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Posts Tagged ‘Nobel Prize

“I’ve always thought of the T-shirt as the Alpha and Omega of the fashion alphabet”*…

Haruki Murakami on the semiotics of casual accumulation…

I’m not particularly interested in collecting things, but there is a kind of running motif in my life: despite my basic indifference, objects seem to collect around me. Stacks and stacks of LPs, so many I’ll never listen to them all; books I’ve already read and will probably never open again; a ragtag assemblage of magazine clippings; dinky little pencils, so worn down they don’t fit into a pencil sharpener anymore. All sorts of things just keep on piling up.

T-shirts are one of those things which naturally pile up. They’re cheap, so whenever an interesting one catches my eye I buy it. People give me various novelty T-shirts from around the world, I get commemorative T-shirts whenever I run a marathon, and when I travel I often pick up a few, instead of bringing along extra clothes. Which is why the number of T-shirts in my life has skyrocketed, to the point where there’s no room in my drawers anymore and I have to store the overflow in stacked-up cardboard boxes.

Whenever I go to the U.S., after I leave the airport and get settled in town I invariably find myself wanting to go out and grab a hamburger. It’s a natural urge, but you could also see it as a kind of ritual I go through. Either one’s O.K.

Ideally, I go to a hamburger joint around one-thirty, after the lunch crowd has left, plunk myself down at the counter, and order a Coors Light on tap and a cheeseburger. I like the burger cooked medium, and I always get raw onions, tomatoes, lettuce, and pickles. Plus an order of French fries and, like an old buddy I’m visiting, a side of coleslaw. Critical partners in all this are mustard (it’s got to be Dijon) and Heinz ketchup. I sit there, quietly sipping my Coors Light, listening to the voices of the people around me and the clatter of dishes, attentively imbibing the atmosphere of this different land, as I wait for my cheeseburger to emerge. Which is when it finally hits me that, yes, I really am in America.

This T-shirt has a straightforward message: “i put ketchup on my ketchup.” Now, that’s the statement of somebody who is seriously in love with ketchup. It kind of teases those Americans who put ketchup on everything, but I find it interesting that one of the companies that distribute these shirts is none other than Heinz. A little self-deprecatory humor going on here, but you can’t help feeling the American spirit in it, the optimistic, cheerful lack of introspection that says, “Who cares about being sophisticated! I’m gonna do what I want!”

When I walk around town in this shirt, Americans sometimes call out, “Love the shirt!” The ones who do this usually have that “I love ketchup” look about them. Sometimes I feel like coming back with a “Hey, don’t lump me in with you guys,” but usually I just give a cheerful “Yeah, pretty nice, huh? Ha-ha.” This kind of T-shirt communication does a lot to liven things up. You’d never find that happening in Europe. For one thing, Europeans by and large hardly ever eat ketchup.

“I drink Heineken a lot whenever I go to the U.S. In crowded, noisy bars, you have to shout out your order, and I’ve found that the one brand I can pronounce reliably is Heineken.”

How (and why) @harukimurakami_ amassed more T-shirts than he can store (and more examples): “An Accidental Collection,” from @NewYorker.

* Giorgio Armani


As we slip it on, we might send stream of consciousness birthday greetings to William Cuthbert Faulkner; he was born on this date in 1897.  A writer of novels, short stories, poetry, essays, screenplays, and one play, Faulkner is best remembered for his novels (e.g.,  The Sound and the Fury,  As I Lay Dying, and Light in August) and stories set in “Yoknapatawpha County,” a setting largely based on Lafayette County, Mississippi, where Faulkner spent most of his life.  They earned him the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature.

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

From Requiem for a Nun, Act I, Scene III, by William Faulkner


“We account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in individuality”*…

remarkable new study on how whales behaved when attacked by humans in the 19th century has implications for the way they react to changes wreaked by humans in the 21st century.

The paper, published by the Royal Society [in March], is authored by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, pre-eminent scientists working with cetaceans, and Tim D Smith, a data scientist, and their research addresses an age-old question: if whales are so smart, why did they hang around to be killed? The answer? They didn’t.

