Cluster Map

Friday, April 29, 2011

Here comes Pollyanna again

You have not had a Pollyanna blog for quite a while.  She went to the US earlier this month as described last week by Titan and will now try to help us all be glad about something.
One thing she certainly is glad about, despite  its political nature, is the Palestinian reconciliation. announced today by Fatah and Hamas.   The concern raised in Israel is not realistic since Abbas will continue to handle the negotiations with Israel.  The talk that this will get Natanyahu off the hook with respect to the occupation and settlement building is IMHO silly.
Pollyanna is upset, as she should be, at what is happening to the beloved and famous Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei

who has been "disappeared" by the Chinese government.  Normally she does not push petitions which is something she leaves to her brother Titan, but she is making an exception in this case.

How let us get on to the things that Pollyanna really likes.  In Egypt a new statue of Pharaoh Amenhotep III has been discovered.  Yosefa and I visited his tomb when we were in the Valley of the Kings a few years ago.  He was the father of Ikhnaton the proto-monotheist Pharaoh and the grandfather of King Tutankhamen known to his buddies as King Tut. 
Meet His Majesty Amenhotep III
Welcome to Lake Vostok in whose icy waters strange creatures lurk.

Scientists who study life in  extreme environments have found microbes  that appear to have two levels of metabolism: a survival metabolism in which they remain alive but become dormant until exposed to nutrients or higher temperatures, or, a maintenance metabolism for steady sustained growth.  Click on the link and read all about it.  Pollyanna and I find it mind boggling.

Physics is weird as we have been saying here for quite a while  We talked in the past about the troubles besetting the incompatible relationship between special relativity and causality.  The search for a Theory of Everything makes looking for  the Holy Grail seem easy.
One of the valiant attempts to make sense of our world lies in SuperString Theory which has yet to find full verification but has many adherents.
 It tries to pull all the forces together. and pins hopes on the Large Hadron Collider. 
Because the LHC and any future colliders can carry physicists only so far back toward the moment just after the Big Bang, science’s understanding of a unified theory is ultimately going to have to come from exploring the vastness of the universe. Some physicists wonder if such a strategy, which relies on finding and interpreting clues left behind by nature, can produce results comparable to the high-precision experimental data that led to the Standard Model during the 20th century.  But string theory is not 20th century science — in fact, string theorist Edward Witten has described it as “21st century physics that fell accidentally into the 20th century.” Now that the 21st century has arrived, it’s string theory’s time to be put to the test.  Pollyanna is eagerly awaiting the results.

If you found the preceding paragraph weird, consider this.  Space and time are things we live with intuitively, yet they are not simple entities.  Einstein showed us that space and time are linked and created a four dimensional entity called spacetime that gave verified predictions and provided a framework for Big Bang theory of the cosmos.  It appear, however, as measurement techniques become more refined, that SpaceTime may not be the  fundamental entity of which the universe is composed.   This interesting article provides a bit of insight about what might constitute the ultimate fabric of the universe in which we live.  At least thinking about this takes your mind off politics which is something about which we may be glad.  Of course, to confuse things and to show that the LHC is not alone in the field. the US Tevatron may have found a new and unknown particle that may indicate a new force in nature, if confirmed of course.
Welcome to the world little eagles! Normally it is not nice to infringe on privacy, but these new parents are probably not bothered by it. It is fascinating to watch the hatching of eagle eggs as observed by a Webcam planted in the nest. A few years ago I saw something similar with storks nesting in the belfry of a cathedral in Prague. Have a peek at Bald Eagle family life.
CONSIDER THE TRAVELING SALESMAN PROBLEM: For a given number of cities, a traveling salesman must plan a route that visits each city once, covering the minimum possible overall distance.  The best human mathematical minds have not solved it when there are many targets, but animals and immune cells in the body manage quite well with it by means of incomplete information and limited cognitive skills.  It is interesting to see see how this works.   I recall seeing long ago an operations research article in the Bell Labs Journal about emptying phone booth boxes in upstate New York.  On one hand it was costly to empty them too often, but the level of customer dissatisfaction also needed to be minimized--nice problem in balancing coupled partial differential equations.
In the past I promised you book reviews of Pollyanna's choice but she has been delinquent.   I would like to call your attention to a new popular book about the seas, written by a prominent NOAA scientist Bruce Parker. It is particular interest in view of the tsunami in Japan that gave us some idea of how puny we are compared to Nature.   Here is the Website with reviews.
A new biography of Amadeo Modigliani by Meryle Secrest has come out and has in general been moderately well received. Unfortunately I cannot share the New Yorker review by Peter Schjeldahl because of their access rules. Subscribers can find it in the March 7 issue or online. . He gives the book a better review than does Holland  Cotter published March 18, 2011 in the New York Times while Christopher Benfey,  posted in Slate Wednesday, March 9, 2011 is quite critical.  Both of the latter two take issue with Secrest's reinterpretation of the role of alcohol and drugs in Modigliani's life  Her idea is that he used them to cover up the fact that he suffered from tuberculosis and thereby to avoid the social ostracism entailed by an infectious disease.    For me Modigliani was an acquired taste. I did not have the teenage epiphany described by both Schjeldahl and Secrest, but came to admire his work later. This picture adorns my office wall at the University:
OK, enough blathering even for Pollyanna.  I will however share the latest birther scandals from Andy Borowitz  and The Onion (thanks Judy) along with Gene Weingarten's dabblings in solipsism .  I might mention that there have been solipsists in my family in the past...

