Archives for January 2016

Bird Fact Friday – City Birds

From page 132 of The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors:

The Taiga Merlin, the most common type of Merlin, generally makes its home in the boreal forest out of earshot of the Bald Eagle. Recently, like a number of other raptors, it has begun adapting to humans and making its home in urban areas.

The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors
Richard Crossley, Jerry Liguori, Brian Sullivan

RaptorsPart of the revolutionary Crossley ID Guide series, this is the first raptor guide with lifelike scenes composed from multiple photographs—scenes that allow you to identify raptors just as the experts do. Experienced birders use the most easily observed and consistent characteristics—size, shape, behavior, probability, and general color patterns. The book’s 101 scenes—including thirty-five double-page layouts—provide a complete picture of how these features are all related. Even the effects of lighting and other real-world conditions are illustrated and explained. Detailed and succinct accounts from two of North America’s foremost raptor experts, Jerry Liguori and Brian Sullivan, stress the key identification features. This complete picture allows everyone from beginner to expert to understand and enjoy what he or she sees in the field. The mystique of bird identification is eliminated, allowing even novice birders to identify raptors quickly and simply.

Comprehensive and authoritative, the book covers all thirty-four of North America’s diurnal raptor species (all species except owls). Each species is featured in stunning color plates that show males and females, in a full spectrum of ages and color variants, depicted near and far, in flight and at rest, and from multiple angles, all caught in their typical habitats. There are also comparative, multispecies scenes and mystery photographs that allow readers to test their identification skills, along with answers and full explanations in the back of the book. In addition, the book features an introduction, and thirty-four color maps accompany the plates.

Whether you are a novice or an expert, this one-of-a-kind guide will show you an entirely new way to look at these spectacular birds.

George Marsden on “Mere Christianity” and the conversion of C.S. Lewis

marsden jacketMere Christianity, C. S. Lewis’s eloquent and winsome defense of the Christian faith, has a rather dramatic origin story. Recently George Marsden took some time to talk about C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, his investigation of the story of the extraordinary life and afterlife of this influential book.

Do we need another book on C. S. Lewis?

GM: That’s a great question. There are lots of insightful books about Lewis, but this one is not about simply about Lewis but is a “biography” of his most influential non-fiction book. So it comes at Lewis from a fresh angle and amplifies dimensions of something that a lot of people have appreciated, but may have not thought through exactly why. It’s like the difference between a book about Beethoven and a book about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It takes something that is familiar and accessible and tries to bring to life the story behind its appeal. In this case Mere Christianity is not just popular, it has also been extraordinarily important to many people. You might be surprised at how many will say that reading it was even life changing. And many others will say it was one of the truly illuminating books that they have read. A couple of years ago during “March Madness,” the Emerging Scholars Network associated with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship held playoff rounds of voting for sixty-four nominees for “the best Christian book of all time.” Mere Christianity finished second, only behind Augustine’s Confessions. So lots of such people should be interested in the story behind Lewis’s book.

What are the highlights of that story?

GM: That’s one of the great things about writing about Mere Christianity. The story of its origins is pretty dramatic. It’s not like most books where the beginning of the story is that the author decided to write on such and such a subject and two years later he had a book manuscript. Mere Christianity originated in the midst of one of the most stressful times in British history—during the bleak early years of World War Two. When the project was begun it was at a time when there were still fears of a Nazi invasion and the Blitz bombing was taking devastating tolls every night. And one of the things that is remarkable is when he began Lewis did not think he was writing a book. Rather he agreed to present a very brief series of radio broadcasts on the BBC. Eventually it became four series of broadcasts. As he went along he had these published in separate little booklets, but he had not planned them as a single book. It was only a decade later, in 1952, that he gathered these together into one book and called them Mere Christianity.

So how did a book that was not even planned to be a book become so influential?

