Yesterday, neuroamanda and I launched a new project as an exercise in communicating science: apostilb! More details explaining the project and our aims can be found on our about page. I wanted to touch upon a few things about the underlying framework for publishing content to apostilb.
If you’ve read my PhD Starter Kit, you may already be familiar with some of the content-publishing paradigms I mention here. The primary element of our workflow is GitHub; here’s the apostilb website’s GitHub repo. We have each forked the repo into our own GitHub accounts and make all changes to the website locally, including adding new content. Each week, one of us is the writer and the other the editor. When the writer has added a new article (there’s only one so far), a pull request is made and the editor is notified. The editor can then comment on the content within the pull request itself, and any changes the author wishes to implement are added as new git commits to the same pull request. After at least two rounds of back-and-forth, the piece is ready for publication and the pull request is merged. GitHub Flow is great not just for code but also for written content!
The really nice aspect of this workflow is that not only do we host the website on GitHub Pages but we are fully open and transparent about the publishing process: all the edits from the first draft itself are publicly visible. While that may not seem very useful, it is something to go back to and allows others to understand our editing process and the comments we made to each other.
The web page is built using Jekyll and the content is written using Markdown (essentially plaintext); see the raw Markdown for the first post. This simplifies the writing process itself since we can each write articles offline without relying on a web interface, using a slimmed-down syntax on a distraction-free editor.
I’m really excited about apostilb, and not only because of the rather geeky publishing methods we’re using. It’ll be good to get back into the habit of regular writing. Which reminds me, I’ve got to work on my post for next week!
I was bored, so I wrote a tome. No, seriously, since Saturday, I have spent the majority of my waking hours writing this ~7000-word piece on preparing for life in academia. It started out as an e-mail to a friend, which became a blog post that was originally supposed to reside here, which then became a piece long enough to deserve its own web page.
Writing this piece has been a fantastic experience on many levels:
I’ve mentioned my ADHD in the piece so there’s no point in shying from it. I’ve recently been on medication for the condition, and this was the first thing I have worked on in years that I was able to get through with a single-minded determination. I was often writing uninterrupted for several hours at a time, and this has brought me a lot of joy.
I was able to reflect on the (academic) year that was and categorise various experiences into things that worked, things that didn’t and things that could work if I approached them differently. The reflection alone has been worth preparing this piece.
I learnt something new! I’ve been wanting to give Jekyll a try for a while, but never got down to it. Yesterday afternoon, I was more than halfway through writing the text when I decided that instead of hosting the content on my blog I would host it on a GitHub Page, since I wanted to save a full history of the file on GitHub anyway. And since I wanted to be able to edit the Markdown file in the future, I needed to turn to Jekyll. I spent a few hours tinkering with new technology and had the site up and running last night with a “Coming soon!” message. Today, I installed all the necessary software to “serve the website” locally, finished writing the text, edited it, reviewed it, committed the changes, and pushed it to GitHub. Et voilà !
Shortly after the discovery of a new type of particle that we now believe is a Higgs boson, I made the above clip to illustrate the difficulties of communicating science, highlighting the differences between scientists’ need for 100% accuracy and journalists’ need to tell a compelling and understandable story. I shared a link with my friends on Facebook to lukewarm response and forgot all about it.
Today, while going through my Facebook profile looking for something else, I came across the link to the original clip and decided (as you do, these days) to make an animated GIF of it and share it on Google+, a social network that has supported such files for quite some time. I was a little surprised by the reaction. As of writing this entry, the post on Google+ has 53 +1s and 77 re-shares, and has been seen over 27,000 times. That is by far the most successful thing I have ever posted on Google+.
A few people, though, missed my point.
Peter Smalley, for example, said, “This is exactly how media sources get science wrong – except usually scientists don’t get to be involved at all.”
