Archives for April 2009

This one goes out to all you BSB fans…

Because it’s almost Friday…

Because PUP is up on science news…

Because we KNOW you’re frantically googling “Swine Flu” – excuse me – the “H1N1 Virus”…

I present NPR’s latest blog post:

I hope you will enjoy not only the dancing bird, but the spotlight hogging hippopotamus.  (At the very least, least it’s a nice distraction from mass panic.  Props to NPR Science Desk-ers for levity.)

English (Pirate) on Facebook, really!

As I work on the publicity for The Invisible Hook by Pete Leeson, I am beginning to see pirates everywhere. Just now a friend instructed me on how to change my facebook language to English (Pirate). So, for all you land-lubbers or would-be-pirates who have a facebook account. Give this a go:

1) scroll to the bottom of your facebook page.

2) in the bottom left corner click english: us.

3) when the language selection appears , click english: pirate.

4) enjoy!

5) (I’m adding a step) Read The Invisible Hook.

Christopher Beckwith on, Nick’s Picks

Christopher Beckwith’s EMPIRES OF THE SILK ROAD: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present is starting to take off in the blogosphere. Nicholas Basbanes, the nationally syndicated columnist and book reviewer, recently added the book to “Nick’s Picks” on the blog Here is the review.

And Steve Dodson, who writers the blog, has become fascinated by the book’s arguments, and, perhaps not surprisingly, footnotes! He writes about the book on here and here.

Amar Bhide video – The Venturesome Economy

Amar Bhide speaking at the Kauffman Foundation about The Venturesome Economy.

The Free Will Theorem Lectures Tonight, 8 PM, Princeton University

The sixth and final in a series of lectures by John Conway on the “Free Will Theorem,” will take place tonight at 8:00 PM in McDonnell Hall, room A02 on the Princeton University campus.

The subject of tonight’s lecture is The Theorem’s Implications for Science and Philosophy. In physics, Conway shows us, it the Free Will Theorem shows that there can be no mechanistic explanation for the “collapse of the wave function,” and so provides the strongest refutation of the “hidden variable” theories. Philosophically, Conway shows us the theorem leads us to infer that the future really is affected by free will decisions.

Earlier lectures in this series are available for online viewing here.

These lectures are sponsored by the Department of Mathematics, Princeton University, and Princeton University Press. They present the work of Conway and Simon Kochen which asserts that if experimenters have free will, then so do elementary particles. The Press will publish a forthcoming book on the same subject called The Free Will Theorem. For more information about the lectures, please visit the Princeton site.

The image here is a visual representation of what the lecturers present as an airtight mathematical theorem that rests on what they say are three unassailable axioms which happen to rhyme — spin, fin and twin.

James Cuno interviews Neil MacGregor about encyclopedic museums

Here, James Cuno interviews Neil MacGregor about the origins of the British Museum and the role of encyclopedic museums through history, a subject further explored in MacGregor’s contribution (To Shape the Citizens of “That Great City, the World”) to the edited volume Whose Culture?

You may also be interested in reading Hugh Eakin’s take on both Whose Culture? and Who Owns Antiquity? (James Cuno’s solo-authored work on the subject of antiquities and nationalism) in the May 14th issue of the New York Review of Books.

Math Awareness Month — An Interview with Tapio Schneider

As part of our Math Awareness Month celebrations, we posed our series of questions about mathematics and climate study to Tapio Schneider, a Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering at Caltech. Dr. Schneider conducts research on the dynamics of the Earth’s climate changes, turbulence, and turbulent transport in the atmosphere and oceans. He is also co-editor with Adam H. Sobel of the PUP book The Global Circulation of the Atmosphere.

PUP: What are you currently working on?

Tapio Schneider: I am working on theories of how large-scale (>1000 km) atmospheric turbulence influences the global climate. For example, we study how turbulent transport affects tropical circulations and how it controls the distribution of atmospheric water vapor and rainfall.

PUP: How did you become interested in this field?

TS: I am fascinated by how nature works. I was trained as a physicist and loved how physics helped explain the inanimate world around me, from refrigerators to cell phones to the blue color of the sky and the red color of sunsets. I particularly like the physics of everyday phenomena—phenomena that occur roughly at the energy of sunlight (for example, many quantum phenomena occur at the energy of sunlight, and in part because of that, quantum devices such as the transistor revolutionized our life). When I was looking for a research area for graduate studies, I was looking for a young field with open questions to which young scientists can make lasting and fundamental contributions. Atmospheric dynamics is such a field—and the phenomena certainly occur at the energy of sunlight!

PUP: How do you use mathematics in your work?

TS: Mathematics to me is a means to an end. It gives succinct descriptions of complex relations among natural phenomena. From these relations, we can draw inferences (explanations, predictions) about phenomena through mathematical reasoning. For example, Newton’s laws of mechanics are succinctly expressed in terms of differential equations, and from (numerical) solutions of these equations, we can predict how properties of atmospheric turbulence change with climate. Mathematics is an extraordinary efficient and effective language for expressing the laws of nature, and of climate in particular. In Wigner’s words, “the miracle of the appropriateness of the language of  mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve” (from E. Wigner, “The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences,” Communications in Pure and Applied Mathematics, vol. 13, 1960).

