Saturday, January 31, 2009

The sciences and gender--Amherst query

The position of women in the science has been debated for some time...the most controversial being the then president of Harvard Lawrence Summers' inappropriate gender in the sciences comments. Below is a question and answer session with three women in the sciences at Amherst College conducted by Gina Rodriguez.

Under the Lens: Real Women Talk Science

"Amherst Science Majors Consider Their Futures"


Gina Rodriguez

October 22nd, 2008

Under the Microscope

Open any newspaper these days, and you'll likely find statistics breaking down how many women are entering the sciences or dropping out of the sciences. You can compare the numbers to those of the last year, the last decade, and the last century, but you can't grab a cup of coffee with a number.

As part of's mission to put faces, so to speak, to the stats and to ask real women for their two cents' worth on science, I recently conducted a virtual panel discussion with three women from one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country, Amherst College.

The panelists:

Maureen: A Chemistry major from L.A. who loves puzzles: "Crosswords, Sudoku, jigsaws, you name it." Since starting college, she has been on the crew, rugby, and equestrian teams.

Samantha: An Environmental Studies major from Pennsylvania who, besides working as a science T.A. and a Writing Tutor, plays in her Amherst music ensembles. A recent college science class highlight for her was learning how to make nylon in her Organic Chemistry class.

Wen: A Psychology major and pre-Med student interested in human rights. Of her international background, she says, "I like to say that I was born in China, raised in Canada, and educated in the U.S."

And now, on to my discussion with Maureen, Samantha, and Wen:

UTM: There has been much discussion and speculation about the disparity between men and women working in the sciences and the obstacles women face. Is this something that you are concerned about? Where do you think this disparity comes from?

Maureen: I don't consciously think about the male-female disparity in the sciences. But it's definitely true that there are more men currently in the field. Women are making advances - the numbers of women interested and entering science-related careers are on the rise - but it's not enough. In physics, engineering, and other more "hard" sciences, the numbers of men greatly outnumber women. Since this is the case, I'm concerned that women may not be treated seriously. This disparity probably arises from the fact that men are assumed to be more analytical and fact-oriented, while women are assumed to be more emotional and interested in the humanities.

Samantha: I don't know that I'm particularly concerned about the obvious disparity between men and women in the sciences, which I think stems mostly from the fact that for so long women did not have access to the same educational opportunities as men. There was just this mindset that women couldn't do the work, and they faced a lot of social and psychological barriers. But now I think we're seeing more and more women enter scientific fields as we gain access to universities, and as math and science education are opened up more for younger students. A large percentage of my science professors are female, and I'm sure that even ten years ago it was much, much smaller, so I think that we're making progress. Once younger people have those positive role models, I think that they're much more motivated to follow in their footsteps...

Wen: I think this disparity is an almost ingrained notion. Men are good at science, while women are good at emotional/connection stuff. It's a stereotyped thing. I do have to admit, that I do agree that maybe in general, there's a trend like that, but stereotypes shouldn't stand in the way of a woman in the sciences. However, though we hear about a disparity in the numbers, I haven't necessarily experienced any "overt" form of discrimination because I'm a woman. Most times, I think guys are little jealous of women nowadays (or maybe that's just because of the fact that Massachusetts is a pretty liberal state overall, especially in [terms of its] colleges). They think that we get it easier because we're women, and everyone sympathizes with us - which is true to a degree. I think equality has to start with people NOT thinking that women need to be babied... For equality to really happen, people need to be equal across the board, regardless of gender.

Probably because of "historical" gender biases, people feel like they need to make it now. But I don't think that it should work that way. Admit that what you did before was wrong, and try to be equal and fair in everything now.

UTM: Throughout your high school and college career, have you felt the need to see more female role models in the sciences? Are there any women working in your field who have inspired you? If yes, please explain. If no, why not?

Maureen: I have rarely encountered female role models in the sciences, so I have yet to meet a female chemist who has inspired me. Despite this lack of female role models, I am still very interested in the sciences. While it would be great to see more prominent females in the sciences, there is no problem as long as girls realize that they can excel in the sciences as much as anyone else.

Samantha: In high school and college, I have had a good number of female role models in the sciences. My biology teacher in high school and a good number of my chemistry and math professors in college were female. My mom is a math teacher. So I knew that there were women in these areas, and these were women I definitely looked up to. I thought what they did was awesome, and I think that their positive influence, especially in this tutorial role, has largely impacted my desire to teach this material to others. Certainly, I feel like overall there is still a gender disparity, especially in the hard sciences, but I know that this is changing.

Wen: Oh definitely. I've often felt the need to see more female role models. But what can you do? I mean most of the science "greats" we read about all fall under the category of: white, male, and dead. However, even if you can't change history, you can still carry forward. I don't really have any "inspirations" period, actually. Nope, can't say that I do. I feel awed by ANYONE working in a science or medicine field just because of all the work attached, but no one in particular.

UTM: What kinds of challenges have you faced in relation to your interest in science? Have any of them been gender-related?

Maureen: No, and I hope it stays that way. In my high school, the numbers of girls in science classes always outnumbered the numbers of boys. My parents and teachers encouraged my interest in science without regard for my gender.

Samantha: The challenges I've faced I think have mostly been related to the atmosphere of my science education... I was always the only girl in my math and science classes, and I certainly felt that fact. I often felt isolated. And the teachers would always bring it up, in some way or another. Sure, I felt good that I was the only girl, I guess, but it made me angry that the boys would always be "better." I think that this had more to do with the sense that a lot of teachers throughout elementary, middle, and high school had, that boys were good at math and science, and a girl who was good at math and science was an anomaly. I always felt like I wasn't as good as the boys, and felt like I wasn't as smart as them and couldn't do the work as well as them, and really had to fight against the grain. I don't get that sense so much now, in college, which is encouraging.

Wen: Well I do think it's intimidating if you're walking into a class, and like most of the people there are males. For women especially, it makes us feel better if we have other girls around. Well or maybe that's just me. But being a room full of guys does give me the creeps. I mean, who would want to take a class like that?

UTM: What sort of community exists among students interested in the sciences in your college? Do you believe that community accurately reflects what you will have to face outside of college? What kinds of challenges do you think you will encounter, and what are you looking forward to?

Maureen: ...Those who come here and choose science are generally very excited about the subject matter. By senior year, it seem like most science majors know each other from having taken the same classes and attending departmental meetings together. The science community here is very willing to share their studies and interests. I'm sure that the environment here is more nurturing and less harsh than in the real world. But I think the science community, in general, will welcome interested new scientists.

Samantha: ...Even though I don't really perceive many gender inequalities in college, that's not the case in the world outside of school. No matter what people say, I still think that there is gender bias and sexual discrimination. There is still this patriarchal condescension against women in our society, as well as a negative reaction against feminism that just won't go away. I can't count the number of times that I've disagreed with people who think that gender discrimination is a problem just in other parts of the world, and that we have no right to complain about our experiences here in the U.S.

Wen: Our college is a pretty liberal and equality driven place. Women are definitely encouraged here for the most part... When I came here, I was definitely like, "Wow, the people here are so nice and incredibly non judgmental." I'm looking forward to telling men I may meet in my future workplace that I'm not their stereotypical woman. I'm loud, opinionated and pretty assertive when I want to get my point across. So don't expect me to just back down!

UTM: Do you have any advice for other young women who intend to pursue science in college?

Maureen: Don't be afraid to try out classes that you didn't enjoy or do so well in high school. Perhaps you had a bad teacher. Classes in college can be completely different from those in high school. You'll delve deeper into topics that were only skimmed over in high school, and you may find yourself really enjoying the material.

Samantha: Don't let anyone intimidate you. There are a lot of smart women and men out there who might make you feel like you're not good, smart, or fast enough. But you just have to persevere and keep working at it. If it doesn't come quickly to begin with, that's okay. For example, the first time I learned about Chemistry, I had the hardest time comprehending the concept of an atom. Now I help other students learn the material and run review sessions. It's immensely satisfying.

Wen: GO FOR IT! I want to read about "Ms. So-So" who discovered "Such and Such" and have it named after her. I mean honestly, all the units we have are named after men and all the discoveries have mostly been by men as well. GO FEMALES! WOOT!

National Science Bowl

Here is something quite worthy from the Department of Energy...the National Science Bowl coming April 30th to May 5th with the contest being held in Washington D.C.

National Science Bowl

"Academic Earth"--lectures online

Billed as "Thousands of video lectures from the world's top scholars." The subjects cover astronomy, biology, chemistry, computer science, economics, engineering, English, entrepreneurship, history, law, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, physics, political science, psychology, and religion--a little something for all. I have watched a few and can say that they are quite good. Understand that these are not slick productions but classroom lectures and rather primitive.

Academic Earth

Thanks to stringer Tim.

"Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical Mathematical Logical Life"

A new book is out discussing the mathematics of Lewis Carroll...Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical Mathematical Logical Life by Robin Wilson.

"How to Measure a Cheshire Grin?"