That’s not what I was going for at all. The point isn’t that journalists get science wrong (I’m not saying they don’t), it’s that those on the other side of the fence are rarely receptive to their needs. Scientists regularly give the journalists what they assume will be sufficient: objective facts. This is usually accompanied by an insistence that the wording of the journalistic piece reflect the terminology and caveats that are present in the scientific publication. I’ve also found scientists reacting with shock when journalists ask them questions that seem simple or basic, not accounting for the fact that journalists have to cover a wide range of topics and don’t typically have the luxury of writing about just the field of the scientist in question.
I thought I should clarify that my sympathies, in this case, lie with the journalists!
[The following is a scifi poem, inspired by an anthology of scifi poetry I read at Poets House in New York. It deals with the consequences of time dilation associated with close-to-the-speed-of-light travel (mediated by a factor commonly represented by “beta”), undertaken by people wishing to colonise an exoplanet.]
We said goodbye when you were carried to the stars
I shed my tears In silence Alone I shed my tears In silence Holding the child you didn’t know you left behind
I learnt to laugh Imitating, at first, the laughter in your eyes on an infant’s face
So what, I ask you, am I to do Now that a fault in the starship An unforeseen glitch Brings you back to me And to a son Older than his father
[This piece was originally hosted on my now-defunct MA course blog.]
The last few weeks have flown by, and it is now time for me to return to London. However, there was a story I read in the papers the day I landed in Bombay that I want to tell you about.
For those who are unfamiliar with us Indians, you should know that we abhor clean surfaces, vertical or horizontal. And so, we do our very best to spoil these clean surfaces in a variety of artistic ways. The most common method, picked up in school, involves dropping whatever waste we have onto the streets as we walk. This includes candy wrappers, chips packets, peanut cones and leaflets handed out to us outside malls.
However, for those pesky vertical surfaces, mere littering isn’t enough – Gravity plays spoilsport. Here’s where the subject of this post comes in – spitting! Spitting in public is a form of art in India, with skilled artisans peppering our walls and streets with red, paan-based projectiles, whilst avoiding the millions of people who live on, adjacent to and under the streets of the city.
One such skilled spitter recently lost his life when he spat out of the window of his home, illegally constructed too close to the overhead electricity cables. His red-coloured saliva made contact with the cables and the electricity pulled him out of the window, electrocuting him. He was declared dead on admission, when taken to a nearby hospital.
Some people I spoke to expressed shock at his death, pointing to the dangers that these brave artists face each day in defacing and polluting the city we all call home. Others vowed to continue his brave work, with many deciding to take up paan-chewing, often described as a disgusting habit.
Some ardent fans of the man’s work have rightly blamed the companies who installed the high-tension cables for providing electricity to the city, claiming that it was an elaborate plan by the elite to stamp out all alternative forms of artistic expression.
Alas, if the elite succeeds, our bare, ugly surfaces will become commonplace, and we will be forced to view the original layer of paint on them. Alas, given the number of artists in the city, this looks very unlikely.
[This piece was originally hosted on my now-defunct MA course blog.]
So, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) smashed protons at a combined energy of 7 Tev yesterday. It was quite cool, and was possibly the largest collective orgasm physicists have ever had. But I am very disappointed, and you might have guessed why.
Some of you may know that a bunch of people (very, very few of them physicists) “predicted” that the world would be consumed in a microscopic black hole if the LHC smashed protons at very high energies. Here’s a sample from The Sun:
German chemist Otto Rossler has filed a complaint with the European Court Of Human Rights – although he thinks the test will take a little longer to kill us.
He claimed: “Nothing will happen for at least four years. Then someone will spot a light-ray coming out of the Indian Ocean.
“A few weeks later we will see a stream of particles coming out of the soil on the other side of the planet. Then we will know there is a little quasar inside the planet.
“The weather will change completely, wiping out life. There will be a Biblical Armageddon.”
Yes, you read it right. A chemist. Not a particle physicist. A chemist who seems to know exactly where the “quasar” will appear.
