Thursday, July 24, 2014

Laurel Kornfeld [Pluto advocate] featured at Astronomy magazine

Quite an honor to be featured at the prestigious Astronomy magazine. She writes about Pluto.

"Guest blog: The case for planet Pluto"


Laurel Kornfeld

July 10th, 2014


This guest blog comes from Laurel Kornfeld, a freelance writer and enthusiastic amateur astronomer from Highland Park, New Jersey.

The discovery that our solar system does not end with Pluto does not mandate that we accept the controversial IAU planet definition and artificially keep the number of solar system planets small. It is time to recognize a new paradigm, one in which planets are abundant and include spherical moons of gas giants and dwarf planets. Astronomers and educators should take into account not just the IAU view but also the dissenting one, the geophysical definition of planet and its implications for study of our solar system. That is the paradigm shift I argue in the article below.

Planetary Society blogger Emily Lakdawalla makes valid points discussing the all-too frequent diminishing of the solar system by educators in the wake of the controversial 2006 IAU planet definition vote.

She also argues, correctly, that the solar system of today is a larger, more diverse neighborhood filled with a huge number of planetary bodies, and that it should be conveyed as such by educators.

Where she and other astronomy educators err is in assuming that a broader, more comprehensive study of our solar system and its exotic worlds must be based on acceptance of the IAU planet definition, which precludes all but eight solar system objects from being designated as planets.

I, too, have heard stories of teachers and media correspondents confused in the aftermath of the IAU decision referring to Pluto as either a star, an exoplanet, a moon, an asteroid, a comet, or a gaseous body. Clearly, the IAU decision is responsible for generating far more confusion than clarity.

An expanding solar neighborhood

Interestingly, many teachers do view Pluto as a planet and continue teach it as such. Some teach it as an ongoing debate. My 7- and 10-year-old nephews understand there are two ways of looking at the solar system — one that classifies only the largest bodies as planets and another that views planets as any and all spherical worlds.

While some games, toys, and books have removed Pluto from the lexicon of planets, many printed after 2006 have chosen to include not only Pluto but also the other dwarf planets. Witness Dr. Ken Croswell’s book Ten Worlds and Dr. David Aguilar’s National Geographic book Thirteen Planets.

McDonalds continues to sell Happy Meals in boxes decorated with nine planets, to the dismay of some IAU partisans.

The best teachers trust their students’ intelligence to teach the planet definition issue as what it really is — an ongoing debate. Elon University Physics Professor Tony Crider combined astronomy with role-playing to create a game in which students role play astronomers at a 1999 debate and at the 2006 IAU General Assembly. This original, fun, and informative lesson was introduced in 2011 at a meeting of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. It can be found here.

As an amateur astronomer and writer who does public outreach, I hear many stories of teachers not just including Pluto but also including the five named dwarf planets in lessons about the solar system.

Ironically, The Planetary Society sets an example with its set of holiday ornaments that includes planets, dwarf planets, and spherical moons of the gas giants (satellite planets). I have had lengthy conversations with prominent astronomers and have studied the changing landscape of our solar system. Those studies have led me to reject the notion that the addition of many new small planets in the Kuiper Belt disqualifies Pluto as being a planet too.

Additionally, my experience has been that the IAU vote of 2006 is inherently understood by many to not be the final answer or even a fait d’accompli for both astronomers and educators studying the solar system. We refine our understanding of individual objects by the new data we learn about those objects, not by discoveries made about other bodies.

Three planetary zones

Yes, the architecture of the solar system is different from what it was when today’s adults were growing up. But that difference can just as well be understood as a major expansion of the solar system. Specifically, what we have now are three rather than two planetary zones — the terrestrial planets, the gas giants, and the dwarf planets, with the dwarf planets being the most numerous.

But that does not make them not planets.

Nothing about Pluto’s orbit precludes it from being classed as a planet. While Pluto’s orbit is inclined to the ecliptic by 17°, Mercury’s orbit is inclined by 7°. Many multiplanet exoplanet systems look different from our solar system, with each one of the planets orbiting in a different plane.

Exoplanets are even stranger

At least two exoplanet systems contain two giant planets in 3:2 orbital resonances, the same resonance that exists between Neptune and Pluto. HD 45364 in the constellation Canis Major is one such example.

Gliese 876d, a planet of several Earth masses that orbits closer to its star than Mercury, and WASP-17b, a planet half the width of Jupiter but twice its mass, both orbit their stars backward, meaning in the direction opposite of their stars’ spin.

In the system K0I-730, discovered by the Kepler mission, two planets share a single orbit, taking 9.8 days to circle their parent star.

These examples tell us that neither eccentric orbits nor objects having migrated to different locations from where they initially formed preclude such objects from being designated as planets.

Biggest dwarfs equal smallest planets

You could consider Charon a dwarf planet on its own. The four tiny moons in the Pluto system actually orbit not Pluto alone but Pluto-Charon in various resonances. Pluto and Charon orbit a barycenter between the two objects, making them the only binary planet system orbiting our Sun.

Pluto is estimated to be 70 percent rock, and Eris, being 25 percent more massive than Pluto though slightly smaller in size, is likely more rocky and therefore more planet-like. Many astronomers believe Eris provides an example of what Pluto will look like as it recedes from the Sun, a world with its gases frozen on the surface. Yet a recent study by Dr. Catherine Olkin at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, indicates that Pluto never completely loses its atmosphere in the entirety of its 248-year orbit.

Olkin’s observations revealed that Pluto’s atmosphere is now three times as thick as it was when discovered in 1988, in spite of the fact that the planet has been receding from the Sun since its 1989 perihelion.

She attributes this higher atmospheric pressure to the fact that the area approximately 100 meters below Pluto’s surface retains sufficient heat to keep at least some of the nitrogen in Pluto’s atmosphere gaseous throughout its elliptical orbit.

Does Eris retain any type of atmosphere throughout its 550-year solar orbit? With an aphelion about three times farther than Pluto’s, the likelihood is no, but ultimately, the only way to be certain is to go there. To truly understand these worlds, we need to observe them up close.

Sending New Horizons type missions to such remote worlds will require both international cooperation and advances in propulsion technology to shorten the travel time of robotic missions. Nevertheless, making such exploration a priority is a necessity if we are to become space-faring people familiar with our own celestial neighborhood.

And gaining public support for such missions requires younger generations who are not just aware of these planets’ existence, but are excited by it.

The complex structures of the dwarf planets drives home the point that these are whole, complex, enigmatic worlds—in other words, small planets. That is why it would be inaccurate to imagine the larger worlds of the Kuiper Belt as being akin to the asteroids between Mars and Jupiter.

As these faraway worlds slowly give up their secrets, the new knowledge will continually require us to revise classification schemes reflecting the realities of these worlds. It is already conceivable to imagine a subclass of planets that harbor subsurface oceans. Such a subclass might include worlds as diverse as Pluto, Ceres, Europa, Enceladus, Ganymede, Callisto, Titan, and Triton.

Finding a subsurface ocean on Pluto may very well presage finding similar bodies of water beneath the surface of many other dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt, Guillaume Robuchon and Francis Nimmo of the University of California at Santa Cruz pointed out in their 2011 article in Astrobiology magazine. Because subsurface oceans could potentially harbor microbial life, every one of these worlds constitutes another potential location for this greatest search of all.

The new solar system

One can, therefore, look at the same data as Lakdawalla and yet draw a very different conclusion about our solar system. Rather than eight planets, our solar system has five terrestrial planets (including Ceres), the closest of which is on a slightly inclined orbit, four large jovians, which can be further subdivided into gas giants and ice giants, and a host of dwarf planets, of which all except one orbit past Neptune. Ceres could be jointly classed as both a terrestrial planet and a dwarf planet.

In the gas giant region, we have a host of spherical moons that, with their complexity, composition, and geology, can be considered secondary or satellite planets. These worlds present some of the most desirable targets for future searches for microbial life and for potential human colonization of the solar system.

Yes, there likely are many more worlds to find beyond Neptune, and there may very well be a Neptune-sized object lurking out there. Significantly, such an object would not fit the IAU definition of planet adopted in 2006 because at such a distance, the chances are it would not “clear its orbit” even at Neptune’s size.

The discoveries of the last 20-plus years have significant implications for science education. Not only should we not drop Pluto from discussions of the solar system; we also should include the newly discovered Kuiper Belt planets, Sedna, Ceres and the large moons of the gas giants.

