Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Terrorist Attack in Strasbourg

Last night, a terrorist attack in Strasbourg left two dead, one brain-dead, and twelve injured. This attack has shocked people around the world. French police responded immediately and are looking diligently for the shooter, whose identity is known and whose face has been broadcast everywhere.

Very quickly les citoyens strasbourgeoises created memorials to the slain.

(Photos from 

This was the same response that I saw in July 2016 when the citizens of Strasbourg created memorials for the victims of the terrorist attack in Nice.

While the horror of this attack cannot be ignored, I must remind my readers that there were more people killed, thirteen in all, on October 27 at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California. That was the 307th mass shooting in America. America has so many mass shootings that people here and around the world quickly forget them.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Mix Together Religious Zeal and Scientific Ignorance, and What Do You Get?

You all already know the answer to this question. I want to give you a particularly vivid example.

In eighteenth-century France, as in other places in Europe, Catholics massacred a lot of Protestants, and the reverse was often true as well. One of the worst massacres was in August, 1572, when French Catholic mobs murdered thousands of Protestant Huguenots in the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre. Historical summaries generally say the triggering event of the massacre was the attempted assassination of the Admiral de Coligny. But there was more to the story. I cannot find this information online, but I distinctly remember reading in a book in 1976 (written by Henri Noguères) that one of the triggering events was the flowering of a crabapple tree. Crabapple trees usually bloom in spring. When some of them bloomed in late summer in Paris, many people, already stirred up by religious zeal, took this to be a miracle; if a miracle, then a message; if a message, then from God; if from God, it meant that they were supposed to go kill Huguenots.

This event, however, was all based on ignorance—in this case, botanical ignorance. If crabapple (or Bradford pear) trees experience a summer drought, and then rain begins to fall, the rain serves as a trigger that makes the trees bloom. This is because the trees do not have heat and cold sensors; to a tree, winter is dry (because the water is frozen) and spring is wet. Therefore, many trees will respond to a dry midsummer followed by a wet late summer as being winter followed by spring. This is why the crabapple trees bloomed in Paris in August 1572.

When the trees bloomed, the religious zealots did not know why. And if they do not know why, then it must be a miracle. This was their religiously deluded line of reasoning. Who knows how many people lost their lives because some religious zealots did not know enough botany!

This is my six hundredth post.

Friday, November 30, 2018

A Fictional Experiment: An Example from René Barjavel

René Barjavel (1911-1985) was a French novelist who explored perplexing scientific themes. Perhaps his two best-known books are La Nuit de Temps (The Night of Time; translated as The Ice People) and Le Voyageur Imprudent (The Careless Traveler, translated as Future Times Three). In his 1943 Voyageur time-travel novel, he became perhaps the first person to suggest the Grandfather Paradox: If you go back in time and kill your ancestor, then not only do you not exist, but you could never have existed, therefore you could not have killed your ancestor, therefore...

I would like to use Le Voyageur imprudent as an example of performing a scientific experiment by means of fiction. For something impossible like time travel, this is the only way to test hypotheses.

Time travel novels are nearly always the author’s way of making social commentaries. H. G. Wells used The Time Machine as a way of saying that if current (as of a century ago) trends continue, the leisure class will evolve into childlike, tender, stupid Eloi and the working class will evolve into bestial Morlocks. The twist was that the Eloi appeared to be the privileged class but were mere cattle for the Morlocks. (Sorry to spoil it for you if you haven’t read it.) Wells was, by writing this novel, saying that we had to do something to solve this problem. Wells’s open proclamation of eugenics, however, was not the right way to deal with the problem.

René Barjavel certainly fit into the social commentary pattern. When the time travelers visited the year 100,000, they found that humans had evolved into a multitude of forms, but that they had transformed the face of the Earth so that it consisted only of flat plains with regular lines of conical structures. Some of the human forms had mouths without jaws, and digestive systems without anuses; they lived off of milk, delivered through teats that fit directly into their conical mouths, and completely assimilated the molecules. Each of the cones on the landscape had a gigantic woman with thousands of teats and into whose huge body little males were irresistibly drawn to deposit sperm and then the males were digested. This sounds like Barjavel’s nightmare vision of what you get when you cross a twentieth-century Soviet state with a spider and run it forward to the distant future.