GM: That’s one of the most fascinating parts of the story. Lewis’s works were already quite popular in 1952. He was best known as the author of The Screwtape Letters, and was a very well known Christian author during a time of religious revival in both Great Britain and the United States. So even though Mere Christianity as a single volume came on the scene with no fanfare or reviews, it always sold reasonably well during Lewis’s lifetime, though not as well as Screwtape or the Narnia tales. But here’s what’s really remarkable about the life of this book. In the first fifteen years of the twenty-first century it has sold more than it did in its first fifteen years. Not long before Lewis died in 1963 he expressed the opinion that his books would soon be forgotten. By 1967 other commentators were saying much the same thing. But it turns out that since 2001, Mere Christianity has sold more than three and a half million copies just in English alone. Almost any other book you might think of has a very different trajectory. It makes an initial splash but then its ripples fade, even if for some classics the ripples may extend indefinitely. This book is, by contrast, is selling more than when it was originally published.

So what happened between 1967 and 2001 to make it so popular?

GM: It is hard to track the story exactly, but by the 1970s it was becoming the book to give to someone who was inquiring about Christian faith. Celebrity conversions helped. One turning point was Chuck Colson’s Born Again which came out the same week in 1976 that Jimmy Carter was explaining to reporters that he was born again. Colson presents Mere Christianity as central to his conversion. A more recent case is the noted scientist Francis Collins, highlights Mere Christianity in his The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Most fans of Mere Christianity are, broadly speaking, evangelicals. But there many Catholic fans as well, and Eastern Orthodox, and even some Mormons. It is most popular in the United States but also is a standard work throughout the English-speaking world. It ha been translated into many languages. Interestingly one place where it has become most influential is among intellectual Chinese Christian.

How do you account for what you described as bucking the using trends in the lives of books in actually growing rather than gradually fading in popularity?

GM: That is another good question and in fact that is one of the central questions that the book tries to answer. What is the genius of Mere Christianity? What accounts for its “life” in the sense of its ongoing “vitality.”? How is it that Lewis could seemingly toss off these occasional broadcasts in a wartime setting and come up with a seemingly unified masterpiece that has such lasting appeals?

So how do you answer that question?

GM: Well there are quite a few reasons. I’ll just give you a sample. One reason why the book lasts is that Lewis very consciously looked for perennial truths about human experience and the human condition. So he warned people of the danger of being taken in by the “latest” thought of their own time. As a student of literature and history he realized that every era has its own peculiar ideas and that most of these soon pass and look very quaint a generation or two later. So in part because he is looking for ideas that last, many of his ideas have lasted.

The most obvious example is the idea of “Mere Christianity” itself. Lewis was trying to present the beliefs that have been “common to nearly all Christians at all times.” By carefully trying to stick to those common beliefs, he produced a work that has a wide appeal to all sorts of Christians. As I said, that’s just a sample of how to answer that question. There are still quite a few other dimensions to the genius of the book that have contributed to its lasting vitality. But perhaps I can leave them for those who want to delve into the book itself.

George M. Marsden is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. His books include Fundamentalism and American Culture, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, and The Soul of the American University. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Jason Brennan: Our relationship to democracy is nonconsensual

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Democracy Doesn’t Rest on the Consent of the Governed

By Jason Brennan

There’s a popular idea—an idea you might get from middle school civics classes—that democracy is based on the consent of the governed. Now, democracy is more responsive to what people want than other forms of government, and it gives the governed a large say in what happens. However, it’s a mistake to say that the relationship individual citizens have to their government in a democracy is consensual. Let’s think about why.

Recently, I purchased a Marshall JVM amplifier from a dealer. It was an archetypical consensual transaction. It had each of the following features:

A.       I performed an act that signified my consent. In this case, I ordered the amplifier. The outcome—that I lost money but gained a JVM—would not have occurred but for my performing the act that signified consent.

B.       I was not forced to perform that act—I had a reasonable way to avoid doing it.

C.       Had I explicitly said, “I refuse to buy a Marshall JVM at that price!” the exchange never would have taken place.

D.       The dealer was not entitled to take my money unless it sent me the amplifier—it had to hold up its end of the bargain.

Now, imagine that any one of these conditions didn’t happen. Suppose, instead of A, that the dealer just extracted money from my bank account and sent me the amp, even though I’d never placed an order. In that case, that would be strange kind of theft. The dealer would have taken my money without my consent. Suppose, instead of B, the dealer (or someone else) had said, “Buy this amp or I’ll murder you.” In that case, we still wouldn’t call it consensual—it would be a weird form of theft. Suppose, instead of C, I tell the dealer, “I absolutely refuse to buy a JVM!,” but the dealer just sent it to me anyways. In that case, it would have been like it had given me a gift without my consent. If they then sent me a bill, I wouldn’t have any duty to pay it, since I’d told them I didn’t want to buy the amp. Suppose, instead of D, the dealer takes my money but never sends the amp. In that case, it would be fraud. In each of these cases, the transaction would not be consensual.

