room with heart attacks if this policy is enacted.”

...eh, maybe. But is that grounds for such an obnoxious "Big Brother" policy? I mean, if we banned alcohol then fewer people show up in the emergency room, too. Or cars, for that matter. What happened to personal choices?

I understand the smoking-in-restaurants ban; when you blow smoke in someone else's food, or your waitress's face, then you're not just hurting yourself. But if you choose to eat trans fats when you know they'll kill you (and please, everyone must know that by now)--then chow down.


I held a jewel in my fingers

I held a jewel in my fingers
And went to sleep.
The day was warm, and winds were prosy;
I said: "'T will keep."

I woke and chid my honest fingers, --
The gem was gone;
And now an amethyst remembrance
Is all I own.
-Emily Dickinson


Run, little Amish girl, run!

Mark the day, October 18, 2006: Ginny’s going to meet Richard Dawkins! (err, listen to him give a public lecture.) As I’ve said many times on this blog, I love the man and his clever, lucid writing. If you’re in the market for a good read, pick up his new book, The God Delusion, which is now ranked #9 on amazon.com’s bestseller list.

Fair warning: As a large book, it can be a bit awkward trying to hide the cover jacket from nosy (and potentially pious) seat neighbors on the subway…but then again, the book jacket is orange and metallic silver, so the casual observer might just mistake it for Michael Crichton.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes…for the first, I actually laughed out loud.

On the Amish (after explaining why respecting religious “diversity” is a load of crap):

“The rest of us are happy with our cars and computers, our vaccines and antibiotics. But you quaint little people with your bonnets and breeches, your horse buggies*, your archaic dialect and your earth-closet privies, you enrich our lives. Of course you must be allowed to trap your children with you in your seventeenth-century time warp, otherwise something irretrievable would be lost to us: a part of the wonderful diversity of human culture. A small part of me can see something in this. But the larger part is made to feel very queasy indeed.”

(*I had initially planned to write my thesis on the non-electric, and thus “green” agricultural technologies used by the Pennsylvania Amish. However, after spending a few days at the library reading about their faith and seriously deranged customs, I was creeped out enough out to drop the Plain People.)

On religion’s role in the war in Iraq:

“Our Western politicians avoid mentioning the R word (religion), and instead characterize their battle as a war against ‘terror’, as though terror were a kind of spirit or force, with a will and a mind of its own. Or they characterize terrorists as motivated by pure ‘evil’. But they are not motivated by evil...They are not psychotic; they are religious idealists who, by their own lights, are rational. They perceive their acts to be good, not because of some warped personal idiosyncrasy, and not because they have been possessed by Satan, but because they have been brought up, from the cradle, to have total and unquestioning faith.”


Quiz: What City Fits You Best?

Just took this city quiz...and after my wonderful few days in Chicago, I think it may be right-on...

American Cities That Best Fit You::
70% Chicago
65% New York City
65% Philadelphia
60% Boston
60% Washington, DC

Why a Pale Blue Dot?

I just spent the last few days in a breathtakingly beautiful Chicago for the Pale Blue Dot III astrobiology conference. I met some brilliant astrobiologists and astrobiology graduate students, who manage to stay motivated and enthusiastic despite NASA’s significant cuts in the field. And they taught me SO much—about the Earth’s climate, the clouds of Venus, the rocks of Mars, the machines that can determine a distant planet’s surface chemistry by looking at just a speck of light, even the odds of getting hit by an asteroid.

But of all the tidbits I didn’t know Saturday and do know now, here’s the one I was most embarrassed not to know (and thought my faithful blog readers would most enjoy):

When viewed from space, the Earth looks like—to quote Sagan—a “pale blue dot,” not because of our vast oceans. No, the astrobiologts patiently explained, the oceans are actually very dark. We look blue for the same reason the sky looks blue when standing on earth: because the oxygen and nitrogen molecules that make up our atmosphere absorb short wavelengths—blue!—and not longer wavelengths like red. It actually gets a lot more complicated, of course, with details about cloud cover, but I'm pretty sure that was the jist.

The photo here shows the Earth and its moon as seen from cameras on Mars.


Unbounded Admiration

I just got my hands on Richard Dawkins’s new book, The God Delusion. As my students from last year can attest, I’m a Dawkins fanatic, and am deeply engrossed in his new tome. Not sure if Dawkins is just less cautious now in his elder years, but this book certainly has a tone more...hostile than the others. Pretty amusing so far, though.