Using newly digitised logbooks detailing the hunting of sperm whales in the north Pacific, the authors discovered that within just a few years, the strike rate of the whalers’ harpoons fell by 58%. This simple fact leads to an astonishing conclusion: that information about what was happening to them was being collectively shared among the whales, who made vital changes to their behaviour. As their culture made fatal first contact with ours, they learned quickly from their mistakes.

“Sperm whales have a traditional way of reacting to attacks from orca,” notes Hal Whitehead… Before humans, orca were their only predators, against whom sperm whales form defensive circles, their powerful tails held outwards to keep their assailants at bay. But such techniques “just made it easier for the whalers to slaughter them”, says Whitehead.

It was a frighteningly rapid killing, and it accompanied other threats to the ironically named Pacific. From whaling and sealing stations to missionary bases, western culture was imported to an ocean that had remained largely untouched. As Herman Melville, himself a whaler in the Pacific in 1841, would write in Moby-Dick (1851): “The moot point is, whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc.”

Sperm whales are highly socialised animals, able to communicate over great distances. They associate in clans defined by the dialect pattern of their sonar clicks. Their culture is matrilinear, and information about the new dangers may have been passed on in the same way whale matriarchs share knowledge about feeding grounds. Sperm whales also possess the largest brain on the planet. It is not hard to imagine that they understood what was happening to them.

The hunters themselves realised the whales’ efforts to escape. They saw that the animals appeared to communicate the threat within their attacked groups. Abandoning their usual defensive formations, the whales swam upwind to escape the hunters’ ships, themselves wind-powered. ‘This was cultural evolution, much too fast for genetic evolution,’ says Whitehead.

And in turn, it evokes another irony. Now, just as whales are beginning to recover from the industrial destruction by 20th-century whaling fleets – whose steamships and grenade harpoons no whale could evade – they face new threats created by our technology. ‘They’re having to learn not to get hit by ships, cope with the depredations of longline fishing, the changing source of their food due to climate change,’ says Whitehead. Perhaps the greatest modern peril is noise pollution, one they can do nothing to evade.

Whitehead and Randall have written persuasively of whale culture, expressed in localised feeding techniques as whales adapt to shifting sources, or in subtle changes in humpback song whose meaning remains mysterious. The same sort of urgent social learning the animals experienced in the whale wars of two centuries ago is reflected in the way they negotiate today’s uncertain world and what we’ve done to it.

As Whitehead observes, whale culture is many millions of years older than ours. Perhaps we need to learn from them as they learned from us…

Learning from the ways that whales learn: “Sperm whales in 19th century shared ship attack information.”

* Herman Melville, Moby-Dick


As we admire adaptation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1953 that Ernest Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for his short novel The Old Man and the Sea. It was cited by the Nobel Committee as contributing to their awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Hemingway the following year.

The Old Man and the Sea reinvigorated Hemingway’s literary reputation and prompted a reexamination of his entire body of work. The novel was initially received with much enthusiasm by critics and the public alike; many critics favorably compared it with Moby-Dick.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 4, 2021 at 1:01 am

“It is the province of knowledge to speak, and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen”*…

Wisdom is full of paradoxes. It is one of the oldest topics in the intellectual history of humanity, and yet talking about wisdom can feel odd and disingenuous. People seem to have intuitions about who is and isn’t wise, but if you press them to define wisdom, they will hesitate. Wisdom, with its mystical qualities, sits on a pedestal, inspiring awe and trepidation, a bit of hushed reverence thrown in. It’s easy to distil wisdom’s archetypes in history (druids, Sufi sages) or popular culture (Star Wars’ Yoda, or Harry Potter’s Dumbledore), but harder to apply to the person on the street. Most people would agree that wisdom is desirable, yet what exactly is it?…

Some psychologists are increasingly confident that they can now measure– and nurture– wisdom, superseding the “speculations” of philosophy and religion: “The Science of Wisdom.”

* Oliver Wendell Holmes


As we savor sagacity, we might recall that it was on this date in 1964 that Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature despite attempting to refuse it, saying that he always declined official honors since “a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.”


Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 22, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it”*…


Feynman and Dirac

Two of Marek Holzman’s photographs of Feynman and Dirac together in Warsaw in 1962


Beloved late physicist Richard P. Feynman (1918–1988) first met his hero Paul Dirac (1902–1984) during Princeton University’s Bicentennial Celebration in 1946 and then again at least twice, in 1948 and 1962. Most notably, the two came to heads during the so-called Pocono Conference when Feynman gave a lecture on a nascent “Alternative Formulation of Quantum Electrodynamics”, reformulating the theory which had earned Dirac the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1933. A star-studded audience of 28 of the world’s leading physicists attended the conference, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe and of course, the inventor of the theory himself, Paul Dirac.

Feynman’s reformulation of Dirac’s theory was not well received at Pocono, as Bohr, Teller and Dirac all raised objections. Feynman’s disappointment from the audience’s reaction motivated him to write up his work for publication instead. He did so, and in the next three years went on to publish four major papers describing his now well-developed theory and its implications…

Feynman and Dirac [met for the last] time, at the International Conference on Relativistic Theories of Gravitation in Warsaw, Poland in 1962… Their conversation, as overheard by a nearby physicist, was so remarkable that he jotted it down:

F: I am Feynman.
D: I am Dirac.
F: It must be wonderful to be the discoverer of that equation.
D: That was a long time ago.
D: What are you working on?
F: Mesons.
D: Are you trying to discover an equation for them?
F: It is very hard.
D: One must try.


Another of Holzman’s photographs from Warsaw

Feynman’s work earned him a share of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965.

Paul Dirac died in 1984 at the age of 82 years old. Two years later, Feynman was invited to give one of three Dirac Memorial Lectures. He did so, with a lecture entitled “Elementary Particles and the Laws of Physics”, which he opened as follows:

When I was a young man, Dirac was my hero. He made a new breakthrough, a new method of doing physics. He had the courage to simply guess at the form of an equation, the equation we now call the Dirac equation, and to try to interpret it afterwards.


How Paul Dirac, Richard Feynman’s hero-turned-opponent, motivated a life’s work which not only altered the trajectory of modern physics, but also erected Feynman’s legend as one history’s finest scientist: “When Feynman met Dirac.”

* Richard Feynman


As we chase after clarity, we might send very tiny birthday greetings to Wolfgang Paul; he was born on this date in 1913.  A physicist, he developed the non-magnetic quadrupole mass filter which laid the foundation for what is now called an ion trap— a device (also known as a Paul trap) that captures ions and holds them long enough for study and precise measurement of their properties.  During the 1950s he developed the so-called Paul trap as a means of confining and studying electrons.  He shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1989 for his work.

He humorously referred to Wolfgang Pauli as his imaginary part.

220px-Wolfgang_Paul source


Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 10, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Human DNA spreading out from gravity’s steep well like an oilslick”*…




Could the Earth be a life-exporting planet? That’s the curious question examined in a recent paper written by Harvard University astronomers Amir Siraj and Abraham Loeb.

The researchers take a novel twist on the controversial notion of panspermia – the idea, propelled into the mainstream in the early 1970s by astronomers Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, that life might have started on Earth through microbes arriving from space.

The theory is generally discounted, although eminent astrophysicists such as Stephen Hawking conceded it was at least possible, and a major paper published in 2018 revived the topic big-time.

In their [late December, 2019] paper, Siraj and Loeb reverse the standard assumption about the direction of the microbial journey and ask whether it is possible to that at some point Earth-evolved bacteria could have been propelled away from the planet, possibly to be deposited somewhere else in the Milky Way…

Astronomers suggest microbes might hitch lifts on interstellar asteroids.  More on the hypothesis and the evidence that supports it at “Earth bacteria may have colonised other solar systems.”  Read the underlying paper at arXiv.

* William Gibson, Neuromancer


As we ponder the polarity of proliferation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1921 that Albert Einstein startled his audience at the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin by suggesting the possibility that the universe could be measured.  His talk, “Geometry and Experience” (text here), applied some results of the relativity theory to conclude that if the real velocities of the stars (as could be actually measured) were less than the calculated velocities, then it would prove that real gravitations’ great distances were smaller than the gravitational distances demanded by the law of Newton.  From that divergence, the finiteness of the universe could be proved indirectly, and could even permit the estimation of its size.

Later that year, Einstein was announced as the 1921 Nobel Laureate in Physics, an award he accepted the following year.

Bildnis Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Einstein in 1921


Happy Birthday, Dante, Mozart, and Lewis Carroll!


Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 27, 2020 at 1:01 am

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