The Alzheimer Enigma in an Ageing World

Margaret LockA lecture by Professor Margaret Lock , author of The Alzheimer Conundrum: Entanglements of Dementia and Aging and a Marjorie Bronfman Professor in Social Studies of Medicine, Emerita, Dept. of Social Studies of Medicine, McGill University, will be taking place on October 24th.

This lecture has been convened by Dr Sahra Gibbon to form part of UCL’s Festival of Ageing and is supported by UCL Science Medicine and Society Network and UCL Anthropology.

The event is free (you can register here) and will be taking place from 6:00-7:30 PM in Gordon Square, London. For more details about the event itself, click here or email

lock_alzheimer11111Alzheimer’s disease is increasingly described today as an epidemic, with estimates of 115 million cases worldwide by 2050. Less visible are the ongoing epistemological arguments in the medical world about the observed entanglements of AD type dementia with “normal” aging, and the repeated efforts to delineate what exactly constitutes this elusive yet devastating condition. In early 2011 official statements appeared in relevant medical journals about a so-called paradigm shift involving a move towards a preventative approach to AD in which the detection of biomarkers indicative of prodromal Alzheimer’s disease is central. In this talk I will discuss the significance of risk predictions associated with such biomarkers, and the irresolvable uncertainties such information raises for involved individuals and families.


Q&A with Douglas Stone, Author of “Einstein and the Quantum”

Einstein and the QuantumA. Douglas Stone is the Carl A. Morse Professor of Applied Physics and Physics at Yale University. His book, Einstein and the Quantum: The Quest of the Valiant Swabian, reveals for the first time the full significance of Albert Einstein’s contributions to quantum theory. Einstein famously rejected quantum mechanics, observing that God does not play dice. But, in fact, he thought more about the nature of atoms, molecules, and the emission and absorption of light–the core of what we now know as quantum theory–than he did about relativity.

In a recent interview, A. Douglas Stone talked about Einstein’s contributions to the scientific community, quantum theory, and his new book, Einstein and the Quantum: The Quest of the Valiant Swabian.

Why does quantum theory matter?
At the beginning of the 20th century science was facing a fundamental roadblock: scientists did not understand the laws governing the atoms and molecules of which all materials are made, but which are unobservable due to their size.

At that time there was a real question whether the human mind was capable of understanding this microscopic realm, outside of all our direct experience of the world.  The development and success of quantum theory was a turning point for modern civilization, enabling most of the scientific advances and revolutionary technologies of the century that followed.

What are some of the ways that quantum theory has changed our lives?
There is a common misconception that quantum mechanics is mainly about very weird phenomena, remote from everyday life, such as Schrodinger’s cat, exotic sub-atomic particles, black holes, or the Big Bang.  Actually it is a precise quantitative tool to understand the materials, chemical reactions and devices we employ in modern industries, such as semiconductors, solar cells, and lasers.  An early success of the quantum theory was to help predict how to extract ammonia from the air, which could then be used as fertilizer for the green revolution that revolutionized 20th century agriculture. And of course our ability to develop both nuclear weapons and nuclear power was completely dependent upon quantum theory.

Why is Einstein’s role in quantum theory important and interesting?
It is important because a careful examination of the historical record shows that Einstein was responsible for more of the fundamental new concepts of the theory than any other single scientist.  This is arguably his greatest scientific legacy, despite his fame for Relativity Theory.  He himself said, “I have thought a hundred times more about the quantum problems than I have about Relativity Theory”. It is interesting because he ultimately refused to accept quantum theory as the ultimate truth about Nature, because it violated his core philosophical principles.

So you are saying that Einstein is famous for the wrong theory?
In a certain sense, yes.  All physicists agree that the theory of relativity, particularly general relativity, is a work of staggering individual genius.  But in terms of impact on human society and history, quantum mechanics is simply much more important.  In fact, relativity theory is incorporated into important parts of modern quantum mechanics, but in many contexts it is irrelevant.

In what ways was Einstein central to the development of the theory?
I estimate that his contributions to quantum theory would have been worthy of four Nobel Prizes if different scientists had done them, compared to the one that he received. I go through each of these contributions in its historical and biographical context in the book.

