Made for me

February 9, 2008 at 3:01 am | Posted in design, harvard, internet, programming, rambling, school, science | Leave a comment
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Birds!
[via flight404]

I love shopping week at the beginning of every semester, because it is a time of beautiful leisure and carefree distraction.

Okay, so I skip class for a couple days. But consider this–other, much more ambitious students will go to 20 classes that they don’t end up taking. And guess what? I also end up not taking those same 20 classes! I’ve effectively simulated Ivy-league-grade ambition by sitting in my room and surfing YouTube, and nobody is the wiser. A pareto-efficient transaction of sorts, between myself and The Man. (Maybe you question the correctness of my econ verbiage here. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I never sat in on any econ classes.)

Ah! But even without me once having to go outside, that perfect someone or something (but actually some thing) still strikes me like a thunderbolt between the eyes. Continue Reading Made for me…

Old News on the Science Wars

September 24, 2007 at 11:56 pm | Posted in arguments, opinion, philosophical, science, social | 3 Comments

Meant to post this two weeks ago, but got myself into a massive time sink after reading this article online: “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” by Alan Sokal. No hurry though, this is apparently old news for most people who care about the matter — the paper was published in 1996 in a well-known cultural studies journal called Social Text. Among other juicy pseudo-intellectual non-sequitors (of the sort I routinely peppered my high school english papers with), I quote the following from the article:

It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical “reality”, no less than social “reality”, is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific “knowledge”, far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it;

Yes, you’ve heard it before, the “science as culture” argument. But before that even has time to sink in, things rapidly take a weird turn:

In mathematical terms, Derrida’s observation relates to the invariance of the Einstein field equation G_{\mu\nu}=8\pi G T_{\mu\nu} under nonlinear space-time diffeomorphisms (self-mappings of the space-time manifold which are infinitely differentiable but not necessarily analytic). The key point is that this invariance group “acts transitively”: this means that any space-time point, if it exists at all, can be transformed into any other. In this way the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed; the π of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone.

If you’re wondering what Derrida could possibly have said that would suggest the inconstance of π and G, you need not worry — it’s all a big joke. The article was a deliberately meaningless hoax, and the author was a physicist with a point to make, which he (rather diplomatically) explains as an attempt to answer the question:

Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies — whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross — publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?

In other words, “Does Social Text publish bull shit?” Obviously, in this case, the answer was yes. Continue Reading Old News on the Science Wars…

Biology students have OCD

February 9, 2007 at 5:57 pm | Posted in humor, rambling, school, science, wistful musing | Leave a comment

Biochemistry lab work is unstimulating. The only reason we haven’t gotten robots or monkeys to do all the pipetting (using a glorified eye-dropper to meticulously measure out really small amounts of liquids) is because it’s cheaper to just get undergrads to do it. I burn more neurons reading Calvin and Hobbes on a summer afternoon. I burn even more neurons on the weekends, but that’s a different story.

I love this stuff though. Sometimes, the conceptual brilliance of biochemistry outweighs the rote labor of running experiments; most of the time, it doesn’t. Masochism is a more important factor. Obsessive-compulsive disorder also helps. A couple centuries ago, someone infatuated with rituals and record-keeping could join the clergy and spend hours playing with beads and all manner of ornate metal vessels for a holy cause. Now, the cause is knowledge, and the beads are made of polystyrene, microns wide, and have fickle little buggers called DNA molecules attached to them. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not comparing science to religion. I’m musing on what makes me and other lab rats — er, aspiring experimentalists — tick.

Biology traditionally got a bad rap for being a little fuzzy and arcane. I wonder why. A basic lab procedure, the Polymerase Chain Reaction, calls for the following steps: add distilled water, add buffer solution, add DNA molecules, add primer (short DNA fragments), add nucleic acids, add DNA polymerase (a protein). After that you will end up with a drop of liquid twenty times smaller than a raindrop, and you’ll put the tiny vial into a machine, close the lid, hit some buttons and wait a few hours. It’s like cooking.

Only unlike cooking, things go wrong most of the time (for me it is like cooking). Even if you’ve torn out your hair taking precautions left and right, you’ll invariably end up with results that are completely unexpected, if not outright incomprehensible. Imagine following a recipe for a dozen blueberry muffins, and when you open the oven, you see one blueberry muffin, two strawberry ones, one dangerous-looking green smudge, and eight blank wells in the muffin tin. They disappeared! That’s what science is like.

So what kind of person loves seeing their muffins disappear? Well, the kind of person who also likes to track them down. I love thinking about the gazillion different ingredients I put in, why they’re there, and how a change in one of them could have screwed everything up. I can never fit all the details in my head at once, and nor can anyone else, but the fun is in seeing how much I can see, and how they fit together. Sometimes, though, the muffins get lost and nobody for the life of them can figure out why. Then, the enjoyment is all in the mixing and baking. That’s why we all have OCD.

Not THAT again

January 31, 2007 at 9:34 pm | Posted in philosophical, rambling, school, science, wistful musing | 5 Comments

The dreaded words of “emergent phenomena” were uttered today in class. Yes, I know that I (and kleinschmidt, sort of) have been beating the subject to death for the past couple of months. Alas, since it’s the first day of the semester I was still awake enough to notice when the professor (i.e. biology-rockstar/Discovery channel host) Rob Lue went on to mumble about multimodular tensegrity in cells.

You don’t really need to know what that is — except that tensegrity = tension + integrity (ludicrous, but I kid you not) — and I doubt I can really convey the feeling of understanding I got at that moment, which I’ve lost anyway after a spirit-crushing session of physical and organic chemistry in the afternoon. What I thought interesting was a question Lue posed at the beginning of class: can understanding the details of how all individual cellular components work allow us to derive an understanding of the whole of the cell’s function?

The example used was an actin monomer, a relatively small protein molecule that binds to itself in long chains to provide structure inside cells. The changes in size and number of the actin chains, or polymers, leads to all sorts of interesting behavior and is actually the basis for how cells move. At the turn of the 20th century, had we known the exact structure of an actin monomer (which we now do) and the physical rules by which it abides, many scientists would have assumed that that was enough information to characterize, indeed predict, the behavior of the entire skeleton of actin filaments in the cell. In fact, as modern biology has found, it is excruciatingly difficult to predict such behavior from first principles, precisely because of the way that it “emerges” from the complex, multi-leveled interactions of many small components.

Analogous examples abound in physics, chemistry, and the social sciences. Continue Reading Not THAT again…

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