Category Archives: Follies of the Human Condition

Science for the People: Amazons

sftpThis week, Science for the People is learning how science can shed light on the stories told by our ancestors. They’re joined by folklorist and science historian Adrienne Mayor, author of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World, to learn what archaeology can tell us about legendary warrior women in cultures from around the world. They also talk to anthropologist John Hawks to learn how researchers gain insights from ancient human remains.

*Josh provides research help to Science for the People and is, therefore, completely biased.

Dignity

There’s one thing that’s real clear to me,
no one dies with dignity.
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow.
-Jason Isbell, “Elephant”

Is “dignity” about maintaining the illusion that the craziness happening around you isn’t happening? If so, acting in a “dignified” manner in the midst of circumstances like impending death or protesting civil rights abuses is the least dignified thing you can do.

“Dignity” also seems to involve self-denial of things that are fun that hurt no one, perhaps in favor of doing things that are not fun, but hurt lots of people. The British Empire was very dignified.

If growing up means
It would be beneath my dignity to climb a tree,
I’ll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up
Not me!
-“I Won’t Grow Up”, Peter Pan

Also, skipping (aka, bipedal galloping). Skipping is joyous.

skipping

by Josh Witten (All Rights Reserved)

 

Do we still need science journals? What are the functions of science journals anyway?

In my latest Pacific Standard column, I write about Nature Publishing Group’s new read-only access policy, allowing subscribers and select media outlets to share links that tunnel through the paywall. I argue that it’s time to get back to basics: We need to ask, why do we have science journals, and do we still need them in the 21st century?

Ever since their inception, science journals have served three primary roles:

#1 They disseminate research findings to the community

#2 They provide quality control by organizing peer review

#3 They serve as a record of priority and research accomplishment

In his Very Short Introduction volume on economics, the economist Partha Dasgupta has a nice explanation of how these functions of a journal were an important innovation of the Scientific Revolution, as a way to provide incentives for researchers to produce and share knowledge as a public good: Continue reading

Apocalypse 1908: The First Anthropogenic Climate Change Novel

Louis Pope Gratacap’s The Evacuation of England (1908)

Digging the Panama Canal in 1907

Digging the Panama Canal in 1907

One of the pleasures of reading older post-apocalyptic fiction is seeing how the major themes and plot ideas of today’s genre were first introduced more than one hundred years ago. But just because writers came up with these great ideas doesn’t mean that their books are any good. Many of them are; however the American writer Louis Gratacap’s pioneering post-apocalyptic novel wins the prize as the most turgid and unreadable novel I’ve ever read. In fact, I’ll admit it: I didn’t actually read the whole book; my reading quickly changed into a slow skim. Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute has the same opinion:

Gratacap’s range was wide, incorporating much material which has become central to sf, but his books are overlong, choked by his compulsive didacticism, and nearly unreadable today.

So why bother with The Evacuation of England? Because Gratacap came up with a major innovation that is absolutely central to post-apocalyptic SF today. To my knowledge (please correct me if I’m wrong), Evacuation is the first novel in which civilization is destroyed by a natural disaster caused by human beings. It’s the world’s first anthropogenic climate change novel. Continue reading

Apocalypse 1906: The Origins of the YA Dystopia

Van Tassel Sutphen’s The Doomsman (1906)

p064-insertThe Doomsman opens in what seems to be the primitive past: A young man sits on the shore of a bay, dressed in a tunic. In the forest behind him are the heavy wooden walls of a stockade, a clue to the defensive nature of life in this sparsely inhabited country. But not everything fits. The young man is looking across the bay at a vague, dark outline of some tall structure, while in his hands he holds a book: A Child’s History of the United States. He is sitting on the shores of New York, looking out at what’s left of Manhattan.

It would make a great opening shot for a movie — a YA post-apocalyptic movie. The Doomsman is, like After London, one of the earliest examples of the post-apocalyptic YA adventure. The plot follows the familiar pattern: A restless boy is trying to understand his society and discover how it fell from its seemingly more glorious and technologically marvelous past. Excitement, danger, and romance ensue; the boy proves his manhood, discovers the secrets of lost technologies, and seeks to win the girl. (The gender pattern here wouldn’t be swapped until decades later.) Much of what appeals to us in present-day YA blockbusters like the Hunger Games is here in Doomsman, in a form that only feels a little dated. Continue reading