John Allen Paulos

February 1st, 2009

The New York Times

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, was a mathematician at Oxford University for most of his life. His fanciful "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" are quite familiar to us, as, to a lesser extent, are his photographs of young children. In "Lewis Carroll in Numberland," the distinguished British mathematician Robin Wilson has filled a perceived gap in the writings about Carroll by describing in a straightforward, jabberwocky-free fashion the author's mathematical accomplishments, both professional and popular.

Wilson begins this fine mathematical biography with an account of Dodgson's idyllic North England childhood. Born in 1832, the eldest son in a large family, Dodgson was mathematically gifted like his clergyman father. He read widely, wrote amusing pamphlets for his siblings and dazzled his teachers. As Wilson documents, some of Dodgson's later concerns with logic, time and puzzles were already apparent in his pamphlets and letters.

Proceeding linearly through Dodgson's life, Wilson pays particular attention to his early career at Oxford, including the sometimes tedious details of exams, classes and the tutoring of fellow students. But even at the beginning of his career, Dodgson demonstrated a playful approach to mathematics, frequently injecting little puzzles into his lessons. (One of his classics: A cup contains 50 spoonfuls of brandy, and another contains 50 spoonfuls of water. A spoonful of brandy is taken from the first cup and mixed into the second cup. Then a spoonful of the mixture is taken from the second cup and mixed into the first. Is there more or less brandy in the second cup than there is water in the first cup?)

During these early years, Dodgson developed what would become a lifelong fascination with geometry, an interest that led to his many explications and pedagogical enhancements of Euclid’s "Elements." Wilson explains these clearly for those without mathematical background, as well as Dodgson’s later work on algebraic determinants and his idiosyncratic techniques for evaluating them to solve systems of linear equations.

Dodgson's mathematical career — and perhaps even his literary career — would not have been possible without the Rev. Henry Liddell. In 1855, Liddell became dean of Christ Church and the following year appointed Dodgson a lecturer in mathematics. Liddell had four children, including one little girl named Alice. Wilson briskly dismisses the argument that Dodgson's photographs of Alice and other girls, sometimes nude or semi-nude, show he was a pedophile. "In common with many of his generation, he regarded young children as the embodiment of purity and he delighted in their innocence," Wilson writes, adding that Dodgson's vows of celibacy, which he took in 1861 (though he never became a priest), "would have outlawed any inappropriate behavior, and there has never been a shred of evidence of anything untoward."

Despite his voluminous output, Dodgson, who never married, remains inscrutable as a person, at least to me. A religiously, politically and personally conservative man, he revealed no unseemly visceral urges, but he did have an interest in politics. Through it he came to investigate voting and apportionment systems; he pointed out the possible faults of majority rule, runoffs, eliminations and other procedures, and proposed various alternative arrangements, which also had shortcomings. These insights foreshadowed Kenneth Arrow’s 1951 theorem showing that any voting framework satisfying certain minimum conditions sometimes produces unfair results.

Wilson also discusses Dodgson's proposals for ciphers and codes, his suggestions for improvements in sports and tournament scoring, and his logic diagrams, which in some ways better elucidate the conclusions of syllogisms than the more familiar Venn diagrams. But the variety of his endeavors aside, Dodgson's mathematics has not proved influential or enduring. More long lasting have been his geometrical, arithmetical and logical puzzles, well-chosen examples of which Wilson strews throughout the book, along with excerpts from some of his often teasing letters.

Wilson's aim is to concentrate on Dodgson's scholarly work rather than on the whimsical "Alice" books, but when pushed too hard the dichotomy between them breaks down. Even Dodgson’s mathematical work contained wordplay and humorously literal interpretations. Contrariwise, his popular work, always under the pseudo­nym Lewis Carroll, refers obliquely to serious mathematical and philosophical issues.

Wilson doesn't mention it, but this unwarranted bifurcation brings to mind the philosopher George Pitcher's 1965 essay "Wittgenstein, Nonsense, and Lewis Carroll," which highlights telling similarities between the philosophical writings of Wittgenstein and the popular work of Carroll. Both men were concerned with nonsense, logical confusion and language puzzles. But while Wittgenstein was tortured by these things, Carroll was, or at least appeared to be, delighted by them. The relation between the two is similar in this respect to that between, say, Soren Kierkegaard and Woody Allen.

Finally, in case you're wondering, there’s exactly as much brandy in the water as there is water in the brandy. Most frabjous!

[John Allen Paulos is a professor of mathematics at Temple University. His most recent book is "Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up."]

Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical Mathematical Logical Life


Robin Wilson

ISBN-10: 0713997575
ISBN-13: 978-0713997576

Lewis Carroll fun

Mr. Klein and Mr. Möbius

Newton's Rings

Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington--poetic tribute

Friday, January 30, 2009

Surf Canyon--enhanced Web search

Stringer Tim brought this to my attention...Surf Canyon plugin for the common browsers that can potentially search deeper into the Web. I have not tried it. If you have, offer your opinion and its strengths and weaknesses.

"Digging Deeper in Web Search"

A personalization search tool reveals links buried deep within page results.


Kate Greene

January 29th, 2009

Technology Review [MIT]

One of the hottest frontiers in Web search is finding ways to improve results based on the searchers' preferences. Already, when you log in to Google, the search engine tries to personalize results by mining your search history: for an eighth grader who has performed lots of searches on marine life, a search for "dolphins" might provide more results for the animal than for the football team.

Now Surf Canyon, a startup based in Oakland, CA, is adding its own spin on personalization. Its software, which can be downloaded and installed into Firefox and Internet Explorer Web browsers, enhances individual searches on major search engines by evaluating which links you click on, and then instantly giving you revised search returns--including three sites that relate in some way to the site you clicked on. "We have invented real-time personalization," says Mark Cramer, CEO of the company.

For example, a Google search for "thermoelectric cooler" using Firefox with Surf Canyon installed provides 10 standard results. In my case, the eighth result, from, a chip maker, seemed promising. I clicked on it, scanned the page, and then hit the "back" button. When I subsequently looked at the results page, three new suggestions appeared directly under the result. Surf Canyon had elevated these links from the earlier 100 pages of results because its algorithm determined that these recommendations related to the information on, including technical explanations of how thermoelectric coolers work.

Crucially, these new results are cleverly slipped into the search results so that the original results page doesn't look drastically different when a user navigates back. It would be off-putting to users, Cramer says, if they had seen a link in the original results that they wanted to click on but, when they went back to the results, found it missing. Therefore, recommended results only appear automatically below the link that was clicked on. "We don't want to jar the users," Cramer says. "[Surf Canyon is] specifically engineered to be as unobtrusive as possible."

Behind the scenes, an algorithm makes the personalization possible. Among other things, the algorithm analyzes which results are clicked, which are ignored, and how much time a user spends looking at the page. Importantly, says Cramer, the algorithm semantically deconstructs a page to determine what it means and how similar it is to others in the results. The results are cumulative: after a couple of clicks, the algorithm can determine if you're most interested in a Canon camera, an SLR camera, or, specifically, a Canon SLR, Cramer says.

Marti Hearst, a professor at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, says that Surf Canyon succeeds in presenting the reordered links in a clear, useful, and unobtrusive way. It doesn't require people to do any extra work, as does Google's WikiSearch, a feature that lets users personalize their results by voting them up or down.

However, in her test cases, Hearst found that the algorithm's re-ranked results weren't completely useful. "Where personalization works is where queries are ambiguous," she says, but queries have become increasingly longer over the years, and they tend to provide clues that help the engine disambiguate the results on its own. Additionally, in Hearst's tests of Surf Canyon, she found that it only untangled the different meanings of the acronym ACL (which could mean both anterior cruciate ligament and Association for Computational Linguistics) to a certain point: it kept including mixed results even when she felt that her clicking choices had made it clear that she was interested in the linguistics group.

Cramer and his team say that they have gotten more positive results. In a study they performed, some participants saw a second page of search results that were reordered according to Surf Canyon's algorithm, while others saw a second page with standard results. The researchers found that the participants who had access to reordered results clicked on them 30 to 40 percent more frequently.

Surf Canyon

In remembrance...our space travelers

"When you look at the stars and the galaxy, you feel that you are not just from any particular piece of land, but from the solar system."

Kalpana Chawla

Columbia STS-107

Apollo 1 - January 27th, 1967
Edward White II, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Roger Chaffee

Challenger STS-51L - January 28th, 1986
[front] Michael Smith, Francis Scobee, Ronald McNair
[rear] Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik

Columbia STS-107 - January 16th to February 1st, 2003
[front)]Rick Husband, Kalpana Chawla, William McCool
[rear] David Brown, Laurel Clark, Michael Anderson, Ilan Roman

Soyuz 1 - April 23rd to April 24th, 1967
Vladimir Komarov [right]
Yuri Gagarin [left], the first man in space, was later killed in a jet plane crash.

Soyuz 11 - June 6th to June 30th, 1971
Georgi Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev, Vladislav Volkov

And all the non-human travelers...


Thursday, January 29, 2009

Pluto not fitting definition

As I have said before, Pluto can remain on the current planetary list for ordinary consideration and would probably be reclassified as a non-planet to suit the efficacy of an astronomical definition. The guy/gal on the street need not bother about the scientific classification of's still a part of our astronomical heritage and rightly so. I ran into this article from UNIVERSE TODAY by Fraser Cain "Why Pluto is No Longer a Planet" .

