Cluster Map

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Here comes Pollyanna again


This has not been a good week for our friend Pollyanna and she would have a hard time finding something to be glad about. Of course, the festival of Purim is with us, but it is a bit muted this year.

Here in Israel we were struck by the cold-blooded murder of five members of one family, parents and three small children, by Palestinian terrorists, in the West Bank settlement of Ittamar. Whatever we might think of settlements in the Occupied Territories, this is a heinous crime against humanity. The killing of five members of the Fogel family - parents Udi, 37, and Ruth, 36, and three children, Yoav, Elad and Hadas, aged 10 years, four years and three months respectively – has been condemned by the entire world, including the  Palestinian Authority,  and I hope they cooperate in finding the culprits and that they .are found, tried and punished soon.
The victims of the Itamar settlement attack

 It is most unfortunate that this tragic event is being exploited as an excuse for violent reprisals against non-involved Palestinians and more settlement expansion and building.  This is certain to drive another nail in the coffin of our hopes for peace.  Indeed, we are seeing the disgusting picture of Jews carrying out a pogrom. The extremists on both sides are true colleagues to one another

On a broader scale of catastrophe we have the Sendai earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan last week. It
is an event that is hard to comprehend. In addition to the "usual" loss of life and property, we have the danger of a nuclear catastrophe that can overshadow everything. Whereas the earthquake and tsunami are acts of nature, the nuclear reactors are the acts of irresponsible human beings.  For a running update follow the BBC news link which is continuously updated.  Let us hope that the threatening calamity at the reactors can be averted.  It is galling to think that the Japanese who are normally smart people and who have had the worst experience of all humanity with nuclear weapons should have fallen for the sales line of General Electric.   I would like to pass on the scathing comments of Rabbi Arthur Waskow  on the forces driving the irresponsible building of nuclear reactors, deep sea drilling and the hydraulic fracturing of shale rock that endangers water sources and how they are bound together by our insatiable demands for energy and our willingness to utilize  all means, viable or not, in the corporate pursuit of profit and gain.  The Rabbi says it much better than I could.

Normally one might expect a strong wealthy nation such as Japan to be capable of dealing with the effects of the disasters on its own, although the Katrina hurricane showed the impotence of the United States.  Indeed, they are handling things, but there are always those who slip through the cracks of the system.  I chose, therefore to donate to Oxfam which is helping mothers with infants and people who are not Japanese speakers.  I call on you to help out help out with a donation at this site.
As an example of how Japan is coping, I am posting a report from my colleague Nick Schneider who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He is a professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder and was in Sendai for a scientific conference.  His report is  worth reading.   (I hope the document opens for you properly),

The geophysical aspects  of the event are of interest as well.  Major earthquakes in the past, such as those in Chile in 1960 and Alaska in 1964 have provided knowledge of the oscillation   spectrum of the Earth.   The physics of the event is well summarized by Live Science.   
The epicenter of the March 11 earthquake occurred near the east coast of Honshu, Japan.

 The magnitude of 9.0 was not measured on the obsolete Richter scale, which refers to the response of a certain instrument,  but on the Magnitude Moment Scale (MMS) which is related directly to the physical characteristics of the event such as the energy released, the displacement etc.  For medium quakes, the scales nearly coincide, but the Richter scale breaks down for superquakes.   For this event, the energy released was about 10**22 J or something like a billion Hiroshima-type bombs.  Japan was moved 2.4 meters to the east and the day was  shortened by 1.26 microseconds.  Indeed an indication of  how puny we humans are.  The  New Zealand quake of 8.8 is another example of what can happen if you live on the Pacific Ring of Fire.
More details of the science and the aftermath of the quake are available here.

Before leaving this topic, I want to rant ferociously at the capability of subhuman creatures that masquerade as people and broadcast on Fox News actually to  make fun of such a catastrophe,  Normal people with any sense of compassion and human decency would never descend to the level of Ross Limbaugh who mocked the victims and said that it must be a punishment for environmentalism.  Maybe I should not be surprised by such a phenomenon in a country where the population has become divorced from reality by a mass media complex and where there was a struggle to extend basic health services to 32 million people.  News has become entertainment.  When CNN  covered the Mumbai massacre of November 26, 2008, they included background music in the reportage!  I append an article on this topic entitled Why the Jokes about Japan's Tragedy by Phil Rockstroh and I recommend that you all read it carefully.  When people go to Fox for information it means that they are escaping from the real world.   Andy Borowitz and I know what they are getting and it would be funny if it were not so sad to see a great nation in decline.

I am glad to see that the great international community has quit dithering and has finally started to take action to prevent a genocide of the Libyan nation by their own leadership.  I have no intention of providing a blow-by-blow description, but can refer you to the BBC site which is updated continuously   
US and UK cruise missiles hit more than 20 Libyan air defence targets, Pentagon officials said