PUP: How is mathematics helping us to understand climate change and how the earth works?

TS: Mathematical relations expressing the laws of nature are at the core of everything we do, from building models of climate, to analyzing simulations conducted with such models, to making predictions. Climate models are based on Newton’s laws of mechanics, the laws of thermodynamics, and conservation laws for atmospheric and water mass, expressed in mathematical form for a continuum of microscopic volumes.
Tools of modern applied mathematics, developed in the middle and late 20th century, are used to find numerical solutions of the complex equations with the help of computers. We practice what may be called computational science and what some call experimental mathematics–we use computer simulations the way a laboratory scientist would use experiments, for example, to study how changes in the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases affects rainfall patterns. We also use mathematics to analyze data, for example, to condense complex information in high-dimensional datasets into more manageable and more easily interpretable low-dimensional information.

PUP: What are the top 3 biggest problems in climate science that still
need to be solved?  How will mathematics help solve these problems?

TS: How do clouds and their radiative properties respond to climate change? This question is central to understanding how much surface temperatures change for a given change in insolation or in the concentration of greenhouse gases (the “climate sensitivity”). We need coarse-grained (>10-100 km scale) mathematical descriptions of the dynamics and thermodynamics that govern the small scales of rain drops in clouds. We need these coarse-grained descriptions because, with current computers and for the foreseeable future, it is impossible to simulate the small-scale dynamics explicitly in climate models.

How do the large-scale turbulent fluxes of heat, momentum, and water vapor in the atmosphere depend on the mean climate state? This question affects almost all physical questions in climate science, from how the pole-equator surface temperature contrast is controlled, to how the distribution of water vapor, Earth’s most important greenhouse gas, varies with climate. We need macroscopic mathematical descriptions of turbulent fluxes to resolve this question (though we can simulate the microscopic dynamics giving rise to the turbulent fluxes reasonably well on computers).

And, how do ice sheets and glaciers respond to climate change? This question is central to understanding how sea level may change with climate and to understanding long-term climate changes such as the cycle of ice ages. We need to know more precisely the equations that describe glacier and ice sheet dynamics, and even where we do know the equations, we need better mathematical tools to solve them numerically on a computer (for example, understanding where an ice stream with rapid ice flow forms involves difficult free-boundary problems).

PUP: Why should students who are good in math consider research in climate or earth science?

TS: It is a young field in need of talented mathematicians and physicists to work on some of the most interesting, relevant, and challenging scientific problems!

PUP: What books, Princeton or otherwise, would you recommend to people who want to learn more about how mathematics and physics are helping us to understand how climate works?

TS: Alley’s The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future is an engaging introduction to how ice ages come about, what we know about past climate changes, and what they may imply for the future.

Hartmann’s Global Physical Climatology is a more formal introduction to the laws governing climate on an undergraduate level.

There are many more advanced texts, such as, Peixoto and Oort’s Physics of Climate (a summary of observations and basic laws) and Holton’s An Introduction to Dynamic Meteorology. The book Adam Sobel and I edited, The Global Circulation of the Atmosphere, gives a summary of theories for the atmospheric circulation on the graduate level.

5 Pirate Myths . . . And the Facts that Belie Them

The Somali pirates’ recent activity reminds us to revisit their 18th-century predecessors. After all, these are the pirates whose image has infiltrated popular culture and captured popular imagination. But which part of that image is fact and which part is fiction? A bit of pirate myth-busting with Peter Leeson, author of The Invisible Hook, can help us find out.

Myth 1: Pirates were bloodthirsty fiends who never turned down an opportunity to battle.

Fact: Pirates were loathe to engage in a fight. Pirates were businessmen; they were in it for the money. And battling targets could be expensive. Battle could injure or kill pirate crewmembers, damage the pirate ship, or damage the prospective prize. Because of this, pirates much preferred to take their victims without conflict, which they overwhelming did. To encourage merchantmen’s peaceful surrender, pirates promised to slaughter those that resisted them and “give quarter” to those that complied.

Myth 2: Pirate ships were portraits of chaos.

Fact: Pirate ships were orderly—according to some, more orderly than many merchantmen or ships of the Royal Navy. Pirates required “law and order” to prevent their criminal enterprise from collapsing. So, they wrote “pirate codes”—ship-board articles—that laid down rules for their roguish commonwealths and provided punishments for disobeying them. These rules prohibited violence and theft among sea bandits. On some ships they prohibited gambling, restricted drinking, and even regulated smoking.

Myth 3: Pirate captains were tyrants who ruled their men with an iron fist.

Fact: Pirates democratically elected their captains, who depended on crewmember approval for their positions of power. On merchant ships, captains wielded autocratic authority, which some abused for personal benefit. To prevent this on pirate ships, pirates developed a system of democratic checks and balances for their leadership. If a pirate captain stepped out of line, his men could (and did) democratically depose him from office. Pirates further checked their captains’ authority by separating power. They elected another officer, the quartermaster, who helped balance the captain’s command.