Can you give a few examples?
Quantum theory gets its name because it says that certain physical quantities, including the energies of electrons bound to atomic nuclei are quantized, meaning that only certain energies are allowed, whereas in macroscopic physics energy is a continuously varying quantity.  Typically the German physicist, Max Planck, is credited with the insight that energy must be quantized at the molecular scale, but the detailed history shows Einstein role in this conceptual breakthrough was greater.
Another key thing in quantum theory is that fundamental particles, while they move in space, sometimes behave as if they were spread out, like a wave in water, but in other contexts they appear as particles, i.e. very localized point-like objects.  Einstein introduced this “wave-particle duality” first, in 1905 (his “miracle year”), when he proposed that light, long thought to be an electromagnetic wave, also could behave like a particle, now known as the photon.
Yet another, very unusual concept in quantum theory is that fundamental particles, such as photons, are “indistinguishable” in a technical sense.  When many photons are bunched together it makes no sense to ask which is which.  This changes their physical properties in a very important way, and this insight is often attributed to the Indian physicist, S. N. Bose (hence the term “boson”).  In my view Einstein played a larger role in this advance than did Bose, although he always very generously gave Bose a great deal of credit.
The stories of these and other findings are fully told in the book and they illustrate new aspects of Einstein’s genius, unknown to the public and even to many working scientists.

What did Einstein object to about quantum theory?
Initially he reacted strongly against the intrinsic randomness and uncertainty of quantum mechanics, saying “God does not play dice”.  But after that his main objection was that quantum theory seems to break down the distinction between the subjective world of human experience and the objective description of physical reality that he considered the goal of physics, and his central mission in life. Many physicists struggle with this issue even today.

Why is Einstein’s role in quantum theory underappreciated?
Einstein ultimately rejected the theory and moved on to other areas of research, so he never emphasized the extent of his contributions.  His own autobiographical notes, written in his seventies, understate his role to an almost laughable degree. Second, Einstein’s version of quantum theory, wave mechanics, did not create a school of followers, whereas Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and others reached the same point be a different route. Their school fostered the primary research thrust in atomic and nuclear physics, gradually causing the memory of Einstein’s role to fade.  Finally, the history of Einstein’s involvement with quantum theory was long (1905-1925) and complex, and few people really understand it all; I try to remedy that in this book.

Did Einstein do anything important in quantum physics after the basic theory was known?
No and yes.  He did not work in the main stream of elementary particle physics which developed shortly after the basic theory was discovered in the late nineteen twenties, since he refused to employ the standard mathematical machinery of quantum theory which everyone else used.  However, in the early 1930’s he identified a conceptual feature of quantum theory missed by all the other pioneers, which became known by the term “entanglement”. This concept, ironically, is critical to the most revolutionary area of modern quantum physics, quantum information theory and quantum computing.

What does the subtitle of the book refer to? Who is the “Valiant Swabian”?
The Valiant Swabian was a fictional crusader knight, the hero of a poem by Ludwig Uhland, a poet from Swabia where Einstein was born. In his twenties, Einstein used to refer to himself jokingly by this name, particularly with his first wife, Mileva Maric.  It was a similar to someone today calling himself “Indiana Jones” for fun.  The young Einstein was a charismatic and memorable personality, with great joie de vivre, as this nickname indicates.  He was known for his sense of humor, his rebelliousness, and for his attractiveness to women, in contrast to the benevolent, grandfatherly, star-gazer we associate with iconic pictures of the white-maned sage of later years.

How did you research this book? What materials did you have access to?
There is a very extensive trove of letters and private papers that survive in Einstein’s estate, all of which have been translated and published for the period 1886 to 1922.  From reading all of these I got a good sense of his personality.  And all of his important scientific papers in the relevant time period are available in English now, so I was able to go back and see exactly how he arrived at his revolutionary ideas about quantum theory, which I then did my best to interpret in layman’s terms. In addition I relied on several excellent biographies by Folsing, Isaacson and Pais, and historical articles by many leading historians of science, such as T.S. Kuhn and Martin Klein.

What do you hope readers take away from reading Einstein and the Quantum?
First, new insight into Einstein’s genius, and a sense of the personality of the young Einstein, before his fame. Second, appreciation of the historic significance of the successful attempt to understand the atom through quantum theory, a turning point in human civilization. Third, an understanding of how science advances as a creative, human process, with both brilliant insights and embarrassing blunders, affected by psychological and philosophical influences.

BOOK FACT FRIDAY – Trigonometric Delights

BOOK FACT excerpted from Trigonometric Delights by Eli Maor:

It is no coincidence that trigonometry up until the sixteenth century was developed mainly by astronomers. Aristarchus and Hipparchus, who founded trigonometry as a distinct branch of mathematics, were astronomers, as was Ptolemy, the author of the Almagest. During the Middle Ages, Arab and Hindu astronomers, notably Abul-Wefa, al-Battani, Aryabhata, and Ulugh Beg of Samarkand (1393-1449), absorbed the Greek mathematical heritage and greatly expanded it, especially in spherical trigonometry. And when this combined heritage was passed on to Europe, it was again an astronomer who was at the forefront: Johann Muller, known as Regiomontanus.

