"Our sense of wonder grows exponentially; the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery."

-- E.O. Wilson

Web scienceontap.blogspot.com

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Monty Hall Problem

One of the most interesting popular math problems of recent times:

And on the same topic, Jason Rosenhouse's new book, entirely on this puzzle,"The Monty Hall Problem," is now available at Amazon HERE.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Life's Origin

A new view of the origin of life and replication (known as "Metabolism First" theory) from "American Scientist" authors based upon inevitable laws of chemistry and physics when operating on early Earth-like conditions, pre-the-development of RNA or DNA:


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Next At Apple?

According to this report, those creative geniuses over at Apple Inc. (sometimes known as Steve Jobs) will come out with a $500-$700 "tablet" next year to "fill the gap" between the iPod Touch and laptop computer; the new device may also compete with Amazon's Kindle in the eBook market (
...may it be so) :


Speaking of the Kindle, this interesting/depressing piece on the future of book publishing:


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Inner Feynman

A Man Of Letters

Like a lot of science-types I'm a Feynman groupie --- admiring physicist Richard Feynman's scientific brilliance, and finding his personality and character fascinating and endearing. I've enjoyed several of the books written by or about him over the years, but had never read the volume of his personal correspondences that was published several years back (2005), compiled by his daughter Michelle, entitled "Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track".
Better late than never... A friend sent the volume to me, and I jaunted my way through it, with varied (mostly good, but somewhat mixed) reactions.
Many of the letters are very mundane, to the point of wondering why they were even included. Other letters are so personal in nature (usually to one of his wives or family members) one almost feels uncomfortable reading them, knowing the writer was not around to grant his okay for their publication --- the fact that his own daughter selected/compiled this material eases, but does not entirely dispel, the discomfort (almost voyeuristic feeling) in perusing some of these missives that publicly bare Feynman's private 'human' side.

More interesting (to me) are the letters back and forth with various other scientists, professionals, and even certain fans, young students, or oddballs who contacted him over the years with sincere questions. The letters from the early/mid-60's on are especially good and fortunately make up the bulk of the work, which can be savored. Here we see the brilliant, playful, iconoclastic, even rascally Feynman that we've come to relish. One of my favorite exchanges of letters (spanning a decade-long stretch in the '60's) involves Feynman trying to politely resign his membership from the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. Just to give the flavor, that is oh-so vintage Feynman, an early letter to then-President Bronk of the NAS reads in part as follows:
"I am sorry that you had to be bothered by this matter of my wanting to resign my membership in the Academy. It must be quite a job worrying about all the peculiar whims of all the strange birds that make up your flock...
"My desire to resign is merely a personal one; it is not meant as a protest of any kind, or a criticism of the Academy or its activities. Perhaps it is just that i enjoy being peculiar. My peculiarity is this: I find it psychologically very distasteful to judge people's 'merit.' So I cannot participate in the main activity of selecting people for membership. To be a member of a group, of which an important activity is to choose others deemed worthy of membership in that self-esteemed group bothers me. The care with which we select 'those worthy of the honor' of joining the Academy feels to me like a form of self-praise. How can we say only the best must be allowed in to join those who are already in, without loudly proclaiming to our inner selves that we who are in must be very good indeed. Of course I believe I am very good indeed, but that is a private matter and I cannot publicly admit that I do so, to such an extent that I have the nerve to decide that this man, or that, is not worthy of joining my elite club..."
Pure, delicious, and yes, possibly peculiar, Feynman. (It took a decade, but he finally successfully resigned his membership despite the Academy's ardent wishes to keep him on board.) In a similar vein, in other letters Feynman refuses to accept "honorary" degrees from different prestigious universities because of his uncompromising distaste for 'unearned' honors (even experiencing discomfort at accepting the Nobel Prize he was awarded.)

Another very interesting exchange comes in 1967 between Feynman and a Jewish freelance writer who wishes to include him in an article on "Jewish Nobel Prize winners" and later in an article on accomplished Jewish scientists. Feynman quickly and sternly, yet politely, rebuffs the requests as he not only isn't a practicing Jew (he says, "at the age of thirteen I was converted to non-Jewish religious views"), but moreover believes the desire to attribute intelligence or accomplishment to one's heritage is a dangerous and misguided proposition; similar to the Nazis ascribing traits to whole groups of people based on their heritage.

There are so many wonderful, even amazing, passages I would like to share here (unfortunately some are buried between rather duller stretches of composition), but one ought read and select one's own favorites.
In later life, Feynman became especially interested in the manner of science instruction at the lower school levels, and his thoughts/writings on that subject are always illuminating as well. Although some of the book's entries are plain or repetitive, others shine with Feynman's famous independence, humor, even mischief, as well as his wonder in the world and his legendary teaching forte.
Indeed, Feynman the teacher, Feynman the inquisitor, the playful rascal, the incisive scientist, and Feynman the mere mortal human, are all here on display. And I believe the volume gets better and better as it progresses --- as Feynman ages, so too are his communications more seasoned, succinct, and insightful. The "Foreward" and "Introduction" to the book are also very good, by the way.