Tyson, Weintraub, Tombaugh & Pluto


It has been said "Researchers say that left-handed people excel in music, arts, and math; but lack ability in language and speech." Barack Obama is left handed. Will he fit into the generality stated above?

"Ancient Lefties: The History of Obama's Handedness"


Heather Whipps

January 29th, 2009


Something sinister is going on, and newly-inaugurated President Obama is behind it.

From the Latin for left, "sinistra," southpaw Obama is another notch for the column of left-handed presidents, now totaling eight — a proportion (out of all 43 men who have been POTUS) that is well above their representation in the total population, which hovers around 10 percent.

(Let's count James A. Garfield as a lefty, although some say he was ambidextrous and others say he was a lefty; many ambis are lefties who learn to do some tasks with their right hands.)

In fact, every president since 1974 with the exception of Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush has been left-handed, as is Obama's former Republican opponent Sen. John McCain. Al Gore is too.

Is it just a coincidence, or is there something about being left-handed that can make for a more presidential demeanor?

Some evolutionary advantage, whether overall greater intelligence or language skills, has kept a stable group of lefties for at least the past 200,000 years, said Chris McManus, professor of psychology and medical education at University College London.

Left-handed tools chipped 500,000 years ago

There have been lefties for as long as there have humans, historians agree.

Some of the oldest evidence of left-handedness comes from Kenya, where of a 500,000 year-old cache of 54 stone tools made by one of our pre-human ancestors, six (or about 11 percent) were chipped using the left hand. Similarly, Neanderthals working with meat and stone tools more than 150,000 years ago left marks on their teeth at left and right angles – indicating opposite hand use – in almost perfect proportion with today's 9:1 ratio.

Paleolithic cave paintings from France and Spain also hint that lefties walked among our ancestors about 30,000 years ago. Studying a collection of so-called negative hand drawings on the cave walls – similar to tracing one hand with the other – scientists found that individuals drew their left hand much more frequently than the right.

The laundry list of lefties goes on through history, with records telling us that a number of famous ancient figures probably favored their southpaw as well, from Alexander the Great to Charlemagne, Holy Roman emperor.

Though ancient sample sizes are small and poor estimates of the exact proportion of lefties, the existence of left-handedness is clear even hundreds of thousands of years ago, McManus said.

Left tied to language

Despite its long history, left-handedness is a uniquely human trait. Chimpanzees and gorillas, with whom we share an ancestor and a number of common physical attributes, don't seem to favor one hand over the other.

Instead, left-handedness may have developed along with another characteristic known just to humans – language.

Most people process language in the left side of their brain, the hemisphere that also controls the right side of the body, and have done so presumably since humans started chatting a few hundred thousand years ago. Whichever gene made the left side of our brains responsible for language also played a role in making our right side dominant, experts such as McManus believe.

Though a specific left-handed gene has yet to be found, the trait to choose one hand over the other is likely inherited, agree scientists. Left-handed parents are far more likely to produce left-handed children, and those children appear to begin favoring that hand in the womb, according to a 2004 study on 10-week-old fetuses.

More recent research suggests that, while developing, the two sides of the brain actually "fight" for specialized control of certain functions, such as handedness, with the left side (which controls the right — are you following?) more often coming out on top.

Interestingly, even when the right side wins, the left brain often shares some of the duties, studies have shown. So while right-handed people usually process language exclusively in the left side of their brain, lefties process language mostly in the right but partly on the left as well.

That preferential wiring may make lefties more adept at certain skills required for leadership according to McManus, who wrote about his theories in his book "Right Hand, Left Hand" (Harvard University Press; 2002).

But what about "left-handedness" and the sciences?

That would be an interesting correlation between human activity. Statistics on this would be like what is the depression rate of physicists. And I am not sure what sort of results would be gathered other than curiosity. How bizarre to discover that there is a positive correlation between "left-handed" people and the sciences. Would there be a cultural community of people developed whereby left-handed people only did science. Is such a situation true in all cases? What about those that retired the left hand usage and switched to right-handedness? Or those that are ambidextrous? One would certainly not draw the conclusion that such a situation is categorical for if a right-handed person lost the use of that appendage and was forced to use the left arm that would not necessarily means a sudden interest in science. For me, I was left-handed until six or seven and switched. The world did little to accommodate left-handed children then. Those early days did not prodivde individual desks designed for the left-handed. They were never positioned in seating arrangements that would prevent passing by individuals from bumping into them. Special tools? There are some specialized tools for wood crafts and my left-handed friend has scissors especially designed for her. I don't imagine that there are many industries that are geared especially for left-handed products. Sometimes social stigmas develop in that the function of a society is favoring the majority. Frankly, it doesn't make any difference: Left, right, both. But the correlation between specific brain functions and being left or right-handed is interesting. In the long run such a correlation would be like saying that there is a relationship between scientists and scientists having a fondness for peanut butter or oatmeal. It is interesting though. It may well have something due to the physical structure and activity of the brain.

I seriously doubt that one will find a correlation between "left-handedness" and the sciences and I am not sure of its relevancy. However, there is quite a bit of history involving the dominance of one hand over the other. Through out history the stance and social significance of a dominating hand is interesting for there has been not to long ago a stigma placed on left-handedness and a long, long time ago there was a premium placed on left-handedness. It is interesting to note that all primates except man are ambidextrous, namely orangutans, chimpanzees, and apes will use either hand while man is the only one making a selection. Many very early forms of writing were written left-handed, reading from right to left. And it wasn't until Greek times did things switch the other way. A curious illustration is in early cave paintings where figures were facing right indicating a left-handed artist. Warfare would favor, in situations of one-on-one combat, a right-handed person inflicting wounds/death while the left hand was busy protecting a vital organ--the heart. Mortality among left-handed warriors must have been high and were soon converted or put in charge of logistics or to become scribes. Data for correlations of dominate hands [or eyes or feet] to science oriented people are zip and subject to much speculation. The unlucky to lucky position of hand dominance will probably shift again and again. Interesting to note that Beethoven, Goethe, Michelangelo were left-handed and that I doubt that gender plays any significant role.

From: Total Man: An Evolutionary Theory of Personality, by Stan Gooch:

Early man, certainly agrarian man, could be tolerant of left-handedness or ambidexterity. Even as hunters left-handers would possibly be socially acceptable, However, there would probably tend to be more fatal accidents amongst them in the course of hunting, so that already there would be a tendency for the incidence of left-handedness to reduce in the general population. But under conditions of severe competition or in war two things would happen: (a) “consistently” more left-handers would be killed in battle and therefore gradually ‘bred out’ and (b) left-handers would be “perceived” to be less effective fighters.

Here is what he said about the position of the heart:

Applied to human beings, this proposal receives strong support from two additional considerations: (1) the heart is biased to the left of centre, i.e. in the rearward and hence most protected position when the right hand is in actual use and (2) by reason of the crossing of motor and sensory fibbers to the opposite hemisphere of the cerebrum the dominate hemisphere is therefore "also" to the rearward and in the most protected position when the right hand is in use.

So, it could well be an evolutionary phenomena on a very short scale of evolution. And, other than the combat situation mentioned above there are surly sociological reasons too.

The ambidextrous feature is interesting and I have read some rather unusual hypotheses regarding why there is favoritism of left or right-handedness. It is believed that all humans are born ambidextrous and through sociological favoritism [a cultural posture fostered by popular determinism], human sense of balance [the human body may be off centered favoring a particular stance], brain functions, external physical forces--who knows why. Told ya, some of the above are bizarre. Interesting to note that the majority of animals are ambidextrous though some species [certain primates] may favor the right hand. It probably doesn't matter much to the squirrel gathering fall’s fruit of black walnuts--they can snatch the nut with either paw with alacrity. However, it may well be advantageous for humans to be ambidextrous. Sometimes, certain situations may require a clever non-dominate hand for assistance.

Does all of this make any difference whether one is left-handed, right-handed, ambidextrous--right or left foot dominate or right or left eye dominate? Perhaps a quirk of nature. In any case things can be performed with alacrity and deft skill in any case, granting ambidexterity having the edge.

Here's a quote by Ambrose Bierce:

Ambidextrous, adj.: Able to pick with equal skill a right-hand pocket or a left.

And remember...

It is always convenient to select anomalies and groom data to support any hypothesis or obscure detail of an individual or group. Motivations are numerous: To perpetuate myths, degrade/humiliate, or the scapegoat mentality. It makes no difference if one is talking about left or right-handedness, race, culture, or intelligence for someone or some group will be singled out for ulterior motives. As far as hand dominance is concerned, even though there are some curious historical examples and plausible explanations, the net result is rather insignificant and in the long run assist only those that desire to profit from lefties with specialized products.


Jacques Steinberg's esaay on DTV switch

"Digital TV Beckons, but Many Miss the Call"


Jacques Steinberg

January 29th, 2009

The New York Times

HOUSTON — Vesta Clemmons, who is 77 and lives alone, relies on the battered Zenith television in her tiny apartment here as more than just a lifeline to the outside world.

"It's like a friend," she said in her living room, which is also her dining room and bedroom. "I would feel very isolated without it. I get lonesome anyway."