Regiomontanus was the first publisher of mathematical and astronomical books for commercial use. In 1474 he printed his Ephemerides, tables listing the position of the sun, moon, and planets for each day from 1475 to 1506. This work brought him great acclaim; Christopher Columbus had a copy of it on his fourth voyage to the New World and used it to predict the famous lunar eclipse of February 29, 1504. Regiomontanus’s most influential work was his De triangulis omnimodis (On triangles of every kind), a work in five parts (“books”) modeled after Euclid’s Elements. As he states in his introduction, Regiomontanus’s main goal in On Triangles was to provide a mathematical introduction to astronomy. Regiomontanus completed writing On Triangles in 1464, but it was not published until 1533, more than half a century after his death.

We are pleased to announce a new paperback edition is now available:
Trigonometric Delights
by Eli Maor

Trigonometry has always been an underappreciated branch of mathematics. It has a reputation as a dry and difficult subject, a glorified form of geometry complicated by tedious computation. In this book, Eli Maor draws on his remarkable talents as a guide to the world of numbers to dispel that view. Rejecting the usual arid descriptions of sine, cosine, and their trigonometric relatives, he brings the subject to life in a compelling blend of history, biography, and mathematics. He presents both a survey of the main elements of trigonometry and a unique account of its vital contribution to science and social development. Woven together in a tapestry of entertaining stories, scientific curiosities, and educational insights, the book more than lives up to the title Trigonometric Delights.

Maor also sketches the lives of some of the intriguing figures who have shaped four thousand years of trigonometric history. We meet, for instance, the Renaissance scholar Regiomontanus, who is rumored to have been poisoned for insulting a colleague, and Maria Agnesi, an eighteenth-century Italian genius who gave up mathematics to work with the poor–but not before she investigated a special curve that, due to mistranslation, bears the unfortunate name “the witch of Agnesi.” The book is richly illustrated, including rare prints from the author’s own collection. Trigonometric Delights will change forever our view of a once dreaded subject.

Eli Maor teaches the history of mathematics at Loyola University in Chicago. He is the author of To Infinity and Beyond, e: The Story of a Number, Venus in Transit, and The Pythagorean Theorem: A 4,000-Year History.

Interview: How to Build a Habitable Planet author Charles H. Langmuir explains How to Build a Comprehensible Publication

1) The original edition of “How to Build a Habitable Planet,” written and published by Wally Broecker in 1985, is a legend within the university community for both its unusual breadth and clarity.  One of the first books on the Earth system, it did something very new by weaving together many fields that were traditionally kept separate — physics, chemistry, astronomy, all the Earth sciences, and biology — into one, jargon-free narrative.  What was the original inspiration behind the writing of this unusual book?


The growing interest in what NASA referred to as habitability.

2)  Since publication, this book been used more and more widely within introductory Geology and Earth Science courses, even inspiring courses built around the structure and contents of the book, entitled “How to Build a Habitable Planet.”  Did Broecker originally intend for the book to be used within courses?  What about this book makes it so ideal for course use?


The book breaks with the tradition of teaching Earth science as a collection of sub-disciplines—minerals, rocks, volcanoes, glaciers, plate tectonics, etc.  Instead, we try to have the reader learn where he or she comes from and how human beings are a consequence of an entire history beginning with the Big Bang.  So, the book combines the traditional “physical geology” and “historical geology” approaches and includes material from both of them in the context of the overall story of Earth’s evolution, its connection to the rise of Homo sapiens, and our influence and potential role on the planet.  Another aspect is the central role that biology plays in Earth’s evolution, and the importance of the interactions between all aspects of Earth, its interior, exterior, life and the cosmos.


3)  Charles Langmuir: You teach a course at Harvard – called, “How to Build a Habitable Planet.”  How did you originally start using the book in your course?  What is the background of the students in your course, and how many students does your course typically attract each year?  What do you hope your students will take away from taking your course and reading this book?


I started teaching the course, because I was working on the new version of the book.  I used draft chapters in the course and, through teaching it each year, the subject stayed alive.  I also saw what material engaged the students, and what material seemed tedious to them.  The Harvard course is a general education course — one that is designed for the non-science major.  Science majors find the course easy.  People who have not taken any science course for years can find it challenging. In my view every college student – actually, every educated human being – should know the essential elements of the story of the Earth and where we come from.  How can we engage effectively as modern citizens without such knowledge?  We do not necessarily need to know that glaciers make u-shaped valleys and rivers make v-shaped valleys, cool as that is; but, we do need to know where we come from and how we got here, and the implications that has for our planet. I hope that the students will be able to explain to their friends and family how we know the Big Bang is true, why plate tectonics and evolution are facts as well as theory, and the unique place that human beings occupy in human history – possibly marking the beginning of a new eon of geological time, should we survive that long.


The course at Harvard has 60 students in it this year. That, to me, is an ideal size, as it is possible to interact with the students on a personal basis and, at the same time, reach a group of significant size.