Barjavel’s novel was based on the totally preposterous premise that a man named Noël Essaillon invented a material known as noëlite that would allow a person, when wearing a green diving suit, to float through time and space. Of course it was preposterous; it was merely a device to get us into the story, and the author had no intention of making it plausible. My time travel novels are equally preposterous for the same reason. Essaillon chose a young math teacher, a French soldier in World War Two named Pierre Saint-Menoux, to be his collaborator, since Essaillon was wheelchair-bound and could not himself travel in time. Spray on some noëlite, slip into the scaphandre suit, and off you go. But when Pierre slipped into the near future, he found that Essaillon’s pretty little daughter Annette had grown up. Love was inevitable. During one of their trips to the future, the elder Essaillon (pushed around by Pierre) died, then came back to life, then decided that God wanted him to stay dead.

Saint-Menoux wanted to understand the time structure of reality. So he performed experiments. He went into the past and interrupted a wedding so that he could steal jewels. (He and Annette were also very poor in wartime France.) When he got back to the future, though, he discovered that the wedding he had interrupted was that of the parents of one of his friends. That friend no longer existed or, more properly, had never existed. However, the incredibly ugly building for which that friend had been an architect still existed, designed exactly the same way by some other architect. Perhaps, Saint-Menoux thought, history was inevitable and individuals did not matter. He also wanted to see if he could make himself appear in history books by doing something outrageous in the past. In his green scaphandre, he stole money from a bank. What he did not count on was getting his scaphandre ripped and inactivated. The distraught Annette had to go back in time and rescue him. Back into his home time, he found that he had appeared in history as The Green Demon. He had become a legend.

Saint-Menoux was to marry Annette the very night when he decided he had to answer one last question before giving up his time traveling to become a husband. He wanted to know whether he could change all of history, not just the history of individuals. He decided to go back to 1793 and kill Napoleon. Pierre found Napoleon, but accidentally killed another man instead, the man who turned out to be his ancestor. At that moment, Saint-Menoux ceased to have ever existed. The final scene was very touching. Annette heard a shriek outside, it reminded her of Pierre, but even as she was thinking about Pierre she forgot who he was. She ran past the workshop where her father was still working unsuccessfully on his time machine.

Annette raised the lamp as she looked outside of the door: La lampe dessine sur les pavés un carré de lumière. Très haut, dans les étoiles ...  La lune éclaire la rue vide. Un petit tourbillon de vent ...  jette sur ses pieds nus un feuille morte. Isn’t French beautiful? The lamp threw a square of light on the paving stones. Very high up, amidst the stars, the moon illuminated the empty street. A little whirl of wind threw upon her naked feet a dead leaf. And that was the end of Saint-Menoux, and the very memory of him, and of noëlite, which Annette’s father would never actually discover.

I wrote previously about Jacob Bronowski who saw an essential unity in the processes of scientific and artistic creativity. Barjavel’s novel, I believe, is a good illustration of it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Ascent of Jacob Bronowski

I just finished reading a pre-publication copy of Timothy Sandefur’s upcoming The Ascent of Jacob Bronowski. If even I, a reader of many popular science books, have barely heard of Jacob Bronowski, you can bet that most people have forgotten him. But before there was Neil DeGrasse Tyson, before Stephen Jay Gould, before Carl Sagan, there was Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974) whose passion was to open up the minds of non-scientists to the power and beauty of science.

