Common Misconceptions about Science

If you are sometimes frustrated with misconceptions about science — e.g., “evolution is just a theory” — then this list of [Inaccuracies Found In Common Science Illustrations][] isn’t going to make you any happier.

Top of the hat to [Digg][].

[Inaccuracies Found In Common Science Illustrations]: http://digg.com/video/15-inaccuracies-found-in-common-science-illustrations
[Digg]: http://digg.com/

XKCD’s Now

[XKCD has a live “now” clock][] that displays the time around the globe from the point of view of looking “up from the bottom” of the globe. As always, it’s a great [visualization][].

[XKCD has a live “now” clock]: http://xkcd.com/1335/
[visualization]: http://johnlaudun.org/tags/visualization

-1/12

I stopped listening to RadioLab after a while … it had, to my mind, jumped the shark, or, in public radio terms, gone the way of Ira Glass and become a show infatuated with the sound of its own voice. E.g., the show where Jad spends the entire time telling us breathlessly about the music album that has him just astounded, astounded, every time he listens to it. Good for you, Jad. Some of us listen to you for the science. (The corollary of this is the Malcolm Gladwell effect where the reporter begins to believe that they are scientists and start making shit up and thinking it’s science. It’s not science, no matter how popular you are. Science doesn’t work that way.)

Anyway, RadioLab appears to have righted itself … and I’ve come to think that maybe the real core of the show, and the reporter whom I trust in all of this is Robert Krulwich. [Krulwich maintains his own blog on the NPR website][kw], and it’s worth checking it now and then — and, if you don’t, but you read Reddit, don’t worry because his posts regularly turn up there.

In a [recent post][] he points to a video that reveals the math behind the fact that *the sum of all natural numbers is -1/12*. There’s more in the video, which is embedded in the post, and you really should check out Krulwich for yourself.

[kw]: http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/
[recent post]: http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2014/01/21/263455905/treat-yourself-to-a-huh

What Lies Ahead

Take another look at the photo. It was originally posted to Reddit, and its topic was the dog, sitting patiently on a bench in what, I believe, was described as an animal shelter. Sure, the dog is sweet, but what really captured me in the photograph was the setting: that bench, the glass partitions, the easy-to-clean tile floor, the cinder block walls that someone has tried to camouflage with some military-gray wainscoting as well as the slip of paper that no one could be bothered to pick up and the glimpse one catches of institutional lobby furniture suggested to me a kind of emergence of a common institutionality.

What is the consistency of that common institutionality? There is, of course, the ever-present rationalization that we are doing what we are supposed to do because the numbers all add up. No one asks larger questions, about meaning and quality, because to do so would be to call attention to oneself. You have a limited set of options: give in and go along, invest and get promoted, or retreat into whatever private world keeps you sane when you have had contact with the institutional world.

Whoa, I surprised myself with just how fast all of that tumbled out. And I wondered: is it just the current moment, the current circumstance? I work at a regional public university which has given up even trying to be better: our dean recently told a fellow faculty member that quantity of publications count, not quality. When asked about getting back some of the 20 to 25 percent in wages we have lost over the past 8 years, his response was simply “Talk to the legislature.” But he isn’t alone in not caring. A number of faculty have begun not to care, and so hallways that were once vibrant with conversation are now deserted. Office doors that were once open are now closed. People used to at least rally around getting and keeping the building clean, which has been a regular struggle for the last decade, but now no one even complains about the stairway handrails that you dare not touch or the dirt accumulating in corners of the computer classrooms. Like that piece of paper lying under the bench in the photo above, it just doesn’t matter enough to anyone anymore.

I hope this is just Louisiana, and not some larger set of trends. I gather from colleagues elsewhere that things have begun to turn around, but here, here I don’t know if they ever will. The budget for higher education might get better, but I’m afraid the organizational changes that have occurred during this period may not be so easily reversed.

I Had a Dream about my Future in Folklore

An interesting series of dreams over the last few nights, with last night’s dream perhaps getting closer to reality than might be desired. I dreamt that I was in a department that was undergoing a significant transformation — it was being re-formed or something of that nature — and everything was in flux. I have an appointment with the head of the department, but when I go to his office there are two faculty members present. I am, at first, put off by what was supposed to be a private meeting but the dream reality is ambiguous — I am early or maybe this is the way it supposed to be — but I decide to make the best of it.

The discussion begins with one of the other individuals, an aged woman, wondering what folklore is and why what I do is in any way special. I give a dependable, brief defense of the field, seeking to fend off the usual assumptions that it’s fairy tales and a cabinet of curiosities. But she is determined that folklore studies is trivial: her stance is not aggressive or mean-spirited, more a kind of focused indifference and ignorance that represents a kind of entrenched conservatism that isn’t unfamiliar to me in real life.

At first, I decide to push back, defending the discipline in some of the usual ways but also trying to be evocative — “folklore studies is the texts as people actually use them to create their reality” — where I can. But eventually I realize that even I can’t care that much any more: the institutional drift is against it, and I begin to speak more about my interest in narrative, deflecting the defense of folklore studies into a discussion of my own growing interest in, and preference for, narrative studies.

And, this morning when I got up to write down this dream, I saw a notice from [Academia.edu][] about activity on [my account][] there: already the posted paper from MLA on [“Using Topic Models and Morphologies to Understand Folk Narrative”][mla] has more hits than all of my work on material culture combined.

This is where I should have been all along.

[Academia.edu]: http://www.academia.edu
[my account]: http://louisiana.academia.edu/JohnLaudun
[mla]: https://www.academia.edu/4725693/Using_Topic_Models_and_Morphologies_to_Understand_Folk_Narrative

Life after Academe

Zachary Ernst [left his tenured position][] at University of Missouri for a job with a Chicago-based company called [Narrative Science][]. (A very intriguing name.) His first post is a nice rant — sometimes one likes the jagged edge — but he also has a [follow-up post][] that considers the gains and losses in moving from an academic job to an industrial job.

[left his tenured position]: http://zacharyernst.blogspot.com/2013/10/why-i-jumped-out-of-ivory-tower.html
[Narrative Science]: http://narrativescience.com
[follow-up post]: http://zacharyernst.blogspot.com/2014/01/after-jumping-off-ivory-tower.html

Plasteel

[Plasteel is almost here.][] It’s a laser-printed material: as in a laser targets precise points within a drop of liquid and hardens those point. When the structure is complete, the remaining liquid is washed away. Right now, structures are measured in micrometers and millimeters.

[Plasteel is almost here.]: http://arstechnica.com/science/2014/02/new-laser-printed-material-is-lighter-than-water-as-strong-as-steel/

Black Death Left a Mark on Human Genome

> The Black Death didn’t just wipe out millions of Europeans during the 14th century. It left a mark on the human genome, favoring those who carried certain immune system genes, according to a new study. Those changes may help explain why Europeans respond differently from other people to some diseases and have different susceptibilities to autoimmune disorders.

More here: [Science](http://news.sciencemag.org/biology/2014/02/black-death-left-mark-human-genome).