4)  A few years ago, you (Charles Langmuir and Wally Broecker) began collaborating on a newly revised and expanded edition of “How to Build a Habitable Planet.”  How did the idea for this collaboration and revision come about?


Wally pointed out that despite the book’s title, the book had no biology in it, and was weak in terms of its treatment of the solid earth.  I had been teaching half of a one semester course in introductory geology at Columbia using parts of the original book, so Wally asked me if I would like to add a couple of chapters to the original book, on plate tectonics and the origin of life.  I knew nothing about the origin of life, but loved the original edition and decided to take it on.   I then started to learn much more about many aspects of earth evolution, and the book gradually grew to its current size, as I realized that evolution, the rise of oxygen, and the recent work on the discovery of extra-solar planets all needed to be included, as well as the origin of life and more on Earth’s interior.


5) Why did you feel that a new edition was needed?  How is the new edition different from the original edition?


The new edition is far more comprehensive, with more than twice the number of chapters of the original edition.  Life is now central to the book, and the origin of life, evolution, the transformation of Earth’s exterior by life, and the connections among life, the solid Earth, atmosphere, ocean and cosmos are now a pervasive theme throughout the book.   Ocean ridges, convergent margins, mantle convection and the plate tectonic geochemical cycle are also major new additions.  All of the chapters, of course, are almost entirely rewritten to reflect the astounding growth in knowledge and understanding that has occurred over the last twenty-five years.


6) One of the later chapters of the book is called “Mankind at the Helm.”  How do you feel that the book informs new readers about the state of the art of climate science, and what the fate and role of our species is on our habitable planet, Earth?


We attempt to pose this problem in the context of our overall understanding of our planet. As a species, we are transforming the planet at a rate as fast or faster than many of the great era and eon boundaries of the past, and this is happening within our lifetimes.  It is astounding.  It is all made possible by our access to “Earth’s treasure chest,” which was gradually built up over billions of years of planetary history.  At the same time, a planet with intelligent life and civilization on it is a very different “being” than a planet without such capability.  For the first time there is the possibility of monitoring and understanding planetary systems, communicating with other intelligent life, should it exist, and transforming many planetary processes, including evolution and climate.


For climate science, we try to put the current situation in a larger context. It is not just that CO2 is rising, but that the rate of change is far faster then glacial to interglacial transitions, and that human emissions are several hundred times the emissions of volcanoes, which have been a major control on climate modulation over Earth history.  And Earth makes new oil at the rate that one gas station pumps gas.  We are using up hundreds of millions of years of Earth’s fossil fuel production in a few centuries.   These kinds of simple facts put the enormity of human actions in a different context than saying that CO2 is going up in the atmosphere by a few ppm per year and what the consequences are of that.


7)  You also write about planetary evolution and the role of extinctions and catastrophes in the history of a planet.  What are some of the ways in which catastrophes have affected our planet’s evolution in its history?


Catastrophes driving from Earth’s interior, the cosmos, and possibly life and climate have been a central aspect of Earth’s evolution.  Catastrophes interact with evolution in important ways, clearing out the ecospace so that new evolutionary innovations can flourish. Snowball Earth episodes may be related to the rise of oxygen.  Most mass extinctions seem to be associated with massive volcanism stemming from the core mantle boundary, and some associated with meteorite impacts.  Catastrophes are often at the same time disasters and opportunities.  The rise of oxygen can be viewed in the same way.  It was a toxic pollutant for anaerobic organisms, and is intrinsically harmful to organic matter, which breaks down in the presence of oxygen.  But, it also held the potential for an energy revolution in metabolism that permitted aerobic organisms and ultimately the rise of multi-cellular life.  It is important not to be naïve about change.  Change is inevitable.  It can be both crisis and opportunity.


8)  Some say that we are in the midst of a “6th extinction” event, largely caused by humans.  Do you think that there is evidence for this view?


Yes.  In the book we look at extinctions in terms of the “half-life” of organisms.  Looked at in that way, there is an objective assessment of whether the current extinction rate is unusual or not in a planetary context.  Life changes rapidly—there is almost complete species turnover in about 43 million years, based on the geological record. Human beings have accelerated extinction rates by ten thousand times relative to the background level that can be quantified for the Phanerozoic. If emergence of new species had been similarly accelerated, some 20% of Earth species would be new in the past two centuries.  This shows the magnitude of the human influence.  Mass extinctions of the past cannot be constrained to less than a few hundred thousand years.  We may be in the midst of one of the most rapid mass extinctions in planetary history; but, of course, it is not yet complete.  There is the possibility for us to preserve much of the biodiversity of the planet, but that seems unlikely without a major change in human behavior.


9)  Another of your chapters, entitled “Are We Alone?,” speaks to the fact that ~ 700 extrasolar planets have been discovered since the original edition was published.  What are some of the ways in which studying other planets and seeking other habitable worlds informs our understanding of our own planet’s climate and evolution?