I really don’t see the point of attempting to highlight all the flaws in that statement, but I must bring to your attention the amused look I had when I read the word “quasar”. A quasar or a quasi-stellar radio source is a very distant, highly energetic galaxy. These quasars do have active galactic nuclei that may be made of black holes, but that is not related to the microscopic black holes that will supposedly form when the LHC starts smashing protons at even higher energies.
Coming back to my disappointment, I was thoroughly shattered when I found that the LHC hadn’t. Well, it did shatter some records, but it didn’t destroy the earth.
Of course, I am not like this guy:
Disaster Voyeurism. Source: xkcd.com
Sometimes, I feel a little sorry for the people who spread such unjustified fears in society, especially when they are rubbished by the experiments they fear. At those times, I remember the girl who committed suicide in India because she was fed nonsense by the TV channels and didn’t want to be around when the earth would crack up and swallow the village.
Don’t feel sorry for them. Their fear might have its reasons, but spreading it to such an extent that someone is prompted to take their own life is unacceptable.
Although, somehow, science gets actively discussed only when there is some negative chatter around the topic. I don’t see that as a bad thing, necessarily, but I wonder where these debates should be held and how the public should be informed.
While we discuss this, I’m still waiting for my microscopic black holes.
[This piece was originally hosted on my now-defunct MA course blog.]
Ah, the human species. For all our coolness, we can’t do what a little mantis shrimp can – see beyond the VIBGYOR spectrum of light. The mantis shrimp has what scientists call hyperspectral colour vision, something that ESA’s ExoMars rover’s camera eyes will have. Essentially, hyperspectral imaging allows a camera to view not just the visible-to-humans spectrum but also the infrared and ultraviolet bands.
Check out a simulation of the ExoMars rover, designed to drill into the Martian surface in search of subterranean life.
So, why exactly have I started talking about funky shrimps and Mars rovers? Well, this morning, we had a lecture by Lewis Dartnell who is an astrobiologist. [Cue: “Oooh!”] During the break, Dr Dartnell, who is working on some aspects of the ExoMars rover, mentioned the hyperspectral imaging camera and set my mind thinking.
I began to think of what it might mean if we were able to see light on either side of the VIBGYOR spectrum.
For starters, human history might have taken a very different route. Think of the importance of night vision in modern urban warfare – the goggles detect infrared (IR) light emitted by enemy combatants. Remember the scene from Predator where the alien kills the humans by detecting their body’s infrared radiation? Now, imagine how the various ambushes planned by the various warriors of antiquity might have panned out if all the people could detect their opponents by their body heat!
Warriors could also use their ultraviolet (UV) vision to spot blood and use it to track down their enemies. This, of course, is under the assumption that the same mechanism that would allow us to see UV radiation doesn’t cause us to go blind from over-exposure to Sol’s UV light. Of course, since the insects and birds survive fine, I don’t see a reason to assume that it would do us physical harm.
Think, also, of the lack of privacy and the social structure in which the humans would have evolved. Rudimentary huts wouldn’t have been adequate to hide lovers from the eyes of their families, equipped with IR vision! Would we, as some primates do, have indulged in public displays of more than just affection? I believe clothes would only be worn to protect oneself from the elements, and not to protect one’s modesty, whatever that term might mean in a society capable of infrared vision. Human history and sociology might have been very different, only if we saw differently.
Wikipedia informs me (as do another couple of sources) that many insects are aided in their flight navigation by the ultraviolet radiation from celestial bodies. I’m not sure about the veracity of these claims, but assuming they were true, I imagine that the way in which we went about exploring this planet of ours might have been rather interesting.
Another thought that occurred to me involved the nature of art. I imagine that with a larger palette of colours at our disposal, artists would have found unique methods of expressing themselves. I’m not sure I can imagine what this might have been like, but the possibility for art, photography and filming seems very fascinating.
“But what about the downsides?” I hear you ask. Surely there are a few. I think the one that hits me squarely between the eyes involves our perception of hygiene. Human urine, like the urine of cats, dogs and rodents, glows in ultraviolet light. My first thought was something along the lines of, “Eew!” Eloquent, yes. The thought of being able to see the glow of urine isn’t a pleasant one, and I was tempted to classify it as a downside.
