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.


by Josh Witten (All Rights Reserved)


The Art of Science: The Not-Quite-3D Christmas Tree

The tree in the center was printed with a traditional 3D printing algorithm, while the others were made with the new pyramid technique

The tree in the center was printed with a traditional 3D printing algorithm, while the others were made with the new pyramid technique

Little plastic Christmas trees don’t really count as art, but the science and math behind this one is pretty interesting, so we’ll let the deeper questions of aesthetics and meaning slide just this once.

Computer Science researcher Richard Zhang of Canada’s Simon Fraser University printed the tree as a demonstration of a newly developed 3D printing algorithm that has potential applications far beyond seasonal tchotchkes.

Michael Byrne at Motherboard explains:

“Zhang is solving a real-life problem: saving waste. Printing an object with overhanging parts, like a tree branch, requires the deposition of extra material below to support the top part through the printing process. At the end, this material is cut away and trashed. The answer, according to Zhang, is in using pyramidal components.”

“Decomposing a complex shape into simpler primitives is one of the most fundamental geometry problems,” Zhang and his team write in a recent paper. “The main motivation is that most computation and manipulation tasks can be more efficiently executed when the shapes are simple.”

And pyramids offer an elegant solution, because, Zhang says, pyramids are 2.5D.  (I’ll give you a second to collect your brain cells from the floor)

Byrne explains:  “Two-and-a-half dimensions is a concept used in machining (and computer graphics, with a different meaning) to describe an object with no overhangs. It only has a top, and can be viewed as a projection of 2D flatness into the third dimension.”

There’s lots more info about the science and math behind the printable pyramids in Byrne’s article and in Zhang’s paper.

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

Galapagos Islands

ADid you figure out the answers to last week’s quiz? They’re all the way at the bottom of this post, but I’m sure you figured out that answer A was the Galapagos Islands.

The Galapagos Islands were formed more than 8 million years ago, and thanks to ongoing volcanic activity, some of the islands are still growing.

After the islands were formed, species (plants, spores, animals) would occasionally arrive here from the mainland, but because they were now in a completely different ecosystem, they evolved differently – for example, small turtles were able to grow into very big turtles.

1024px-Darwin's_finches_by_GouldWe understand this now, but Darwin had to figure all of that out for himself when he first visited the Galapagos. He did, eventually, but it took him a while to put all the pieces together. One thing he did notice when he visited the islands were the birds.

He recognized that the finches were different between different islands, but at the time Darwin thought that they were different birds. Only after Darwin analysed the animals they collected, upon the Beagle’s return, did he realise that they were all the same bird, with local variations generated on each island.

Darwin’s finches became a famous example of evolution. They’re the finches that The Finch and Pea are (half-)named after, and they’re the finches that my work uses as mascot for certain things (here’s one!). Seriously, I can’t seem to get away from those birds!

The Galapagos are still a place where biologists come to study nature. In fact, there is a research foundation, the Charles Darwin Foundation, based on one of the islands. The Charles Darwin Research Station is at risk of closing and is in desperate need of financial support to stay solvent.

Earlier this year, they launched a project in collaboration with Google, which use Google streetview images to let people explore the Galapagos from home and record any species they view in the images.

First I didn’t find much more than cool plants…


…but then I looked somewhere else and found a blue-footed booby!


Have fun exploring the Galapagos. And as promised, here are the results from last week’s quiz:
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