Of course, this is one of the most exciting developments of modern science.  The discoveries to date have been constrained by the methods to exclude truly Earth-like planets (not only in terms of size, but also distance from their star), but that will change in coming years.  Perhaps the most exciting development will be if evidence is found for life anywhere else.  If it is, then life is pervasive throughout the universe.  It is very hard to know whether life is a natural, pervasive planetary process, or whether unique aspects of Earth’s history permitted it—right habitable zone in the galaxy, right habitable zone around a star, just the right volatile budget, a large moon, and so on.  But, if we find life any one other place, and we can only look at less than one in a billion places, then life is essentially everywhere.


The other important aspect is all the strange solar systems being discovered, so different from our own, greatly expand our understanding and imagination concerning life elsewhere.


10)  Since the original edition was so widely read, you must have heard stories from readers, about the effect that the book had on them.  Could you share one such story?  What effect do you hope this new edition of this classic book will have on its readers?

The most heartening comments are ones I commonly hear at the end of the course or in the evaluations, such as “I never knew science could be so interesting” or “Everyone should know this stuff!”  Just yesterday in office hours, one student said to me that she had been tutoring elementary school children, and they asked where the moon came from.  She told them about the giant impact theory, and she said the children’s eyes opened wide, and they became animated, asking all kinds of questions. One of them said, “Oh dear, what happened to all the people?”  To me, this reflected our natural human interest in our planet and where we come from, and the innate concern that is there within us, often submerged, for our fellow human beings.  In those two aspects of our nature, present in children, latent in all of us, may be a hope for the future.



bookjacket   How to Build a Habitable Planet:
The Story of Earth from the Big Bang to Humankind (Revised and Expanded Edition)

Charles H. Langmuir & Wally Broecker

Since its first publication more than twenty-five years ago, How to Build a Habitable Planet has established a legendary reputation as an accessible yet scientifically impeccable introduction to the origin and evolution of Earth, from the Big Bang through the rise of human civilization. This classic account of how our habitable planet was assembled from the stuff of stars introduced readers to planetary, Earth, and climate science by way of a fascinating narrative. Now this great book has been made even better. Harvard geochemist Charles Langmuir has worked closely with the original author, Wally Broecker, one of the world’s leading Earth scientists, to revise and expand the book for a new generation of readers for whom active planetary stewardship is becoming imperative.

“To be worth being this unwieldy, a book ought to do something pretty remarkable. And that’s just what How to Build . . . does, as you can tell from its subtitle, The Story of Earth from the Big Bang to Humankind. Now that’s what you call a large canvas.”–Brian Clegg, Popular Science

Harvard Professor of Geochemistry Charles Langmuir celebrates the revised edition of the book that has introduced generations of readers to the science of Earth’s origin and evolution

“Life evolves in relationship with the planet, and progressively modifies it to form a single integrated system.”–Charles Langmuir

View the video from its original source at Harvard Museum of Natural History’s website:


How to Build a Habitable Planet:
The Story of Earth from the Big Bang to Humankind (Revised and Expanded Edition)


Charles H. Langmuir & Wally Broecker

Since its first publication more than twenty-five years ago, How to Build a Habitable Planet has established a legendary reputation as an accessible yet scientifically impeccable introduction to the origin and evolution of Earth, from the Big Bang through the rise of human civilization. This classic account of how our habitable planet was assembled from the stuff of stars introduced readers to planetary, Earth, and climate science by way of a fascinating narrative. Now this great book has been made even better. Harvard geochemist Charles Langmuir has worked closely with the original author, Wally Broecker, one of the world’s leading Earth scientists, to revise and expand the book for a new generation of readers for whom active planetary stewardship is becoming imperative.

“To be worth being this unwieldy, a book ought to do something pretty remarkable. And that’s just what How to Build . . . does, as you can tell from its subtitle, The Story of Earth from the Big Bang to Humankind. Now that’s what you call a large canvas.”–Brian Clegg, Popular Science


FACT: “No sooner did the Tacoma Narrows Bridge—the world’s third longest suspension bridge, and the pride of Washington State—open in July 1940 than it earned its epitaphic nickname, “Galloping Gertie.” The 4,000-foot structure, its main span reaching 2,800 feet, twisted and bucked in the wind. The pronounced heave, or more technically speaking the longitudinal undulation, caused some automobile passengers to complain of seasickness during crossings. Others observed oncoming cars disappearing from sight as if traveling a hilly country road. By November 7, amid 39-mile-an-hour winds, the $6,400,000 bridge wobbled and flailed, then rippled and rolled, then twisted like a roller coaster, until in its final throes it plunged, with a beastly roar, 190 feet into the waters of Puget Sound.” -Siobhan Roberts, from chapter 1 of Wind Wizard

We invite you to read the full chapter online at:

Wind Wizard:
Alan G. Davenport and the Art of Wind Engineering

by Siobhan Roberts

With Wind Wizard, Siobhan Roberts brings us the story of Alan Davenport (1932-2009), the father of modern wind engineering, who investigated how wind navigates the obstacle course of the earth’s natural and built environments–and how, when not properly heeded, wind causes buildings and bridges to teeter unduly, sway with abandon, and even collapse.