Then a thought struck me.
Our ancestors might not have had the plague, since rat urine might have told them where the mice lived and bred. Who knows what the population of the world would have comprised of?
In addition, we have evolved socially to consider the act of urinating a private one (albeit shared with hundreds of people of the same sex, over the course of our lives). We consider it disgusting to urinate anywhere other than a toilet. We might call the perpetrator uncultured. This, of course, is the “we” that has evolved in the absence of UV vision. If the progenitors could see urine glowing, I think our social dynamic might have been slightly different. Thinking of all the animals that mark their territory with their fluids, I think one of two things might’ve occured:
We would still live in what we define as a cultured society, but without the pets we keep – no cats and no dogs.
We would turn into one of those species that marked our territories with urine. Landscaping would’ve have looked SO weird.
Anyway, I’m not sure what all the consequences would be if we were able naturally to see a range of colours beyond VIBGYOR, but at least we now have the technology to explore these spectra.
[This piece was originally hosted on my now-defunct MA course blog.]
Somewhere in earth’s history, we solved all our problems. Well, nearly all of them – some people tend to always split the infinitive but there’s little anyone can do to completely stop that. So we rid ourselves of poverty, hunger, religious strife1 and built a harmonious society – a society that was one with nature. Once the scientists figured out a way to mass produce food pellets using e-waste as fertilizer, nearly all the issues sort of disappeared. The drop in population following World War Four2 helped. There being enough land for the much-reduced human populace (and no more than 7% of all the species that existed fifty years ago still around), we had peace all across the globe. For a good seventeen years.
Peace, however, came at a price. The Federation of Earth’s Nations unanimously banned private-use computers and all public records were maintained in ink. There were a few protests, but overall people had always looked at computers with a certain amount of disdain. It stemmed from the days when computers made it easier to airbrush models to make them appear flawless. And strings of e-mail forwards meant that it was hard to tell a déjà vu from just reading the same text over and over again. So computers were banned for private use and we had peace all across the globe. For a good seventeen years.
Then it happened…
It started as an innocent exercise in team-building at a local school in Reclaimedia3. At wits’ end as to how she should split her fourth grade children into two groups, Ms. Dunaksmi resorted to statistics. “Statistically, there should be approximately an equal number of children born on even days and odd days of the month. Let’s do that, then.” And she asked the kids born on even days to step to her right and those born on odd days to step to her left. Surprisingly, and statisticians have pondered this turn of events ever since, there were an equal number of children on both sides. If you would allow me to digress, I would like to draw attention to the chances of such an event taking place, but sensing the furrowing of your brow, I shall move on4.
Before you could recite the Pledge of Allegiance to The Federation of Earth’s Nations, war had erupted, as the Even-dated took on the Odd-dated5. It is hard to describe the initial stages of the war – several uprisings were recorded all over the world; some localities were dominated by the Even-dated and some by the Odd-dated. More nations declared independence, broke up, were annexed or invaded in the first thirteen months than ever before in human history. Families were torn apart; many were given the choice between joining their appropriate sides and dying with their different-dated family members. Some resorted to forgery to smuggle their loved ones into their own camps – changing a 5 to a 6 or the other way round wasn’t hard, since all records were now maintained in ink. Parents saw to it that their children were born on the same date types as them and C-sections were the norm, rather than the exception. Each Date-type formed their own regional armies and had regiments based on religion, sexual orientation, economic views and political leanings, depending on which of the four most concerned you and your identity.
The one group of people who refused to take sides were those born on February 29th. “We have enough problems from as far back as our school days – do you think it’s fair for a child to celebrate her birthday once every four years when she watches all her classmates do it every year? We have to deal with keeping track of the years to make sure they are divisible by four but not by a hundred (with the exception of those years divisible by four hundred)! It’s enough to drive anyone loony. Which is sort of our point,” said noted Feb29thist Renu Wabanatski. “We declare our indefinite neutrality, subject to negotiation if and only if either side supports our demand for the abolishment of the Gregorian Solar Calendar in favour of a Lunar one.”