In general, our relationship as individuals to our government doesn’t look much like a consensual relationship.

If you don’t vote or participate, your government will just impose rules, regulations, restrictions, benefits, and taxes upon you. Except in exceptional circumstances, the same outcome will occur regardless of how you vote or what policies you support. So, for instance, I voted for a particular candidate in 2012. But had I abstained or voted for a different candidate, the same candidate would have won anyways. This is not like a consensual transaction, in which I order a JVM and the dealer sends me the amp I ordered. Rather, this is more a like a nonconsensual transaction in which the dealer decides to make me buy an amp no matter whether I place an order or not, and no matter what I order.

If you actively dissent, the government makes you obey its rules anyways. For instance, you can’t get out of marijuana criminalization laws by saying, “Just to be clear, I don’t consent to those laws, or to your rule”. This is unlike my relationship with my music gear dealer, where “no” means “no”. For government, your “no” means “yes”.

You have no reasonable way of opting out of government rule. Governments control all the habitable land, and most of us don’t have the resources or even the legal permission to move elsewhere. Governments won’t even let you move to Antarctica if you want to. At most, a privileged few of us can choose which government we live under, but the vast majority of us are stuck with whatever government we’re born with. This is unlike buying an amp from, which, by the way, I highly recommend as a dealer.

Finally, governments require you to obey their rules, pay taxes, and the like, even when they don’t do their part. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the government has no duty to protect individual citizens. Suppose you call the police to alert them that an intruder is in your house, but the police never bother dispatch someone to help you, and as a result the intruder shoots you. The government still requires you to pay taxes for the protection services it chose not to deploy on your behalf.

So, in summary, it looks like in general our relationship to our governments lacks any of the features that signify a consensual transaction.

None of this is to say that governments are unjust or illegitimate, or that we ought to be anarchists. There are other reasons to have governments. Nor is it to say that democracies are not in some way special. Democracies in fact do a much better job than alternative forms of government of responding to their concerns and interests of most of their members. But it’s a stretch to say that democracy rests on the consent of the governed, or, more precisely, it’s a stretch to say that you consent to democratic rule.

Check out Jason Brennan’s recent post on Why Smart Politicians Say Dumb Things.

Jason Brennan is Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of Markets without Limits, with Peter Jaworski (2015), Why Not Capitalism? (2014), Compulsory Voting, with Lisa Hill (2014), Libertarianism (2012), The Ethics of Voting (2011), and A Brief History of Liberty, with David Schmidtz (2010). He is currently writing Against Democracy, under contract with Princeton University Press, and Global Justice as Global Freedom, with Bas von der Vossen.

PUP’s Spring 2016 Preview

This spring, we’re publishing some exciting new titles across a range of disciplines. Where Are the Woman Architects? by Despina Stratigakos examines a male-dominated profession to uncover the causes for its dearth of women. Award-winning scientist and storyteller Sean B. Carroll takes us on a quest to discover the rules of regulation and their ramifications in The Serengeti Rules. If you’ve ever wondered about the secret lives of fireflies, then Silent Sparks by noted biologist Sara Lewis is the book for you. To see these titles and many more, check out our spring preview:

Introducing the trailer for The Little Big Number

Check out our book trailer for The Little Big Number by Dirk Philipsen for an introduction to why the concept of GDP has become harmful in our modern world.


In one lifetime, GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, has ballooned from a narrow economic tool into a global article of faith. It is our universal yardstick of progress. As The Little Big Number demonstrates, this spells trouble. While economies and cultures measure their performance by it, GDP ignores central facts such as quality, costs, or purpose. It only measures output: more cars, more accidents; more lawyers, more trials; more extraction, more pollution—all count as success. Sustainability and quality of life are overlooked. Losses don’t count. GDP promotes a form of stupid growth and ignores real development.

How and why did we get to this point? Dirk Philipsen uncovers a submerged history dating back to the 1600s, climaxing with the Great Depression and World War II, when the first version of GDP arrived at the forefront of politics. Transcending ideologies and national differences, GDP was subsequently transformed from a narrow metric to the purpose of economic activity. Today, increasing GDP is the highest goal of politics. In accessible and compelling prose, Philipsen shows how it affects all of us.