But why pretend these objects are anything but what they are—fascinating, extremely diverse, unique, but still planets? As New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern often says, the real paradigm shift to which we are still becoming accustomed is not from a solar system with nine planets to one with eight, but from a solar system with nine planets to one with 50, 100, or more.

Visit Laurel's blog anytime for Pluto updates and information...

Thomas the Tank Engine reviewed again

"Thomas the Tank Engine had to shut the hell up to save children everywhere"

Classism, sexism, anti-environmentalism bordering on racism: any parent who discovered these hidden lessons will be glad the show’s star just quit


Tracy Van Slyke   

July 22nd, 2014

There are many terrible children's programs through which parents must suffer during their child's young life. For every Sesame Street, there is an annoying Caillou or an acid-trippy Yo Gabba Gabba. But Thomas and Friends is – or was – the one show with enough subversive messages to make me turn it off for good.

My son, now three-and-a-half years old, thankfully never never went through a manic train fascination like so many other children. But once in a while, he'd get a bug in his brain to watch Thomas, and every time I sat and watched with him, I winced and groaned almost as much as Percy.

When I heard the news this week, that the voice actor behind Thomas's incessant whinging quit the series because he was underpaid, I remembered all of the reasons that I cut my kid off from the show in the first place.

Thomas and those friends are trains that toil away endlessly on the Isle of Sodor – which seems to be forever caught in British colonial times – and, on its surface, the show seems to impart good moral lessons about hard work and friendship. But if you look through the steam rising up from the coal-powered train stacks, you realize that the pretty puffs of smoke are concealing some pretty twisted, anachronistic messages.

For one, these trains perform tasks dictated by their imperious, little white boss, Sir Topham Hatt (also known as The Fat Controller), whose attire of a top hat, tuxedo and big round belly is just a little too obvious. Basically, he's the Monopoly dictator of their funky little island. Hatt orders the trains to do everything from hauling freight to carrying passengers to running whatever random errand he wants done, whenever he wants it done – regardless of their pre-existing schedules.

Inevitably, the trains get in a fight with or pick on one another (or generally mess up whatever job they are supposed to be doing) until Hatt has to scold one of them about being a "really useful engine", because their sole utility in life is their ability to satisfy his whims. Yeah, because I want to teach my kid to admire a controlling autocrat.

But there was one particular episode that caused me to put the brakes on Thomas for good. It revolved around James, a red engine who is described in the opening credits as "vain but lots of fun." (Wait, it's OK to be vain if you can show others a good time occasionally? Great – that's going in my Parenting 101 book.) In the episode "Tickled Pink", poor vain James, is ordered by Topham Hat to get a new coat of paint. But while James has only had an undercoat of pink slathered on, Topham Hatt interrupts and demands that James go pick up Hatt's granddaughter and deliver her and her friends to a birthday party right now.

James is mortified that he has to travel while pink and proceeds to hide from all the other trains along the way. When he's caught, the other trains – including Thomas – viciously laugh and mock him.

"What are you doing James? You're a big pink steamie," says Diesel, the bad-boy engine. (For the record, all the "villains" on Thomas and Friends are the dirty diesel engines. I'd like to think there was a good environmental message in there, but when the good engines pump out white smoke and the bad engines pump out black smoke – and they are all pumping out smoke – it's not hard to make the leap into the race territory.)

But once James gets back on the rails and picks up Granddaughter Hatt and her friends, all seemingly ends well because the girls love pink.

Well guess what? It's not OK. You think a little boy watching Thomas is going to file away the lesson that pink is OK for boys? No, what kids remember is that James was laughed at, cruelly, over and over again, because he looked different and was clad in a "girly" pink color.

And that's not even to get started on the female trains. Well, actually it's hard to get started on them, because they barely exist. Take a quick scan of the more than 100 trains and characters in the Thomas universe – it spans multiple books, toys and continents in addition to a TV show – and you can quickly count on two hands the number of lady trains that populate is Isle of Sodor. Emily – the only lady train to get name checked in the opening credits and the only one who regularly hangs out with the boy trains – is said to "know her stuff." That's the sole description of her personality. What does that even mean?

Last year, the British Labour shadow Transportation Secretary even called out Thomas for its lack of females, saying that the franchise setting a bad example for girl wannabe train engineers everywhere.

At first blush, Thomas and his friends seem rather placid and mild. And there are certainly a lot worse shows in terms of in-your-face violence, sexism, racism and classism. But looks can be deceiving: the constant bent of messages about friendship, work, class, gender and race sends my kid the absolute wrong message.

And really, that theme song makes me scream. Thomas can just go bust my buffers.

Island of Sodor...a model of "imperialism"?

Expiration date for phiosophy?

"Does Philosophy Get Out of Date?"

Mary Midgley says philosophy is about understanding the context and about understanding how we came to be where we are.


Mary Midgley

July/August 2014

Philosophy Now

I started to wonder about this topic some time back when rumours reached me that, in some universities, no philosophy was being taught except what had been published in the last twenty years. These rumours were hard to check and clearly practice is very variable. It seems cars have been seen in the States with bumper-stickers bearing the message, ‘Just Say No To History of Philosophy’. And Gilbert Harman at Princeton had a notice to that effect outside his office door. It also emerges that the term ‘History of Philosophy’ has changed its meaning. It is now being used to describe all study of older writers, not just study with a historical angle. So Harman’s idea is that you shouldn’t read them at all and should certainly not take them seriously. At Cambridge, a student recently told a friend of mine that he had spent his whole undergraduate career without reading a word of Aristotle, Descartes or Kant. At this, (said my informant) “my heart sank.”

Well, so does mine. But we need to ask just why our hearts sink, and we should ask too what the people who make these changes are aiming at? Wondering about this, I remembered some things that happened in the Thatcher years, when cuts first began to threaten universities. Administrators, sternly told to economize, saw that the quickest way to do it was simply to close small departments. This would also enable them to harmonize with the mystique of ‘centres of excellence’ which was then in fashion. These centres were supposed to be big schools in which the study of a given subject would be so well covered that no other departments elsewhere would be needed at all. Thus, ideally, all the physics could be done at Manchester, all the economics at LSE, and all the philosophy (if any was still needed) at Oxford.

Since philosophy departments were usually small, universities did indeed start to close them. Eight of them in Britain went in the end. As one after another vanished, it struck me that nobody was saying that this ought not to happen. Nobody was suggesting that the subject was important in itself – that universities needed to teach it, that, if they stopped doing so they would become, in some sense, hardly universities at all. Fired by this thought I wrote to a number of the eminent philosophers of the time saying, in effect, “Do something! Write to The Times (which was what one did in those days). Let people know that this is important.’’

Nothing much came of this, but one of the replies that came back still strikes me as significant. I didn’t keep it because it made me so cross, but I remember perfectly well what it said. It came from that very distinguished Oxford philosopher Michael Dummett, and he told me flatly that it was wrong in principle to try to preserve all these provincial academic departments. Philosophy, he said, was a serious and highly technical subject which should only be studied at its own proper level. Any less professional approaches to it were useless and might even do harm. And what Dummett meant by the proper level is clear from a well-known passage in his writings where he said that “the proper object of philosophy” had only been finally established with the rise of “the modern logical and analytical style of philosophizing.” This object, he said, was… “the analysis of the structure of thought, [for which] the only proper method is the analysis of language.” And, not surprisingly, he thought this business of linguistic analysis had now become a highly technical pursuit – something increasingly like nuclear physics – which could only be carried on by people specially trained in it

The question Dummett raised is about the aim – the point, the proper object of philosophy. What are we actually trying to do? And it strikes me at once that, when Socrates talked about the great dangers that threaten human life, he didn’t actually mention the danger of unexamined thought or unexamined language. What Socrates warned us against was an unexamined life. And it is surely the attempt to examine life as a whole, to make sense of it, to locate its central confusions and resolve its big conflicts, that has been the prime business of traditional philosophy. Only quite lately has a quite different pattern of philosophizing caught on – a pattern that is modelled closely on the physical sciences and is reverently called Research. In those sciences, progress can be seen as consisting in accumulating a string of facts, in moving on from one empirical discovery to another. This seems often to be imagined as a mining operation, a steady process of digging through the intervening strata to reach the truth – the precious metal that lies hidden far beneath. In this process, the obstacles that have been removed are, of course, only of passing concern. Once they have been conquered they become irrelevant to the enquiry. That is why, to a physicist, past physical discoveries often have only a mild historical interest. His business is always with the next discovery. This accounts for his exclusive concentration on the latest journals, and also for the very revealing metaphor of the ‘cutting edge’ of research.

