Bookishness manifest

Well, it’s December 31, GRAIL-A (still unnamed?) has just entered moon orbit, and I haven’t written a word about the science books I’ve read this year. Slap on wrist.

I have read a few science or math-related books, namely Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist (yeah, I’m counting that); Melanie Mitchell’s Complexity: A Guided Tour (winner of the 2010 Phi Beta Kappa book award in science); and Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World. Not quite the same, I also worked my way through a GRE math section prep book (Nova GRE Math Prep Course), which I did review…and, after completing it myself, recommended and lent to a fellow alum of my alma mater. (I’d like it back, still… 😛 )

So I still owe the science reading challenge some reviews, but for now, I would recommend any of these books as good to excellent reads. Harford’s is easy (kind of econ-light), Sagan’s is easy to medium and ranges over a broad territory of subjects circling around critical thinking, and Mitchell’s is medium-hard (but as much worth reading as Sagan’s, which is saying something).

Had some good non-science reads this year, too, mostly fiction but including the newly released nonfiction book on typefaces and typographical design, Just My Type (Simon Garfield). The fiction books were The Winds of Khalakovo (fantasy novel by a new author, Bradley Beaulieu), A Game of Thrones (G.R.R. Martin), The Blue Light Project (Timothy Taylor), Juliet, Naked (Nick Hornby), War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells), What Is the What (Dave Eggers), Faust Eric and Witches Abroad (Terry Pratchett), and an unpublished novel by an acquaintance (I was a test reader–just finished and need to get feedback to him still). This, if you’re curious, is a year in which I did not read nearly as much as I wanted to. Of course, I spent a few months prepping for the GRE, which took approximately all of my spare time, and soon after was selected to attend the GRAIL NASATweetup, which spurred me to read up online about the mission. I also spent a lot of time for a few weeks in between the GRE and GRAIL making Zazzle gear for the SaveJWST campaign (enough of which has sold so far to make $75 in donations to the American Astronomical Society for public policy advancement–much more than I expected!).

I’d like to say what book was the best one I read this year, but that’s an impossible task for a bookworm with wide-ranging interests. I wouldn’t recommend against any of the published books. Pratchett’s Discworld series is endlessly entertaining and frequently insightful. The Winds of Khalakovo surprised me, as I got it as one of Barnes & Noble’s “Free Fridays” selections, which don’t usually appeal; it’s a fantasy novel in a Russian-esque setting, with airships and magic and politics and betrayals. It’s meant to be a series, and I’ll look for the next one when it’s released next year.

What Is the What would have shocked me, coming from the author of Heartbreaking Work… (which I found arrogant and tedious…it oozed false bravado), had I not already seen Eggers’ TED Prize talk. He’s actually a pretty awesome person. What Is the What isn’t a light read; it’s a survivor’s tale, and a good one. So maybe I should give HB another go. I probably don’t need to say much about Game of Thrones; it is incredibly gritty for a fantasy novel, though, and I look forward to reading the second novel (if I can find time to read another brick–that felt as long as Atlas Shrugged, and I’m one of those who say you didn’t read Atlas if you skipped over the 60-page Galt rant). I want to own Complexity so that I can read it again; it covers a lot of different interwoven subjects, and is very interesting, but also quite a bit to absorb.

…And when I do leave my current employer, I might just buy everyone there a copy of The Demon-Haunted World. They could use it–no one batted an eye when an associate gave everyone a copy of the near-death experience story, Heaven Is for Real. But of course they didn’t; the CEO consults a psychic about the business every year and insisted that the office be designed based on feng shui–as a result of which the walls are pretty colors but there’s an extreme lack of functional space and light–and another employee believes in auras and ghosts and “cleansing the energy” of a place, and claims, with encouragement from credulous coworkers, to have some sort of paranormal “powers.” Incidentally, according to the thinking profile the office does, you might expect her to be second in logical bent only to me–she has the “know-it-all”/”I’m-the-smartest” profile. (Her copy should include details on the James Randi prize…)

Anyway, good books this year, though I’d have liked to read more. So here’s to good reads in 2012. And go GRAIL!

Advertisements

Letter from an unabashed JWST apologist

This took a bit to write, but it is now written and sent to my representative in the House. It’s pretty long, I hope she doesn’t hate me for it. 😉 (Also, I hope that I don’t have to send it to my Senators!) Let me know if I’ve got anything wrong–I tried to be careful about my information, but this is the internet, after all.

Dear Representative                ,

I write to you with the hope of encouraging you to stand in support of one of the most important astronomical projects of this and recent decades, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). As you know, a subcommittee in the House of Representatives recently introduced—and today approved—a draft budget that would reduce NASA’s funding and zero out the JWST entirely.

While it is true that the JWST faces delays and cost overruns, these issues should not lead us to give up on the project. The Webb’s predecessor, Hubble Space Telescope, faced similar problems in its development, costing several times the original projected amount by its launch date in 1990, the launch itself being delayed by some seven years between project-related delays that pushed it to late 1986 and the Challenger disaster that delayed it even further.

But we did not give up on the Hubble, and it has paid us back for our persistence, lending to discoveries that have changed our understanding of the universe and solidified its position as an immense success. Among other things, the Hubble captured the impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter in excellent detail; gave us evidence that supermassive black holes lie at the centers of many galaxies; recorded the first visible-light image of a planet orbiting another star; refined our calculation of the Hubble constant, thus providing our most precise measurement of the age of the universe; and perhaps most surprisingly, gave us strong evidence that the expansion of the universe, far from slowing down, is accelerating, indicating the existence of dark energy—a force whose nature remains as yet a tantalizing and unanswered question.

Helix Nebula, HST, 2003

And the Hubble’s contributions have not been restricted to the esoteric sphere of astrophysicists. Through mediums such as the Space Telescope Science Institute, many of the most stunning images and discoveries of the Hubble have been released to the general public over the course of the telescope’s operation. These images are captivating, inspiring, iconic. Think of the “Eye of God,” the Helix Nebula, or of the Eagle Nebula’s so-called “Pillars of Creation.” They convey in the most direct way, not just the knowledge, but the beauty there is to be found in science.

Eagle Nebula, HST, 1995

The James Webb Space Telescope stands in line to continue and to expand the work of the Hubble, as Hubble—after more than 20 years—finally nears the end of its life. JWST has been identified as a top priority in both the 2000 and the 2010 decadal survey produced by the National Academy of Sciences. Equipped to observe primarily in infrared light, with a mirror more than two and a half times the size of the Hubble’s, and orbiting much farther from Earth, it will allow us to study objects both farther and fainter than the Hubble can observe, as well as viewing objects whose surrounding clouds of dust obscure them from Hubble’s view. The JWST will give us a clearer view of stars as they form, of the very early universe and the formation of the first galaxies, of planets beyond our solar system (even to the point of determining the chemical composition of their atmospheres), and likely, as with the Hubble’s evidence for dark energy, of phenomena at which we cannot yet even guess. And like the Hubble, it has the potential to inspire a new generation of potential scientists and researchers.

The James Webb Space Telescope will be central to astronomical research in the coming years and possibly decades. True, it is over cost and faces delays, but we can’t expect NASA to predict with great accuracy the full time and funding needed to design and build a piece of equipment the likes of which has never been built before, which is what Hubble was in its day and JWST is in ours. Even now, as noted in the American Astronomical Society’s statement of July 7, the major engineering hurdles have been overcome. The equipment is being built. It was recently announced that the mirrors are ready fully polished. We have come so far, so much progress has already been made, and the potential gains are so great that it would be a terrible waste to give up now.

Please, I implore you: Support science. Support NASA. Support the quest to understand our cosmos. Don’t let this project die before it has had the chance to truly live; please do not defund the James Webb Space Telescope.