But the world can no longer afford GDP rule. A finite planet cannot sustain blind and indefinite expansion. If we consider future generations equal to our own, replacing the GDP regime is the ethical imperative of our times. More is not better. As Philipsen demonstrates, the history of GDP reveals unique opportunities to fashion smarter goals and measures. The Little Big Number explores a possible roadmap for a future that advances quality of life rather than indiscriminate growth.

Dirk Philipsen is a German- and American-trained professor of economic history, senior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, and a Duke Arts and Sciences Senior Research Scholar at Duke University. He is the author of We Were the People: Voices from East Germany’s Revolutionary Autumn of 1989. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

Bird Fact Friday – Identifying males and females

From page 21 of Waterfowl of North America, Europe & Asia:

In family groups of geese and swans, you can easily differentiate between the father and mother. The father will stand slightly apart, staying alert for potential threats. The young stay close to the mother, frequently following her. When occasional conflicts break out, the males are more aggressive.

Waterfowl of North America, Europe & Asia
Sébastien Reeber

waterfowlThis is the ultimate guide for anyone who wants to identify the ducks, geese, and swans of North America, Europe, and Asia. With 72 stunning color plates (that include more than 920 drawings), over 650 superb photos, and in-depth descriptions, this book brings together the most current information on 84 species of Eurasian and North American waterfowl, and on more than 100 hybrids. The guide delves into taxonomy, identification features, determination of age and sex, geographic variations, measurements, voice, molt, and hybridization. In addition, the status of each species is treated with up-to-date details on distribution, population size, habitats, and life cycle. Color plates and photos are accompanied by informative captions and 85 distribution maps are also provided. Taken together, this is an unrivaled, must-have reference for any birder with an interest in the world’s waterfowl.

Upcoming event with Oliver Morton and Future Tense


On Monday, February 1 Oliver Morton, author of The Planet Remade, will partner with Katherine Mangu-Ward at a lunch hosted by Future Tense to discuss the potential role of geoengineering in climate change in Washington D.C.. If you would like to attend, RSVP here. In the meantime, learn more about the topic on the Future Tense blog, excerpted here:

Geoengineering, the deliberate hacking of Earth’s climate, might be one of the most promising potential responses to climate change, especially in the absence of significant carbon emission reductions. It’s also one of the most controversial. We engineered our planet into our environmental crisis, but can we engineer our way out with a stratospheric veil against the sun, the cultivation of photosynthetic plankton, or fleets of unmanned ships seeding the clouds?

Nick Higham on beautiful equations

The Most Beautiful Equations in Applied Mathematics

By Nick Higham


From p. 171 of PCAM,
typeset in all its splendour in the Lucida Bright font.

The BBC Earth website has just published a selection of short articles on beautiful mathematical equations and is asking readers to vote for their favourite.

I wondered if we had included these equations in The Princeton Companion to
Applied Mathematics
(PCAM), specifically in Part III: Equations, Laws, and Functions of Applied Mathematics. We had indeed included the ones most
relevant to applied mathematics. Here are those equations, with links to the
BBC articles.

  • The wave equation (which quotes PCAM author Ian Stewart). PCAM has a short
    article by Paul Martin of the same title (III.31), and the wave equation
    appears throughout the book.
  • Einstein’s field equation. PCAM has a 2-page article Einstein’s Field
    (note the plural), by Malcolm MacCallum (article III.10).
  • The Euler-Lagrange equation. PCAM article III.12 by Paul Glendinning is about
    these equations, and more appears in other articles, especially The
    Calculus of Variations
    (IV.6), by Irene Fonseca and Giovanni Leoni.
  • The Dirac equation. A 3-page PCAM article by Mark Dennis (III.9) describes
    this equation and its quantum mechanics roots.
  • The logistic map. PCAM article The logistic equation (III.19), by Paul
    Glendinning treats this equation, in both differential and difference forms.
    It occurs in several places in the book.
  • Bayes’ theorem. This theorem appears in the PCAM article Bayesian Inference in Applied Mathematics (V.11), by Des Higham, and in other articles employing
    Bayesian methods.