Now of course this sort of progress does happen and it can go on usefully for a long time. But, even in physical science, it is never the whole story. It can only work so long as there is a given linear pattern, a preset journey which will go reliably from A to B and so on to the end of the alphabet in the expected direction. Even in the sciences, that pattern isn’t always there. Often the next important discovery is going to crop up somewhere quite different – right off to the side of the expected route. Some awkward character such as Copernicus or Einstein or Faraday or Darwin mentions a new thought which calls for a quite new direction, a new way of envisaging the subject. Similarly, Peter Higgs has explained that the work by which he discovered his famous Boson was right off his official line of research, and if it had been noticed that he was doing it he might have been in for trouble. The reason why these people can make their unexpected forays is that they themselves have been looking at things differently. They have found new standpoints from which entirely unexpected things can be seen.

How is this possible? Historians sometimes treat these achievements either as something inevitable or as a kind of miracle due to individual genius. (This is why some misguided people demand a further dissection of Einstein’s brain, as if that would explain his discoveries.) But what is really happening is something both more obvious and more interesting. It is that these original thinkers have stood back from their local problem. They have placed it in its wider context and thought about how it connects with the surrounding scenery. They have been using telescopes rather than microscopes, so they can deal with a larger subject-matter. In short, they have been philosophizing.

This business of looking at life as a whole – finding wider contexts to give sense to our immediate problems – is philosophy’s distinctive activity. It is what makes it a genuinely important occupation, in fact an occupation that matters to all of us. Philosophy is not just one speciality among others. It’s a kind of conceptual geography which looks at the relation between the subject-matters of various ways of thinking and tries to map it. The reason why some philosophers become well-known is not that they have discovered new facts but that they have shifted the whole standpoint of thought. Philosophers have repeatedly brought absurdities to the attention of their age by displaying current customs against a new background and pointing out the strange assumptions that are distorting them. After this, new ways of thinking become possible.

For instance, when Rousseau started his book on the Social Contract by saying, “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”, he was lighting up some crashing discrepancies between theory and practice which had to be investigated if current problems were ever to be properly dealt with. Similarly, when this same Rousseau pointed out the strangely unnatural way in which babies were being reared – babies who were removed from their mothers, bandaged onto boards and handed over to carers who might well not care much about them – people started to notice anomalies in their whole idea of what nature is, and how it relates to our species. These anomalies had never struck them before. More immediately, they also started for the first time to pay some serious attention to small children, as they have gone on doing ever since.

It is interesting that our forefathers apparently could not see through these previous muddled ways of thinking until someone like Rousseau pointed them out. The assumptions that had produced these earlier customs simply persisted till some shock was delivered – till they were plainly stated in a form that could be grasped and made more workable. This shows how deeply our thought depends on a mass of unstated assumptions, very much in the way that our physical life rests on the hidden shifting masses of the earth beneath us. We don’t notice these assumptions till things start to go wrong – until, so to speak, the smell coming up from below is so bad that we are forced to take up the floor-boards and do something about it. This is why I have often suggested that philosophy is best understood as a form of plumbing. It’s the way in which we service the deep infrastructure of our life – the patterns in life that are taken for granted because they have never been noticed. This is something both deeper and more outward-looking than just examining the structure of our current thought and language, which seems to be what Dummett was calling for.

Another useful piece of plumbing was done in the late seventeenth century, when John Locke worked out the concept of Tolerance. During most of that century people throughout Europe had assumed that they must not tolerate disagreement. If they couldn’t agree on a single truth about religion, they must just go on fighting till they did, and meanwhile individual heretics must all be converted or punished. The idea that different opinions could perfectly well be allowed to exist side by side was seen as a culpable weakness, leading to anarchy. What eventually struck Locke, and what he managed to express in his writings, was that this system of competing dogmas can’t work because the truth is simply too complex. Nobody ever has the whole truth, and people who grasp different bits of it can, in fact, perfectly well live peacefully together. Indeed, that may be the best way of putting the various partial truths together in the end.

This ‘discovery’ was not, of course, (as scientific discoveries sometimes are) simply a matter of finding a brand-new ready-made fact, such as that the Earth goes round the Sun. It was much more like inventing a new musical instrument and working out how to play it. Locke and the people who worked with him had to learn how to tolerate what had previously seemed intolerable, and how to do business with people they had previously thought were outside the pale. They had to learn, too, how to look at the outer borders of this toleration and decide what must still be regarded as intolerable.

In fact, toleration, like all big philosophical ideas, is a very complex instrument, as hard to play as the cello or bassoon, which is why we still have so much difficulty learning how to handle it properly and why we still need to go on thinking out the ideas behind it. And the other ideals round which we try to structure our lives, ideals such as equality, freedom, compassion, fraternity or sisterhood, justice – are all as complicated as they are attractive. Yet they all have to be thought out and used together by the whole orchestra,

These ideals were, of course, central to the message of the Enlightenment, a message which we now assume is the obvious framework for any decent human life. But the Enlightenment story itself wasn’t always obvious. It didn’t drop ready-made out of a machine called History. It had to be invented, devised with a great deal of hard, grinding work by philosophers like Locke and Rousseau and it has had to be thought through with increasing labour up to the present day. In every age, more work of this kind is needed because the truth about the world is endlessly complicated.

• • •

Are we getting any clearer now about what is the real aim of philosophical enquiry? One thing that is already clear surely is that it can’t be at all like the aim of any physical science. Physical sciences spiral inward and down onto particular bits of the truth, which sometimes are ready-made facts, while philosophy ranges indefinitely outward looking for new connections – new ways of thinking and living. So it is quite proper for nuclear physicists to know more and more about less and less. But philosophers are supposed to do almost the opposite – to find links that will restructure the whole scope of our experience and allow us to live differently. Their use is to extend our range. They can bring a landscape in sight that nobody even knew existed.

Of course the contrast between these two forms of thought is not complete because (as we have seen) physical scientists do sometimes have to widen their views in order to shift their focus, and philosophers too must sometimes deal with detailed technical questions. But in their general balance these two approaches really are opposed – not because they are at war, but because they serve quite different needs. Nuclear physicists are normally addressing a limited audience of specialists – people who already share much of their knowledge and want to know more about a particular aspect of it. But the philosophers’ business is something that concerns everybody. Philosophy aims to bring together those aspects of life that have not yet been properly connected so as to make a more coherent, more workable world-picture. And that coherent world-picture is not a private luxury. It’s something absolutely essential for human life,

World-pictures – perspectives, imaginative visions of how the whole world is – are the necessary background of all our lives. They are often much more important to us than our factual knowledge, as may be seen in the case of climate sceptics whose traditional views remain unchanged whatever new evidence appears that seems to disprove them. We all have these background pictures and we usually get them half-consciously from the people around us. We often don’t ask where they came from. But, if we do ask, we shall probably find that they have been shaped by earlier philosophers who have influenced our tradition. For us, at present, that often means the prophets of the Enlightenment, people like Locke, Rousseau, Descartes, Hobbes, Hume, Mill, Marx and Nietzsche. This earlier philosophy doesn’t get obsolete. Far from that, it’s still vigorously alive. It has shaped the way we think. It has deep roots in the soil of our lives and it goes on developing there in its own characteristic way until somebody comes along and rethinks it. That is why people who refuse to think philosophically so often end up trapped in bits of earlier philosophy that they have unconsciously taken on from their predecessors.

The alternative to being enslaved by past thought in this way is to attend directly to what these earlier philosophers actually said and to see how it relates to our life today. If we do this, we shall often find that these people’s message was far more subtle than the crude versions of it that are still working in the tradition. In fact, it is still throwing out shoots that can help us today. The reason why these philosophers caught the attention of their times was (as I have said) not just that they had solved particular problems but that they had lit up life from unexpected angles. They suggested, not just new thoughts but new concepts, distinctive approaches, whole new ways of thinking. Of course none of these new approaches solves all problems, but each of them gives us a fresh stance, fresh tools for the endless balancing act by which we try to understand our confusing world We can see how influential these suggestions still are, not just because people today often still quote from (say) Marx or Nietzsche or Plato or Buddha for their illustrations, but because current thinking as a whole is still often visibly shaped by these people; coloured through in a way that the people using it now are no longer aware of.