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Pollyanna late for April Fools' Day

As you can see, the jester had the day off   (actually he spent a good deal of time trying to educate a new Blackberry to conform to his wishes, with moderate success) and Pollyanna is late with her All Fools' Day blog.  I am sure you will be indulgent with her. She will try to be as upbeat as she can in these troubled times.

It has long been a tradition in the Western world to play pranks on April Fool's Day. The origin of the custom is lost in antiquity, but here are some hypotheses.   I recall attending a"serious" concert in Washington DC on April Fool's Day in 1997 that was devoted to the music of P.D.Q. Bach   Last year the Israel Philharmonic played some of it and in 1987 I was unable to obtain a ticket to the Los Angeles Philharmonic when they performed the immortal Concerto for Eight Wine Bottles and Orchestra under the baton of Peter Schickele. Schickele described in a radio interview how he had the woodwind players of the orchestra swear that they would not drink the wine in the tuned bottles..Let me share a little nightmare music with you


Pollyanna salutes a woman who did great things in her lifetime.  Geraldine Ferraro died this week at the age of 75 of blood cancer and its complications. She was a US Congresswoman 1978-84 and was the first woman to be nominated for Vice President by a major party in the United States. She ran with Walter Mondale against the incumbents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and they were defeated by a landslide in the 1984 elections. In addition she did many other things including serving as Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Commission. In many ways she was a trail blazer for the women of today who are making their mark in politics and other fields of endeavor. I append an obituary.

Pollyanna is always glad when new scientific advances open a window of hope for sick people. We have something like that to tell you about and it was research done at Tel Aviv University which makes us doubly glad and proud. On research at our university, more later.   Now we want to tell you about a new drug treatment to close the window on colon cancer.  It was developed by Prof. Shamgar Ben-Eliyahu, head of the Department of Psychology,  and is designed to block stress responses in cancer surgery patients and thus to save lives

From the Tel Aviv University Web Site
Cancer surgery wreaks havoc on a body`s immune system and stress hormones exacerbate the problem. As a result, about half of those who undergo surgery for tumor removal experience a recurrence of cancer in the same region or other parts of the body.  A new clinical approach being developed and tested by Tel Aviv University researchers may be the key to making cancer operations more successful. Prof. Shamgar Ben-Eliyahu, head of Tel Aviv University`s Department of Psychology, has opened on a new frontier in cancer research:  He is recruiting colon cancer patients for a new clinical study which will test a cocktail of drugs to prevent the negative effects of stress responses to surgery. If successful, it will help the immune system maintain its vigor and prevent the occurrence of new tumors.Prof. Ben-Eliyahu described his method in a recent issue of the Journal of Immunology and a paper in press. published on line. For more layperson details on this breakthrough, see the write up in Ha'aretz in English.

Indeed Tel Aviv University is a major research institution and ranks high in research citations and impact. Carl Stenglo points out that this is in contrast to its low rating overall. It has a 100% rating in citations per faculty member but 17% in student/faculty ratio. TAU is 11th in the world in citations per faculty member, but is 138th overall. As was pointed out last year when Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry, all these achievements represent the fruit of past investments, whereas now the higher education system is going downhill rapidly. It is a definite choice of any right wing government which is hostile to academia, as we saw in the UK with Thatcher and in the US with Republican presidents. Academics tend to be progressive and liberal in their general world view and that does not go over well with fascist or semi-fascist regimes. Indeed there are right wingers in academia, but from what I have seen (anecdotal and not data) many of them are religious, which fact tends to inhibit the critical faculty that marks liberal scientists. This comment may generate outrage among some of you, but Pollyanna is a Reform Jewish liberal. She is also a physicist and likes cartoons like this one intended for the physicists in her readership.

The last of these blogs described the problems of Supersymmetry theory which is having trouble being validated by the LHC. In paleontology, we find something worse, an experimental result is coming under doubt and question and the community of seekers after the origins of life on Earth are having to do some serious rethinking. This, of course, is part of what makes science so much fun and so beautiful.and at the risk of being repetitive, I am showing again how this works.

This is something straight out of science fiction.  Wiring the brain to computer chips is something that people have fantasized about, for good or ill and now it appears to be coming into the real world.  I suggest you read Marge Piercy's He, She and It to get an idea what might be in store.  Is Pollyanna glad?  I hope so because it appears inevitable unless we drive ourselves extinct with the new Earth that we are creating.

CIRCUIT TO ME Nerve cells (purple) send extensions through specially designed tubes in this artist’s illustration, a setup that could help researchers create hybrid neural-electronic systems.

How new planets form in various stellar systems has long been an issue  of research.  Now we seem to be getting a handle on variablity of planetary types.   The link contains a fascinating video, click and enjoy.

OK, Pollyanna says she has gabbed long enough and will send you off with some   humor about short term memory deficit (who suffers from that?) from our old  friend Gene Weingarten.