Well, it’s time for me to get back on the book and science lecture review wagon! I’ve been working more on short stories and my interactive multimedia book series, Light 2.0, and have neglected writing about the nonfiction and real life learning going on in my world.
Over the next weeks, I’ll write about a great new book I am reading, Listen Liberal, by Thomas Frank (Of What’s Up With Kansas fame), and a fun lecture about how JPL/NASA scientists are modeling climbing robots after geckos! (who knew??), and an eye openening lecture at Caltech last week that surprisingly pulled the Wizard’s curtain on microloans. I might even make mention of some comments Kenny Loggins (of Loggins and Messina and House at Pooh Corner fame) made about the state of being a musician in the US; recently I heard him speak and perform at Pasadena’s Vromans’ Books when he came to introduce his new children’s book and song, Footloose.
Want to know about fracking beyond the word? This link will take to to a book purchase and $9 of your cost will support progressive news site Truthout.org :
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is perilous to human health and terrible for the environment, and we have the ability to stop it. Mark Ruffalo calls Wenonah Hauter’s Frackopoly “the definitive story on how big oil and gas corporations captured our political system and schemed to frack America—and the growing grassroots movement to retake our democracy and protect our planet.”
It can be difficult for a feminist woman to look back at the sexism and gender inequality of history. It is even more difficult when one observes that history being told through the lens of a sexist and still unequal present. Trumbo throws us back to the days when the movie industry was dominated by men, the good women – like Trumbo’s wife Cleo – were mere obedient and martyred sidekicks, and the bad women, like Helen Mirrin’s portrayed Hedda Hopper, were shrews.
But times have changed, right? No, not much it seems. As the credits rolled, I read one male credit after another: writer, director, production designer, cinematographer, editor, composer, casting . . . . Yes, in 2015, just as in Trumbo’s 1950s, and for most of history since, all the lead people who made this film were men. I found it particularly interesting that even the couple of filmmaking roles often reserved for women (casting and costumes) in this movie were done by men.
It goes deeper. In 2015, as in so many of the movies and plays of US history, the roles for women were still the obedient wife (Cleo) and evil witch (Hedda Hopper). You might ask, “Wasn’t it just reflecting history?” As a matter of fact, one critic even referred to this movie as “educational.” But, no, this movie did not reflect history, it is a Hollywood male rewrite of history. While Hedda Hopper udoubtedly played a role in the ambushing of Hollywood creatives by the Sen. Eugene McCarthy and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s communist witch hunt of the 1940s-60s, it was a minor role; those who are “educated” by this movie will come away believing that gossip columnist Hopper spearheaded the entire movement. Ultimately Trumbo serves to perpetuate the heroic male, witchy woman and martyred ingenue mythology that our society has managed to make a reality; feminist historians, anthropologists, and sociologists take note.
Yes, it was one of those science fan nights for me at Pasadena’s Caltech Beckman Auditorium last week. I’ve read most of Freeman Dyson’s books and for years have admired his sensible approach to science as well as his accomplishments and ideas. There really is something special about seeing someone you have long admired in person. My niece Tess will wait for hours in line to hear Beyonce perform. I waited four hours once to hear Stephen Hawking talk in Santa Monica – and yes, it was worth it (not to mention the interesting people I met in line waiting with me – for there is also something intoxicating about knowing the people around you all share something of importance to you).
What I had not picked up on from Dyson’s books was his fun sense of humor. When someone inquired about his concerns regarding communication loss once space travelers reach interstellar space, Dyson quipped that it might not be such a bad thing, considering that the tax collectors could not reach us out there.
Still, there was something eery about this evening’s presentations. We are in the midst of a terrible heat wave currently in Southern California. 106 today as I write this post. It was close to that the evening of this lecture. The discussion with a former astronaut, Dyson, and the Voyager Mission scientist, was about plans to send humans in search of life on far off planets – through interstellar space. How will we fund it, what needs to be done to get us to that point, who is working on what? But all the while I could not help but be reminded of my favorite essay (another mystery as I read it years ago and have never been able to find it since, don’t remember title, author, anything except the premise) which positioned a classical music lover treading water in the sea surrounding a sinking island which housed a chamber orchestra and attentive audience, water to their waists, refusing to budge out of politeness and denial as the island sank around them.
For it suddenly struck me as very odd that so many great scientists should be discussing how we are going to get to outer space when our own planet meanwhile is on fire. Now, I am sure some will say that we need people pursuing all sorts of ideas and plans if we are to move forward. But, as I said, it just struck me that we would be better off if all scientists, politicians, business people, citizens, artists, writers, everybody – would come together for a time to solve global warming, to get our own planet back on track, before we tackle any other big challenges. It seems that important. And to do otherwise, seems, well, arrogant and blind to reality.