The other Date-types (both partial to the Gregorian Calendar, for some reason) responded by calling a temporary truce to eliminate all pockets of Feb29thist Neutrals. After The Purge of The Painful (as the event was later named)6, the Date-types resumed their confrontations. They also ensured that no one ever had children on the 29th of February.
The next century saw the price of e-waste rise to a record $17 trillion a kg7, as both Date-types tried desperately to monopolise the food pellets market. This century also saw the rise and fall of many factions of each Date-type, such as the Odd-dated Multiples Of Two, Even-dated Multiples of Three and Even Multiples of Primes among others. There were some surprising turns of events, including the treachery of the Two-borns, who joined the Three-borns, the Five-borns, the Seven-borns and other Prime-borns to form the lethal Prime Force in the second century of warfare. The Prime Force was anarchist in nature and indiscriminately attacked members of either side.
The formation of the Prime Force has been cited by all sides as the main reason for the eventual cooling down of tensions. A common and unpredictable enemy often has a way of uniting disagreeing groups. And so, after over three centuries of what might be best described as arbitrary warfare, we had peace all across the globe.
Until an innocent recess-time game of Which Colour Do You Choose?
[Written on 2nd June, 2009.]
People greeted their brothers from other religions with a bright smile and a “Good day!”, although they were courteous enough to leave out the accompanying “… hell-bound infidel!” They looked at one another with mildly amused expressions and didn’t bother bothering them with religious propaganda. The Atheists were most pleased by this, though the fence-sitting Agnostics never really figured out why their backsides continued to hurt. [↩]
Known as Yet Another War To End All Wars, World War Four reduced humanity’s numbers from 13 billion to 560 million in just over eleven years. [↩]
Pronounced ree-klaym-dya, Reclaimedia is one of the new nations formed by land reclamation following the Great Flood of 2057. Its main export is Genetically Modified Turtles, which shed their shells twice a year. The shells are sold as protection for toddlers. [↩]
For an interesting, non-trivial treatment of this fascinating concept and its implications to the world of Econobiology, refer to the paper Scholastic Statistics and the Probabilistic Class Division Problem by J. K. Really et al (2164). [↩]
Of course, the entire Pledge being as long as it is, its recitation takes up to three weeks. The short version, containing only the first 103 lines, is preferred at all official ceremonies. [↩]
Ms. Wabanatski, the first to be publicly executed, had the following last words: “I’d rather die on my feet, than follow the Solar Calendar on my knees.” Her request was fulfilled swiftly by the firing squad. [↩]
The former United States of America, to-day called the Federated Provinces of America, agreed to give up their insistence on using the Imperial System of measurements during the formation of the Federation of Earth’s Nations, provided the Dollar be adopted as the official currency of earth. “We have no opposition to this MKS (metre, kilometre, second) system, so long as we have a universally accepted standard unit of Currency as well,” said their representative at the pre-Federation talks, much to the amusement of all the world’s scientists. This is the origin of the MKSD system of measurement used to-day. The standard unit, called the April Dollar, is defined as the value of the US Dollar at precisely 1402 hrs GMT on April 21, 2187. All subsequent variations of the Dollar’s value are measured with respect to this April Dollar. The complications that have arisen from this standardisation have made it more difficult for Economists and Mathematicians to manipulate the world than was recorded in the late 21st Century. [↩]
Many of the stories in this anthology have focussed on the concept of transhumanity or transhumanism. (I choose the term ‘transhumanity’ because one of the stories uses that term, and it refers to the collective of the beings, rather than a purely abstract idea.) And their ideas ranged from adapting humans to an eternal life in a modified human body to moving away from flesh into a software-based existence. Some of them took me by surprise with their depth of detail, many of them left me sleepless.