So, how can it be plausible to think that they are out of date and we can now forget about them? How could it not be necessary for us to attend to these still influential factors in our lives? The point is not just that – as I’ve suggested – we need to check their details to protect ourselves against distorted versions of their message that are still working in our tradition. We need also to attend to these mighty trees themselves for their own sake. We need to understand them because they have shaped the whole way of life that we still live by. They are still active features of our present life, parts of the tangled forest through which we are still travelling. In fact, the reason why we need to learn about the history of philosophy is just the same as the reason why we need to learn about the rest our history; namely that, without grasping the past, we can’t hope to understand the present.

On the political scene this is obvious. We know that, if we haven’t grasped the past history of the ravenous way in which Western nations competed to gobble up other countries during the nineteenth century, we can’t hope to understand why so many people in those gobbled countries still feel so bitterly resentful towards ourselves. Historical epochs don’t just succeed one another randomly like successive spinnings of a roulette wheel. They are phases in a continuum, organically connected, so that you often really cannot understand where you are now without grasping how you got there.

And if this background is necessary for understanding politics it is still more necessary for our moral and intellectual life. Without it, we can’t really make sense of current conflicts. In particular, any student who is now expected to study the philosophy of the last twenty years without being told about the long sweep of history that produced it is surely doomed to frustration. And this student has all the more right to resent that frustration because (as we have seen) it affects not just his or her knowledge but their whole world-view, their imaginative understanding of life. We need to grasp the story of our past intellectual evolution so as to understand where we are today, just as badly as we need to know about our past biological evolution.

Philosophy, in fact, is not just one specialized subject like another, something which you need not take up unless you mean to lecture on it. Instead it is something we all do all the time, a continuous, background activity which is likely to go badly if we don’t attend to it. In this way it is perhaps more like driving a car or using money than it is like nuclear physics. And perhaps it is more like music than it is like any of these other occupations. Anyway, like good music, good philosophy does not easily get out of date.

© Dr Mary Midgley 2014

[Mary Midgley lectured at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne until 1980. Her best known books include Beast and Man; Wickedness; The Ethical Primate; Science and Poetry and a memoir, The Owl of Minerva. She was given Philosophy Now’s 2011 Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity.]

Library of philosophy books

"The Philosophical Library"

Rick Lewis on libraries, philosophical classics, unexpected discoveries and the challenges of a digital age.

July/August 2014

Philosophy Now

I remember our school library mostly as a place to keep warm and shelter from the rain and playground bullies. It did, however, contain an eclectic selection of books of varying vintages, and idly browsing them gave me my first taste of what it is like to make unexpected discoveries in literature. Once I found a translation of The Clouds, by Aristophanes. That was the satirical play that Socrates blamed, at his trial in 399 BC, for having influenced public opinion against him. But back then I had barely heard of Socrates so I found Aristophanes’ witty send-up of the philosopher and his students a little difficult to follow. A couple of shelves further up, one wet Tuesday, I found an astronomy textbook from the late 19th century, that included a section explaining why space travel would always be impossible (because in space there is no air to push against). And one day I discovered a book by Albert Einstein. It wasn’t his excellent popular guide to his own Theory of Relativity. Called Out of My Later Years, it was a collection of essays on all sorts of topics in morality, religion, culture and international politics. It may be the nearest that Einstein came to writing an actual philosophy book, unless you count General Relativity itself as being philosophy. (And why not? Isn’t it a dazzling triumph of metaphysics, developed from basic underlying axioms with ruthless clarity, despite the counterintuitive conclusions, until it finally gives us a completely new understanding of the universe?)

A library is a place where you expect the unexpected and a single passing reference can send you off to another book on another shelf, and each book might contain dross or might contain a whole universe of thought. But I had forgotten that book of Einstein’s essays until recently I accidentally made contact with its publishers, and discovered that the reason they publish this and six other books by Albert Einstein is rather interesting. So of course I felt I should share it.

It seems that after he emigrated to the United States in 1933 Einstein kept a particular affinity for German language and culture. In New York he made contact with other German-speaking refugees and immigrants, among them a Romanian-born philosopher called Dr Dagobert D. Runes. Like Einstein, Runes was a humanist, a civil rights activist and an admirer of Baruch Spinoza. The two become close friends. Runes knew almost everyone in √©migr√© circles, and hit on the idea of publishing books by the brilliant European exiles he knew. In 1941 he launched The Philosophical Library to do just that. Apart from Out of My Later Years (1950), the seven books by Einstein that he published included several collections of letters, one of which is a book of Einstein’s correspondence with his translator discussing how best to translate various passages of Einstein’s work. The value of this to anyone trying to clarify Einstein’s meaning on different points is obvious. Then when Runes himself edited a Spinoza Dictionary, Einstein wrote the foreword.

The Philosophical Library continues today, still based in New York City but now under the direction of Dagobert Runes’ daughter Regeen, who remembers playing ‘hide-and-go-seek’ with Einstein when she was a small child. Over the seventy years of its existence the company has published more than 2,000 titles, mainly on philosophy, psychology, history and religion. Like the library at my old school, its catalogue is charmingly eclectic, but includes works by 22 Nobel Prize winners. Apart from Einstein’s books its best-known publications include Tears and Laughter by Kahlil Gibran, Classical Mathematics by Max Planck, the English edition of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, and works by Karl Barth, Martin Buber, Bergson, Dewey, Simone de Beauvoir, Jaspers, Royce and many others.

As technological change accelerates and independent publishing companies either fold or merge into giant corporations that bestride the oceans, the survival of small-scale philosophy publishing depends on discovering models which work both financially and in terms of meeting the needs of readers. The Philosophical Library uses two such models. Firstly, it publishes classics from its vast back-catalogue as e-books, as this avoids much of the financial risk involved in printing and distribution. Secondly, it offers a ‘print-on-demand’ service, whereby it arranges the printing of a single copy of a book once it has received an order.

The Philosophical Library manages an astonishing legacy of 20th century classics. By contrast, Project Gutenberg takes a completely different approach for older books which have passed out of copyright in the United States, which happens 70 years after the death of the author. The books are scanned and proof-read by an army of volunteers and around 45,000 are now available for free download, though only about 100 of those are philosophy books. The project’s founder, Michael S. Hart, passed away in 2011 but his legacy marches on. Finally I should mention another great project for public domain works: LibriVox. This is a website containing free audiobooks, recorded by volunteers. Its collection includes around 300 philosophy titles and it is a great resource both for visually impaired people and anyone else who likes to listen to books.

Deceased--Henry Warren "Hank" Hartsfield, Jr.

Henry Warren "Hank" Hartsfield, Jr.
November 21st, 1933 to July 17th, 2014

"Henry 'Hank' Hartsfield Jr. dies at 80; space shuttle astronaut"


Steve Chawkins

July 23rd, 2014

The Los Angeles Times

Over his career as an astronaut, Henry "Hank" Hartsfield Jr. spent many years in training and only 20 days in orbit — but they were very good days.

"I've never had so much fun," he once said of his first mission, a test flight of the shuttle Columbia that made a triumphant July 4 touchdown at Edwards Air Force Base in 1982. "We talked about turning the radio off and staying up there."

He was less ebullient in 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded and seven astronauts perished. By then, Hartsfield, who had flown into space on the shuttles Columbia, Discovery and Challenger, learned that NASA officials had failed to inform him and others about a mechanical problem involving malfunctioning seals.

"I was surprised and angry we didn't know this," he told reporters. "If we don't make something better out of this, we're missing a safe bet. I think my friends who died would want us to be better for it."

Hartsfield, an Air Force test pilot who joined NASA in 1969 but had to wait 13 years before going into space himself, died July 17 in League City, Texas. He was 80.

His death was announced by NASA, which described its cause only as an illness.

An unflappable man with an Alabama drawl, Hartsfield was a space rookie at 48.

As copilot of the Columbia, he spent seven days in space with commander Ken Mattingly on a mission described by The Times as "rekindling America's love affair with manned space flight." When they landed, more than 500,000 people jammed Mojave Desert highways for a glimpse of the incoming Columbia. Fascinated by the venture, more than a million Americans had called a special phone line to listen in on the Columbia duo's laconic conversations with ground control.