I give this volume a "B+" and recommend it to all Feynman fans (who have probably already devoured it well before me), with a caution that the pre-1960 material (first 100 pages or so) doesn't measure up to the rest of the book, and patches of triteness or repetition do arise as with any extensive collection of letters. Non-Feynman fans (is there such a thing in the scientific community???) may take a pass on it. And I would have enjoyed the book even more had it included fewer letters, but more commentary and anecdotes from friends and family members interspersed between the letters (though that was not the compiler's purpose) --- even the six Appendices, I think, could've been effectively integrated into the main body of the volume, rather than slapped on at the end. Still, the volume easily takes its rightful place among the growing library and lore on this singular American icon.
hank you Michelle Feynman for taking the time to draw together these non-scientific communiques of your illustrious father. No doubt you've evoked many happy memories and brought a smile to many faces.

A NY Times review of the book is HERE.

Lastly, for anyone unfamiliar with Feynman, a 1981 interview with him from the BBC was shown to huge popular acclaim both in Britain and in the U.S. (the video is rough/grainy in spots) :



Monday, May 25, 2009

Mathematical Curiosities Indeed!

Number Fun...

The latest volume from prolific British mathematician Ian Stewart is "Professor Stewart's Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities," an entertaining compendium (he calls it "a miscellany") of "amusing and intriguing" puzzles, tales, factoids, and interesting tidbits from recreational mathematics; actually quite an amazing range and variety of short offerings (180+ entries). All the common mathematical recreations are found here, and a great many less familiar ones. Discussion tends to be brief, but not overly so, although in a few cases greater elucidation might've been helpful.

Obviously, one needs to enjoy math to enjoy this volume, but one doesn't need an advanced grasp of mathematics to comprehend most of the content (although for some entries it WILL definitely help).
For the math aficionados out there I definitely give this book a "B+"; it is a wonderful addition to this genre. One recreational math work I probably like better (and would rate an "A") is Martin Gardner's "The Colossal Book of Mathematics," but then it's pretty hard to top Martin Gardner! And for math-inclined lay readers who especially enjoy this genre I'll mention three other volumes I'm fond of:

"Math Charmers" by Alfred Posamentier, and
"A Passion For Mathematics" by Clifford Pickover
"Wonders of Numbers" also Clifford Pickover

Lastly, another review of Stewart's book HERE.


Friday, May 22, 2009

Spoiled Brats?

For this Friday video, some comic relief on modern-day science and technology:

Thursday, May 21, 2009

That's Amore

Not altogether surprising, but one of the most popular articles (which in turn links to several other articles) over at the "Scientific Blogging" website is still this one from over 2 years ago entitled "The Chemistry of Love":


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Does Life Create Time and Space

Is the universe "biocentric"? One more theory for cosmologists to play with:


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Empathy: Men vs. Women

Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen presents (video) an interesting experiment testing for gender differences between men and women on the attribute of empathy:


Monday, May 18, 2009

Ethics In Science

Any of us who have worked in science long enough, and hold a clear definition of ethics, have probably witnessed instances of unethical behavior in science, ranging from the 'massaging' of data to outright fraud. Getting a feel for just how prevalent unethical behavior is, is a more difficult matter, and certainly some fields are more prone to it than others. But like business and politics, science is very much a human activity, and as such is far from the pristine, objective endeavor lay people too often envision it to be...

Below, an interesting NY Times piece on competition in science; ethical or otherwise (several of the followup 'comments' interesting as well):


Friday, May 15, 2009


The Friday video: Happy Earthrise:

Thursday, May 14, 2009


Many readers likely know that Dr. Francis Collins, brilliant geneticist and former head of the successful Human Genome Project, somewhat surprisingly also holds to several fundamentalist Christian beliefs. In an effort to bridge the gap he often himself experiences between science and religion he has founded the "BioLogos Foundation," with an emphasis on showing compatibility between creationism and evolution (their webpage poses and answers a wider range of questions HERE). Not too surprisingly the organization is funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, which likewise has sought for decades to find common ground between science and religion. Thus, another significant voice is added to the ongoing cultural rift that has evolved (so to speak) in recent years over these controversial topics.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

More Daniel Tammet

Interview from Scientific American with amazing autistic savant Daniel Tammet here:


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Of Heavens Above and Carbon Atoms Below

A meditation of sorts from Chet Raymo:


Monday, May 11, 2009

A Priest and an Aardvark Walk Into a Bar

Natalie Angier on memory for jokes and more here:


Speaking of jokes, a great read:

"Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar" by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein

Friday, May 8, 2009

Synchronicity in Nature and Beyond...

This week's Friday video (another older TED talk):

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Origin of the (Human) Species

We'll likely we'll never know for sure, but this study reported in the NY Times indicates that the cradle of mankind, based upon genetic diversity, is an area off the coast of southwest Africa:


Wednesday, May 6, 2009

McKibben on Climate Change

Bill McKibben on global warming here:


Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Fear and Loathing and the LHC

The odd fears created by the Large Hadron Collider covered again here:


And more on the eventual new start-up of the LHC here:


Monday, May 4, 2009

Birds Just Gotta Dance

Good blog post from Ed Yong on dancing birds HERE, as made famous on the internet by "Snowball" the dancing cockatoo (lots of examples on YouTube). If you love birds, dancing, or animal behavior (or know someone who does), this post is must-reading.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Amazing Cuttlefish

Today, a Friday video two-fer :

Remarkable cuttlefish swallows octopus here:

and amazing cuttlefish camouflage here: