Here's a couple excerpts of my review of Jeremy Bailenson's book for Nature magazine. If you're interested, please check out the whole review: https:/Here's a couple excerpts of my review of Jeremy Bailenson's book for Nature magazine. If you're interested, please check out the whole review: https://www.nature.com/articles/d4158...
You strap on the head-mounted display, slip on the gloves, tune your ears to the surround sound — and suddenly you are facing a plank jutting out over an abyss. The depths here are virtual, but not everyone can force themselves to jump.
This is just one program developed by psychologist Jeremy Bailenson to demonstrate the capabilities of virtual reality (VR). As a leading researcher in the field, Bailenson crafts new worlds that feel real, to explore their beneficial uses. In Experience On Demand, he tours the myriad applications that he and others are developing. After a great deal of hype by science-fiction film writers and video-game designers in the 1990s, the technology now finally seems poised for widespread use. Eventually, as Bailenson details, it could transform work, schools, hospitals and more...
...Bailenson mentions escapist, excessive use of VR as a major risk. Because of “simulator sickness” and eye strain, which can develop after just 20 minutes, this has not yet been studied in humans. It is as yet a speculative concern, explored more in film and fiction. In addition, there are concerns that violent programs, such as VR versions of first-person-shooter video games, might encourage antisocial or aggressive behaviour in the real world. But Bailenson gives such concerns short shrift. Nor does he call for transparency or oversight of VR companies, or for regulations to ensure consumers’ safety. He seems confident that developers and users will know how to use the technology responsibly.
Indeed, Bailenson is, by his own admission, “bullish” about VR; he recognizes that he might have “drunk the Silicon Valley Kool-Aid”. That relentless positivity means that the book can lack nuance, as if VR can solve the world’s problems......more
As a child in the 1950s, Jill Tarter would gaze at the stars and wonder, “Are we alone?” That monumental question has driven the astronomer's lifelong quest to find alien life in the Milky Way.
In Making Contact, science writer Sarah Scoles interweaves a profile of Tarter with the tumultuous, decades-long history of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, where Tarter holds the Bernard M. Oliver chair. Scoles argues that, without Tarter, telescopes and observing programmes focused on SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence), such as the Allen Telescope Array and Breakthrough Listen, might not be around today. Yet hers may be a quixotic mission, having failed to receive a single definitive signal so far.
The book's title references Carl Sagan's best-selling 1985 novel, Contact (Simon & Schuster), adapted into the 1997 film directed by Robert Zemeckis. In them, astronomer Ellie Arroway, partly based on Tarter, succeeds in finding an alien signal. Scoles, inspired by Contact, quotes from it: “The Universe is a pretty big place. If it's just us, seems like an awful waste of space.” ...more
I just finished reading James Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time." He writes incisively, eloquently and movingly. His powerful essay about responses to racI just finished reading James Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time." He writes incisively, eloquently and movingly. His powerful essay about responses to racial injustice and inequality--including responses of the church, the Nation of Islam, and white people--is still relevant today. If you haven't already, read it!
Here's just one quote: "That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth--and indeed, no church--can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakable."
And here's one more: "It requires great force and great cunning continually to assault the mighty and indifferent fortress of white supremacy, as Negroes in this country have done so long. It takes great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate."...more
Bertrand Russell is known for his analytic philosophy as well as his principled positions on social issues. This book explores the latter. It's a centBertrand Russell is known for his analytic philosophy as well as his principled positions on social issues. This book explores the latter. It's a century old, written during the middle of World War I, before it became even worse. Later in 1916, Russell was dismissed from Trinity College at Cambridge for his pacifist activities, and after lecturing against the US entering the war, he was sent to prison (where he wrote his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy).
Russell once said, "Patriots always talk of dying for their country but never of killing for their country."
In addition to war and peace, the book discusses the state, private property, education, marriage, and religion, and how to improve them with a coherent and self-consistent philosophy. Russell at times sounds old-fashioned and some of his examples are out of date, but in my opinion, much of this book is still timely, especially the sections in the first half about war. Today when we have supposed liberals supporting "just wars," a never-ending "global war on terrorism," and "targeted killings," these arguments still resonate....more
Quantum physics, cosmology, existentialist philosophy and morality may seem like disparate subjects. But Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at Caltech, ties them all together into a cohesive and comprehensive worldview he calls "poetic naturalism." He lays out his views while trying to find meaning in a vast and chaotic universe in his newly published book, "The Big Picture" (Dutton, Penguin Random House Inc.).