Bronowski’s work was based on a fundamental assertion of faith that I share, but which I sometimes question. It is that most people are smart enough to understand science, at least in its basic outlines, and smart enough to use the scientific mode of thought. This is the basis of my book, to be released in December, ScientificallyThinking. Bronowski’s gospel was to get scientists to speak clearly and simply to non-scientists and open their eyes to science. I believe that most people are smart enough to do this, but relatively few people really want to. Most people would rather sit in their backwater of ignorance and listen only to things that reinforce their lazy prejudices.

Bronowski (known to his friends as Bruno) was the perfect example of a Renaissance Man, that is, someone who is interested in everything. I first learned this term back about 1977 when a friend called me a Renaissance Man. I was a biology major who wrote novels, wrote orchestra music, and studied history and languages. Perhaps only a Renaissance Man (or woman) can make the connections necessary to bring people from all different modes of thought together. This was certainly Bronowski. An English child of eastern European immigrants, he started off as a poet. But he was also interested in mathematics, which led to statistics. (Statistics differs from pure mathematics because pure math deals with the certainties of deduction, while statistics tries to understand the messy reality of the world through induction. At least, that’s my summary of it.) His mathematical expertise got him involved in the effort for the Allies to win World War II, and later to make industrial production more efficient.

This mathematical work did not always lead Bronowski where he might have expected. Yes, he helped the Allies win World War II, but like many other scientists he was deeply disturbed by the effects of atomic bombs. He traveled in Japan after the bombs, and knew that the new power we had unleashed from the atom was completely disproportionate to any legitimate military goals even the best of countries might have. Also, his dedication to industrial efficiency led him on the ultimately quixotic quest to produce Bronowski Bricks from coal dust, sort of a fossil fuel version of charcoal briquets. The briquets reduced coal waste, to be sure, but they were very expensive to produce, and, according to Prince Philip, they looked like turds.

But Bruno’s wide knowledge, and being at the right place at the right time, threw him into the public spotlight in radio and television broadcasting. He produced, one after another, important science documentaries, culminating in his still-famous The Ascent of Man. He dabbled in lots of things at which he was not really skilled, such as writing a light opera libretto that was not very good (the music was by Peter Racine Fricker, who was on the music faculty when I entered the University of California at Santa Barbara). But he tried!

Science and art, said Bronowski, were both creative. Take, for example, Copernicus, who did some of the earliest work that proved the sun to be the center of the solar system, rather than Earth being the center of the universe. Copernicus had to imagine what the planets would do if he were at a central solar vantage point, but as an artist has to imagine what the final work would look like. Both scientists and artists test concepts: scientists, how well the concept explains the natural world, and poets, how well the poem expands our experience.

Another idea he had was that animals need intelligence in order to have free will. You have to be able to visualize possible futures before you can choose among them. Only humans can do this. I do not know if Bronowski actually solved the problem of free will, but he clarified it, at least for non-philosophers like me. He helped lay the foundation for the study of language acquisition. He said that only humans can make a sentence out of separate words, and then isolate one word and generalize about that one concept.

When he helped to start the Salk Institute, Bronowski moved to La Jolla, California. He would host scholars for discussions in his living room (where he also filed the final episode of Ascent). He was an inspiring partner for dialogue. While he knew everything about everything, he could make you feel brilliant even when he was saying you were wrong, according to more than one of his acquaintances.

Jacob Bronowski inspired us to think big, to see all human thought as a single fabric rather than as a collage of specialties. And he was an early inspiration for what we now call citizen science. They didn’t have the internet back then, but on his televised shows he encouraged viewers to send in postcards with their own scientific thoughts on them.

You can get a taste for the kind of spellbinding quality Bruno had by seeing this short YouTube clip from one of the Ascent episodes. Apparently when the BBC was filming this segment, they did not expect Bruno to walk out into the pond; this was extemporized.

I have a lot of different kinds of creative and intellectual output. I am not equally good at all of them, and am not world-class at any of them, as far as I can tell. But I can still do a lot of good with them. Bruno is my guiding light in this respect.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

There Is No Mass Market

One of the greatest marketers in the history of economics is Seth Godin. During an interview, he said something that truly astonished me, and I want to pass it on. He said there is no mass market.