I apologize for the length of this letter; and I thank you deeply for your attention.

Yours sincerely,

                                          
Denver, Colorado

* Note: My sources for this letter are primarily hubblesite.org, for information on Hubble’s discoveries and the anticipated projects for JWST, and Wikipedia†, for information on HST’s delays and cost overruns. Plus the mentioned AAS statement.

† I know, shame on me. I did check the cost at launch on hubblesite.org, and that disagreed with the Wiki figure, so I did not say that cost at launch was more than five times the projected cost (as Wikipedia indicates). So I’m not all bad for using Wikipedia a little bit, right?

In defense of the James Webb Space Telescope

Yesterday I heard through Phil Plait on Twitter (who writes Discover’s Bad Astronomy blog) that a new budget draft from the House Appropriations Committee would slash budgets for the sciences, most notably that of NASA, whose budget for FY 2012 would be $1.6 billion lower than this year. That’s a huge cut, and the bill would explicitly scrap the entire James Webb Space Telescope project!

JWST is seen as being the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been operating for over 20 years and has contributed immensely to our understanding of the cosmos. (Tidbit: We knew the universe is expanding, thanks to Edwin Hubble in the first half of the 20th century, but it was his namesake space telescope that showed us that not only is the universe expanding, that expansion is speeding up!) Hubble has peered back almost to the origins of the first galaxies; James Webb would take us even further. With it, we could see the formation of the first galaxies and stars; could see stars forming inside the clouds of gas and dust that obscure them from Hubble’s view. We could look for planets orbiting other suns, and even get a picture of what elements those planets harbor–that’s so much more than the faint hint of a planet that we get now with Kepler! We could look at other planets, outside our solar system!

In case you haven’t seen my earlier post on Hubble and my interest in things astronomical, it was the stunning imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope that first piqued my curiosity about galaxies and star clusters and nebulae. These images are breathtaking, some of them bizarre, some ethereal, some almost incredible: they are like works of art. But they’re not paintings, not mere imagined things; these are images of objects, flaming gas balls, pinwheels of light, and dusty clouds some of which are hundreds of thousands of light-years across and millions or billions of light-years away (millions or billions of years in the past!) and all of which are really out there in the vast dark of our universe. Can you even begin to imagine such immense size or distance? Can you wrap your head around the fact that by looking through a telescope in space, we can look at the past–so far in the past that we can almost see the universe before it even had galaxies? This was the power of Hubble for me; but Hubble’s life is almost over, and it’s time for something new to take its place. James Webb can be that something for a whole new generation, but only if we see it through.

There are billions of dollars invested in JWST already. The mirrors, it was announced last week, are fully polished. The equipment, part by part, is being completed. This telescope is at the top of the priorities for astrophysics research, described in Nature News as “the key to almost every big question that astronomers hope to answer in the coming decades;” its importance for America’s standing in the field of astronomy is hard to overstate, and its power to captivate and engage the interest of the public will probably be at least as great as that of Hubble. And the House Appropriations Committee is telling us to throw all that away when we have already come so far.

We are already losing the shuttle program. Please, please don’t let this happen to JWST.

Links to more info here:

And here, a pretty entertaining vlog advocating for the JWST:


Is originality merely the rehashing of old ideas?

This is my second practice attempt at the Analytical Writing Issue task. I finished this one in 45 minutes even (or is that “odd”? 😉 ), but I had to stop halfway through proofreading. Hope all my subjects agree with their verbs, and everything. The first two topics were ones I had decent examples for off the top of my head; I worry I won’t be so lucky on the real thing.

Originality does not mean thinking something that was never thought before; it means putting old ideas together in new ways.

An old dictum states that everything a person thinks has been thought before, that “there is nothing new under the sun.” And in many cases, this is true.