So Ms. Clemmons was concerned to learn from a public-service campaign that after Feb. 17 the rooftop antenna connected to her television would no longer function properly, and thus neither would her TV — unless she bought and installed an adaptor. On that day the country's broadcast stations have long been scheduled to shut down the old-fashioned, analog signals that have carried their programming since the days of Milton Berle, and replace them with high-definition digital signals that offer a clearer picture, among other benefits.

But less than a month before the Feb. 17 deadline, so many American households have yet to take the necessary steps to continue to watch over-the-air television — more than 6.5 million, according to Nielsen Media Research — that Congress has considered giving them more time.

On Monday night the Senate passed a bill, supported by President Obama, that would extend the deadline until June 12. The House of Representatives took up the same measure on Wednesday but failed to muster the two-thirds majority needed for it to pass on a fast-track procedural vote. Its fate is now unclear.

Regardless of when the switchover takes place, viewers with cable or satellite systems, and many others with digital televisions purchased after 2004, need not do anything in anticipation of the deadline, nor will they notice much of a change afterward. But for those older and low-income viewers like Ms. Clemmons who still use set-top rabbit ears or rooftop antennas to pull in images of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" or "The Young and the Restless," the switchover to digital television has often proven a bewildering and cumbersome burden.

That so many viewers here and around the country risk losing something as basic as a free television signal is a function, at least in part, of the government’s failure to anticipate that those most affected would be among the nation’s most frail and vulnerable. Further aggravating the confusion and uncertainty has been that a coupon program established by Congress to defray the cost of converter boxes — each American household is entitled to two $40 vouchers, which cover most, if not all, of the cost of the adaptors — ran out of money in early January, leaving hundreds of thousands of applicants to languish on a waiting list. (The program has already issued more than $1 billion worth of coupons.)

Ms. Clemmons, a woman whose slight frame and white mane belie her taste in music — Pink Floyd, Ozzy Osbourne and Nine-Inch Nails are her favorites — said she had made several attempts to call the government’s toll-free number in recent days to request a coupon and had not been able to get through.

Ultimately she received peace of mind from an unlikely source: Meals on Wheels. For several months now, drivers and volunteers for the Houston-area program have been delivering and installing digital converter boxes for its clients — as a side dish alongside the baked chicken and stewed peaches that are their usual fare. Ms. Clemmons's turn came last week.

In Houston, which is the nation's 10th-largest television market and whose flat topography makes it relatively easy to watch TV with only an antenna, the problem is particularly acute: 1 in 10 households remains out of compliance, by Nielsen's estimates, ranking it behind only Albuquerque and Dallas.

Mindful of the need for such efforts, Consumers Union, the nonprofit advocacy group and publisher of Consumer Reports, is among those that lobbied Congress to put off the Feb. 17 deadline by four months. It has estimated the cost of replenishing the coupon program alone at nearly $1 billion, said Gene Kimmelman, vice president for international affairs. To defray the cost of the efforts by Meals on Wheels here, Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, the social service organization that administers the program, appealed last year to congregants in churches and synagogues around the city to donate the converter coupons they may have already received; more than 1,500 people answered that call.

"After I heard about the process of what it would take for a person to get the coupon, and get the boxes, I was pretty livid," said Bridget Samuel, chief operating officer for Interfaith. "I still go out on the routes making deliveries. Most of them are sitting in front of their TVs. They’re watching 'Price Is Right.' They're watching 'Judge Judy.' That’s their company."

Meals on Wheels is hardly the only entity in Houston, or around the country, that has been trying to bring viewers' outdated equipment into compliance. The National Association of Broadcasters estimates that its stations and networks, have, collectively, allotted more than $1 billion worth of advertising time to raise public awareness.

The CBS affiliate here, KHOU-TV, ran a series of tests during its local newscasts in which viewers were told that the analog signal was about to be temporarily replaced by the digital one — and that if their screens go to a test pattern, they should call the phone number listed to learn how to get up to date.

When KHOU and several other local stations ran the tests one day in December, nearly 14,000 viewers called the hot line in response. When the test was rerun on Jan. 6, 8,000 more calls were logged.

KHOU also joined with a local grocery chain, H-E-B, for a series of promotional events at which thousands of customers lined up to apply for coupons, and, if they already had them, to buy converter boxes. Most were able to do so at no personal expense, with H-E-B having priced the boxes at $40, the value of the coupons. (Other electronics retailers have been charging as much as $100.)

Through surveys of its nearly 4,000 clients, Meals on Wheels identified Ms. Clemmons as among those needing assistance. And so, on Jan. 21, Samantha Greenwood, the program’s assessment coordinator, arrived to install her converter box.

As it turned out, Ms. Greenwood couldn't get the converter, which is about the size of a cable box and is connected to both the antenna and TV, to work, because of some wiring problems in the back of Ms. Clemmons's Zenith. But she vowed that her husband, an engineer, would return well before the Feb. 17 deadline to solve the problem.

Ms. Clemmons, who risks losing access to "World News with Charles Gibson," her favorite news program, said she would be waiting.

Earlier that morning Ms. Greenwood had fared better in the apartment of Ramona DeFore, a widow in the same building who is also 77. On her own Ms. DeFore had gotten a coupon and a box but had been baffled as to how to connect it to her Magnavox TV, a set so old she couldn’t remember when she had bought it.

After Ms. Greenwood made the connection successfully, Ms. DeFore was able to tune in Channel 2, the local NBC affiliate, for the first time in years. "I think Phil is on 2," she said, with obvious excitement, in reference to "Dr. Phil." "I've missed him. I wish I had him a few years back, when I had my husband."

The House negates digital delay

Digital TV switchover is postponed

Hubble pix a prize

Here is an opportunity to celebrate the Year of Astronomy and win a prize.

"NASA Wants You to Decide Where It Should Look Next"

January 29th, 2009


NASA wants the public to determine where in the universe it will next aim the powerful Hubble Space Telescope.

The space agency is encouraging Internet surfers to log onto the Hubble Web site and vote for one of a six astronomical objects for the renowned telescope to examine for the first time.

The options, none of which the Hubble telescope has not previously photographed, include four distant galaxies (two of which are colliding), two planetary nebulas and one star-forming dust cloud.

Voting will end March 1. After voting is tabulated, Hubble's powerful camera will snap a high-resolution image revealing new details about the object that receives the most votes.

The photograph will be released in early April during the International Year of Astronomy's "100 Hours of Astronomy."

Each voter will be entered into a random drawing to receive one of 100 copies of the Hubble photograph made of the winning celestial body.

You can vote here.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Chemistry sets...back?

Dangerous Book for Boys

A new British book and related science kits are on the market and proving to be very popular. Will it work? Well, it can't mirror the old chemistry sets of A. C. Gilbert or Porter. Furthermore, one wonders if this isn't a nostalgia trip for dad and it is undermining the gender issue. Back in my father's day there was The Boy Mechanic.

The Boy Mechanic Volume 1

The Boy Mechanic Volume 2

The Boy Mechanic Volume 3
"Chemistry sets could become best-selling toys"

Chemistry sets inspired by the best-selling Dangerous Book for Boys are expected to become one of the hits of the year with children, as the toy industry goes "back to basics" to fight the recession.


Harry Wallop

January 28th, 2009

A British company has signed a deal with authors Conn and Hal Iggulden to produce a selection of science kits, costing £4.99, and packaged within boxes that look like the book.

The book, which sold more than half a million copies, tried to inject a few more scrapes, a bit more mud and explosions into the spare time of young boys. The science kits allow young children to make their own battery, or manufacture a rubber ball, or test out gravity, all with the help of some cheap materials and simple instructions.

The battery kit, for instance, contains some tin foil, a piece of wire, some copper coins and vinegar and instructions.

They were just one example of the toy industry moving away from high-tech robots and battery-operated gizmos towards more traditional and nostalgic games. Industry figures said the collapse of Woolworths, the country's third biggest toy retailer, has shaken the market, forcing toy makers to "go back to basics" after toy sales fell by 2 per cent last year. The increasing success of video games has also caused problems for some toy manufacturers.

The kits were unveiled at Wednesday's Toy Fair in London, which showcases the gadgets, toys and games that will be on the shelves later this year.

Role playing kitchens for toddlers, a new Playmobil range and a Sylvanian Families Caravan were all highlighted as some of the top new toys for 2009 by the British Toy & Hobby Association, which organises the fair. One of the likely stars is also expected to be Lego's innovative move into the board game market with its range of construct-your-own board games.

Bob Paton, the product manager of Interplay, the Buckinghamshire-based company, which has signed the license deal with the Iggulden brothers, said: "These science kits will be wonderful for boys to bond with their fathers."

"There is a real feel-good factor about them and a world away from video games. It is our job to distract children away from video games into real toys."

The Dangerous Book for Boys


Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden

ISBN-10: 0061243582
ISBN-13: 978-0061243585

A. C. Gilbert "U-238 Atomic Energy Lab"

The home chemist...long gone

Mr. Wizard...missed mentor

Mr. Wizard--more

New Book..."Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments..."

