Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A linguistic anthropologist delivers his spiel

Stephen Chrisomalis at Glossographia revisits an old debate. A couple of tasty passages:

I do not believe there are any grounds at all to believe that there is such a thing as ’science’ to be made clearly distinct from ‘the humanities’ – that at best these are used to designate semi-useful collocations of perspectives, and at worst, they are self-serving labels used to isolate oneself and to denigrate others. ...

[C.P.]Snow lived and worked at the height of modernism in the academy: for the social scientist, behaviorism, functionalism, and structuralism were all in full bloom. What he did not foresee, and could not possibly have foreseen, is the emergence of the ‘Science Wars’ or ‘Culture Wars’ in which two camps defined themselves in opposition to one another. Starting in the 1970s (or earlier or later, depending on who you ask), ’science’ was severely criticized from various angles that we might generally label postmodern or poststructuralist. The response from ’scientists’ (do people really call themselves ’scientists’ unironically any more?) ranged from ignoring the new trend to bafflement to outright hostility. Certainly the response from the scientific community followed the initial criticisms of the humanists.

In fact, however, the label ‘war’ is quite inappropriate since very little of the academic discussion that we might now define under one of these terms actually involved academic debate between the two camps. Rather, the sides served as useful straw men to be marshalled in front of one’s fellow-travelers, serving as an emblem of clan identity (as a shibboleth). Moreover, drawing these boundaries allowed one to safely ignore that which lay beyond them as unnecessary, irrelevant, or just plain wrong. Just as we recognize that you can’t draw a line around ‘a culture’ without asking who is doing the defining and for what reason (and in whose interest), I believe that there is ultimately very little behind the distinction between Science and Humanities that cannot be explained in terms of a rather narrow set of interests, both internal and external....My question ultimately rests on how distinct the humanities and the sciences were as concepts, prior to World War II, and what explanation we might give if they have become increasingly distinct over time. I proposed, only half-jokingly, that to define the humanities as a bounded group of disciplines allows Science to define ‘those whom we do not have to fund’, and to define Science allows the humanities to define ‘the object of our newfound ire’.

There is quite a bit more at the blog, in this and other posts. Glossographia is a blog we could easily have more of if the author wasn't, you know, doing real academic work (as most interesting academic bloggers are).

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

History of Printing

Dee Barizo has alerted me to a commercial British site Cartridge Save, which includes a rather neat section on the The History Of Print: From Phaistos To 3D.

The very first thing in it was a short discussion (with a link to a longer one) of the Phaistos Disc, the sole exemplar of Minoan hieroglyphic script. I know this script, and mention it in lectures, but somehow I'd missed that this was probably produced by some kind of printing process! Must read up on that!

The History of Print has lots of great pictures and a few good videos, including one on the developing process of 3D printing. If you have a hard time visualizing this, you should definitely check it out.

I should mention two processes that I used in my youth, before photocopies got so cheap, that aren't here: dittography and mimeography. If you want a full history of print, these boons to schools and fan publishers should be there. As should East Asian (and particularly Korean) moveable type.

Image: The Phaistos Disc.

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Friday, February 01, 2008


I just watched an episode of the math crime show Numb3rs and there was a mechanical engineer raving about the beauty of his subject.

How long has it been since mechanical engineering has got that kind of exposure in American popular culture?

I can hope this is a good sign.

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

M 51

Some days I think of the vast amount of new knowledge that humanity has acquired in the last 60 years (even in the humanities) and I say, "In the future, if humanity survives, people will look back and ask, 'What the heck were they doing up till the Second World War?'" Other times I think that view is entirely too stingy in granting credit to pioneers of earlier eras who had brilliant insights or just did a lot of hard, systematic work, efforts in both cases that we still benefit from today.

This picture of Messier Object 51 is a good example of old and new work coming together. The bigger, more spectacular galaxy is known by its number in Charles Messier's catalog of "deep sky objects" which was compiled between the American and French Revolutions. Messier had no way of knowing that M 51 was 31,000,000 million light-years away. He was just interested in bright objects that might be confused with comets, and the catalog was meant to help other skywatchers separate permanent from temporary features of the sky. His catalog is still of use today.

The picture of course is the result of one of the proudest accomplishments of modern technology, the Hubble project. And I guess the fact that we can -- even with backyard telescopes -- see better than Charles Messier (and his assistant Pierre Mechain) but still use his numbers, illustrates that some of the most impressive and constructive examples of human collaboration stretches across the centuries.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

A great mind on display

Some time ago someone -- was it Brad DeLong? -- provided a link to a series of lectures by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, which were delivered in New Zealand in 1979. That's a long time past in physics, but these were lectures for a wide public and treated basic issues.

I've just had a look at lecture one, and it's as good as I suspected, if not better. If you want to see a great mind at work, look at the first 22 minutes. At that point, it begins to happen. Then see if you can stop there.

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Strange Maps: The ancient geography of Germany

I've mentioned the unique and delightful blog Strange Maps here before; it continues to be excellent. A few days ago it ran this 19th-century reconstruction of the 1st century map of Germania (roughly modern Germany) created by the 1st century Graeco-Egyptian geographer and astronomer. Ptolemy is one of the most important scientists who ever lived. A great many of his analyses and ideas were wrong -- look up "epicycles" -- but he was a careful scholar and people were able to build better because of the foundations he laid down.

Think of this post as an homage to all who make useful mistakes.

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Friday, November 30, 2007

The wonders of astronomical technology

This picture of a lunar crater (named after Aristarchus, the first to argue -- unsuccessfully -- for a heliocentric system) was taken from a back yard observatory. Wow.

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