A natural equation is: Are there other worthy equations that are the
subject of articles in Part III of PCAM that have not been included in the BBC
list? Yes! Here are some examples (assuming that only single equations are
allowed, which rules out the Cauchy-Riemann equations, for example).

  • The Black-Scholes equation.
  • The diffusion (or heat) equation.
  • Laplace’s equation.
  • The Riccati equation.
  • Schrödinger’s equation.

Higham jacketThis article is cross posted to Nick Higham’s blog.

Check out the Princeton Companion to Applied Math here.

Ellen Wu on Nikki Haley and the role of the model minority

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Nikki Haley and the American Dream

by Ellen D. Wu

Poised and polished, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley at once personified and celebrated the American Dream as she rebutted President Obama’s final State of the Union address Tuesday. In a soft, genteel drawl, she invited her fellow Republicans to “return” the United States to “the foundation that has made America that last, best hope on earth.”

Her own biography supplied the evidence. The self-proclaimed “proud daughter of Indian immigrants,” she recounted that her parents reminded her daily “how blessed we were to live in this country.” Together, they surmounted the challenges of their modest means and their conspicuous difference in the rural South. Most importantly, like “millions” of other newcomers past and present, “we had the opportunity to do anything, to be anything, as long as we were willing to work for it.”

Just hours before the televised message, Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz charged that GOP had picked the governor because of the party’s “diversity problem.” While Republican leaders denied it, Haley’s appearance clearly fell in line with a distinct historical pattern.

For some six decades, a host of stakeholders have cast prominent Asian Americans as “model minorities” to resolve profound contradictions of race, religion, and identity in national life. Model minorities—non-whites who have “made it”—seemingly prove that the American Dream is alive and well and available to all, regardless of color or class.

Why Asian Americans? In the 1940s and 50s, wartime pressures on the United States to act fittingly as the “leader of the free world” necessitated a social repositioning of Asian immigrant populations. Previously, they had been racial pariahs: barred by law from entering the country, naturalized citizenship, and a slew of other freedoms that white people took for granted. But treating them (and other minorities) so poorly, liberals argued, imperiled US relations with their homelands. Strategically, federal authorities regarded Asia as an especially vital region—a matter of winning or losing epic global battles against fascism and Communism.

So foreign policy opened the door to the very possibility of Asian assimilation into the American mainstream. What had been unfathomable before World War II was now thinkable. Just ten years after Congress repealed the immigration and citizenship exclusion laws targeting Indian nationals (Luce-Celler Act, 1946), Democrat Dalip Singh Saund won an unlikely contest in California’s 29th Congressional District, the Republican stronghold Imperial Valley. With it, he became the first Sikh, South Asian transplant, and Asian American to join the United States Congress. In 1957, the House Foreign Affairs Committee sent him on a one-man junket to Asia to show himself as a “living example of American democracy in practice,” as he put it. Saturday Evening Post cheered the “extraordinary expedition” as “a solid contribution to improved relations between East and West.”

The admission of the Hawai‘i to the union in 1959 presented another timely occasion to tout Asian Americans as model minorities. Republican Hiram Fong—dubbed the “Hawaiian Horatio Alger”—took one of the 50th state’s first two seats in the US Senate. The son of immigrant Chinese sugarcane laborers, Fong embodied the rags-to-riches meritocracy ideal, having fought for the Air Force, worked his way through Harvard Law School, and amassed a considerable fortune through multiple business ventures. On the eve of his swearing in, Pageant magazine eulogized that this “American success story” was “clear proof that racism has no permanent place in America.”

Democrat Daniel Inouye likewise exemplified the promise of American society for immigrants and minorities. Inouye also hailed from humble beginnings to embark on a prodigious climb from Honolulu’s slums to Washington DC. As a decorated member of World War II’s legendary Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, he lost his right arm in action—a sacrifice unfailingly mentioned by reporters. After the war, Inouye attended college and law school on the GI Bill and served in the territorial legislature before capturing Hawai‘i’s sole birth in the US House of Representatives in 1959. Three years later, when Inouye defeated the scion of one of the islands’ most elite white families to land in the US Senate, Life named him one most influential young members of the nation’s “Take-Over Generation.”