In 1964, Davenport received a confidential telephone call from two engineers requesting tests on a pair of towers that promised to be the tallest in the world. His resulting wind studies on New York’s World Trade Center advanced the art and science of wind engineering with one pioneering innovation after another. Establishing the first dedicated “boundary layer” wind tunnel laboratory for civil engineering structures, Davenport enabled the study of the atmospheric region from the earth’s surface to three thousand feet, where the air churns with turbulent eddies, the average wind speed increasing with height. The boundary layer wind tunnel mimics these windy marbled striations in order to test models of buildings and bridges that inevitably face the wind when built. Over the years, Davenport’s revolutionary lab investigated and improved the wind-worthiness of the world’s greatest structures, including the Sears Tower, the John Hancock Tower, Shanghai’s World Financial Center, the CN Tower, the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, the Sunshine Skyway, and the proposed crossing for the Strait of Messina, linking Sicily with mainland Italy.

Chronicling Davenport’s innovations by analyzing select projects, this popular-science book gives an illuminating behind-the-scenes view into the practice of wind engineering, and insight into Davenport’s steadfast belief that there is neither a structure too tall nor too long, as long as it is supported by sound wind science.

Remember Romney’s Dog?

Of course you do. You could probably refresh your memory of the story in a few clicks. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is the author of Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, which argues that the all-too-perfect memory of the digital realm has serious implications for all of us. Case in point: Just last week, Mitt Romney suffered a setback at the hands of a certain widely released fundraiser video. It’s a familiar story. Politicians and public figures have suffered countless humiliations courtesy of cyberspace’s refusal to let bygones be bygones, a comeuppance that can seem unfair when the result can mean an entire career of public service cancelled out by one all-too-visible error in judgment (or tweet). Perhaps with so much of life digitally preserved,  mankind can learn to adjust and filter accordingly?  Read Schönberger’s Election 101 post here.


Remembering Romney’s Dog

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger


Mitt Romney’s dog, tied to the roof of the family car during a long vacation drive, is one picture (even if only imagined, based on the light-hearted story told by Romney’s son) that fails to fade. A year ago, aspiring young Democratic Congressmen Anthony Weiner, married to Hilary Clinton’s long-time personal aide abruptly resigned; he had sent partially nude digital pictures of himself together with explicit messages to at least six women he barely knew.

This election cycle is no different from the last. Stories and pictures from a politician’s past appear and shape our perceptions of who he (or she) is. And these images don’t go away, they stay in our collective mind, and no matter how hard politicians try, these images continue to define them in the public eye. At best they go away when the politician does. Rep. Weiner’s images have faded from the public eye, because so has he.

With so much of our daily lives captured digitally, so many digital photos taken, so many billions of emails exchanged, Tweets sent, Facebook Status messages posted, many of the digerati, the self-proclaimed Internet experts, predicted that humans would swiftly adjust to comprehensive digital memory, and develop robust cognitive filters. We would, the argument went, simply disregard the meme of Romney’s dog or Weiner’s explicit messages as an irrelevant little piece of digital trivia that is not representative of Governor Romney or Representative Weiner. If everyone has such skeletons in the closet, why should we bother? Wouldn’t we be better advised to scrutinize politicians’ agendas than their digital memories?

It’s an admirable viewpoint – and always struck me as terribly naïve. For one, not all of us strap our dogs to car roofs for long rides, or send sexually explicit messages to people we barely know. And the ubiquity of digital cameras (and the ease of sharing photos) does not turn us into Exhibitionists or Peeping Toms. But even more importantly, human cognition is primed to remember the exceptional, and to forget the ordinary. That is how we think. For thousands of years it helped us to quickly recognize changed conditions; it made us aware of dangers and saved our ancestor’s (and perhaps our) lives. We have this particular ability to see the red rose in a field full of yellow tulips – and that rose is what we later remember in detail, not the thousands of tulips around it. Because we recognize and remember exceptions, we can’t quickly forget Romney’s dog and Weiner’s explicit messages, even if we wanted to.

Thus, if more of our lives is captured digitally, preserved, and kept accessible, neither politicians nor we ourselves can hope for a cognitive adjustment that lets us put aside extraordinary bits of the past.