Some fun...some science toys

"Watch Mr. Wizard"--1954 episode

The House negates digital delay

I missed this one. I wonder how many lobbyists are mopping their sweaty brows with a smile on their faces. I bet PBS was there twisting arms.

"House fails to pass DTV delay bill"


John Wallace

January 28th, 2009


WASHINGTON--The House of Representatives on Wednesday failed to pass a bill to delay the nationwide switch to digital television signals by about four months.

The bill needed two-thirds of the votes of the House under special rules adopted for the vote.

Efforts to delay the transition date to June 12 from February 17 has been fueled by worries that 20 million mostly poor, elderly and rural households are not ready for the congressionally mandated switch.

President Barack Obama supports a delay, and the Senate passed the bill seeking a delay earlier this week.

"House Defeats Bill to Delay Digital TV Switch"


Brian Stelter

January 28th, 2009

The New York Times

Two days after the Senate unanimously approved a four-month delay of the digital television transition, the House of Representatives did not pass the same proposal on Wednesday, "leaving the current Feb. 17 deadline intact for now," the Associated Press reports.

"The 258-168 vote failed to clear the two-thirds threshold needed for passage in a victory for GOP members," according to the AP.

The legislation's failure means that the nation's television stations will have to switch from analog to digital broadcasting by Feb. 17, unless Congress takes other steps to delay the transition.

House Democrats may bring the bill up for a regular floor vote next week. That vote would only require majority support to pass. "Wednesday’s vote took place under a special procedure that required two-thirds support for passage," the AP reported.

Earlier this month, calling the government funds to support the switch "woefully inadequate," the Obama administration called on Congress to delay the Feb. 17 date. The switch requires consumers without a digital-ready TV who rely on over-the-air signals to install converter boxes for their TV sets. The Nielsen Co. estimates that more than six million households are still unready for the switch.

Some lawmakers have argued that a delay would only exacerbate the confusion about the transition. And local stations have noted that they have already budgeted funds for next month's switch. Keeping their analog signals on the air for four more months would require more money for power and maintenance costs.

"In my opinion, we could do nothing worse than to delay this transition date," said Joe Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the House Commerce Committee. "The bill is a solution looking for a problem that exists mostly in the mind of the Obama administration."

In a statement Tuesday, the Senate Commerce Committee chairman, John D. Rockefeller IV, said he was deeply disappointed by the Republicans' move to block the transition.

"Instead of delaying the transition to ensure that the most vulnerable among us have the ability to prepare for the transition, they have made certain that far too many consumers across the country will wake up on February the 18th and find that their television sets have gone dark and access to news, information, and vital emergency alerts will be unavailable," he said. "It did not have to be this way — this situation was unnecessary and avoidable."

Digital TV switchover is postponed

"The Atom Smashers"--eccentric

Now I know why they ran this so late last night. "The Atom Smashers" was a study of eccentric physicists and the race to discover the Higgs Boson--overall somewhat boring. It is a small world of theoretical physicists and the question here, especially in the light of the current economy, is the search for the ultimate particle justified at this time. It is more a matter of philosophy than discover the Holy Grail of high energy physics and possibly offer an explanation of what holds the universe together. The DOE has slowly cut funds at Fermilab and other institutions as well. Money is getting tight and the wholesale search, however grand it would be, is put on the back burner for now. Of course there is the LHC...Fermilab's high-powered competitor that may well discover the Higgs Boson before Fermilab does. The cognitive battle between Fermilab and the LHC, I suppose, is a matter of pride. The search for the Higgs Boson is interesting, but what would it eventually yield?

As a side note, the expository subtitled data was intrusive, overused, and difficult to read.

Tyson, Weintraub, Tombaugh & Pluto

Clyde Tombaugh

Alan Boyle, MSNBC's science reporter, discusses Neil deGrasse Tyson's book The Pluto Files and David Weintraub's book Is Pluto a Planet? There is also an interview with Clyde Tombaugh [including video clips].


Tyson's interview with "Time" on Pluto and planets

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

PC's distant relative

A distant relative to today's computers.

UNIVAC commercial from 1956

Rabbit Angstrom's creator has died--John Updike

John Updike
March 18th, 1932 to January 27th, 2009

Ah, fond memories of Rabbit Angstrom and adolescent, literary eroticism. Updike wrote the following on Mars...

Mars has long exerted a pull on the human imagination. The erratically moving red star in the sky was seen as sinister or violent by the ancients: The Greeks identified it with Ares, the god of war; the Babylonians named it after Nergal, god of the underworld. To the ancient Chinese, it was Ying-huo, the fire planet. Even after Copernicus proposed, in 1543, that the sun and not the Earth was the center of the local cosmos, the eccentricity of Mars's celestial motions continued as a puzzle until, in 1609, Johannes Kepler analyzed all the planetary orbits as ellipses, with the sun at one focus.

All the fanciful Martian megafauna—Wells's leathery amalgams of tentacles and hugely evolved heads; American journalist Garrett Serviss's 15-foot-tall quasi red men; Burroughs's 10-foot, 4-armed, olive-skinned Tharks; Lewis's beaver-like hrossa and technically skilled pfifltriggi; and the "polar bear-sized creatures" that Carl Sagan imagined to be possibly roaming the brutally cold Martian surface—were swept into oblivion by the flyby photographs taken by Mariner 4 on July 14, 1965, from 6,000 miles away. The portion of Mars caught on an early digital camera showed no canals, no cities, no water, and no erosion or weathering. Mars more resembled the moon than the Earth. The pristine craters suggested that surface conditions had not changed in more than three billion years. The dying planet had been long dead.

The triumphant deployment of the little Sojourner rover in 1997 was followed in 2004 by the even more spectacular success of two more durable rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. In four years of solar-powered travels on the red planet, the twin robots have relayed unprecedentedly detailed images, including many clearly of sedimentary rocks, suggesting the existence of ancient seas. The stark, russet-tinged photographs plant the viewer right on the surface; the ladderlike tracks of Spirit and Opportunity snake and gouge their way across rocks and dust that for eons have rested scarcely disturbed under salmon pink skies and a pearlescent sun. In this tranquil desolation, the irruption of our live curiosity and systematic purpose feels heroic. Now the Phoenix mission, with its surpassingly intricate arm, scoop, imagers, and analyzers, takes us inches below the surface of dust, sand, and ice in Mars's north polar region. Spoonfuls of another planet's substance, their chemical ingredients volatilized, sorted, and identified, become indexes to cosmic history.

The dead planet is not so dead after all: Avalanches and dust storms are caught on camera, and at the poles a seasonal sublimation of dry ice produces erosion and movement. Dunes shift; dust devils trace dark scribbles on the delicate surface. Whether or not evidence of microbial or lichenous life emerges amid this far-off flux, Mars has become an ever nearer neighbor, a province of human knowledge. Dim and fanciful visions of the twinkling fire planet have led to panoramic close-ups beautiful beyond imagining.

"John Updike, Pulitzer-winning author, dies"


Mary Rourke

January 27th, 2008

Los Angeles Times

John Updike, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction whose novels and short stories exposed an undercurrent of ambivalence and disappointment in small-town, middle-class America, died Tuesday. He was 76.

Updike's death from lung cancer was announced by Nicholas Latimer, vice president and director of publicity for publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Updike was a resident of Beverly Farms, Mass., but the announcement did not indicate where he died.

In a career spanning half a century, Updike published more than 50 books, more than 20 of them novels, and countless short stories, as well as collections of poetry. In recent years, he was best known for his art criticism and essays. His last published piece was a review of Toni Morrison's novel "A Mercy," in the Nov. 3, 2008, issue of the New Yorker.

By the late 1980s, Updike had achieved what a Times writer called "the near royal status of the American author-celebrity," but critical views of his fiction were often mixed.

Lorrie Moore, writing in the New York Review of Books in 2003, said Updike was "quite possibly . . . American literature's greatest short story writer, and arguably our greatest writer."

But Harold Bloom, writing years earlier in a collection of essays on Updike's work, noted that though the novelist was capable of crafting a "beautifully economical narrative," he lacked depth, which Bloom saw as a requirement of great fiction. He viewed Updike as "a minor novelist with a major style."

Despite the critical divide, two of Updike's most memorable fictional characters, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom and Henry Bech, became emblems of the displaced American male that fascinated him as a writer. Angstrom, a man he often referred to as his alter-ego, is the disenchanted middle-class drifter in Updike's four-book series about "Rabbit." Bech is the Jewish-American novelist, breaking away from his cultural roots and immigrant heritage to become a fully assimilated American. Each in his own way reflects Updike's major themes.

Early in his career Updike said that he wrote most often about the world he came from, "the American Protestant small-town middle class," as he described it in a 1966 interview with Life magazine. "It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules."

Updike took this previously unchartered territory and "made it common American ground," wrote Cynthia Ozick in a 2003 essay for the New York Times Book Review.

In addition to his Pulitzers, Updike also won the American Book Award and the National Book Award for his novel "Rabbit Is Rich."

Updike was still in his 20s when his second novel, "Rabbit Run," brought him national attention in 1960. Several reviewers immediately saw the book's main character as an icon of his generation.

Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom was a small-town Pennsylvania boy who grew into a high school basketball star. He married young, quickly found adult life disappointing, left his wife and young son and set off alone.