As three of the most visible Asian Americans of their day, Saund, Fong, and Inouye cemented the fledgling stereotype in popular culture that “Orientals” were quiet, upstanding, don’t-rock-the-boat types. Moreover, their trajectories enthralled contemporaries because they reinforced beliefs in America’s protagonist-of-the-world, melting pot greatness.

Their narratives did other political work as well. In the case of Hawai‘i, the rise to power of Chinese and Japanese Americans (rather than Native Hawaiians) glossed over an inconvenient truth: the United States’ violent, illegal overthrow of a once-independent kingdom and its continued colonial domination and exploitation.

Against the backdrop of the intensifying black freedom movement, the success stories of Fong and Inouye had an additional, critical utility. Both politicians lived political moderation in ways that appealed variously to conservatives and liberals fearing radical change. Fong expressed support for racial equality, but also hesitated to “rush into a flood of legislation to reform a mode of living that has been going on for years in the South.”

His colleague, by comparison, actively championed the cause, voting for the historic Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965). In his keynote address to the 1968 Democratic National Convention—the first-ever person of color in this role—Inouye described the Vietnam War as an “immoral” conflict and affirmed the right of citizens to protest. He acknowledged the “systemic racism deprivation” suffered by African Americans—a situation, he emphasized, immeasurably more dire than that faced by Asians in the United States.

Yet Inouye also was every bit the respectable, patriotic statesman—a marked contrast to contemporary direct action activists. At the same time, he called for “law and order” to be “respected and maintained.” His careful balancing act caught the attention of Lyndon B. Johnson, who urged Democratic party presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey to tap the Senator as his running mate for the 1968 election: “He answers Vietnam with that empty sleeve. He answers your problems with Nixon with that empty sleeve. He has that brown face. He answers everything in civil rights, and he draws a contrast without ever opening his mouth.”

The parallels between Haley and her predecessors are striking: immigrant roots, high-profile speech, possible Vice-Presidential contender.

Most crucially, Haley also navigates an especially fraught moment in the history of race in the United States. On the one hand, progressive voices tirelessly insist that Black Lives Matter, steering our collective attention to police brutality, mass incarceration, and a host of related issues that reproduce the egregious inequalities and injustices borne by African Americans and other minorities. On the other hand, right-wing extremists from ordinary folks to the GOP presidential frontrunners spew xenophobic, anti-Muslim, racist vitrol with little recourse—with some, frighteningly, translating their words into violence.

Too, like her forerunners, Nikki Haley adroitly assumes the role of model minority—characterized in her case by Christian assimilation, relative moderation (in the GOP context), and USA #1-brand of boosterism. Embracing her historically-prescribed role, she plays by the rules of establishment politics.

But in the end, we might ask, what are the real benefits of doing so? After all, model minority status doesn’t shield her entirely from anti-immigrant sentiment and Islamophobia (“Trump should deport Nikki Haley,” tweeted Ann Coulter in response to the governor’s remarks). What might be next—for her and all South Asians, Arab, Muslims, and Sikhs in our communities?

Model minorities can’t resolve the contradictions of party politics, much less the vexing conundrums of race, religion, and national identity. Only meaningful, material investments in the common good—prioritizing the most vulnerable among us—can do that. Once we collectively recognize this, we can then move forward to transforming the American Dream from an illusive mirage to a substantive reality for all.

Wu jacketEllen D. Wu is assistant professor of history at Indiana University, Bloomington, and author of The Color of Success.




Carl Wunsch: Has oceanography grown too distanced from the ocean?

Wunsch jacketWith the advent of computers, novel instruments, satellite technology, and increasingly powerful modeling tools, we have vast knowledge about the ocean. Yet because of technological advances, a new generation of oceanographers have grown increasingly distanced from the object of their study. Physics Today recently published a Q&A with Carl Wunch, author of Modern Observational Physical Oceanography: Understanding the Global Ocean. According to Wunch, the field of oceanography cannot rely on theoretical truths alone. In this interview, he emphasizes the importance of the discipline’s observational roots:

Before Modern Observational Physical Oceanography: Understanding the Global Ocean (Princeton University Press, 2015) was published, Carl Wunsch had already made “an immense contribution” to the field, writes Stuart Cunningham in his January 2016 review of the book for Physics Today. Cunningham counts more than 250 papers and “an astonishing list of master’s and PhD students whose own merits are widely recognized.”