Global warming is not somebody else’s business, we need all hands on deck, please.
Just because someone is a brilliant scientist, it does not necessarily follow that he/she is a brilliant anything-else. But our society misses this important fact time and time again. We turn to our premiere scientists, top technologists and successful businesspeople for their opinions on social issues. We ask them to speak at conferences on any number of topics unrelated to their fields of expertise. We call them when an important legislative issue is being deliberated, assuming that because they are so smart, they can help us.
The first time I started thinking about this was in 1998. I had just returned to Pasadena from Washington DC, where I set up an interactive media department in the then largest law firm in the United States. I am not sure exactly how or why I received an invitation to a luncheon at Caltech, where journalist and long-time presidential advisor David Gergen was scheduled to speak. But what I vividly remember was what David Gergen said about Microsofts’ Bill Gates during his speech.
Gergen had recently interviewed Gates, and admitted that he had been very excited about meeting and talking with the man many considered the smartest in the world. But, Gergen shared, he was stunned to discover that Bill Gates had less knowledge of social issues that any person he had interviewed in his entire career.
Think of that for a minute. This is the man who subsequently went on to start a foundation to save the world; the man who through his foundation is setting the world priorities for what gets fixed, and what does not. This is the man our legislators and news media call on all the time for his opinion about any myriad of topics: What does Bill Gates think of Net Neutrality? the Wars? Poverty? World Health? Education?
Yesterday I read in the New York Times how Gates has now teamed up with a history professor to rewrite the history taught in all our U.S. high school classes – after he took one course on history from Great Courses! Of course he loved that history course! Bill Gates was a college drop-out. He undoubtedly spent little academic time prior to college ruminating and studying anything more than computer science. This was probably his first actual exposure to history. And suddenly, because he is so smart, we think he should determine our country’s high school history curriculum? Oh, please.
Yesterday I sat out sipping an iced coffee at my favorite outdoor patio, and I listened to a Caltech astro-physicist telling his coffee companion all about what was the matter with this country: in a nutshell, he focused on the “illegals,” food stamps (“problem is you start a food stamp program and there is no going back”), welfare, etc. Case in point. And let me speculate here: all the while he trashed those who have immigrated to the U.S. from south of our border, one of those immigrants was meanwhile mowing his lawn back at home, and another vacuuming his house . . . . He may be the most brilliant astro physicist our country has (this is not actually an endorsement of his scientific acumen, I don’t know the man), but when it comes to social issues, he proved himself to me to be a socially uneducated racist bigot as I tried to eat my bagel sandwich and found myself quickly losing my appetite . . . . to be continued
Hi. Sorry for the long absence. I should have left a note . . . . Been super busy with writing my interactive multimedia iBook series, Light 2.0, and dealing with all the tasks of setting up a publishing business. I am blogging about that process on Facebook currently at https://www.facebook.com/Light2Point0 .
I will begin blogging here again but in shorter posts because this blog is important to me, too, and especially now that I am consulting with the cities of Glendale and Burbank, CA about how to get unemployed people trained for tech jobs and how to work with companies to help with upgrading their employees skills rather than laying them off or continuing to bring in foreign workers under H1 visas.
And, of course, I continue to read and thing about science, technology and the arts and have much to share in this arena. So, back with some thoughts soon.
Hi, I’m back and summer 2013 is a memory. I seem to always regret that I did not eat enough tomatoes and nectarines when the end of September rolls around!
I left you hanging at the Folding Party at Institute of Figuring in Los Angeles, and I will leave you hanging a bit more. I want to add some back-story here – in 2 posts. After that I will give you the conclusion of the Folding Party – as well as some thoughts to move forward with regarding the Institute and its goals. After that I will be sharing a story about another artist who is looking at the subject of those (in)famous psychological Rorschach tests with her art, Nicholette Kominos. And what about the Beginnings of Life story that I was exploring? Yes, we will talk more about that this fall, too!
Those of you who have followed my blog here for long know that the whole point of it is to explore the Arts and Sciences, and to show why both are of equal importance, and why they are dependent on each other, not exclusive of each other. You also know that I have a great concern about the denigration of art in our society and in our schools.
I’ve just completed an online course with Stanford University called Design Thinking. My classmates were primarily engineers, technologists and business people. The class was designed to help them start thinking more creatively. It was fascinating to talk to students from all over the world. And I found that it is not just the U.S. where the Arts have been eliminated; in fact, my classmate from India told me they have never had Arts in their schools.
It’s ironic that this Stanford class even exists. It exists because there is no art in the schools any longer. Or very little. And art serves important skill building purposes, as well as being of value in and of itself. Everyone needs the Arts – not just artists.