Three more novels about Angstrom followed: "Rabbit Redux" in 1971, "Rabbit Is Rich" in 1981 and "Rabbit at Rest" in 1990. The last two in the series each won a Pulitzer. As Rabbit muddled through the collapse of established sexual mores, the rise of the technological age and the beginnings of globalization, he became a "purposely representative" American male, Updike explained in "Self-Consciousness," his 1989 memoir. He referred to Rabbit as his alter-ego.

Many critics found "a great divide between Updike's exquisite command of prose and . . . the apparent no-good vulgar nothing he expended it on," wrote critic Eliot Fremont-Smith about Rabbit in a 1981 article for the Village Voice.

Others saw Rabbit's story as "a subtle exposé of the frailty of the American dream," wrote literary critic Donald J. Greiner, a scholar who wrote extensively about Updike's work.

Updike said Rabbit was a typical man, weighed down by the pressures and disappointments of adulthood that few men spoke of in his generation.

"I knew I had things to say about it, things I thought, that nobody else was saying," Updike told Time magazine in 2006.

He got his first inkling of this literary theme as a boy watching his father, Wesley Updike, a teacher. They rode back and forth to school together, and Updike listened to his father worry about their old car and the family bills.

"I saw that it's not easy to be an American male," Updike said in a 2004 interview with the Academy of Achievement, an educational center in Washington, D.C.

As a writer, Updike aimed to "sort out, particularize and extol with the proper dark beauty" those struggles, he wrote in "Self-Consciousness."

Starting with his first published collection of short stories, "The Same Door" in 1959, Updike was admired for his "lean and lapidary prose," critic A.C. Spectorsky wrote in the Saturday Review in 1959.

Looking back 40 years later to see Updike's influences more clearly, critic Louis Menand pointed out three in particular. Ernest Hemingway taught Updike and many other young fiction writers "the importance of suppressing information, and the use of dialogue to convey significance," Menand wrote in a 2003 article for the New Yorker magazine.

Another influence, Vladimir Nabokov, modeled "almost religious commitment to linguistic hyper-clarity." And there was James Joyce. "Everywhere you find the eucharistic metaphor that was at the heart of Joyce's aesthetics," Menand wrote of Updike's fiction.

Most of Updike's short stories appeared first in the New Yorker, where he was briefly a staff writer and, for decades, a regular contributor.

As a young writer, his view of aging and mortality was ominous. Novels and stories allude to "the fear of death, the fact of decay and the inevitable collapse into nothingness," wrote critic Tony Tanner in an essay included in"Modern Critical Views, John Updike" in 1987.

His first novel, "The Poorhouse Fair" (1959), published when he was 27, is about senior citizens in a retirement home, cut off from the world except during their annual fair.

Updike referred to the book as an example of his "shadowy vision" of adult life.

Some reviewers praised the novel for its precisely observed details and lush prose. "The Poorhouse Fair" is "a work of art," the New York Times declared in 1959.

Others found the story to be thin and the style "overly lyrical, bloated like a child who has eaten too much candy," wrote Norman Podhoretz in a review for Commentary magazine.

Updike's third novel, "Centaur" (1963), which won a National Book Award, is about a high school science teacher and his teenage son.

The novel draws parallels between the teacher and Chiron, the wisest of the centaurs, in Greek mythology. Updike said the book was a tribute to his father.

Some critics were not impressed. "Basically, this is a pretty good novel about a father and son in small-town Pennsylvania." wrote Orville Prescott in his review for the New York Times in February 1963. "Or . . . it would have been if Mr. Updike had relaxed and told his story for its own sake."

Updike returned to myth and fantasy in several other novels and stories. Far more often, however, he made religion a theme. In "Music School," a short story of 1966 now considered a classic, a man sits in a church basement contentedly waiting for his daughter to finish her piano lesson. His thoughts drift to the random violence and deathly illness his acquaintances have suffered. It leads him to a revelation: "The world is the host; it must be chewed."

"Updike's world is secular, its mundane beauty God-made, a gift to be lived, to be 'chewed,' " Greiner wrote in a 2006 essay. In "Couples," a 1968 novel, restless spouses in small-town New England try to build a paradise of sexual freedom. The novel's titillating subject matter kept it on the bestsellers list of Publishers Weekly for 36 weeks.

Several reviewers commented on the book's undertow of religious longing. In "Couples," the characters' attempts "to spiritualize the flesh" feels familiar "since for many in our time, the 'flesh' may be all that remains of religious experience," wrote Joyce Carol Oates in 1987.

But Updike's style threatened to overtake substance, in some critics' view. He "can brilliantly describe the adult world without conveying its depth and risks," Alfred Kazin wrote in a 1968 critique. Updike took note of the comment and later quoted it in his memoir, "Self-Consciousness," noting that Kazin was not alone in his view.

At times, Updike moved outside his familiar territory to write about other worlds: an imaginary African nation ("The Coup," 1978) interracial love in the tropics ("Brazil," 1994), a futuristic war between the U.S. and China ("Toward the End of Time," 1997), Danish royalty ("Gertrude and Claudius," 2000), radical Islam in New Jersey ("Terrorist," 2006), all to mixed reviews.

He was perhaps more successful in his 20 or so stories about Bech, the famous Jewish American novelist who suffers from writer's block and gets by on his past literary glories.

Updike joked that he invented Bech to grab some of the attention away from his major competitors. When he started his Bech stories in 1964, that list included Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, all acclaimed Jewish American writers.

"I created Henry Bech to show that I was really a Jewish writer also," Updike teased in a 1982 interview with Time magazine.

He said that Bech was loosely based on J.D. Salinger, who wrote "Catcher in the Rye," to blazing praise in 1951 but stopped publishing altogether in 1965. Like Salinger, Bech's fans kept up their loyal admiration. "Bech: A Book," in 1970, was followed by "Bech Is Back" in 1982 and "Bech at Bay" in 1998. Three years later, all the stories were compiled in "The Complete Henry Bech."

Ozick complained that Updike cut Bech off at the roots. A secular Jew, married to a WASP, Bech was "pathetically truncated," she wrote in her essay "Bech, Passing," reprinted in her book "Art and Ardor" (1983).

But Updike got some things right about his character, she allowed. "Bech is a stupid Jewish intellectual," Ozick wrote. "I know him well."

Several of Updike's novels were made into movies. "The Witches of Eastwick," where realism spins off into fantasy, shows what happens when bored suburban women capable of witchery meet one devilish man.

If Updike proves to be like other novelists who wrote a lot but left behind only "a single, remarkable book," Bloom observed, "in my experience of reading Updike, that book is 'Witches of Eastwick.' "

His last book, "Widows of Eastwick," published last year, was a sequel to "Witches."

Late in his career, Updike compiled "John Updike: The Early Stories" (2003). The book revealed that Updike's main male characters, despite their different names, seemed to be the same person at various stages of life; a mid-20th century white, middle-class American boy, teenager, bachelor, husband, father, divorcée.

Several of the earliest stories in the book -- "Pigeon Feathers" (1960), "A&P" (1961) and "Museums and Women" (1967) -- are considered classics.

His torrent of fiction never seemed to slow Updike's output of essays and book reviews. He often critiqued new fiction by his famous contemporaries, including Roth, Oates and Gabriel García Márquez, usually with a generous eye.

There was one famous exception. Updike was 29, still a fairly new name among New Yorker writers, when he reviewed "Franny and Zooey" by Salinger, who was by then a legendary contributor to the magazine.

Updike's 1961 review for the New York Times was blunt and precise and has since been included in several critical anthologies.

He complained of one "interminably rendered conversation" between two of the characters. He questioned the "impossible radiance" of the characters' beauty and intelligence and regretted Salinger's efforts to "instill in the reader a mood of blind worship" of the Glass family, the novel's central figures.

He suggested that Salinger ought to move on from his beloved Glass family and write about other lives.

"Salinger was irrevocably pissed off," Updike wrote in a letter to Greiner. Salinger the recluse didn't retaliate in public.

Updike's interest in the art world continued throughout his career. Many of his art reviews are compiled in "Just Looking: Essays on Art" (1989) and "Still Looking, Essays on American Art" (2005).

In an essay on Edward Hopper, Updike went to the essence of the American painter's best-known work, "Nighthawks," a lonely diner scene of 1942. "The quality might be called largeness -- a largeness of patience and peripheral vision," Updike wrote in "Still Looking."

"He was one of the most brilliant and talented art critics," Silvers said. "He had a very close critical feeling about actual techniques of art, of talent and of drawing. . . . He was fascinated by the development of concepts of art over the years. This was a marvelous gift for us."

His poetry almost seemed an aside. For many years, he wrote light verse that he referred to as "cartooning with words" and a "kind of verbal exercise" in his preface to "Collected Poems, 1953-1993."

John Hoyer Updike was born in Shillington, a suburb of Reading, Pa., on March 18, 1932. He was a gawky, sickly child who had a stammer, asthma and psoriasis, which he describes in meticulous detail in "Self-Consciousness."