In politics this means that we may continue to remember Romney’s dog as much (or more) as his political agenda, even though that’s not how most of us like to see ourselves: rational and objective. It does not only complicate a politician’s life (she has to assume to be constantly watched), it also makes politics an unattractive career. That is troubling for a democracy.

But retaining an ability to forget in the digital age is important not just for democracy, but for all of us. We all have trespassed in the past, and unlike in the analog age these misdeeds are more frequently captured digitally now, and preserved long-term. It may be time to think how we best can rid ourselves of some of these digital memories that are no longer relevant to who we are today.

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is professor of internet governance and regulation at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, and a member of the academic advisory board of Microsoft. His other books include Governance and Information Technology. A former software developer and lawyer, he spent ten years on the faculty of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein captures his journey to the Far East while dealing with the consequences of celebrity in turbulent political times — PUBLICATION DAY

Volume 13: The Berlin Years: Writings
& Correspondence, January 1922—March 1923, Documentary Edition

Edited by Diana Kormos Buchwald, József Illy, Ze’ev Rosenkranz, & Tilman Sauer

Princeton University Press, the Einstein Papers Project at California Institute of Technology, and the Albert
Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
, are pleased to be publishing the latest volume in the massively authoritative Einstein Papers Project THE COLLECTED PAPERS OF ALBERT EINSTEIN: Volume 13: The Berlin Years: Writings & Correspondence, January 1922—March 23, Documentary Edition on September 25, 2012.  When in the fall of 1922 it was announced that Albert Einstein had won the Nobel Prize in Physics, after more than a decade of nominations, Einstein was on a steamer headed for Japan. Although he was unofficially made aware of the upcoming award, he decided to leave Berlin, and makes no mention of the award in his detailed and poetic Travel Diary of his trip to the Far East, Palestine, and Spain, published here in its entirety for the first time. Together with a correspondence of 1,000 letters—most of which were never published before—with numerous colleagues, friends, and family members, the volume presents a rich trove of documents, central to understanding this period in Einstein’s life and work, heavily marked by the assassination of Germany’s foreign minister, his friend Walther Rathenau. As Einstein himself professed, the trip was an escape from the tense atmosphere in Berlin and rumored threats against his own life, as well as the fulfillment of his long-held desire to visit Japan.

Aside from his personal and political activities documented here, among which are his visit to Paris and his involvement in the League of Nations, Einstein was still heavily engaged in major current issues in theoretical physics. Thus, from among the thirty-six writings covering these fifteen months, a paper on the Stern-Gerlach experiment, written with Paul Ehrenfest, shows with uncompromising clarity that the experiment posed a problem that could not be solved by contemporary quantum theory and anticipates, in a sense, what later would become known as the quantum measurement problem.  In relativity theory, Einstein continued to be concerned with its cosmological implications, and with the extent to which Mach’s principle would be vindicated in special solutions.  He also began to investigate the possibilities and restrictions that relativity implied for a unified field theory of the gravitational and electromagnetic fields.  During periods of leisure on board the steamer on his return trip from Japan, he completed a paper which further developed Arthur S. Eddington’s recent reinterpretation of relativity as being based solely on the concept of the so-called affine connection.


Diana Kormos Buchwald, General Editor

THE COLLECTED PAPERS OF ALBERT EINSTEIN is one of the most ambitious publishing ventures ever undertaken in the documentation of the history of science.  Selected from among more than 40,000 documents contained in the personal collection of Albert Einstein (1879-1955), and 20,000 Einstein and Einstein-related documents discovered by the editors since the beginning of the Einstein Papers Project,  The Collected Papers will provide the first complete picture of a massive written legacy that ranges from Einstein’s first work on the special and general theories of relativity and the origins of quantum theory, to expressions of his profound concern with international cooperation and reconciliation, civil liberties, education, Zionism, pacifism, and disarmament.  The series will contain over 14,000 documents and will fill close to thirty volumes.  Sponsored by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Princeton University Press, the project is located at and supported by the California Institute of Technology, and will make available a monumental collection of primary material. The Albert Einstein Archives is located at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


Thirteen volumes covering Einstein’s life and work up to his forty-fourth birthday have so far been published. They present more than 300 writings and 5,000 letters written by and to Einstein. Every document in The Collected Papers appears in the language in which it was written, while the introduction, headnotes, footnotes, and other scholarly apparatus is in English.  Upon release of each volume, Princeton University Press also publishes an English translation of previously untranslated non-English documents.

About the Editors:
At the California Institute of Technology, Diana Kormos Buchwald is professor of history; József Illy, Ze’ev Rosenkranz, and Tilman Sauer are senior researchers in history

Dana Mackenzie gets the school year started…


It’s back to school time, and today is triple maths. Dana Mackenzie, author of The Universe in Zero Words: The Story of Mathematics as Told through Equations shares his knowledge of maths and the history of maths in three little podcasts by RTE Lyric FM Culture File.