Showing their support for the space program, President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan were on hand to greet the returning heroes. "This has to beat firecrackers!" the president joked.

Columbia disintegrated on a mission in 2003, killing its seven-member crew.

In 1984, Hartsfield commanded the space shuttle Discovery on its maiden voyage, a flight that had been delayed by potentially lethal mechanical problems three times, once just four seconds before liftoff. At one point, he decided to keep his frustrated crew in their cramped capsule because of a fire on the launchpad.

"At a press conference we all lied about the tension in the cockpit following the abort and the fire," fellow astronaut Mike Mullane wrote in his 2006 memoir "Riding Rockets."

"Hank took most of the questions and did the 'Right Stuff' routine of 'Aaawh shucks, ma'am. Tweren't nothing."

In an interview, Mullane called Hartsfield "an empowering commander and a fierce patriot."
Hartsfield was so exuberantly right-wing that he deliberately took a bathroom break when the orbiter swung over Havana, Mullane said.

At Hartsfield's 50th birthday party, his colleagues ribbed him with gifts playing off his political leanings. One was an autographed copy of Ms. magazine with an inscription to Hartsfield from feminist publisher Gloria Steinem. It had been arranged by astronaut Sally Ride the first American woman in space.

Hartsfield's Discovery crew included Judith Resnik, the second American woman in space. During their mission, Resnik set up a solar array that led to one now in use on the International Space Station, Mullane said.

Resnik was among the seven who died when Challenger exploded in midair on Jan. 28, 1986, three months after Hartsfield had commanded it.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., on Nov. 21, 1933, Hartsfield grew up near a local airfield. As a newsboy, he won a free ride and was hooked on flying.

Graduating from Alabama's Auburn University with a physics degree in 1954, he joined the Air Force in 1955 and logged more than 7,400 hours of flying time in Germany and elsewhere. He also taught test pilots at Edwards. He later received a master's degree in engineering science from the University of Tennessee.

In 1966, he was assigned to the Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory — a project that never got off the ground. Three years later, he joined NASA, where he was on the astronaut support crew before his space flights and an administrator from 1985 to 1998. He worked for Raytheon Corp., a defense contractor, until his retirement in 2005.

Hartsfield's survivors include his wife, Fran; daughter Judy Hartsfield Gedies; two grandsons; and his brother Earl. His daughter Keely, who worked as a contractor to the space shuttle program, died in March.

"Henry Hartsfield Jr. Is Dead at 80; Flew, With Fortune, on 3 Shuttles"


Bruce Weber

July 22nd, 2014

The New York Times

Henry Hartsfield Jr., who flew on three NASA space shuttles, including as the pilot of the final test flight of the Columbia and as the commander of the maiden mission of the Discovery, died on Thursday. He was 80.

His death was announced by the space agency, which did not say where he died or specify the cause.

Both courageous and fortunate, Mr. Hartsfield flew on the two shuttles — the Columbia and the Challenger — whose histories ended in calamity.

An Air Force pilot who became a NASA astronaut in 1969, Mr. Hartsfield was a member of the astronaut support team for Apollo 16 in 1972, the fifth mission to land men on the moon, and of three Skylab missions. But he did not make his first spaceflight until 1982, when he was part of the two-man crew (along with the commander, Thomas K. Mattingly II, a Navy captain) of the Columbia, the first of the reusable winged planes known as space shuttles, on its fourth and last test flight.

Over seven days, the two men orbited Earth 112 times and, among other things, studied the effects of long-term thermal extremes on elements of the ship and performed arcane genetic experiments involving fruit flies and brine shrimp. Gliding to a smooth landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California on July 4, they were greeted by an estimated 500,000 onlookers, including President Ronald Reagan.

The president praised the astronauts for proving that “Americans still have the know-how, and Americans still have the true grit that conquered a savage wilderness.” He declared the Columbia program “the historical equivalent to the driving of the golden spike which completed the first transcontinental railroad.”

The Columbia eventually flew more than two dozen operational missions, with its astronauts repairing satellites (and, in 2002, the Hubble Space Telescope) and conducting myriad scientific experiments. On a flight in 2003, it broke up during its re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, and all seven crew members died.

In 1983, Mr. Hartsfield, who had left the Air Force in 1977 and was serving NASA as a civilian, became the commander of a six-person crew — the others had no spaceflight experience — for the third shuttle, the Discovery. (The second was the Challenger.) After 16 months of training, on June 26, 1984, just before 8:43 a.m., the six were awaiting liftoff as the countdown began at Cape Canaveral, Fla. But computers detected an apparent valve failure in one of the main engines, and the flight was aborted at T minus four seconds.

“I honestly had no concern,” Mr. Hartsfield said at a news conference. “There was a moment of being startled. I think I used an ‘expletive deleted’ and said, ‘We’re not going anywhere.’ ”
The Discovery finally took off at the end of August and successfully completed a six-day mission, circumnavigating Earth 96 times before landing at the Edwards base on Sept. 5.

In flight, the crew deployed three satellites and unfolded an experimental solar power array, extending it out into space from the ship in the first test of electricity-generating systems for space stations. Crew members conducted several scientific tests and photography experiments using the Imax motion picture camera. The crew earned the name Icebusters after Mr. Hartsfield used a robotic arm to dislodge a chunk of ice from the side of the craft that could have caused damage on re-entry.

“We’ve got a good bird there,” Mr. Hartsfield said about the Discovery after the landing.

Henry Warren Hartsfield Jr., known to friends as Hank, was born on Nov. 21, 1933, in Birmingham, Ala., where he graduated from high school. His father, a self-educated bookkeeper, was an office manager for a general contractor. Mr. Hartsfield received a bachelor’s degree in physics from Auburn University, where he was in the Reserve Officers Training Corps, and did graduate work at Duke and at the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

Eventually, after joining NASA as an astronaut, he earned an advanced degree in engineering science from the University of Tennessee. He entered the Air Force in 1955, serving with the 53rd Tactical Fighter Squadron in Bitburg, Germany, and graduated from the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base.

Mr. Hartsfield’s survivors include his wife, the former Judy Frances Massey, and a daughter, also named Judy.

When Mr. Hartsfield’s career as an astronaut ended, he worked for NASA on the ground; he was part of the team that planned the deployment of the International Space Station. After retiring from the agency, he was an executive at the Raytheon Corporation.

Altogether, he logged 483 hours in space. He made his third and final spaceflight in October 1985, as the commander of an eight-person crew aboard the shuttle Challenger, which was carrying a German Spacelab and conducted experiments in the areas of physiological sciences, materials processing, biology and navigation. The flight, 111 Earth orbits in seven days, preceded a catastrophe. On Jan. 28, 1986, less than two minutes after liftoff on its next flight, the Challenger disintegrated in midair. In an eerie foreshadowing, a seven-member crew perished.

NASA Biography

Henry Warren "Hank" Hartsfield, Jr. [Wikipedia]

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Baghdad's National Museum...a decade later

"National Museum, Baghdad: 10 Years Later"


Andrew Lawler


The round hole made by an artillery shell was visible long before we pulled up next to the National Museum in Baghdad in early May of 2003. The puncture, just below a frieze of a king in a chariot, was in the replica of a Babylon gate next to the exhibit halls. An American tank sat in the archway. Though I had seen images of the destruction that took place a month before, the sight was startling.

Inside it was worse. The administrative area was in shambles. Filing cabinets were turned over, and papers dating back to the museum’s founding by British archaeologist Gertrude Bell in the 1920s, were strewn about. Small fires had destroyed some offices. In the display area, angry mobs had shattered the cases and smashed 2,000-year-old statues. The primary storage facility had been breached, and some 15,000 objects—no one knows exactly how many—were gone. Among the missing pieces were thousands of tiny cylinder seals, as well as several iconic artifacts such as the Lady of Warka, a stone head of a woman found at Uruk, which is considered the world’s oldest city.

Had museum officials not hidden 8,366 of the most valuable artifacts in a safe place known only to them, this event might have been a catastrophe for cultural heritage in Iraq. For a while, no one knew for certain how much damage had been done; I was with a team of U.S. archaeologists who arrived to assess the situation. Most of the museum’s estimated 170,000 artifacts were eventually found to be safe. The rampage had earned front-page headlines across the world. It was entirely preventable.