I wish  to discuss a different issue, namely the abstention of five Security Council members, in particular Germany.  The fact that the nation that carried out the greatest human rights violation in recent history could turn its eyes away from the Libyan people should not have come as a surprise.   In 2005 I participated as Chair of Amnesty International/Israel in the Chairs' Forum that took place in Haarlem, Netherlands.  The discussion dealt with the question of the position of the movement towards armed intervention to prevent grievous human rights violations.  The options that were up for discussion were:
  1. To do nothing
  2. To approve action if ordered by the UN Security Council
  3. In case of Security Council paralysis brought about by veto, to approve action by regional organizations such as the Organization of African Unity that was to intervene in Darfour in the wake of the Chinese veto at the UN.
It was shocking to hear the German delegation advocating the first option, what they called the "pacifist position."  I stood up and gave them hell, pointing out that if there had been intervention after Kristallnacht, their grandparents might have been prevented from tearing the world apart and causing the deaths of untold millions of innocent people.  This was over a decade after the Rwanda genocide and just after the slaughter in the former Yugoslavia.   They did not like it, but AI Germany did invite our director, Amnon Vidan and  me to write an article for their newsletter on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.   We wrote the article and emphasized that the wrong lesson had been learned from the Holocaust.  In Israel we have internalized the message that this must never be allowed to happen again to Jews.  We should have learned that it should never be allowed to happen to anyone.  The Chair of AI Germany was taken aback when I objected to her statement "since we were liberated."  I pointed out to her that all of Europe was liberated from Germany and that it is not a good idea to whitewash history.  Some people just do not get it, alas.  Other do learn--in 1994 Yad Vashem did not consider the Rwanda genocide to be worthy of their attention, but did react appropriately to the Darfour killings.
I will skip the usual humorous ending of the blog, but Pollyanna would like to pass on a few science tidbits for you.
A beautiful mathematical theory of how the world functions at the quantum particle level, SUPERSYMMETRY , has run afoul of data from the Large Hadron Reactor.

The monster machine is not coming up with the superparticles predicted by the theory and it may well be back to the drawing board for theoretical physics. Some people have devoted their careers to this theory and other bright young things will have to come along and develop something new.  In the meantime,

Finally, some snippets of news from the world of life sciences.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Pollyanna is here again

Pollyanna is here again, trying to bring good news now and then.  It is not always easy.  Let me start this week by apologizing  and making amends. In the last Pollyanna blog I posted a link to a beautiful lecture by the Nobel Laureate astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar on beauty in art and science. I did not realize that the American Institute of Physics restricts access to its print subscribers. I now have it as a google doc and recommend it to you again.  The link should work.

Nativa Ben Yehuda died this week at age 83. She was one of the real characters of our society, a Palmach fighter, a writer of humor and satire, including collaboration with  Dan Ben-Amotz and a wonderful radio host whose program had a large and faithful family of listeners. Her death  marks the passing of an era. I append an obituary    She gave great enjoyment to a huge number of people.  May she rest in peace.

The tragedy of the New Zealand earthquake that devastated the city of Christchurch continues to unfold and it is a tale of grief for hundreds of families.  Hope for survivors has been abandoned.
Recovery of bodies from the collapsed tower of Christchurch Cathedral is now underway

 The first foreign victims to be identified are two tourists from Israel, Ofer Levy, 22, and Gabi Moshe Ingel, 23. The forces of nature indeed serve to impress upon us how puny we really are on this planet.  In this picture we see a historic structure, the Time Ball, which was used to tell ships the time, badly damaged.  It is now feared to be unstable and may have to be demollished.
The 135-year old Timeball Station in Lyttelton Harbour is at risk
The UN has created a new body to advance the cause of women's rights and equality. I am all for it and suggest you check it out.

This blog is supposed to be devoted to nice things, but I reserve the right to bring up issues that Pollyanna herself would have raised.  One such issue is the barbaric sport of bull fighting which still survives in Spain and its former colonies.  It is one with bear baiting which is now a thing of the past and  with other atavistic "sports" such as cock fighting and dog fighting which are still around, to the shame of all.    There are initiatives to ban bull fighting in the respective countries and you can take action against this ghastly activity.
In particular you can put in a call for the city council to outlaw bull fighting in Mexico City.  Please click on this link  and let the legislators know what you think of the issue.


The Sun gave us a pyrotechnic show with a monster flare last week. There was a  Class 3 flare on the limb which provided a great show for some solar telescopes and space-borne instruments. Here is a video

To compare it to Earth look at this.  Indeed we are puny creatures and it is good that nature can teach us humility without killing us.  BTW, there is no danger from this flare, it is not aimed at us.  If it were, it would at most have shaken up the magnetosphere and maybe interfered with some satellite communication, if at all. To read more  go to this link.

Here is some interesting information on new research on Lucy and her relatives.   It appears that these hominids had arched feet similar to ours.
OLDEN ARCHES The bones of a human foot curve upward to form arches, including a toe bone that corresponds in crucial ways to a 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis toe fossil (above foot). Researchers say that this shared toe trait indicates that early hominids walked much as people do today.Kimberly Congdon, C. Ward, Elizabeth Harman
A few years ago I happened to be in Houston. TX at a time when the Lucy fossil and other finds from Afar were on display at the local museum.  There was also a fascinating exhibition on the history and culture of Ethiopia.


One of the terrible ravages of aging is the loss of cognitive abilities caused by Alzheimer's disease. It has long been a subject of research since Alzheimer's pioneering studies over a century ago, but in fact little is known about the mechanisms. Even the main culprit A-amyloid appears to be only one of many agents involved. The brain is a complex system and there are far too many confounding variables Here is an update on recent research. .

Differences in a healthy brain (top) and a diseased one (bottom) clearly show the damage wrought by Alzheimer’s.©   Maggie Steber/National Geographic Society, Corbis
Bilingualism was an issue for us when our children were small.  I wanted to teach Zohar English as a small child but was constrained by elders who said that it was bad.  Perforce, she became bilingual when we went to the US for graduate school and for the others it was a default.   It has been found now that the old conventional wisdom was nonsense and that bilingual infants have a cognitive advantage in later life.  It is nice to know that my instincts were right.

As usual, we wind up with some deep(?) insights (into utter silliness) from Gene Weingarten in Below the Beltway.