A mass market is an imaginary group of homogeneous people who make up at least 51 percent of the population and who want to buy your product. No such group exists. To Godin, it is meaningless to say most people won’t buy this product. Of course they won’t. Your market is not an imaginary homogeneous majority, but a minority of very interested customers. Focus your attention on them. Sell, or write, something that those people that will benefit those people. They will tell other people like themselves—no longer just by word of mouth, but by social media—and your marketing will take care of itself.

A side benefit to this is that you can make, do, or write what matters to you, and you can feel that you have enjoyed and done something useful with your life. The marketing will take care of itself, so long as you give it enough boosts with, for example, an internet platform.

More thoughts?

Godin follows his own advice. Now when he writes a book, it becomes a best seller without the need for promotion or interviews. But he didn’t start out that way. For his first book, he got 900 rejections.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

As the Case May Be: The Subjunctive Mood and Human Evolution

Humans are the only species with true language. Monkeys can respond differently to different calls, and chimps can learn a few symbols. But to have true language, you have to have vivid imagination, which is unique to humans.

Language can communicate situations that do not yet exist—the future tense. In English, we could say if he will go. In French, s’il ira. But even more than this, language can communicate an alternate reality that is different from the one you are experiencing. If he were to go implies that he is not going to go. In French, s’il aille. This is the subjunctive, as it were. You can even have a past subjunctive: if he had gone, s’il soit allé. Language students hate learning subjunctives, but they are a marvel of intellect. That does not mean, of course, that you have to like them.

Organisms have lots of ways of responding to their surroundings. The ancestors of vertebrates specialized on intelligence as their mode of response. As explained in an earlier essay, intelligence is expensive. In humans, natural selection favored larger brains in a runaway spiral of greater and greater intelligence. It is expensive. Along the way in human evolution, a threshold was crossed into the kind of self-awareness that permitted the oft-maligned subjunctive mood.

Friday, October 26, 2018

What's Up with the Stupid Magnolias?

What’s Up with the Stupid Magnolias?

In late September, I saw several magnolia trees blooming in Durant, Oklahoma. Magnolias are supposed to bloom in late spring! What’s up with that?

The reason the magnolias bloomed is because they are stupid. Plants are stupid. I say this even though I am a botanist and have devoted my life to studying them. These magnolias, you see, have no idea what time of year it is. They don’t know the difference between May and September.

Yet, they have to bloom at the right time of year, don’t they? Of course they do. They have to bloom at the time that their pollinators are expecting them to bloom, so that the huge white flowers and sultry lemon scent will not be wasted.

But intelligence is expensive. Brains are expensive. Your brain uses twenty percent of your body’s metabolic energy and oxygen. My granddaughter Léna’s brain uses half of her energy and oxygen. That doesn’t make her smarter than you, but it does mean her brain is rapidly growing. Plants simply cannot afford to make brains. For the last billion years, plants and their evolutionary ancestors have relied on more direct stimuli from the environment to tell them when to do things such as reproduce.

To a plant, there is no difference between cold and drought. They do not have temperature sensors. To them, it is cold when the water freezes, and when the water freezes, it diffuses out of the cells and into intercellular spaces, where the ice crystals cannot harm the cell. That is, when it freezes, plant cells become drier. In spring the ice melts and the water diffuses back into the cells.

This summer in Oklahoma had some long periods of hot dry conditions. They were not record-setting, but they were pretty brutal. Then, in late summer and early fall, it rained a lot, and kept raining. Therefore, during mid-summer, the plant cells dried out, and in late summer, they became moist. For anything that the plant knew to the contrary, the summer drought was winter, and the fall rains were spring.

Plant responses to seasons are not the most intelligent ones, but they are economical. Every few years, the magnolia trees waste a few flowers by blooming in the fall; in the ensuing winter, they cannot develop their fruits. But any magnolia would tell you that its way of adjusting to the seasons doesn’t cost as much as your brain does, thank you very much.