Anyway, I found one of the book’s early passages—a quote from Einstein—quite surprising. Dawkins reminds us of Einstein’s most quoted remarks about the existence of God (like “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind"), and then hits us with this rarely-quoted doozie from Al:

“It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God any I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

...So much for “God doesn’t play dice with the universe,” right?


From the Annals of Human Behavior Trivia

From Nature News:

“Psychologists have long known that unwritten rules govern our social interactions. Some researchers have found that women stand closer together than men when talking, for example. Men are also less likely to maintain eye contact. And both sexes will reduce eye contact if the person they are talking to gets too close.”

Read the full story, about keeping your “personal space” in virtual reality.


Coma, Schmoma

Creepy news of the week: doctors hooked up brain scanners to a vegetative woman, talked to her, and found out her brain responded exactly as if she were conscious. And this of course immediately reminded me of a season 6 Sopranos episode where Tony comes out of his coma thanks to the sincere pleadings of Meadow….. “Don’t go daddy, we love you. Don’t goooooooo”

Check out all the gory details about the real news on Culture Dish, the fabulous blog of science writer Rebecca Skloot.


Extrasolar Waterworlds

I started my new internship at Seed on Tuesday, and got my first Seed clip at 5:27 p.m. today. Habitable worlds, according to a paper that will be released in tomorrow's Science, might just be spinning in solar systems we already knew about, and more exciting--they're probably covered in global oceans.

Read my full story here.

UPDATE: a one-sentence review of my article, from Knight Science Journalism Tracker. hehe


Top 100 Wikipedia Pages...

Since Wikipedia has so quickly become ingrained in our American culture (with recent feature articles about its creation and evolution in Nature, the New Yorker and the Atlantic), one would think that the list of the 100 most popular Wikipedia pages would reflect those topics that are most important to us. Here's a sampling...

#4: List of Big-Bust Models and Performers
#5: JonBenet Ramsey
#6: List of Sex Positions
#11: Irukandji Jellyfish (what the....?)
#14: World Wrestling Entertainment Roster
#98: Criticism of Family Guy

Time, Un-metered

Once upon a time there was a this, then there was a that, and finally, the end. In today’s Western world, this is how most stories are told. Children’s fables, blockbuster action movies, and even pop songs follow a linear, predictable chronology. And the everyday physical surroundings in our flat, paced, rated, labeled, bounded world are equally predictable. City planners arrange streets in rectangular grids; stoplights turn on, off, on, at timed intervals, to tame the flow of traffic; taxis charge by the mile; buildings are labeled with numbers, and jut from their foundations at 90-degree angles.

James Rouvelle, an artist and technology specialist at the Maryland Institute College of Art, says this metered world affects the way we live, manipulates us, in fact, to behave in a predictable way. “We are wired to scan our environment and adapt to whatever we discover,” he explains, “in other words, we train to the medium.” So we navigate those orderly streets, stop and go when we’re supposed to, wear watches on our wrists. “Our time is monochromic,” he says, “everything is ordered and dictated by a watch.”

And for Rouvelle, this metered sense of time is worrisome. “My concern,” he says, “is that we—Western culture—have, over the past few hundred years, chosen to develop along a trajectory of reductionism, trying to understand things by breaking them down into individuated, component parts whose behaviors are often described as relating to other unique components sequentially, and verified metrically – and often visualized.”

The visual description of time, at least in Western classical art, is often a sequential one. In many of the great Piero Della Francesca's pieces (like The Queen of Sheba's Visit to Jerusalem, above), for instance, the progression of the action is achieved by the viewer looking from left to right. First, then, finally—story told.

But many contemporary artists and architects are looking to break free of this metered perception of time. Rouvelle encourages this change, as he believes an un-metered temporal perspective can enhance both our aesthetic and social experiences. “There are complementary experiences, non-linear experiences,” he says, “where time, for example, is not moving in a specific direction, yet change is evident. I believe that these non-sequential experiences are equally real, however, and that if I could contemplate them more fully my experience overall would be significantly different.” And artists, he says, have the means to create less metered descriptions of the world, and thus make the world a better place. “I believe that if we could improve our understanding of our experience through better and more accurate models,” he argues, “we would experience greater empathy with others.”

Here are a few examples of recent art and architecture that flaunt a non-linear expression of time, and in this way, force their audiences to experience time un-metered…

The Site of Reversible Destiny

On the other side of the world, in Japan’s Gifu Prefecture, two New York artists created an external environment completely unlike the ordered grid in the Big Apple: The Site of Reversible Destiny. In October 1995, architect Shusaku Arakawa and his creative partner, poet Madeline Gins opened this “experience park” of lushly vegetated mounds, inclined planes and maze-like interiors to offer visitors, as the website states, “opportunities to rethink their physical and spiritual orientation to the world.”