Modern Observational Physical Oceanography is Wunsch’s fifth book. Cunningham writes that it will be “of value to anyone wishing to know more about how to observe the ocean, interpret the data, and gain insights on ocean behavior and on how oceanographers reach their understanding of it.”

Carl Wunsch

Carl Wunsch

Wunsch was the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physical Oceanography at MIT before his retirement in 2013; he is now a visiting professor at Harvard University. He received his PhD at MIT under the tutelage of renowned oceanographer Henry Stommel. Among other things, Wunsch has studied the effects of ocean circulation on climate.

Physics Today recently caught up with Wunsch to discuss Modern Observational Physical Oceanography and his views on climate change issues.

PT: What motivated you to take up this book after retiring from MIT?

WUNSCH: In talking to students and postdocs, and in teaching, it became clear that we are in an era increasingly dominated by modelers and theoreticians, for many of whom observations are something downloaded from the Web and then taken as a “truth.” The field of physical oceanography and its climate components has become ever more remote from its observational roots.

In the past 25 years physical oceanography developed a number of highly useful, up-to-date, but theoretically based textbooks. There was no book known to me to which one could direct a colleague or student that emphasized the interesting complexities of the very diverse data types oceanographers now have available. The beautiful theories emphasized by the existing textbooks can produce the misperception of a laminar, essentially steady, ocean and in the extreme case, one reduced to a “conveyor belt.”

Read the full interview in Physics Today, here.

Solving last week’s L.A. Math challenge

LA MathWe’re back with the conclusion to last week’s LA Math challenge, The Case of the Vanishing Greenbacks, (taken from chapter 2 of the book). After the conclusion of the story, we’ll talk a little more with the author, Jim Stein. Don’t forget to check out the fantastic trailer for LA Math here.

Forty‑eight hours later I was bleary‑eyed from lack of sleep. I had made no discernible progress. As far as I could tell, both Stevens and Blaisdell were completely on the up‑and‑up.   Either I was losing my touch, or one (or both) of them were wasting their talents, doctoring books for penny‑ante amounts.   Then I remembered the envelope Pete had sealed. Maybe he’d actually seen something that I hadn’t.

I went over to the main house, to find Pete hunkered down happily watching a baseball game. I waited for a commercial break, and then managed to get his attention.

“I’m ready to take a look in the envelope, Pete.”

“Have you figured out who the guilty party is?”

“Frankly, no. To be honest, it’s got me stumped.” I moved to the mantel and unsealed the envelope. The writing was on the other side of the piece of paper. I turned it over. The name Pete had written on it was “Garrett Ryan and the City Council”!

I nearly dropped the piece of paper. Whatever I had been expecting, it certainly wasn’t this. “What in heaven’s name makes you think Ryan and the City Council embezzled the money, Pete?”

“I didn’t say I thought they did. I just think they’re responsible for the missing funds.”

I shook my head. “I don’t get it. How can they be responsible for the missing funds if they didn’t embezzle them?”

“They’re probably just guilty of innumeracy. It’s pretty common.”

“I give up. What’s innumeracy?”

“Innumeracy is the arithmetical equivalent of illiteracy. In this instance, it consists of failing to realize how percentages behave.” A pitching change was taking place, so Pete turned back to me. “An increase in 20% of the tax base will not compensate for a reduction of 20% in each individual’s taxes.   Percentages involve multiplication and division, not addition and subtraction. A gain of 20 dollars will compensate for a loss of 20 dollars, but that’s because you’re dealing with adding and subtracting. It’s not the same with percentages, because the base upon which you figure the percentages varies from calculation to calculation.”

“You may be right, Pete, but how can we tell?”

Pete grabbed a calculator. “Didn’t you say that each faction was out $198,000?”

I checked my figures. “Yeah, that’s the amount.”

Pete punched a few numbers into the calculator. “Call Ryan and see if there were 99,000 taxpayers in the last census. If there were, I’ll show you where the money went.”

I got on the phone to Ryan the next morning. He confirmed that the tax base in the previous census was indeed 99,000. I told Pete that it looked like he had been right, but I wanted to see the numbers to prove it.