Some 2,500 years earlier, the Persian king Cyrus the Great was able to storm nearby Babylon, then the world’s largest city, but texts from the time relate that there was no chaos or looting. However, in 2003, American troops failed to secure what was second on their own list, after the Central Bank, of important places to protect in the modern Iraqi capital. Archaeologists had visited the Pentagon prior to the invasion to provide military officials with detailed coordinates of all major Iraqi cultural heritage sites.

The looting of the museum was over less than 48 hours after it began on April 10, 2003. But it was only the start of a decade of disaster for Iraq’s cultural heritage, a heritage that includes the world’s first cities, empires, and writing system. More than ancient vases and display cases were affected. The invasion began a grim era of sectarian violence and lawlessness in the very land that developed the state, legal codes, and recorded history itself. That era continues. “These are still very tough days,” says Abdul-Amir Hamdani, an Iraqi archaeologist who today is working on a doctorate at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook. I first met Hamdani in May 2003 on the sidewalk outside U.S. military headquarters in the southern city of Nasiriya, where he was desperately attempting to get help to stop the vandals poaching ancient sites. “There is still nothing protecting many sites from looting and destruction.”

Looting, particularly in southern Iraq, which was the center of ancient Mesopotamia, had already begun in earnest in the late 1990s and grew to alarming proportions by 2004 and 2005, long after the National Museum was secured. The United States, its allies, and the fledgling government of post-Saddam Iraq did little to address the sources of the problem. Looting notwithstanding, Hamdani says that today’s principal threat is unbridled development; he served time in jail a few years ago for protesting construction on ancient sites. It is true that, now, foreign archaeologists are working in the northern part of Iraq called Kurdistan. A few western excavators are even digging in the southern regions that have long been off-limits. Looting at archaeological sites has decreased. But young archaeologists in the country long ago drifted to other less controversial and more remunerative work as the older generation retired, emigrated, or died.

More ominously, a new generation of Iraqis has grown up without any access to the impressive network of museums across the country that were once crowded with schoolchildren. They know little of their ancient past. Many Iraqi politicians today have a bent toward Islamic fundamentalism that is no friend to secular archaeology. Liwaa Semeism, the tourism minister overseeing the State Board of Antiquities, is a member of a splinter Shiite party. He has reduced the board’s authority and is openly hostile to foreigners. American archaeologists are now forbidden to excavate in Iraq until a trove of Jewish artifacts removed by the U.S. government is returned. And Semeism recently suggested that Germans might not be welcome either until the famous Babylonian Ishtar Gate—the model for the National Museum gateway—is returned.

The National Museum of Iraq today has beautifully renovated galleries and state-of-the-art climate control and security systems run by a staff that still consists of a core of underfunded but dedicated curators. But despite all the effort and money lavished on it by foreign governments, the museum remains closed to all but the most senior VIPs in an attempt to protect it. The fear is that throwing the museum’s doors open to the public exposes the collection and the newly-restored building to risk from another attack.

New elections later this month could bring greater political stability to the country. Eventually, as they have done from Nebuchadnezzar to Saddam, Iraqi leaders may again see their heritage as a major asset. “If you want to think about unity, then the ancient past is a broadly shared culture,” says Elizabeth Stone, a SUNY Stony Brook archaeologist who spent years excavating in Iraq. “Ancient Mesopotamia was real, and that could be used as a basis for natural unity.”

Hamdani will be returning to his home country this summer to continue his research. More than half of the stolen objects from the National Museum have been recovered, the gaping hole in the gate has since been carefully patched, and the tanks are gone. It is worth noting that there were no follow-up congressional hearings or independent investigations to pinpoint the parties responsible for the negligence connected to the museum debacle. No one in the U.S. military was criticized, demoted, or court-martialed. A Marine, who blamed Iraqis for using the site as a base to fight the Americans, wrote the only formal report on the matter.

The chaos that engulfed this land may finally be receding. A decade later, however, the true cost to our understanding of such a rich share of humanity’s heritage has yet to be tallied.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

White and goes physics

Loraine Decherd

"We Know Physics is Largely White and Male, But Exactly How White and Male is Still Striking"

Most current physics students will likely never have an African American physics teacher, says a new survey


Shannon Palus

July 14th, 2014

In the entire United States, of the thousands and thousands of college physics and astronomy faculty, only 75 are African American or Hispanic women, says the American Institute of Physics. According to a new survey by the AIP, female racial minorities make up less than 1% of the 9,050 physics faculty members in the country.

According to the new survey data, just 2.1% of physics faculty in the country are African American and 3.2% Hispanic. Those values come nowhere near the representation of those groups in the general population, where 13% of Americans are black and 17% Hispanic. The overwhelming majority--79.2%--of physics faculty are white. “[M]ost physics students will never see a black faculty member,” says the AIP report. And the situation doesn't look set to change: the number of African American faculty members has flatlined since 2000.

Last year, a separate report from the American Institute of Physics found that women aren't doing any better. They found that the representation of women in physics is still incredibly low. But unlike the lack of movement in physics' racial diversity, the outlook for women is slightly more optimistic: while 14% of all faculty members are female, more than 25% of the new hires in 2010 were female.

Minority women in science “have traditionally been excluded because of biases related to both their race or ethnicity and gender, constituting a double bind,” explains a 2005 report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Maleness and whiteness, even separated, hijack diversity efforts says the AAAS: “[W]omen's science organizations are overwhelmingly white, and the minority science organizations, overwhelmingly male.”
The number of staff on the payroll, though, is only part of the picture, says the AIP:

    Counting numbers of faculty members cannot tell us about the everyday experiences and workplace environments of academic physicists. It also does not tell us about possible inequities in salaries and in promotion and tenure rates.

As a 2012 study showed, biases are often unconsciousness. In their study, the researchers found that both female and male faculty members were less likely to hire an "applicant" for a lab position when the resume had a female name at the top.

The roots of bias run deep, and in some part stem from the idea that physics is a select club, the exclusive realm of brilliant, excentric white men: “The image of Einstein, with his shock of white hair and seemingly superhuman intellectual accomplishments, is not one that most people would gravitate toward nor view as achievable,” says a 2005 International Conference on Women in Physics presentation. A 2006 American Physical Society presentation expands: “And for African American Women this image is less attainable than for most, for we have less in common with him than the majority of the physics community.”

We revere people like Einstein, Newton, Hawking and others because their intellectual pursuits broke the mold of the time--their thinking expanded our knowledge of the universe and helped us to understand our place in it.

Yet just like for these great white men, new ideas often come from new ways of thinking. The different perspectives and experiences of those who--by nature of their gender or skin color--have tred a different path through life should be valuable to all people who care about scientific discovery. Not just because diverse ways of thinking could set the stage for new scientific ideas but because, at its heart, physics explores the underpinnings of the universe, and the keys to the cosmos should be accessible to everyone.

There are exceptions...

University of Texas

Off to be scrapped...Costa Concordia

"It’s Make or Break for the World’s Biggest Marine Salvage Operation"


Per Liljas

July 14th, 2014


It’s a record attempt in heavy lifting that nobody wishes to ever be matched. On Monday, the operation to raise and refloat the capsized 114,500-ton cruise ship Costa Concordia was finally started. If all goes well, the vessel will be towed away to the Italian port city of Genoa, where it will be decommissioned. However, after more than two and a half years on the sea floor, experts fear the delicate maneuver will rupture the prone ship’s hull, spewing out its toxic load — including fuel and dangerous chemicals — into the pristine Tuscan archipelago.

The Costa Concordia veered off course and ran aground outside the island of Giglio in January 2012, killing 32 people and leaving the enormous liner partially submerged in the shallow waters. In tandem with a legal process against the ship’s captain, a salvage operation of unparalleled proportions was commenced. All but one of the victims’ bodies have been recovered, and in a massive September 2013 exercise, the ship was turned upright (parbuckled) and secured on an artificial platform.

Now begins the final phase. Giant tanks welded to the sides of the 290-m-long wreck will be emptied of water, slowly raising it out of the water. Every floor surfaced will be cleaned of debris and potentially harmful substances that could spill into the sea. They will also be surveyed for signs of Russel Rebello, the Indian waiter who remains missing.

“I strongly believe they will find the body of my dear brother,” writes Russel’s brother Kevin in a Facebook post.

