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PORTSIDE  January 2011, Week 2

PORTSIDE January 2011, Week 2

Subject:

Two Science Books You May Have Missed

From:

Portside Moderator <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

[log in to unmask]

Date:

Mon, 10 Jan 2011 01:42:55 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Parts/Attachments

text/plain (283 lines)

(1) The Four Percent Universe 
(2) The Kiss

The Four Percent Universe by Richard Panek 
by Chad Orzel
Uncertain Principles 
Posted on: January 5, 2011
http://scienceblogs.com/principles/2011/01/the_four_percent_universe_by_r.php

Back in the fall, I got an email from my UK publisher
asking me if I'd be willing to read and possibly blurb a
forthcoming book, The Four Percent Universe: Dark
Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest
of Reality by Richard Panek. The book isn't exactly in
my field, but there really wasn't any way I'd turn down
a request like that. Coincidentally, I received an ARC
of the book a few days later from the US publisher. They
weren't asking for a blurb, but I'm always happy to get
free books.

From the title, I expected this to be another book
laying out the now-standard model (if not Standard
Model) of cosmology, with ordinary matter accounting for
about 4% of the energy content of the universe, with
dark matter (of an undetermined nature) accounting for
about a quarter, and the rest of it being dark energy
(of an even more undetermined nature). To be honest, I
was a little "meh" about the idea going into the book,
as I've heard the basic outline of this a dozen times in
colloquium talks and pop-science tv shows and the rest.
I didn't see how yet another book on the subject would
add all that much.

I was very pleasantly surprised when I started reading
the book, because that's not what this is. Or, more
precisely, that's not all this is. It does contain an
explanation of the science, but that's not the main
purpose of the book. It's not a book about the known
facts regarding the nature of the universe so much as a
book about the process by which those facts were
determined and became accepted.

That story, as it turns out, is absolutely fascinating.
Messy, but fascinating.

The first part of the book covers the initial discovery
of dark matter via the rotation curves of galaxies-- a
very interesting story in its own right, particularly
the bits about Vera Rubin, who has led a fascinating
life. The real meat of the story, though, starts
somewhat later, with the last three sections devoted to
a detailed chronicle of the development of and rivalry
between the two major collaborations-- the Supernova
Cosmology Project at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab,
headed by Saul Perlmutter, and the High-Z Supernova
Search headed by Brian Schmidt. Both teams hit on the
same idea-- using supernovae in distant galaxies as
"standard candles" to determine the distance to those
galaxies accurately, and then combining that information
with the red shifts of those galaxies to determine the
expansion history of the universe-- but they came at it
from very different directions. They ended up in a race
to see which group would be first to get the data
nailing down the nature of the universe, and nearly
simultaneously arrived at the same conclusion: that the
expansion of the universe is accelerating, contrary to
what everybody expected before these observations were
made.

The science is exciting and unexpected, but the story of
the rivalry is even more compelling. There are numerous
aspects to it: a disciplinary rivalry (Perlmutter's team
came from the world of physics, while Schmidt's team is
a more traditional team of astronomers), generational
conflicts (as the principals alternately try to find
favor with and distance themselves from older, more
established scientists), high-stakes scientific politics
(as they compete for scarce telescope time), and the
difficulty of nailing down an extraordinary claim with
extraordinary evidence. All of this is related in a
highly detailed and very balanced fashion-- Panek has
clearly gotten extensive cooperation from both teams,
and doesn't play favorites.

The basic scientific picture has been laid out in a
dispassionate fashion in numerous places, but here it's
presented with all the internal details that people in
the business are familiar with, but that rarely make it
into the media. There's squabbling over priority, a
large collection of outraged phone calls, and a number
of uncomfortable compromises. The scene where a NASA
official calls in the High-Z team and asks their opinion
of the SCP request for Hubble Telescope time, and it
takes them a while to realize that he's offering them
time if they ask for it is particularly vivid, and rings
completely true.

All in all, this is a terrific book, and I'm happy to
recommend it to anybody who is interested in either
modern cosmology or the nitty-gritty details of Big
Science. It's a really good read, and the sort of inside
look at how science gets done that you don't often get
to see.

So, as you can guess, if you check out the page for the
UK edition, you'll find a blurb from yours truly,
reading:

A compelling story of research at the cutting edge of
science, with all the personalities and politics that
the textbooks leave out.

(And now you've also gotten an inside look at how book
blurbs get generated...)

*************************

The Kiss by Sheril Kirshenbaum 
by Greg Laden 
Culture as Science - Science as Culture 
Posted on: January 4, 2011
http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2011/01/the_kiss.php

I went out with a friend. We were both between
relationships, and we both knew somehow that this was a
date though it was never called a date. And we had a
perfectly good time: Good food, good conversation, good
drinks. She drove.

