Monthly Archives: September 2006

Woody Allen does deep physics

Via an e-mail from Anant, we get this wonderful gem published in the New Yorker in 2003.

… I approached Miss Kelly’s gravitational field and could feel my strings vibrating. All I knew was that I wanted to wrap my weak-gauge bosons around her gluons, slip through a wormhole, and do some quantum tunnelling. It was at this point that I was rendered impotent by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. How could I act if I couldn’t determine her exact position and velocity? And what if I should suddenly cause a singularity; that is, a devastating rupture in space-time? They’re so noisy. Everyone would look up and I’d be embarrassed in front of Miss Kelly. Ah, but the woman has such good dark energy. Dark energy, though hypothetical, has always been a turn-on for me, especially in a female who has an overbite.

War for open access publishing

Via Inside HigherEd: A US federal legislation would mandate making all academic publications available for free (presumably over the internet) some ‘n’ months after their original publication date. This legislation is being bitterly opposed by several professional societies (and in particular, by the American Chemical Society). Sometime ago, it found support from high officials of several groups of colleges and universities. And now, another group of high officials have opposed it.

This is one battle that’s worth keeping an eye on.

Here’s the Wikipedia entry on open access publishing. You migh also wish to read what Richard Vedder and Mark Thoma have to say.

Update: Peter Suber informs us (through his comment, below) that he has been following this issue on his blog Open Access News.

Is Steven Pinker right about the evolutionary irrelevance of music?

Just three weeks ago, we looked at a Boston Globe article on the evolutionary significance of music. In it we also noted Steven Pinker’s description of music as having no significance at all: music, according to him, is “auditory cheesecake.”

Now, Babel’s Dawn, a new blog on the origin of speech [here’s the first post], has an interesting commentary on Daniel J. Levitin’s book, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.

Levitin also appeals to common sense. A useless activity that can become a time-consuming, exhausting obsession should not become embedded in the species. […] Common sense is a dangerous line of argument because so much of science history recounts the triumph over a particular bit of common sense (the world is flat, the sun moves, time is absolute). On the other hand, we should not abandon common sense before a Magellan, Galileo, or Einstein comes along to correct us. Speculations such as Pinker’s that offer no evidence and that fly in the face of common sense can claim no special pride of place.

Levitin also argues that music also promotes a more general social bonding and cohesion, not just sexual bonding. He presents some interesting work suggesting a link between sociability and musicality (p. 253). While not conclusive, it is provocative and merits further investigation.

Most important from this blog’s perspective is the suggestion that, “Music may be the activity that prepared our pre-human ancestors for speech communication and for the very cognitive, representational flexibility necessary to become humans.”

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Here’s the Wired interview of Daniel Levitin. Link via the Sound and Mind blog, devoted to music cognition.

Intellectual commons

In an interesting piece in Chronicle Review, Mark Oppenheimer urges graduate students (and professors too!) to be interested in (and better yet, contribute to) the broader intellectual discussions and debates (in such magazines as NYRB and NYTimes Book Review, Dissent, etc):

The work of public intellectuals is important to young scholars partly because it helps us speak across disciplines. I, for example, was a student in a religion department, but my particular specialty, American religious history, gave me little common ground with classmates who specialized in Buddhism, New Testament criticism, or Islamic law. I had friends who were getting degrees in American studies, but if they were focusing on, say, material culture in the 19th century, their important professional journals were The Journal of American History and the Journal of American Studies, which I never read. Mine were Religion and American Culture and Church History, which they never read. If, however, we had all read one of the journals mentioned above, or maybe The American Scholar or The Wilson Quarterly — journals that include essays on a wide variety of topics in the humanities and social sciences — we could have had conversations with students who worked outside our immediate areas of interest.

Extracurricular reading would have produced social benefits as well. Graduate students, it’s well known, often feel isolated. On their bad days, they even feel that their lives are pointless, anomic, and worthless. It wears you down to spend years doing research on a topic that few people care about, greater knowledge of which will improve the world in no obvious way. But for graduate students to talk to each other, they need to have something to talk about — an obvious point, but one missed by administrators who try to foster camaraderie by scheduling grad-student movie nights. In unguarded moments, administrators will snicker that the controversial grad-student-union movement is fueled as much by the need for an improved social life as by legitimate gripes about working conditions. They have the ratio wrong — it’s more like 20 percent socializing, 80 percent genuine politics — but that’s a real insight. When I was in grad school, I could talk union politics with chemistry students and entomologists. I couldn’t talk about The New York Review with anybody.

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Link via


John Cassidy has a wonderful New Yorker essay on what neuroeconomists do, new insights the subject might offer us about our economic behaviour and decisions, how it might make mainstream economics revisit some of its rather restrictive assumptions, and what the detractors of neuroeconomics have to say about its techniques.

Here’s a two paragraph summary of the need for behavioural economics:

In 1979, two Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, published a paper in the economics journal Econometrica, describing the concept of loss aversion. At the time, few economists and psychologists talked to one another. In the nineteenth century, their fields had been considered closely related branches of the “moral sciences.” But psychology evolved into an empirical discipline, grounded in close observation of human behavior, while economics became increasingly theoretical—in some ways it resembled a branch of mathematics. Many economists regarded psychology with suspicion, but their preference for abstract models of human behavior came at a cost.

In order to depict economic decisions mathematically, economists needed to assume that human behavior is both rational and predictable. They imagined a representative human, Homo economicus, endowed with consistent preferences, stable moods, and an enviable ability to make only rational decisions. This sleight of hand yielded some theories that had genuine predictive value, but economists were obliged to exclude from their analyses many phenomena that didn’t fit the rational-actor framework, such as stock-market bubbles, drug addiction, and compulsive shopping. Economists continue to study Homo economicus, but many recognize his limitations. Over the past twenty-five years, using methods and insights borrowed from psychology, they have devised a new approach to studying decision-making: behavioral economics.

Here’s a framing of the ‘new new thing’ in economics by one of its practitioners. I like to call it ‘glory by association‘:

“Natural science has moved ahead by studying progressively smaller units,” [Harvard’s David Laibson said]. “Physicists started out studying the stars, then they looked at objects, molecules, atoms, subatomic particles, and so on. My sense is that economics is going to follow the same path. Forty years ago, it was mainly about large-scale phenomena, like inflation and unemployment. More recently, there has been a lot of focus on individual decision-making. I think the time has now come to go beyond the individual and look at the inputs to individual decision-making. That is what we do in neuroeconomics.”

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See also this recent post titled Is economics the new physics?.

Evolutionary relevance of music

Aapparently, humans are hard-wired to enjoy music. What is the evidence?

Researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute, for example, have scanned musicians’ brains and found that the “chills” that they feel when they hear stirring passages of music result from activity in the same parts of the brain stimulated by food and sex.

If something happens, scientists should be — and they are — asking questions like ‘how’ and ‘why’, and offering their versions of possible answers. What might they be?

Some evolutionary psychologists suggest that music originated as a way for males to impress and attract females. Others see its roots in the relationship between mother and child. In a third hypothesis, music was a social adhesive, helping to forge common identity in early human communities.

But some people are not convinced that there is any evolutionary purpose at all.

… [A] few leading evolutionary psychologists argue that music has no adaptive purpose at all, but simply manages, as the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has written, to “tickle the sensitive spots” in areas of the brain that evolved for other purposes. In his 1997 book “How the Mind Works,” Pinker dubbed music “auditory cheesecake” …