Having written two previous popular physics books as well as being active on Twitter and his blog, Carroll takes an interest in communicating complex scientific discoveries. In his new book, he describes some of the fundamental ideas in modern physics with a philosophical lens, while exploring life's biggest mysteries: the origin of the universe and the meaning of life itself. At the same time, with references to Wile E. Coyote, Captain Kirk and "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," he avoids an overly serious tone.
In recent years, prominent scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye and Stephen Hawking have downplayed the importance of philosophy or even denigrated it. Carroll is not among this crowd.
"There are a lot of scientists and science promoters who have said not entirely complimentary things about philosophy, but that misses the point about what it's for," Carroll said in an interview. "The purpose of philosophy is not to be the handmaiden of science."
Though his Ph.D. is in physics, Carroll has a strong interest in philosophy as well, and minored in it in college. He sees philosophy as a method for interpreting science and for a deeper understanding of physical phenomena. He uses philosophical concepts such as causality, determinism and mind-body dualism to explore everything from the tiniest subatomic particles to the accelerating expansion of the universe -- as well as the role humans play somewhere in between.
For Carroll, naturalism means that there's one world, the natural world, it obeys the laws of nature, and you can discover it using science. To this he adds that "there are many ways of talking about the world," stories that people can tell to make sense and meaning of the world and their place in it. He even address issues of free will, consciousness, ethics, and life after death...
[Please see the full review published by Inside Science on 19 May 2016.]...more
This is a fascinating post-apocalyptic novel about people living in California after a really really really bad drought. I really enjoyed Watkins's wrThis is a fascinating post-apocalyptic novel about people living in California after a really really really bad drought. I really enjoyed Watkins's writing too, so if you want a good story and a writer with talent and style, check this out. I recommend it. It's also very relevant to today, as we Californians and Southwesterners will probably have many more droughts to live through in the future....more
I'm glad to see such a provocative, challenging, and excellently written book on bestseller lists. Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Atlantic writer, is clearly iI'm glad to see such a provocative, challenging, and excellently written book on bestseller lists. Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Atlantic writer, is clearly influenced by luminaries like W.E.B. DuBois and James Baldwin, and he seems ready to carry that mantle.
I liked his debates and discussions about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and his insight into the challenges black men face and the anger some harbor. There's plenty of white hypocrisy in the United States, and Coates cuts right through it and lays it bare. Some white people seem to care more about assuaging their guilt than about actually fulfilling their responsibility to rectify racial inequality and injustice. They will be offended by parts of the book, and so I hope they're reading it.
I thought Coates spent too much time writing about his own personal narrative, such as his time in college. The book was longer than Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, but it didn't need to be. I also thought he gave very short shrift to black women, even when there were clear opportunities to weave them into the story. He brings women in over the last few pages, but at that point it seems like an afterthought....more
On the one hand, we have the elusive dark matter particles, dispersed throughout the universe across billions of light-years; on the other, we have the sorely missed dinosaurs, who lived in our own proverbial backyard but were driven extinct by a mysterious impactor 66 million years ago. What if these fascinating yet disparate phenomena, separated by so much space and time, were somehow related?
That, in essence, is the premise of Lisa Randall's book, "Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs." Maybe the "vanilla" cold dark matter model we have isn't the only possible explanation of observations of the expanding universe and the cosmic web of millions of surveyed galaxies, she argues. It's more fun to consider other more exotic models, even if they turn out to be wrong.
Dark matter particles don't interact with each other the way our familiar atoms do. In fact, they hardly interact at all. They mostly just expand with the growing universe and then clump together as they feel the effects of gravity over time. As a result, we end up with nearly spherical clumps throughout the universe, and we and the rest of the Milky Way are living inside one of those clumps. But if some dark matter interacts like normal matter, it could form a dense and thin disk—even thinner than the disk of our own galaxy.
If that's the case, then as our solar system moves up and down through the disk, we'll experience an extra little gravitational nudge each time we go through. This could periodically dislodge comets from the Oort cloud in the distant realms of our solar system, flinging some comets away forever and sending others in an unfortunate Earthbound direction, where the consequences of its destructive impact in the Yucatan kills off the dinosaurs some 66 million years ago, thus finally linking dinosaurs to dark matter.
It's worth taking each step of this argument with a grain of salt, and the result would be a pretty salty concoction you might not want to taste. In addition to the dark matter assumptions, she's also assuming that it was a comet, not an asteroid, that caused the extinction, and she's assuming that those impacts hit us periodically with a period of around 30 million years. I don't know how much Randall believes all this herself, but what it does do is give her an excellent excuse to take the reader on an entertaining tour of cosmology, astrophysics, planetary physics, the origins of life, and paleontology. ...more
First came the Apollo era. Following Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, the first satellite and human in space, the United States leaped into the space race. Within 11 years of NASA’s formation, and with incredible public support, they managed to launch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of the moon. The moon!