From my previous post [not added to this archive as yet], you might have gathered that I have a rather conservative view on what constitutes nature and life. (Far too conservative for my own liking, I’ll admit.) Despite this view, I have always been fascinated by some possibilities of transhumanism, particularly that of cyborgs. The fusion of man and machine will no doubt turn everyone’s notion of what constitutes life on its head.
But what would happen if we experienced a technology-driven evolution that takes us away from everything that ties us to other forms of life?
I’m not very comfortable with the idea. One of the factors might be the number of stories that dealt with some form of immortality. The reason I am unenthusiastic about the ideas mentioned in these stories, and the reason I lost sleep, is because I don’t think immortality is I something would want. After all, as Agent Smith said, “The purpose of life is to end, Mr. Anderson.”
This, of course, doesn’t mean to imply that I have so little to do that I wouldn’t appreciate a little extra time. But when you have an infinite time ahead of yourself, how would you go about doing things? You wouldn’t need to plan things to fit the tight budget of the minutes of your day. Yes, that would be a relief to many of us, but in what order then would you do the things you had to do? Will there be anything that you have to do, any more?
The transhumans of science fiction seem to be creative and curious and exploratory despite the abundance of time. For me, the temporariness, the perceived lack of time, the fleeting moments passing by that I might fail to notice if I weren’t paying attention, these and other reminders of our mortality are what make life worth living. These are the reasons why I choose to express my creativity (on the rare occasion that I do); these are the reasons why I want to explore all that is around me.
Then again, with an infinity of time on my hands, I could explore the whole universe, couldn’t I? I could explore time, as well as space. I could watch stars evolve, galaxies collide, planets form, life stir in primordial soups with various ingredients. I could paint asteroids, chase comets and watch them change shape and form, study the growth of mountains, dive into deep volcanoes, redefine the constellations.
But, would I?
One of the recurring themes in most of the stories I read is one of the complete absence of what we call love. I think we value our relationships, with our parents, friends, spouses, partners and children, because they, like us, are here for a short while. They might be taken from us in the blink of an eye. Even years spent with them might not be enough. We learn to treasure only that which is precious, that which is rare. And to us mortals, time is the most precious of them all, and all that inhabits this realm of finite time is precious too.
The immortal transhumans share no lasting bonds, and why would they? Even the bonds that appear to last for long time-scales are in fact the result of constant self-induced change in the personality, characteristics and appearance of the people bonded. No one wants to be bogged down spending millennia with someone who stays the same.
As humans, we change too – from birth to death, our appearances and personalities undergo various changes, as a result of our physiology, as well as our reactions to our surroundings. But those changes are mere reminders of our mortality. We age visibly; our bodies bloom and then fade. And through it all, we are reminded of the mortality of the ones we love, we are reminded of our own short stay.
We create out of love. Or out of hate or lack of love – both of which involve love in some way. (Of course, don’t treat this as some blanket generalisation.) The transhumans of science fiction have no mortality-bound definition of love. Their love is transient. Far more transient than I can understand. Even if you spend a thousand years with your lover in an infinite time, that is merely a drop in the ocean that is your lifetime.
What if you want to explore the stars, but your lover is content with spending his or her life growing new lifeforms where you live? Sometimes, I feel that our bonds aren’t formed out of choice, but because we are confined to the same space and time. But I wouldn’t have it another way.
Without doubt, any transhumans we evolve into might laugh at my statements, just as we would laugh if Neanderthals said they were happy with the way they lived their lives and wanted no change. They will find something to captivate them, they will find problems that need solutions, they will redefine the word ‘precious’ to encompass what they believe should be valued.
But would I want to be in their place? No!
“The average man, who does not know what to do with his life, wants another one which will last forever.” –Anatole France
Leave it behind
You’ve got to leave it behind
All that you fashion
All that you make
All that you build
All that you break
All that you measure
All that you steal
All this you can leave behind
– Walk On, U2