Weather conditions have delayed the operation on several occasions, but even though the forecast still isn’t ideal, the salvage crew has pushed ahead, since the hulk would unlikely survive another winter. In fact, it could already have deteriorated too badly for the refloating procedure and subsequent 240-km tow to Genoa. The first 2 m of the raising are the most dangerous, and the hull will constantly be monitored for possible cracks and fissures.

Cutting up the ship in place is not an option. “It’s far more dangerous to the environment to leave it where it is than to tow it away,” Italy’s civil-protection chief Franco Gabrielli explained to Giglio residents. With luck, they could bid farewell to their unwanted, view-spoiling neighbor in just a couple of weeks. Refloating Costa Concordia and moving it into open waters is estimated to take between five and seven days, tugging it to safety another four to five.


Remarkable engineering feat

Now Germany's soccer team must face the tough Greeks


Thursday, July 10, 2014

Deceased--Frank M. Robinson

Frank M. Robinson
August 9th, 1926 to June 30th, 2014

"Frank M. Robinson dies at 87; author and Harvey Milk speechwriter"


Steve Chawkins

July 9th, 2014

The Los Angeles Times

Frank M. Robinson, an author of thrillers and science fiction who also helped slain San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk craft some of his most powerful speeches, has died. He was 87.

Robinson's June 30 death while under hospice care at his San Francisco home was confirmed by Daniel Nicoletta, a longtime friend who, like Robinson, was part of Milk's inner circle. Robinson had a history of heart problems, Nicoletta said.

As a fiction writer, Robinson told stories set in burning skyscrapers, sinister hospitals and Utopian spaceships drifting a thousand generations into the future. With Thomas Scortia, he wrote "The Glass Inferno," a 1974 novel about a catastrophic blaze. It, along with Richard Martin Stern's "The Tower," formed the basis of the 1974 blockbuster movie "The Towering Inferno."

A sci-fi fan since his teenage years, Robinson also made a living in nonfiction.

Without revealing his gay identity, he wrote Playboy magazine's Playboy Advisor column from 1969 to 1973.

"I didn't trust the outside world," he told the Portland Oregonian in 2008. "I was frightened. Frightened I'd lose my job and my friends."

At the same time, Robinson wrote and edited "Chicago Gay Pride," a 1971 publication that promoted the city's Pride Parade. He kept his byline out of it.

Moving to San Francisco in 1973, he did not intend to throw himself into politics. But strolling by Milk's camera shop in the Castro district, he befriended the man who was to become the first openly gay American elected to a prominent office.

Milk had won 15,000 votes in an earlier, unsuccessful bid for supervisor. Now he was running again and was looking for a speechwriter.

"I never for a moment thought he would win anything," Robinson later wrote. Still, he signed on.

Robinson worked on Milk's stirring "You've Got to Have Hope" speech — a call for gay pride that included Milk's recounting of an anguished call from a confused young boy in Altoona, Pa.

"Harvey polished the speech and used it often,"
Robinson wrote in his foreword to a collection of Milk's writings, "though the rest of us kidded him because some days the boy lived in Altoona, other times in San Antonio or Buffalo. The boy really got around, we thought."

Eventually, Robinson became such a trusted advisor that Milk, preoccupied with the possibility of his own assassination, left a "political will" designating him as his preferred successor.

"If there were any problems, he would be able to carry on the philosophy and idea of what I stood for," Milk said in a 1977 tape recording he left with his attorney.

On Nov. 27, 1978, Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were shot to death by former supervisor Dan White.

Always uncomfortable in the limelight, Robinson never sought office and continued to write books.

Born in Chicago on Aug. 9, 1926, Frank Malcolm Robinson served in the Navy as a radar technician during World War II and the Korean War. Between his tours of duty, he graduated from Beloit College in Wisconsin. He later received a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University.

He wrote or co-wrote more than a dozen works, including coffee-table books that reflected his passion for garishly illustrated, campy pulp magazines.

His 1956 novel "The Power" was about a murderous superman with psychic powers. In 1968, it was turned into a film starring George Hamilton and Suzanne Pleshette.

His 1991 novel "The Dark Beyond the Stars" received a Lambda Literary Award for gay men's science fiction and fantasy.

Robinson's stories feature occasional bisexual or gay characters but are not built around gay themes, said Robin Wayne Bailey, a novelist and past president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

"He used to say he was never in the closet but he was never out waving the flag every day either," Bailey said.

Persuaded by director Gus Van Sant, Robinson reluctantly played a cameo role as himself in the 2008 film "Milk." The scene involved one of Milk's pet crusades — cleaning up after dogs in public spaces — and Robinson's only word was one in common use to describe dog droppings.

"I said I thought I could manage that," Robinson recalled, "and my career as a movie star was born."

Robinson leaves no immediate survivors.

"Frank M. Robinson Dies at 87; Author and Adviser to Harvey Milk"


Paul Vitello

July 4th, 2014

The New York Times

Frank M. Robinson, a well-regarded science fiction writer whose credits include a novel adapted for the 1974 blockbuster film “The Towering Inferno,” and who was also a speechwriter and adviser to Harvey Milk, the San Francisco city supervisor assassinated in 1978, died on Monday at his home in San Francisco. He was 87.

The cause was heart disease and pneumonia, said Robin Wayne Bailey, an author, friend and former president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, which announced the death.

Mr. Robinson had moved to San Francisco from Chicago in 1973 to work with a friend and fellow writer, Thomas N. Scortia, on a novel about a skyscraper fire. While writing the book he befriended Mr. Milk, who owned a camera store in the neighborhood.

“The Glass Inferno,” their 1974 novel, was mined for parts in creating the final script for “The Towering Inferno,” the producer Irwin Allen’s disaster-film follow-up to “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972). Parts of Richard Martin Stern’s 1973 novel, “The Tower,” also found their way into the movie. All three authors earned screen credit and substantial paydays.

Mr. Robinson used his money to settle in San Francisco, and to help Mr. Milk in his quest to become one of the first openly gay elected officials in the country.

“It came up that I was a writer,” Mr. Robinson said in a 2008 interview with The Chicago Reader, describing the conversation that began his political partnership with Mr. Milk. “He said, ‘Hey, why don’t you be my speechwriter? It’ll be a hoot.’ ”

“I figured it would be a lot of fun,”
Mr. Robinson recalled — “and I might meet somebody.”

Mr. Robinson was also gay, but not publicly. In Chicago, where he spent the first half of his life, he had earned his living as a writer and editor for men’s magazines like Rogue, Gallery and Playboy. At Playboy, where he worked from 1969 to 1973, he had ghostwritten the “Playboy Advisor” column, a colloquium of sex and lifestyle advice for men.

His reputation as a science-fiction author was established with “The Power,” a 1956 novel about a man with advanced mental powers. Considered a classic of the paranormal genre, it was made into a television special in 1956 starring Theodore Bikel and a film in 1968 starring George Hamilton and Suzanne Pleshette.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Mr. Robinson teamed with Mr. Scortia on several projects. Besides “The Glass Inferno,” they wrote “The Prometheus Crisis” (1975), “The Nightmare Factor” (1978) and “The Gold Crew,” a nuclear-nightmare thriller.

His 1991 novel, “The Dark Beyond the Stars,” a space travel reimagining of Christopher Columbus’s journey, was selected as one of The New York Times’s notable books of the year.

Frank Malcolm Robinson was born in Chicago on Aug. 9, 1926. After a tour of duty in the Navy during World War II, he graduated from Beloit College in Wisconsin and then was drafted again to serve in the Korean War. He earned a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and worked in the magazine business while writing fiction.

He is survived by a brother, Mark.

Mr. Robinson had a small role in “Milk,” Gus Van Sant’s 2008 film about Harvey Milk, and was interviewed extensively by Sean Penn, who played the title role, for his insights about his friend. Mr. Milk was killed along with Mayor George Moscone at San Francisco’s City Hall on Nov. 27, 1978, by a disgruntled political rival, Dan White.

Mr. Robinson had little or no dialogue in most of his scenes. But at one point he improvised a line, standing at a window to shout a profane coming-out announcement about his sexuality. “I’ll tell my brothers!” he said. Mr. Van Sant liked the moment well enough to film it a second time.

Mr. Robinson had never told anyone in his family that he was gay, neither his parents nor his four brothers. And though the scene did not end up in the film, saying the words had made him tremble with emotion, he told The Chicago Reader. It had been his coming out.

“I suddenly realized I was saying goodbye to all that baggage.”

