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Science, Fiction, and points in between

Monday 17 June 2002

§ Edward Rothstein describes What It Takes to Bring Tears to an Unsentimental Reader's Eyes: listening to audiobooks.

Is it possible that this form of listening is also altering the nature of reading itself, perhaps even restoring something that was lost? After all, literature was spoken before it was written. ... Hearing a novel is, in a way, anti-modern: it emphasizes plot and character. All else - the grand structural and symbolic meanings, the accretion of interpretations and political analyses - falls aside, at least temporarily. The story acts as story, which means it is, first and foremost, not about language but about characters and their choices; language is in their service.

§ New York Times science writer George Johnson sympathetically reviews Stephen Wolfram's A New Kind of Science.

One idea after another comes spewing from the automata in Wolfram's brain. Maybe it is not evolution but algorithms that generate biological complexity. Maybe, if everything arises from computations, it makes perfect sense to think of the weather and the stock market as having minds of their own. Maybe free will is the result of something called ''computational irreducibility'' -- the fact that the only way to know what many systems will do is to just turn them on and let them run. ...

Wolfram has earned some bragging rights. No one has contributed more seminally to this new way of thinking about the world. Certainly no one has worked so hard to produce such a beautiful book. It's too bad that more science isn't delivered this way.
A week later, Johnson places Wolfram in the context of similar maverick scientists, including Frank Tipler, Julian Jaynes, and James Lovelock, but recognizing Wolfram's predecessors in developing "digital physics".
Had Dr. Wolfram been more demonstrative in parceling out credit to those who share his vision (many are mentioned, in passing, in the book's copious notes), they might be lining up to provide testimonials. It's the kind of book some may wish they had written.

Instead they were busy writing papers, shepherding them through the review process, presenting them in conferences, discussing them at seminars and workshops - going through the paces of normal science. That is how an idea progresses. But sometimes it takes a bombshell to bring it to center stage.

§ Readers have better dreams, according to a British survey of library users reported in The Guardian.

People with a taste for fiction experienced dreams that contained more improbable events, and their dreams were more emotionally intense. The survey also found that people who read thrillers were no more likely to have nightmares. But those with a weakness for fantasy and the wilder shores of science fiction were rather more likely to wake up suddenly with a cold sweat.

§ Now there's the blog wars: war bloggers vs. veteran, mostly tech-oriented, bloggers.

The war-blogging movement took off after Sept. 11 as people used blogs to vent their anger about the terrorist attacks. Though they are still commonly known as war blogs, these sites now address a wide range of news and political topics, usually from right of center. ... As a result, some latecomers now think Weblogs are inherently political. That has perturbed some Weblog veterans, who say the war bloggers are rewriting history and presenting a distorted view of blogs. They say the diversity of Weblogs is being overshadowed by the attention-getting style of war blogs.

§ From The Onion: Science Is Hard.

"For centuries, we have embraced the pursuit of scientific knowledge as one of the noblest and worthiest of human endeavors, one leading to the enrichment of mankind both today and for future generations," said keynote speaker and [National Science Foundation] chairman Louis Farian. "However, a breakthrough discovery is challenging our long-held perceptions about our discipline-the discovery that science is really, really hard."

§ Which perhaps is why Americans don't know much about science, as reported by CNN.

Can a nation debate the merits of cloning when fewer than half its adults can give a decent definition of DNA?

May Aether Vibrations

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