Through high school, he was more interested in drawing and painting than writing. He attended Harvard University, where he was a cartoonist for the Harvard Lampoon. He also took creative-writing classes and wrote short stories, light verse and essays. By the time he graduated, summa cum laude, he had decided to be a professional writer.

A severe case of psoriasis kept him out of military service.

He married Mary Pennington in 1953, the year before he graduated from college. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1976.

A year later, he married Martha Ruggles Bernhard. She had three children from a previous marriage.

Survivors include his wife and stepchildren; four children from his first marriage, sons David and Michael and daughters Miranda and Elizabeth Cobblah; and several grandchildren.

In 2004, with decades of writing and more than 50 books to his credit, he said he was ready to slow his pace. He would reduce "product," as he referred to his fiction but not stop. "Writing makes you more human," he said.

"John Updike, a Lyrical Writer of the Ordinary, Is Dead at 76"


Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

January 28th, 2009

The New York Times

John Updike, the kaleidoscopically gifted writer whose quartet of Rabbit Angstrom novels highlighted so vast and protean a body of fiction, verse, essays and criticism as to earn him comparisons with Henry James and Edmund Wilson among American men of letters, died today at a hospice outside Boston. He was 76 and lived in Beverly Farms, Mass.

The cause was cancer, according to a statement by Alfred A. Knopf, his publisher.

Where James and Wilson focused largely on elite Americans in a European context, Mr. Updike wrote of ordinary citizens in small-town and urban settings. His best-known protagonist, Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, first appears as a former high-school basketball star trapped in a loveless marriage and a sales job he hates. Through the four novels whose titles bear his nickname — "Rabbit, Run," "Rabbit Redux," "Rabbit Is Rich" and "Rabbit at Rest" — the author traces the sad life of this undistinguished middle-American against the background of the last half-century’s major events.

"My subject is the American Protestant small town middle class," Mr. Updike told Jane Howard in a 1966 interview for Life magazine. "I like middles," he continued. "It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules."

From his earliest short stories, set in the fictional town of Olinger, Pa., which he once described as "a square mile of middle-class homes physically distinguished by a bend in the central avenue that compels some side streets to deviate from the grid," Mr. Updike sought the clash of extremes in everyday dramas of marriage, sex and divorce. The only wealth he bestowed on his subjects lay in the richness of his descriptive language, the detailed fineness of which won him comparisons with painters like Vermeer and Andrew Wyeth.

This detail was often so rich that it inspired two schools of thought on Mr. Updike's fiction — those who responded to his descriptive prose as to a kind of poetry, a sensuous engagement with the world, and those who argued that he wasted beautiful language on nothing. The latter position was perhaps most acutely defined by James Wood in an essay, "John Updike's Complacent God," in his collection "The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief" (Random House, 1966).

"He is a prose writer of great beauty," Mr. Wood wrote, "but that prose confronts one with the question of whether beauty is enough, and whether beauty always conveys all that a novelist must convey."

Comments like these did not deter Mr. Updike from plowing ahead with his work, turning up three pages a day of fiction, essays, criticism or verse, and proving the maxim that several pages a day was at least a book a year and would add up to many dozens of books in a lifetime.

"I would write ads for deodorants or labels for catsup bottle, if I had to," he told The Paris Review in 1967. "The miracle of turning inklings into thoughts and thoughts into words and words into metal and print and ink never palls for me."

His essays and criticism alone filled more than a dozen volumes, and ranged from "Golf Dreams: Writings on Art" (1996) to "Just Looking: Essays on Art" (1989) and "Still Looking: Essays on American Art" (2005) to "Self-Consciousness: Memoirs" (1989) to his famous piece on the baseball star Ted Williams’s last game, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu" (1977), which first appeared in The New Yorker on Oct. 22, 1960.

While his vast output of poetry has tended toward light verse, in "Midpoint and Other Poems" (1969), the title work undertakes a self-examination at age 35, comically combining a homage to past great poets, autobiography and experimental typography in what the author called "a joke on the antique genre of the long poem."

The poem concludes:

Born laughing, I’ve believed in the absurd,

Which brought me this far; henceforth, if I can,

I must impersonate a serious man.

As his fiction matured, Mr. Updike's prose grew leaner and more muscular, and his novels waxed more exotic in form, locale and subject matter, especially in "The Coup" (1978), set in an imaginary African country; "Brazil" (1994), a venture in magic realism; "Toward the End of Time" (1997), whose story occurs in 2020, following a war between the United States and China; "Gertrude and Claudius" (2000), about Hamlet’s mother and uncle, and "The Terrorist" (2006), a fictional study of a convert to Islam who tries to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel.

But the gold standard of Mr. Updike's writing remains, in most critical views, his short stories, which he turned out by the several hundreds, most of them first appearing in The New Yorker.

It was here, at a length of prose that seemed ideally suited for his outsize talents, that he exercised his exquisitely sharp eye for the minutiae of domestic routine and the conflicts that animated it for him — between present satisfaction and future possibility, between sex and spirituality, and between the beauty of creation and the looming threat of death, which he summed up famously in the concluding sentence of "Pigeon Feathers," the title story of his second collection (1962).

The story is about a boy, David, who is forced to shoot some pigeons in a barn, and then watches, fascinated, as their feathers float to the ground: “He was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.”

John Hoyer Updike was born on March 18, 1932, in Reading, Pa., and grew up in the nearby town of Shillington. The only child of Wesley Russell Updike, a junior high school math teacher of German descent, and Linda Grace (Hoyer) Updike, an aspiring writer, he lived a solitary childhood made more so by his family’s move when he was 13 to his mother’s birthplace on an 80-acre farm near Plowville, Pa. From there both he and his father had to commute the 11 miles to school in town, but the isolation fired the boy’s imagination as well as his desire to take flight from aloneness.

Sustained by hours of reading in the local library and by his mother's encouragement to write, he aspired first to be either a Walt Disney animator or a magazine cartoonist. But a sense of narrative was implanted early and likely nurtured by summer work as a copyboy for a local newspaper,T he Reading Eagle, for which he eventually wrote several features. As he told The Paris Review, "In a sense my mother and father, considerable actors both, were dramatizing my youth as I was having it so that I arrived as an adult with some burden of material already half formed."

After graduating from high school as co-valedictorian and senior-class president, Mr. Updike attended Harvard College on a scholarship. Although he majored in English and wrote for and edited The Harvard Lampoon, he continued his cartooning. In 1953 he married Mary Entwistle Pennington, a Radcliffe fine arts major.

Graduating from Harvard in 1954 summa cum laude, he won a Knox Fellowship at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts in Oxford. In June of that year, his short story "Friends from Philadelphia" was accepted, along with a poem, by The New Yorker. It was an event, he later told The Paris Review, that remained "the ecstatic breakthrough of my literary life."

Following the birth of his first child, Elizabeth Pennington, the couple returned to America, and Mr. Updike went to work writing Talk of the Town pieces for The New Yorker.

Two years later, with the arrival of a second child, David Hoyer, the couple, needing more space, moved to Ipswich, Mass., an hour north of Boston, where Mr. Updike kept his ties to The New Yorker but concentrated on his poetry and fiction. In 1959, his third child, Michael John, was born, followed the next year by a fourth, Miranda Margaret.

The move proved creatively invigorating as well. By 1959 he had completed three books — a volume of poetry, “The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures,” a novel, "The Poorhouse Fair" and a collection of stories, "The Same Door" — and placed them with Knopf, which would remain his publisher throughout his prolific career.

From 1954 to 1959, he published more than a hundred pieces in The New Yorker: essays, articles, poems and short stories.

More important, the move to a small town seemed to stimulate his memories of Shillington and his creation of its fictional counterpart, Ollington. All his early stories were set there, as well as three of his first four novels, "The Poorhouse Fair," "The Centaur" and "Of the Farm," excepting only "Rabbit, Run" (1960), which was set in another small Pennsylvania town.

"I really don't think I'm alone among writers in caring about what they experienced in the first 18 years of their life," he told The Paris Review. "Nothing that happens to us after 20 is as free from self-consciousness, because by then we have the vocation to write," he continued. "At the point where you get your writerly vocation, you diminish your receptivity to experience."

"The Poorhouse Fair" (1959), avoiding the usual coming-of-age tale of most beginners, established Mr. Updike's reputation as an important novelist. Based on an old people's home near Shillington, the novel explores the homogenization of society among members of the author’s grandfather’s generation. It won the Rosenthal Foundation Award.

“The Centaur” (1963), more autobiographical, welds the Greek myth of Chiron, the wounded centaur who gives up his immortality for the release of Prometheus, to the story of a mocked Olinger high-school science teacher who sacrifices himself for his son. It won the 1964 National Book Award for fiction.

"Of the Farm" (1965), set not far from Olinger, focuses on the mother of a farm family who fears she will die before her son, gone into advertising in New York, will fulfill her dream of his becoming a poet.

Only with "Couples" (1968), his fifth novel, did Mr. Updike move his setting away from Pennsylvania, to the fictional Tarbox, Mass., where he explores sexual coupling and uncoupling in a community of young marrieds. The couple, Wilfrid Sheed wrote in a praising review in The Sunday Times Book Review, "wanted to get away from the staleness of Old America and the vulgarity of the new; who wanted to live beautifully in beautiful surroundings; to raise intelligent children in renovated houses in absolutely authentic rural centers."