If you look at a map of the park, the names of the featured sites sound like some kind of metaphysical Disneyland: the Gate of Non-Dying, the Exactitude Ridge, the Zone of the Clearest Confusion, the Kinesthetic Pass, and even the Destiny House. Then there’s the Critical Resemblance House, which has a labyrinth of hallways with furniture arranged on the floor, under the floor, and on the ceiling. Outside the buildings, scattered throughout the green outdoor landscape, are 24 species of medicinal herbs “that give it a gradually changing complexion from season to season.”

The park also—like Disney’s rollercoasters—disturbs balance; a warning on their homepage, written in red text, reads: “Because the Site of Reversible Destiny-Yoro Park has many steep slopes, we advise that you wear rubber-heeled shoes.” Indeed, since the park opened in 1995, Rouvelle says it has had to set aside funding specifically for medical bills of the dozens of visitors who, just from walking around the disorienting landscape, have fractured or broken bones.

Clearly then, the Site of Reversible Destiny creates an endlessness that we don’t normally experience. Psychologist and art critic Rudolf Arnheim argues that this endlessness, especially when experienced outdoors, grants art and architecture “a high aesthetic value.”

Rouvelle would agree. He says the Site of Reversible Destiny—without flat surfaces, street grids, or 90-degree angles—“forces us to come to terms with physical angles that are becoming less and less common” in Western city life; in other words, it’s exactly the kind of art that can help us break free of a metered sense of time.

Expérience de la Durée, Biennale de Lyon 2005

“Experiencing Duration” was the theme of the 2005 Lyon Biennale, a contemporary art show with venues in Glasgow, Frankfurt, Paris, Milan and Vilnius. The show’s curators, Nicolas Bourriaud and Jérôme Sans, wrote they hoped the hundreds of paintings, film, video, light, and sound installations would “eschew the current temptation of a return to the traditional categories of painting and sculpture and video. We wanted to stress the fact that art is an experience that engages the spectator.”

Echoing the words of James Rouvelle, Bourriaud and Sans explained on the exhibition’s website why time is such a provocative theme to explore in art: “Addressing time was a way for us to draw up an inventory of the 1990s, when art began to function as a sort of editing bay on which artists could reconstruct everyday reality.” These artists, the curators explained, “tweaked the tempo” of their art—displaying videos and sounds that had been paused, looped, or synchronized in unexpected ways. “Time is more a building material than a mere medium,” Bourriaud and Sans argued. More than a static oil painting or stone monument, they wrote, “art is first and foremost an event.”


Both the Site of Reversible Destiny and the exhibits at the Lyon Biennial use art to manipulate the viewer’s experience of time. But other forms of contemporary art—like interactive sound projects—are themselves manipulated by time. One such dynamic project, designed by Rouvelle and Berlin-based artists Innes Yates and Judith Bieseler, is called Research, Instructions, Programs, and Logic for Trans-Robotic Adaptive Networked Environments, or RIPLTRANE. Launched in March 2004 and still going today, RIPLTRANE allows participants in both New York and Berlin to step or dance on pressure sensors in a tiled floor. Their stepping patterns go through a computer, which then creates accompanying sound and lighting effects and relays the patterns, through the internet, back and forth between both cities. In this way, the art is manipulated by the participants themselves (and the time lag between the transatlantic transmissions). As Rouvelle writes about the project on his website, RIPLTRANE is an experiment of layering a physical environment “with information and events occurring locally and at distant geographic and temporal locations…Our intention is to start something that will take on a life of its own.”

Remove Your Watches!

Changing our experience of time—that is, un-metering it—is not an easy task. It may be worth the psychological (and in the case of the Site of Reversible Destiny, physical) effort for an artist who wants to create and appreciate art in new ways. “Artists can definitely contribute to the creation of better models [of time],” Rouvelle says. “The content of our models and their presence in our common spaces is an aspect of our collective development. We must, I think, take the role of objects and their affect seriously as we build our world.”

But even those uninterested in art, Rouvelle continues, should make the attempt. Experiencing un-metered time, he says, will help our interpersonal relationships, help us to better empathize with others. He argues that, “the general public can benefit by having aspects of their lives made more available for their own consideration via aesthetic creations that explore the complementary senses and experiences of non-linearity.”

To Rouvelle, all of human development, in fact, is about the way we choose to perceive and influence time. “If we want to develop along a different trajectory we must take action and do so. We have a responsibility to do so.”