Myth 4: Pirates buried their treasure.

Fact: Pirates spent their loot, most as fast as they made it. There were two things pirates liked to spend money on most: whores and booze. Enterprising entrepreneurs supplying these goods and services set up shop in or around places pirates frequented, such as Port Royal, Jamaica, Nassau in the Bahamas, and even Madagascar, rapidly relieving pirates of their hard-earned loot.

Myth 5: Pirates made their prisoners walk the plank.

Fact: Pirates did brutally torture some prisoners; but they didn’t do so indiscriminately, and none of their tortures were as kind or as quick as walking the plank. Pirates predominantly reserved torture for when it could benefit them, such as to punish prisoners who held back booty. The threat of a truly horrible punishment for hiding valuables encouraged prisoners to reveal their valuables to their pirate captors. But pirates couldn’t afford to mistreat prisoners wantonly. If prisoners came to expect mistreatment whether they hid valuables from pirates or not, they would no longer have had a reason to relinquish their valuables, undermining pirates’ purpose.

Peter T. Leeson is an economics professor at George Mason University and author of new book, The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates.

Spam Hall of Shame

The spam file this week contains many useful tidbits of advice and observation–each one reading like a fortune cookie. Read and be enlightened!

1.) Wealth is the ability to fully experience life.

2.) Change yourself and your work will seem different.

3.) Unless we work for the common good there won’t be any

4.) Don’t be pushed by your problems. Be led by your dreams.

5.) In any war, the first casualty is common sense, and the second is free and open discussion

6.) Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.

7.) Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be

8.) Without a sense of urgency, desire loses its value.

Barbara Sivertsen’s THE PARTING OF THE SEA Online

Barbara Sivertsen’s new book THE PARTING OF THE SEA officially published on April 8th, which happened to be the first day of Passover. It is fortuitous timing since the book explores the actual geological events that inspired the biblical book of Exodus.

David Klinghoffer discusses this phenomenon on the site–read about it here.

And Publishers Weekly picked Sivertsen’s book as their “Web Pick of the Week.” Read the review here.

Math Awareness Month — An Interview with Angela and George Shiflet

As part of our Math Awareness Month celebrations, we asked Angela and George Shiflet about their current research and the impact mathematics can have on climate science. The Shiflets first met in a university calculus class, and eventually married. Today, they both are Wofford faculty members. George Shiflet is the Dr. Larry Hearn McCalla professor of biology and chair of the department. Also a department chair, Angela Shiflet is the McCalla professor of computer science and mathematics as well as coordinator of the computational science program. The Shiflets have collaborated to develop computational modules for the Keck Foundation and together they have authored Introduction to Computational Science: Modeling and Simulation for the Sciences.

PUP: What are you currently working on?

Angela and George Shiflet: We are continuing to write computational science educational modules,  discussing applying mathematics and computer science to science problems.  In particular, we are writing about modeling using matrices and graph theory.

PUP: How did you become interested in this field?

AGS: With George being a biologist and Angela being a mathematician and computer scientist, interest in computational science is a natural for us!  Little did we know when we met in calculus class in college and operated on rats together in physiology that we were beginning to lay the foundation of a mutual interest in computational science education.

PUP: How do you use mathematics in your work?

AGS: As college professors, we use mathematics in our teaching as well as in our writing.

PUP: What are three major problems in climate science that need to be solved?

AGS: 1.      Model reduction.   The current models must be simple enough for mathematical analysis.  Once the mathematical ideas are sound, they can be tested on the more complex models.  Additionally, we need to understand the models of climate using stochastic equations, rather than deterministic ones.
2.      Model interpretation.  There are a number of climate models, each having its own strong and weak points.  Mathematicians need to develop tools to evaluate the quality/relevance of the models, including the impact of missing components/processes.  These tools could also help to determine how broad a scale (time/space) we can use in interpreting each model.
3.     Model integration.  Climate models should be integrated with economic models.  How does a carbon tax policy affect production of greenhouse gases?  How would such a policy then affect the climate?

PUP: Why should students who are good in math consider research in climate or earth science?

AGS: There are enormous numbers of interesting problems in this area.  Creating solutions to such problems gives such students grand opportunities to make contributions to improving our understanding of climate, and therefore improving quality of life for future generations.  Besides it is just fun to gain understanding of such a complex system.

PUP: What books, Princeton or otherwise, would you recommend to people who want to learn more about how mathematics and physics are helping us to understand how climate works?

AGS: Climate Change – William J. Burroughs,   Cambridge

Darius Rejali on All Things Considered

Darius Rejali, author of Torture and Democracy, was interviewed on All Things Considered about the DOJ torture memos. He responds specifically to the assertion that the interrogation techniques described were “safe”. From the show’s description:

The memo goes on to explain the basis for this assertion. According to Bybee, the government is confident that these techniques are safe for one very simple reason.

For a number of decades, Bybee writes, the government has been systematically using almost all of these techniques against more than 26,000 of our own people: soldiers participating in a program intended to teach them how to survive capture by a hostile enemy. Only a very small portion of those soldiers, the memo goes on to say, experienced any negative psychological repercussions.