Then came the space shuttle era, also a time of lofty and grand missions. NASA astronauts flew the shuttles on 135 missions, to deploy space probes like the Hubble Space Telescope and to assemble the International Space Station. But all good things must come to an end, as they say. Margaret Lazarus Dean, in her new book, Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight, witnesses and chronicles the final flights of the Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis shuttles in 2011. For each of those three shuttles, she describes the visceral experience of watching the launches and landings, including the responses of diverse fellow onlookers at Cape Canaveral on the coast of Florida.
Dean reflects on the space shuttle program’s many impressive achievements, as well as its shortcomings and failures, in the case of the tragic explosion of Challenger in 1986 and the breakup of Columbia in 2003. (She previously wrote a novel about the Challenger disaster.) Throughout the book, she provides a record of a wide range of people grappling with the end of the era and wondering about what might come next.
She encounters both aspiring and accomplished astronauts—she’s starstruck as she meets Aldrin (and I don’t blame her). Dean also talks to space workers, as well as other writers and journalists, somehow trying to figure how to put these momentous events into words. She makes many references to iconic writers, during what she considers the pinnacle of American spaceflight. Especially Norman Mailer (author of Of a Fire on the Moon), Tom Wolfe (The Right Stuff) and Oriana Fallaci (If the Sun Dies) clearly influenced her.
Dean sprinkles many telling and intriguing anecdotes throughout the book. At one point she quotes a conversation she overheard, in which a NASA public affairs person corrects a Reuters journalist, saying that it’s not the end of American spaceflight, but “the end of American spaceflight as we know it,” which seems to be a subtle distinction. She also points out that in spite of NASA currently accounting for a small fraction of the national budget, her university students overwhelmingly overestimated how much funding the agency actually receives. It gets about 0.4% of the national budget, but most of her students guessed it was more than one fifth! Maybe that demonstrates NASA’s ability to have a big impact and inspire the public imagination with relatively few resources.
Dean’s book is more a memoir than anything else. It’s often fascinating to read, but it feels too wordy and verbose at times. She includes far too many mundane or irrelevant details, including the drive to and from Florida, the motels she stays at (one reference to Mailer is enough there), and numerous texts and social media posts. Omar Izquierdo, a NASA technician, host and new friend, makes for an interesting character, but every single interaction with him doesn’t need to be included. It’s as if she documented in detail every step she took and every thought that popped in her head and shoehorned them in. She also writes many times about her husband and child, who made sacrifices so that she could make these trips; she raises important concerns, but they would belong more in a book more directly touching on work-life balance and gender equality. She and her editors could have cut 100 pages from this book, in my opinion, strengthening its impact without losing any substance....more
As I work on improving my essay writing skills, I’ve attempted to expand my horizons and read a wide variety of authors, including those with whom I’m not familiar. I recently came across Lauret Savoy, who in her new book, Trace, offers us a different perspective of nature, the environment, geography and American history, including its evolving race relations. She focuses on how people and communities interact with nature, which shouldn’t be viewed as some pristine thing that white people enjoy every once in a while.
Her writings dovetail with environmental justice, which is something I’ve been thinking about over the past few years. It refers to the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income” (as the EPA defines it) with respect to environmental regulations and policies. In my opinion, people whose work or activism involves race, class, gender and other power relations often ignore environmental issues, while environmentalists are often white and operate in a vacuum as if those other divisions aren’t important.
But environmental justice brings these issues together. It grew out of the civil rights movement when people of color realized they were often suffering silently while disproportionately affected by toxic waste sites, power plants, landfills, and other environmental hazards. In one of my first guest blog posts (outside of this blog), for the Union of Concerned Scientists a couple years ago, I argued that climate change is an environmental justice issue, as the people most harmed by rising sea levels, floods, extreme droughts and heatwaves are those who did the least to contribute to the problem. Savoy considers these kinds of issues as she weaves in environmental justice in her new book, referring to “people of color and the economically poor [who] live, and die, next to degraded environments.” She argues that the concept of “ecological footprint” should account for dispossessed people and people’s labor.
In Trace, a slim yet powerful volume, Savoy invites us to accompany her as she traces through her travels, her past, and her family history, following the paths she and her predecessors have taken. She explores varied and uneven terrain through ever changing and troubled relations between race and the American landscape. The book is sort of a collection of interconnected essays, which fit together into a cohesive story. Each chapter searches a particular place, asks questions about its origins and names, and considers her and others’ experiences there. “The American landscape was in some ways the template, but also the trigger, to each of the searches,” she said in an interview about the book......more