When it came time to go home, she drove me to my house
in my urban neighborhood and parked on the street near
my house. As we were saying our good-byes, she
enigmatically unhooked her seat belt. I wondered why.
Then, I discovered that she wanted the freedom of
movement to lean across the console and give me a kiss.
It was a good kiss. It was actually a series of good
kisses, and it went on for a while.

And suddenly, there was a loud rapping on the window of
the car. We stopped kissing and that's when we noticed
that we had steamed up the windows a bit. So I cracked
the window on which the rapping had occurred and there
was a police man staring in with his flashlight.

Now, you have to understand, this is two adults in a car
in the city, not teenagers at some remote lover's
lookout in the country side on prom night; This was in a
neighborhood where the police never wander around on
foot, and certainly never bother the local residents in
this manner. Yet, there was the steamy window, the
uniformed police officer, and the bright flashlight.

"What can I do for you, officer" I said, thinking, "what
is this Joker doing?"

"Ah, sorry to bother you," realizing he was shining the
flashlight in my eyes, diverting it, "I was wondering if
you saw anyone coming by here. We're in pursuit of a
burglar."

I listened for a moment.

"I don't hear the dog," I said. "No one has been by
here, but if I see someone, I'll call."

It is said that you never forget your first kiss. I
think I might have. But THAT kiss, I will never forget
not only because it was a very warm expression of
closeness with someone I love and all that stuff, but
because of the over the top comic relief associated with
it. I mean really: A cop, a flashlight, a rap on the
window???? GMAB!

Anyway, that is one of my favorite personal kiss
stories. The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are
Telling Us, a new book by Sheril Kirshenbaum has a bunch
more about kissing, and is a must read for anyone who
wants to try out kissing (you may like it) and keep it
scientific.

You would think that kissing is pretty basic. A few
different animals seem to do it, and we've all seen the
pictures of chimps kissing. So, humans have always
kissed, and it's a basic feature of our species and we
all do it and it's kind of wet and messy and what else
can you really say about it? But if that is what you are
thinking, then you need to do two things: a) get more
curious and b) remove your Occidento-normative Western
Unthinking Cap and learn yourself some perspective.

Kissing is not a human universal. Not all cultures do
this. The history of kissing is complex and interesting,
to the extent that we know about it. Kissing may or may
not be a signal for quality or ability in relation to
other activities such as sex. Science has something to
say about the efficacy of lip-enhancing behaviors such
as gloss and colorizing. And did you know that men and
women do not necessarily like the same kind of kissing,
at least in some contexts?

Sheril's book is a fun read and there is no way you will
not find it informative. Gender issues and sexuality is
an interest of mine (as an evolutionary biologist) so I
know a lot of this stuff, but I learned a great deal
reading The Science of Kissing. And, it made me think.

To me, the most interesting take-home message from
Sheril's book is that kissing is both a fundamental,
primordial form of communication involving the deepest
limbic and visceral functions and the most basic social
negotiations foundational to human existence, and
something that any one group of human can simply do
entirely without. The Science of Kissing documents the
heterogeneous nature of kissing historically (and by
inference prehistorically) and ethnographically, while
at the same time demonstrating the nature and mechanics
of kissing as an ethological player in the kind of
social space where one might also find cringing or
punching or swearing or yelling or fearing or other
visceral activities.

At first, this seems highly enigmatic, but need not be
so. What is needed is to draw kissing down to some of
it's more basic components. What is kissing made up of
that could be done some other way that does not add up
to actual kissing?

Bodily closeness, face-to-face closeness, exchange of
scent and sebaceous substances and possibly more bodily
fluids, and so on ... some subset of what any Middle
Schooler would call "Totally eeww factor" ... is
probably found in every human culture, much like fried
bread is found in every culture.1 There is this list of
things humans may do to/with each other in the process
of negotiating (or at least playing around with) sex,
marriage, or some other reproductive contract, and one
way to piece this all together is with the Inuit muzzle
rub, or some other activity, or a kiss.

It is also interesting that the kiss has spread over
recent time. I wonder if it was very common at times in
the past, fell out of favor, and returned, over and
over. I am not necessarily being ridiculous when I
imagine that the various behavioral accouterments of
closeness would be combined, recombined, spread,
forgotten, preferred, prohibited, in a kind of
Dawkinsonian "River Out Of Eden" of memes, kind of like
baby names, with the kiss being at times the species-
dominant behavior except here and there, but at other
times, rare and exotic found only on some island or in
some isolated mountainous region in Portugal. A Ripley's
Believe It or Not entry from 7,600 BC: "Married
residents of a remote valley on the Iberian Peninsula
greet by clasping each ether's lips with their own lips!
Believe It Or Not!!!"

I recommend the book. I suggest you consider it as a
gift for your mate on his or her birthday. Or, to your
mate as a Valentine's Day gift! Since Amanda was born on
Valentine's day, I get to do both at the same time!

_________________________________ 
1Not really. Fried bread is not really found in every
culture. See: Every Culture Has a ...

___________________________________________

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