Pete got out a piece of paper. “I think you can see where the money went if you simply do a little multiplication. The taxes collected in the previous census were $100 for each of 99,000 individuals, or $9,900,000. An increase of 20% in the population results in 118,800 individuals. If each pays $80 (that’s the 20% reduction from $100), the total taxes collected will be $9,504,000, or $396,000 less than was collected after the previous census. Half of $396,000 is $198,000.”

I was convinced. “There are going to be some awfully red faces down in Linda Vista. I’d like to see the press conference when they finally announce it.” I went back to the guesthouse, called Allen, and filled him in. He was delighted, and said that the check would be in the mail.   As I’ve said before, when Allen says it, he means it. Another advantage of having Allen make the arrangements is that I didn’t have to worry about collecting the fee, which is something I’ve never been very good at.

I wondered exactly how they were going to break the news to the citizens of Linda Vista that they had to pony up another $396,000, but as it was only about $3.34 per taxpayer I didn’t think they’d have too much trouble. Thanks to a combination of Ryan’s frugality and population increase, the tax assessment would still be lower than it was after the previous census, and how many government agencies do you know that actually reduce taxes? I quickly calculated that if they assessed everyone $3.42 they could not only cover the shortage, but Allen’s fee as well. I considered suggesting it to Ryan, but then I thought that Ryan probably wasn’t real interested in hearing from someone who had made him look like a bungler.

My conscience was bothering me, and I don’t like that. I thought about it, and finally came up with a compromise I found acceptable. I went back to the main house.

Pete was watching another baseball game. The Dodgers fouled up an attempted squeeze into an inning‑ending double play. Pete groaned. “It could be a long season,” he sighed.

“It’s early in the year.” I handed him a piece of paper. “Maybe this will console you.”

“What’s this?” He was examining my check for $1,750. “Your rent’s paid up.”

“It’s not for the rent, Pete. It’s your share of my fee.”

“Fee? What fee?”

“That embezzling case in Orange County. It was worth $3,500 to me to come up with the correct answer. I feel you’re entitled to half of it. You crunched the numbers, but I had the contacts and did the legwork.”

Pete looked at the check. “It seems like a lot of money for very little work. Tell you what. I’ll take $250, and credit the rest towards your rent.”

A landlord with a conscience! Maybe I should notify the Guinness Book of Records. “Seems more than fair to me.”

Pete tucked the check in the pocket of his shirt. “Tell me, Freddy, is it always this easy, doing investigations?”

I summoned up a wry laugh. “You’ve got to be kidding. So far, I’ve asked you two questions that just turned out to be right down your alley. I’ve sometimes spent months on a case, and come up dry. That can make the bottom line look pretty sick. What’s it like in your line of work?”

“I don’t really have a line of work. I have this house and some money in the bank. I can rent out the guesthouse and make enough to live on. People know I’m pretty good at certain problems, and sometimes they hire me. If it looks like it might be interesting, I’ll work on it.” He paused. “Of course, if they offer me a ridiculous amount of money, I’ll work on it even if it’s not interesting. Hey, we’re in a recession.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”   I turned to leave the room. Pete’s voice stopped me.

“Haven’t you forgotten something?”

I turned around. “I give up. What?”

“We had a bet. You owe me five bucks.”

I fished a five out of my wallet and handed it over. He nodded with satisfaction as he stuffed it in the same pocket as the check, and then turned his attention back to the game.

What made you include this particular idea in the book?

JS: The story features one of the most common misunderstandings about percentages.  There are innumerable mistakes made because people assume that percentages work the same way as regular quantities.  But they don’t — if a store lowers the cost of an item by 30% and then by another 20%, the cost of the item hasn’t been lowered by 50% — although many people make the mistake of assuming that it has.  I’m hoping that the story is sufficiently memorable that if a reader is confronted by a 30% discount followed by a 20% discount, they’ll think “Wasn’t there something like that in The Case of the Vanishing Greenbacks?

There are 14 stories in the book, and each features a mathematical point, injected into the story in a similar fashion as the one above.  I think the stories are fun to read, and if someone reads the book and remembers just a few of the points, well, I’ve done a whole lot better than when I was teaching liberal arts math the way it is usually done.

James D. Stein is emeritus professor in the Department of Mathematics at California State University, Long Beach. His books include LA Math, Cosmic Numbers (Basic) and How Math Explains the World (Smithsonian).

The Best of 2015 in PUP books

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