Mr. Sheed concluded that "Updike's slide-lecture on this crowd skewers them better than any sociological study has done, or could do."

With the Rabbit quartet, he launched his keen, all-seeing eye into a still wider world. Where "Rabbit, Run" plays out its present-tense narrative in domestic working-class squalor, its three sequels, published in 10-year intervals, encompass the later 20th-century American experience: "Rabbit Redux" (1971) the cultural turmoil of the 1960's; "Rabbit Is Rich" (1981) the boom years of the 1970's, and "Rabbit at Rest" (1991) in the time of what Rabbit calls "Reagan's reign," with its trade war with Japan, its AIDS epidemic and the terror bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Rabbit lies dying in a hospital at the end of the last volume, overweight, worn-out, felled by a coronary infarction during a one-on-one basketball game with Tiger, a young black man. ("Tiger stands amazed above the fallen body — the plaid Bermuda shorts, the brand-new walking Nikes, the blue golf shirt with the logo of intertwined V's.")

With his life over, critics judged that Rabbit had entered the pantheon of signal American literary figures, to join Huck Finn, Jay Gatsby, Holden Caulfield and the like.

"Rabbit Redux" was considered the weakest of the set, but "Rabbit Is Rich" and "Rabbit at Rest" both won Pulitzer Prizes and other awards. Reissued as a set in 1995, "Rabbit Angstrom: A Tetralogy" was pronounced by some to be a contender for the crown of great American novel.

As a small-town businessman of limited scope, Rabbit is obviously very different from his creator. Yet the two of them share a middle-American view of the world, with the difference that Mr. Updike was exquisitely self-conscious. Against the grain of his calling and temperament, he strove, like the German writer Thomas Mann, for a burgherly existence.

As a citizen of Ipswich, he participated in local affairs, serving on the Congregational church building committee and the Democratic town committee and writing a pageant for the town's Seventeenth-Century Day. Although politically liberal, he was virtually alone among American writers to declare himself in support of the Vietnam War.

He worked downtown, in an office above a restaurant. "I write every weekday morning," he told The Paris Review. "I write fairly rapidly if I get going, and don’t change much, and have never been one for making outlines or taking out whole paragraphs or agonizing much. If a thing goes, it goes for me, and if it doesn't, I eventually stop and get off."

In 1974 he separated from Mary, and moved to Boston, where he taught briefly at Boston University. In 1976 the Updikes were divorced, and the following year he married Martha Ruggles Bernhard, settling with her and her three children first in Georgetown, Mass., and then in 1984 in Beverly Farms, both towns in the same corner of the state as Ipswich.

Along with his widow, his first wife survives him, as well as his sons, David of Cambridge, Mass., and Michael, of Newburyport, Mass; his daughters, Miranda Updike, of Ipswich, Mass., and Elizabeth Cobblah, of Maynard, Mass., and several grandchildren.

With the storehouse of his youthful experience emptying and his material circumstances enriched — "Couples" proved a big bestseller and put its author's face on the cover of Time magazine — he found the formerly easy flow of his prose diminishing somewhat. Yet determined to publish a book a year, he plodded on.

"Writing's gotten to be a habit," he told Michiko Kakutani in an interview for The New York Times in 1982, a year after the publication of "Rabbit Is Rich." "Sometimes the books do seem kind of silly and very papery, but there are moments when a sentence or a series of sentences clicks."

Among the dozen or more novels he brought out in the next quarter century, some clicked, like "The Witches of Eastwick" (1984), celebrated as an exuberant sexual comedy and a satirical view of women’s liberation. It was made into a film starring Jack Nicholson, Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer.

In his last novel, "The Widows of Eastwick," published in October, Mr. Updike returned to the three witches now as widows revisiting the town. Rather than preying on men as they once did, now they are "ordinary women," Ms. Kakutani wrote in her review, "haunted by the sins of their youth, frightened of the looming prospect of the grave and trying their best to get by, day by day by day." But other later Updike novels seemed on the thin and papery side. "Roger’s Version" (1986) and "S" (1988), which formed a trilogy, begun with "A Month of Sundays" (1975), that were three takes on Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter"; "Memories of the Ford Administration" (1992), a linking of personal guilt to history; "Seek My Face" (2002), an improvisation on the life of Jackson Pollock, and "Villages" (2004), about small-town adultery: these novels all conveyed a sense of the author going through his talented motions. They also suffered from what Mr. Updike himself described to Ms. Kakutani as the limitations of "my imagination and experience, which are both severely finite."

Some readers also carped about his portrayal of women. Mr. Updike admitted as much in an interview with The Times in 1988, when he acknowledged the complaint that "my women are never on the move, that they’re always stuck where the men have put them." His "only defense," he said, "would be that it's in the domesticity, the family, the sexual relations, that women interest me. I don't write about too many male businessmen, and I'm not apt to write about too many female businessmen."

Yet in purposely attempting to rectify this so-called fault by creating what he called "active and dynamic" women in "The Witches of Eastwick" and "S," he only succeeded in making things worse. What reviewers mostly detected behind the author’s apparent respect for these female dynamos was more his ambivalence than anything else.

Critics also pointed out the lack of violence in Mr. Updike's plots, which seemed at odds with the contemporary world he was presumably depicting. In response to this charge, he invoked the defense that he wrote out of his experience. "I have fought in no wars and engaged in few fistfights," he told The Paris Review. "If, as may be, the holocausts at the rim of possibility do soon visit us, I am confident my capacities for expression can rise, if I live, to the occasion. In the meantime let’s all of us with some access to a printing press not abuse our privilege with fashionable fantasies."

Meanwhile, the essays, book reviews, art criticism, reminiscences, introductions, forewords, prefaces, speeches, travel notes, film commentary, prose sketches, ruminations and other occasional jottings poured forth inexhaustibly, as if the experiences of his five senses only became real once recorded on paper.

The novelist Martin Amis sketched Mr. Updike plausibly in a 1991 review of a collection for The Times Book Review: "Preparing his cup of Sanka over the singing kettle, he wears his usual expression: that of a man beset by an embarrassment of delicious drolleries. The telephone starts ringing. A science magazine wants something pithy on the philosophy of subatomic thermodynamics; a fashion magazine wants 10,000 words on his favorite color. No problem — but can they hang on? Mr. Updike has to go upstairs again and blurt out a novel."

Over the decades, the assorted nonfiction filled five thick volumes, "Assorted Prose" (1965), "Picked-Up Pieces" (1975), "Hugging the Shore" (1983), "Odd Jobs" (1991) and "More Matter" (1999). The impression they left most indelibly was their author's vast range in time, space and discipline as a reader, and his deep capacity to understand, appreciate, discriminate, explain and guide. As he once said: "I think it good for an author, baffled by obtuse reviews of himself, to discover what a recalcitrant art reviewing is, how hard it is to keep the plot straight, let alone to sort out one's honest responses."

And whatever his flaws as a novelist, his growing mastery of the short-story form continued to define him as a writer. As Anatole Broyard put it in a review for The Times of Mr. Updike's sixth collection of stories, "Museums and Women and Other Stories" (1972): "His former preciousness has toughened into precision." He concluded, "His language, which was once like a cat licking its fur, now stays closer to its subject, has become a means instead of an end in itself."

Not incidentally, it was in a story collection — his fifth, "Bech: A Book" (1970) — that Mr. Updike created in the character Henry Bech a counter-self living a counter-life. Bech is an unmarried, urban, blocked Jewish writer immersed in the swim of literary celebrity, or as Bech himself put it in the third volume devoted to him, "Bech at Bay: A Quasi-Novel" (1998), following the second, "Bech Is Back" (1982), "a vain, limp leech on the leg of literature as it waded through swampy times."

As Mr. Updike's opposite, Henry Bech not only entertained his readers in a voice very different from his creator's — world-weary, full of schmerz and a touch of schmalz — he also undertook certain tasks that Mr. Updike avoided, like attending literary dinners, tsk-tsking over a younger generation's minimalist prose and maximal tendency to write memoirs, working off grudges, murdering critics and interviewing John Updike for The New York Times Book Review.

Bech even wins the Nobel Prize for Literature, something Cynthia Ozick once speculated that Mr. Updike had failed to do because, as she wrote in a review of his "Early Stories 1953-1975" (2003), "among contemporary fiction writers" he "is the most rootedly American (though of German, not WASP, stock), and the most self-consciously Protestant."

She concluded: "The Protestant idea of God ... is not conspicuously the Lord of history. This may be the reason the Nobel literary committee, afloat on the turbulent waves of vast historical grievances, has so far overlooked Updike."

By contrasting so sharply with his creator, Henry Bech also defined Mr. Updike more distinctly, particularly his determination to stick to the essentials of his craft. As he told The Paris Review about his decision to shun the New York spotlight: "Hemingway described literary New York as a bottle full of tapeworms trying to feed on each other. When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teenaged boy finding them, have them speak to him. The reviews, the stacks in Brentano's, are just hurdles to get over, to place the books on that shelf."

A conversation with John Updike from the New York Times

"Remembering Updike"--The New Yorker

John Updike