Frank M. Robinson website

Frank M. Robinson [Wikipedia]

Two samples...


The Worlds of Joe Shannon

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Deceased--John King

John King
1925 to July 6th, 2014

"John King, professor emeritus of physics, dies at 88"

Innovative researcher and educator was a champion of attacking science problems with “ferocious vigor.”


Teresa Lynne Hill

July 7th, 2014

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Professor emeritus John G. King ’50, PhD ‘53, an experimental physicist, transformative physics educator, and leader of the MIT Molecular Beams Laboratory in the Research Laboratory for Electronics for 42 years, died on June 15 at his summer house in Wellfleet, Mass. A longtime resident of Cambridge, King was 88. The cause of death was congestive heart and renal failure.

“John was an inspiring teacher and experimentalist. His educational passion was creating hands-on experiments built from ordinary parts you can find at any hardware store, what he lovingly called ‘mulch,’” said MIT senior lecturer in physics, and former King student, Peter Dourmashkin ’76 (physics), ’78 (math), PhD ‘84. “He was MITx before MITx.”

King was born in London and educated in France, Switzerland, and the United States. He came to MIT as an undergraduate in 1943 and completed his undergraduate studies in physics following war service for the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, and the Harvard Underwater Sound Lab. He joined the MIT physics faculty in 1953. King was named the Francis L. Friedman Professor of Physics in 1974 and retired from MIT in 1996.

King was renowned for his null experiments — those designed to test fundamental principles. He helped develop the atomic clock and invented the molecular microscope. King’s best-known experiment, still found on the first page of most electricity and magnetism textbooks, is the measurement of the charge magnitude equality of the electron and the proton, and the neutrality of the neutron to a 10-20 of an electron charge. King also conceived an imaginative experiment, prompted by cosmological ideas, to set a hard limit on the possibility that matter, over cosmological time, begets new matter, a version of what was once called the steady state cosmology.

Building atomic and molecular beam research

Professor of physics emeritus Rainer Weiss ’55, PhD ’62 was a colleague of King throughout his student and faculty years at MIT and considers him to be “one of the most creative and imaginative experimental physicists of his generation.” Both physicists were students of Jerrold Zacharias, who began the Molecular Beam Laboratory at MIT shortly after World War II. Molecular beam experiments measure the properties of individual atoms in a vacuum unperturbed by interactions with other molecules. The technique provides precise and universally reproducible values for the energy levels and other parameters of these quantized systems. King began his work in molecular beams by pioneering new methods to measure the charge and current distributions in the nuclei of the halogens. He discovered the magnetic octupole moment of the common isotope of iodine.

During his years as director and principal investigator of the Molecular Beam Laboratory, King transformed the research conducted there. It branched into molecular beam techniques applied to collective body physics, cosmology, and biophysics. More than 100 undergraduate and 25 doctoral students obtained their degrees working on these topics during King’s tenure at the laboratory.

At a 2000 gathering to celebrate King’s career, Fred Dylla ’71, SM ’71, PhD ’75 described working in the Molecular Beams Lab as “getting your hands dirty and being surrounded by brilliant students who were around all the time.” Dylla is currently executive director and CEO of the American Institute of Physics (AIP), a nonprofit umbrella organization for 10 scientific societies that publishes scientific journals and provides information-based products and services.

Applying atomic beam techniques to biophysics, King invented a molecular microscope using water molecules rather than light as the illuminating projectile. His idea was to map the locations where water would evaporate or stick on small biological samples such as cells with biologically interesting spatial resolution. Working models of the device were developed for some biology labs, though the technique has yet to be widely adopted. 

When inventions such as the molecular microscope were not as successful as he had hoped, King attributed the failure to insufficient effort in combining enough money and skilled personnel. Achieving this winning combination required, in his view, an attack on the problem with “ferocious vigor.” Moderate vigor was not enough.

Reinventing physics education

Dissatisfied with the lab exercises used in mid-century physics pedagogy, King worked tirelessly on innovative methods that stressed hands-on learning and independent thinking. In 1966, he initiated the Project Lab, in which students developed their own open-ended research projects. His belief that anyone could “find something interesting to study about any mundane effect” reflects the independent spirit of King’s own early and eclectic science education. He told his students that “the best way to understand your apparatus is to build it.”

As an adviser, King quickly became a project participant. Charles H. Holbrow, professor of physics emeritus at Colgate University and currently a lecturer at MIT, recalled that King had “the wonderful gift of seeing physics in everyday phenomena and turning these into research projects.” Some 2,000 MIT undergraduates experienced Project Lab.

Approached by a student seeking a thesis experiment or a colleague with an idea, King would, before long, be sketching ideas on the backs of envelopes, estimating orders of magnitude, and offering ideas on how to build and run the experiment.  Fred Dylla’s own undergraduate thesis with King was designed to determine the difference in charge between an electron and a proton. Still considered a highly sensitive measurement, the experiment utilized $20 worth of equipment.

A King student from his MIT sophomore year through graduate school, Samuel A. Cohen, director of the Program in Plasma Science and Technology at Princeton University, learned how to operate a drill press and to build his own electron multipliers. At the same time, he was being influenced by King’s ideas. He says, “John’s mind kept jumping decades ahead, from atomic beams to superfluid He3 to molecular microscopy — always decades ahead.”

King believed that an understanding of fundamental science concepts should extend beyond physics course curricula. For years he championed the creation of a “Corridor Lab.” Never entirely realized at MIT (a couple of experiments now grace the Infinite Corridor), Corridor Lab would have placed 100 experiments, each demonstrating a scientific principle, along the miles of MIT hallways. Anyone passing could interact with an apparatus; faculty members could send students to experiment with them; and other departments could participate. King envisioned similar modules in a wide range of venues to further public understanding of science.

With other educators in the late 1950s and ‘60s, King worked on the revitalization of high school physics, following the startling realization on the part of Zacharias that “while students had taken physics, they didn’t understand anything.” When the 1957 launching of Sputnik spurred a nation-wide alarm and allocation of money to improve science teaching, King became deeply involved. In cooperation with the influential Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC), he produced — and acted in —eight physics movies, including “Times and Clocks,” “Interference with Photons,” “Size of Atoms from an Atomic Beam Experiment,” and “Velocity of Atoms.” One of the films featured King demonstrating a principle of physics by driving one of the Bugatti automobiles he had meticulously restored down the Massachusetts Turnpike at high speed.

A lengthy 2009 interview for the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics shows King’s ongoing interest in science as a basis for a healthy and rewarding intellectual life. Speculating on the significance of the earliest point on the educational spectrum, he proposed that each child at birth be equipped with a kit of simple tools (balls, funnels, etc.) designed to stimulate a life of joyful investigation. A more advanced set of gear would be universally furnished at age six.

A life of invention

Family, friends, and colleagues paint a portrait of an energetic, curious, and engaging man who applied these characteristics equally to his intellectual, professional, and personal lives. King’s wife, Jane Williams, recalls him as “interesting, imaginative, ingenious and lots of fun.” In addition to his enthusiasm for physics and the value of science as the basis for understanding the world around us, she says, he was throughout his life “passionate about classical music, poetry, and any kind of dictionary. Since his early years were spent in France, he cared about things French, including French wines.”

King’s French stepfather introduced him to the tinkering that informed much of his approach to science, especially science teaching. As a high school student at Phillips Exeter Academy, he had his own laboratory. In life, as in science, he remained a relentless tinkerer, once rebuilding a bus, complete with bunks, to transport his large family to the farm in Woolwich, Maine, where he and his first wife, Elizabeth, lived for many years. She and several of their eight children still live in or around Woolwich.

King was the recipient of many honors and awards for contributions to physics and physics education. These include the Alfred P. Sloan Award (1956), the AAPT Robert Millikan Medal (1965), the E. Harris Harbison Award (1971), and the Oersted Medal (2000), the most prestigious award of the American Association of Physics Teachers. His numerous publications include co-authorship with Paul Gluck of Jerusalem of “Physics Project Labs,” (Oxford University Press) to be published in fall 2014.

In addition to his wife, King is survived by a daughter, Martha, and sons Andrew, James, Charles, David, Benjamin, and Matthew; granddaughters Sara, Katy, and Lily; stepchildren Cynthia, David, Catherine, and Nicholas; and eight stepgrandchildren. His oldest son Alan predeceased him.

A memorial service will take place at MIT in October.

John G. King [Wikipedia]