Witness the countless love poems that have been written: we express the same concept with myriad images and metaphors, always seeking new ways to depict a feeling that is common to all people in all times. Surely, in the context of love poems, originality must mean putting an old idea in a new light.

Even the modern personal computer was not a new idea when it was developed as a practical product; the idea of a programmable computing machine goes back at least to Charles Babbage in the nineteenth century. And his idea was arguably a ‘mere’ modification of adding machines that have been used for thousands of years. A long history of computing machines has led up to our current Macbook Pros, iPods, and touchscreen tablet PCs; the originality and innovation in the computer industry involves a great deal of modification to existing technology. We create new technologies by borrowing and improving upon existing ones.

But is all originality merely modification or recombination?

Einstein famously said that imagination is more important than knowledge. And he was a fit judge: a genius physicist, his Theory of Relativity caused a paradigm shift in the physical sciences, rewriting our model of the universe. He showed that Newtonian physics was deeply flawed (albeit useful on the scale of the everyday world), a feat that required no small amount of knowledge. But it required no less of him in originality: at the heart of Einstein’s theory is a redefinition of time itself. No one before him had imagined that time and space might be related, that they might be anything but constant.

It requires originality to express old ideas in novel ways, or to transform the idea of an adding machine into that of a Macbook Pro. But sometimes, someone does think a new thought; that kind of originality can change our world radically, well deserving the name we give it: “genius.”

GRE prep, two months in & three months away

Back in January, I bought some books so that I could start studying for the GRE. I wanted to take it mid-June; that gives me as much time as possible to prepare while still allowing a month in which I could retake the test (the current version) if I don’t like my first scores. I’m thinking June 13.

I’ve worked through the 80 sets of words (10 per set) in Barron’s Essential Words for the GRE. I knew some, vaguely recognized others, and had never even seen a few of them (like “contumacious”–rebellious or disobedient). Now I’ve begun the section on word roots. I feel more confident about those, but there are still some that I never quite knew (which now make embarrassingly perfect sense, like “ev,” as in “medieval”–“medi” = middle, “ev” = age/era, “al” = a suffix meaning “of,” “pertaining to,” etc.). Medieval. Belonging to, pertaining to, or characteristic of the Middle Ages. What a duh.

I recently noticed the word “vicious” as well. (Think “vice.”) Of course, now the phrase “vicious circle” sounds pretty strange. Somebody anthropomorphized the abstract concept of circularity?

On a diagnostic test in the Barron’s general GRE prep book, I scored 760 on the Verbal section, which is hopeful. (Should I have shown off there by saying “sanguine” instead? …Nah, would’ve just put my mind on Firefly.) I didn’t do so well at the Quantitative portion, but that was before working on any math. I haven’t done the stuff they’re testing in the math section for about ten years; instead I’ve finally begun to get a grasp on sines, cosines, and tangents (thank you, physics), found the tangents of some curves ( 😉 ), and briefly surveyed the terrain of discrete maths (sets, graphs, combinations and permutations, etc.). Those, and puzzles. I like puzzles. Give me a problem with a checkerboard and I’ll be worse than a dog worrying its favorite bone.

I’ve now worked through 200 pages of the Nova GRE Math Prep book. So far, so good. I’ve really got to stop making stupid mistakes, though–I made 2 or 3 in the set of 100 geometry problems–and I should probably start plowing through a couple dozen pages a day just for the practice. That’s the most important thing for me in math; I just have to use it so much that I can’t get it out of my head if I want to, so that it doesn’t take me so long to get to the answers. I can’t try to memorize math (it doesn’t work that way for me), but if I use it, I’ll remember it like remembering how to swim. It takes a little bit to readjust after a long break, but the memory’s there, in the muscle. And if I use math enough, I can begin to see how it works, how the numbers and shapes and equations relate to one another. I love that, and that’s what I need to do. Unfortunately, I’ve only worked on the math in fits now and then, so far.

So, I should go work on some of those roots and maths instead of rambling on about them. Cheers.