Because of this class, and the work I did in it (I am happy to report that I completed it “with distinction”), I am going to be adding another column to this blog shortly. That column will specifically address the need for Arts Education. That was my final project for the class – a prototype for arts education advocacy – which I highly recommend to any engineers, scientists, business people who are lacking in creative skills .
While researching my class projects, I happened upon a forum on artedsearch.org. There I joined a discussion about the value of Arts education, and ‘are the Arts valuable only if they help us learn some other subject, or do some other serious task?‘ (like how we hear lately that music education helps students with their math).
I received a few emailed questions to my post there about the need to research the value of Art for Arts sake. I will post my responses to those questions next. For, although I am happy to see some school administrators begin to see the importance of getting the Arts back into the schools, NO they should not be there only to SERVE the Sciences!
On first meeting, Margaret Wertheim impresses me as one who could keep a noncommittal face when confronted with surprising news – a demeanor useful to a poker player. Unlike can’t-keep-any-emotion-off-her-face me, who would make a terrible poker player were it not for the fact that I learned early in life to stay sober during a game.
Upon hearing me disclose that I do not fold, origami or otherwise (heck, I’d be hard pressed to fold a bedsheet to pass muster by anyone older than the age of five) Margaret’s reaction is a quick nod of acknowledgement, rather than the dismay or disappointment I might have expected. She immediately resumes the setting up that she apparently had been doing before I arrived.
I use the time to browse the art in the gallery’s collection, since she does not appear to need my assistance at this stage.
As I peruse, workshop participants begin to arrive in ones and twos. At some point we are all gathered around the table that appears to be our primary work-space-to-be. It is piled high with small pieces of heavyweight paper in 2”x3” business card shape and size. The gallery walls are lined with art sculptures made from these cards as well as other folded art objects and even some crocheted pieces.
Summoning my nerve I ask a few of the others if they fold.
“Oh yes,” effuses one of the two men in the room, “I’m just the driver, but my girlfriend folds every night.”
Mental note to self, “Okay, maybe the driver boyfriend will help me not be the lowliest folder of them all.”
A young woman to my right assures me that she is so enamored with spatial relationships and math that folding should be a breeze for her. Or, something to that effect.
Wouldn’t you know?
A mother and her 12 year old son are already seated and folding together. Where did they come from? Apparently the son had been there in another room for some other purpose, but decided to pop into our group and fold for a while before leaving.
I’d no idea what to expect when I entered the Institute For Figuring (as in mathematical) after locating it in-between The Chinese Unity Association of Greater Los Angeles and The Empress Pavilion, in the midst of Los Angeles’ Chinatown. I was a little nervous. But if we don’t try those nerve rattling things in the world, life would be pretty boring. At least that is what I have told myself for as long as I can remember. And probably why, when anyone asks what is my favorite quote of all time, I always cite Eleanor Roosevelt’s:
“We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face . . . we must do that which we think we cannot.”
I was a bit early, and there did not appear to be anyone else in the building. Gallery I guess I should call it. A gallery of very colorful and visually enticing mathematically conceived paper art and needlework. More about that in a bit. Then Margaret Wertheim was suddenly standing in front of me.
It was a little awkward. Here was this physicist I had heard speak about amateur physicists, and a book she had written about these outsiders with homegrown theories of the universe, Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons and Alternative Theories of Everything, at a Caltech Skeptics meeting, what? a year or two prior, and me, an artist, writer, new media, whatever it is I am . . . And we are standing in this empty gallery, except for all the vivid trigonometrical art on the walls. And I am wondering just how early I am and should I have stopped in one of the plentiful neighborhood restaurants for some chicken wings rather than barging in ahead of the appointed workshop start time.
Nor did I have much idea what this Institute for Figuring was about, since it was my best artist friend Joe up in San Francisco who went online and found out about it after I told him about the interesting lecture by the rarity, a woman, scientist at Caltech. And it was Joe who told me I needed to go to scout out this “fascinating sounding place.”
Joe is better at thinking to look things up than I am. You might remember from my last post that it was he who checked out the identity of the group who hacked this blog of mine last month. I just stared at their stupid signature and my way gone web site blog and wept. But Joe headed for an Internet search engine and emailed back to let me know it was an infamous middle eastern hacking group. (Not to be too hard on myself – I did manage to get the site back up and harden coded it against future jerk black hat hackers.)
After her Caltech lecture, it had not occurred to me to look up Margaret Wertheim, either. But Joe did – and called to let me know not only about this Institute, but about a fascinating art project she was doing with her twin sister, Christine Wertheim, involving the crocheting of the entire underwater coral reef.