FACT: “When water boils, the liquid is converted into gas. This requires a great deal of energy—the energy of vaporization. While to heat one gram of water by one degree takes one calorie, to convert that gram of water to gas takes 539 calories.”

How to Build a Habitable Planet:
The Story of Earth from the Big Bang to Humankind
(Revised and Expanded Edition)

by Charles H. Langmuir & Wally Broecker

Since its first publication more than twenty-five years ago, How to Build a Habitable Planet has established a legendary reputation as an accessible yet scientifically impeccable introduction to the origin and evolution of Earth, from the Big Bang through the rise of human civilization. This classic account of how our habitable planet was assembled from the stuff of stars introduced readers to planetary, Earth, and climate science by way of a fascinating narrative. Now this great book has been made even better. Harvard geochemist Charles Langmuir has worked closely with the original author, Wally Broecker, one of the world’s leading Earth scientists, to revise and expand the book for a new generation of readers for whom active planetary stewardship is becoming imperative.

Interweaving physics, astronomy, chemistry, geology, and biology, this sweeping account tells Earth’s complete story, from the synthesis of chemical elements in stars, to the formation of the Solar System, to the evolution of a habitable climate on Earth, to the origin of life and humankind. The book also addresses the search for other habitable worlds in the Milky Way and contemplates whether Earth will remain habitable as our influence on global climate grows. It concludes by considering the ways in which humankind can sustain Earth’s habitability and perhaps even participate in further planetary evolution.

Like no other book, How to Build a Habitable Planet provides an understanding of Earth in its broadest context, as well as a greater appreciation of its possibly rare ability to sustain life over geologic time.

We invite you to read Chapter 1 here:

This Week’s Book Giveaway

Are you following PUP on Google+ yet? If not, today’s the day to add us to your circle—we’re hosting another giveaway this week! Follow us by Friday to win!

Alan Turing: The Enigma
The Centenary Edition

by Andrew Hodges
With a foreword by Douglas Hofstadter
and a new preface by the author

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the British mathematician Alan Turing (1912-1954) saved the Allies from the Nazis, invented the computer and artificial intelligence, and anticipated gay liberation by decades—all before his suicide at age forty-one. This classic biography of the founder of computer science, reissued on the centenary of his birth with a substantial new preface by the author, is the definitive account of an extraordinary mind and life. A gripping story of mathematics, computers, cryptography, and homosexual persecution, Andrew Hodges’s acclaimed book captures both the inner and outer drama of Turing’s life.

Hodges tells how Turing’s revolutionary idea of 1936—the concept of a universal machine—laid the foundation for the modern computer and how Turing brought the idea to practical realization in 1945 with his electronic design. The book also tells how this work was directly related to Turing’s leading role in breaking the German Enigma ciphers during World War II, a scientific triumph that was critical to Allied victory in the Atlantic. At the same time, this is the tragic story of a man who, despite his wartime service, was eventually arrested, stripped of his security clearance, and forced to undergo a humiliating treatment program—all for trying to live honestly in a society that defined homosexuality as a crime.

“One of the finest scientific biographies ever written.”—Jim Holt, New Yorker

“A first-class contribution to history and an exemplary work of biography.”—I. J. Good, Nature

The random draw for this book with be Friday 6/29 at 11 am EST. Be sure to check out our Google+ page and add us to your circle to be entered to win!

W. Patrick McCray, author of our forthcoming book THE VISIONEERS, on Elon Musk and SpaceX for

Over the weekend, published a wonderful opinion piece by University of California-Santa Barbara science historian W. Patrick McCray on the fascinating “visioneer” Elon Musk and his successful launch and docking with the International Space Station last month.

We are publishing Professor McCray’s forthcoming book THE VISIONEERS: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future in January 2013 and one of the main characters of the book, Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill, is compared to Musk in the piece.  Enjoy!

Recently, technology enthusiasts around the planet had the opportunity to get better acquainted with Elon Musk, the creator of SpaceX, the first privately owned company to send a spacecraft to the space station.

Launched in the same manner as a Silicon Valley startup, SpaceX designed and manufactured the Dragon capsule, which successfully completed a mission with the International Space Station before splashing down into the Pacific Ocean.

I see Musk, a 40-year-old entrepreneur who made his fortune by co-founding PayPal, as a “visioneer.” That is to say, he is someone who combines scientific and engineering prowess — in his case, a degree in physics — with an expansive view of how technology will upend traditional economic models, and has the ability to inspire others to support his work.

Musk has bold visions for the future. When he finished college, he identified three areas that could change the world. One was the Internet; another was new sources of energy; and the third was transforming our civilization in such a way so that it could expand out into the solar system….

To read the entire article on, please click on this link.