And when I finally took Joe’s advice and looked up the Institute for Figuring online, I saw they were having a Saturday, open to the public, workshop in origami business card folding and animating.
It was Joe then who had said, “Well, of course you will go, it sounds right up your alley!”
Or, A Little Mars & Origins of Life History (and other related thoughts) Before Tackling Today’s Space Exploration Debates, Part IV
Okay, so a couple of posts ago we left Stanley Miller and Harold Urey at the University of Chicago, in 1952, trying to create chemical reactions that would simulate Jupiter’s atmosphere. They were doing this because it was thought that Jupiter’s current atmosphere might closely resemble the atmosphere on early Earth. And the reason they wanted to simulate Earth in its early days was so they might see what conditions were present that led to the emergence of life.
The goal here, remember, was to figure out the origin of life. What kind of environment would be required for life to begin, and what might “spark” life.
Miller and Urey took molecules known to be present in Jupiter’s 1950’s atmosphere and placed them into a closed system. The gas molecules they used were methane (CH4), ammonia (NH3), hydrogen (H2), and water (H2O). Then they ran an electric current through the contained gases, to simulate lightning storms believed to be common in the early days of Earth’s formation. What they had accomplished was to simulate the presumed atmospheric environment of Early Earth. And, remember from our previous discussion with scientist Sherwood Chang, they were looking for some sort of chemical reaction ( a chemical reaction results from something – in this case, gas molecules – reacting with a source of energy – in this case, faked lightening).
So, qué pasó? Well, the scientific journals describe it a bit more scientifically, but I like what Sherwood Chang said to me: “At the end of one week, they fished out what was left in the pot and made the astounding discovery of the presence of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, and therefore of life!”
At week’s end as much as 10-15% of the carbon was now in the form of organic compounds. Two percent of the carbon had formed some of the amino acids. (source duke.edu) And, also according to Chang, “Three or four of the amino acids they found – in the pot – were the very specific amino acids that all biology uses. Out of a potentially almost limitless number of amino acids that are theoretically possible. Most importantly, The Miller-Urey experiment showed that organic compounds such as amino acids could be made easily under the conditions that scientists believed to be present on Early Earth.
Today most of us don’t realize how big this was. Not just that the scientists “created” the building blocks of life but that they had been able to study something so successfully in a laboratory using a technique of simulation. We take simulations for granted today. But in the 1950s this was huge. And the Miller-Urey experiment resulted in an avalanche of such experiments by other scientists. Simulations of the Early Land, the Early Oceans, the ability of of volcanic events (stuff + energy) or sunlight (energy) and other “stuff” to create organic matter (life), on an on.
As ideas changed about what the Early Earth atmosphere actually consisted of, the simulation ingredients changed. But, eventually these Early Earth chemists managed to produce all the biological amino acids, and lots of other amino acids that are not used in biology.
Scientists at first became very optimistic that they were on the cusp of actually discovering and understanding the origin of life on Earth. In the 1950s many thought that they would have the question of life’s origins wrapped up in a couple of decades. But, in fact, their journey was just beginning.
One of the many interesting things that Sherwood Chang shared with me during our drive between Berkeley and Vallejo came in response to my questioning him about how much he follows scientific progress now that he has turned in his Ames Laboratory garb for a cowboy hat in order to roam and manage his cattle ranch in Northern California.
Sherwood patiently addressed my perhaps over the top enthusiasm about the recent Mars mission and space exploration in general. He explained that a big aha moment for him was the realization of how slow research is. How many years go by, and how little we really learn in each chunk of time. Sherwood played his role in the timeline of human exploration and discovery. Now he is doing something else, cattle ranching. The scientific exploration continues, but the pace is slow and will always be so. It took me a while to “get” what Sherwood was telling me about this.
My aha moment came when I began to read about the controversies that have followed the life creation simulation phase of those enthusiastic 1950s and 1960s scientists. For since that time, controversies have sprung up about the validity of their experiments, and many more, alternate, ideas have been proposed as to how those early amino acid building blocks of life might have “emerged” on Earth. Research takes time. Sometimes results and discoveries are validated, and sometimes they are invalidated – both the validating and the invalidating taking years and years. Sometimes results and discoveries force the asking of many more new questions, the turning in new directions, which, in turn, takes more time. What seems to us in the moment some “great” discovery is usually just a pinpoint on the continuum of exploration – a continuum that will last as long as we do!
So, hats off to Sherwood for the role he played in the search for life on Earth, and happy trails to him on his Northern California ranch.
Next we will look at some of the controversies that succeeded the 1950s and 1960s simulator explorers, and start looking about the theories and research that has followed them. . . .
by interactive new media author & artist Terry Bailey