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Sailors, philosophers, and scientists

June 22, 2017

Alison Gopnik writes a fun essay on Hume, Buddhism, and life’s turns. The mystery, not fully resolved, is whether Hume when residing in La Flèche about 1730 ever encountered a Jesuit named Pierre Dolu, and through him read the records of another Jesuit who studied Buddhism in India. Part of what struck me was the old-style research Gopnik had to do in unraveling this, in book room and with card catalogues, reading manuscripts not printed, asking friends to translate from languages she doesn’t read. “The 17th century, which often leaves the 21st looking staid by comparison,” is not yet fully digitized. Every sailor will nod at this:

Historians have begun to think about the Enlightenment in a newly global way. Those creaky wooden ships carried ideas across the boundaries of continents, languages, and religions just as the Internet does now (although they were a lot slower and perhaps even more perilous).

David Hume was born at the start of the 18th century. Nicolai Olaus Lossius was born at its end, on a Norwegian farm in 1790. Cheated out of his pay by the captain, he was kicked off his ship in Liverpool at the age of 16. Fortunately, he had been sailing for four years, and no doubt knew his way around docks and ships. Over the coming decades he would sail for several navies and in private ventures, eventually ending up as Vice-Governor on the Galapagos, by then having Anglicized his name to Lawson. It was Lawson who knew that the tortoises there were different on each island, who pointed it out to a geographer aboard The Beagle, which geographer recalled that in his journal a decade later as he was making theories on natural history:

I had not as yet noticed by far the most remarkable feature in the natural history of this archipelago; it is, that the different islands to a considerable extent are inhabited by a different set of beings. My attention was first called to this fact by the Vice-Governor, Mr. Lawson, declaring that the tortoises differed from the different islands, and that he could with certainty tell from which island any one was brought. I did not for some time pay sufficient attention to this statement, and I had already partially mingled together the collections from two of the islands.

The accidental crossings of sailors and scientists have been fruitful indeed.

Spiders, lasers, and nerds, oh my

June 21, 2017

How can you not love a story about astronomers, spiders that fall out of the ceiling and chase laser dots, eyes with double lenses, and arachnologists? There is enough nerd goodness there to stir the shade of Jules Verne.

Padre Island

June 20, 2017

The thirteen foot hammerhead shark shown left was caught off Padre Island the weekend before last. And this was a banner year for Kemp’s ridley turtle nests. As if to celebrate all that, the New York Times has a nice write-up of the national seashore.

Climate politics

June 19, 2017

A few short years ago, a candidate ran for president who recognized the reality of global warming and the need to take action against it. John McCain. Taking action against global warming would hurt one group: those who want to maximize the profits of the fossil fuel industry over the next few decades. So it is hardly surprising that the Koch brothers work hard to define the right-wing stance on that, by funding “thinktanks” to generate denialist ideas, and right-wing gatherings to tell politicians what the “right” line is. But politicians are fickle beasts, and respond to voter desire. So it’s also important that the same message is conveyed through the right-wing media, as exemplified by Breitbart’s latest lie on global warming. If those two prongs work, the politicians both know what their donors want and how to vote on specific issues, and are shielded from any popular resistance. Today, the few Republicans concerned about climate change are from Florida. The Koch brothers are winning.

Religious shifts

June 16, 2017

Religiosity continues to plummet for incoming college freshmen. Conservative denominations are following old, mainstream ones in that decline, causing some to claim that the religious right has some responsibility.

But not everyone who disengages from religion thereby becomes liberal. Peter Beinart notes that the culture wars are salient even for those on the right who are not all that religious:

Non-churchgoing conservatives didn’t flock to Trump only because he articulated their despair. He also articulated their resentments. For decades, liberals have called the Christian right intolerant. When conservatives disengage from organized religion, however, they don’t become more tolerant. They become intolerant in different ways. Research shows that evangelicals who don’t regularly attend church are less hostile to gay people than those who do. But they’re more hostile to African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims.

That said, I suspect the same processes that cause people to give up religion nudge them away also from some of the purely political expressions of ressentiment. Hard to say.

Alcohol and the brain

June 15, 2017

It is not surprising that the British are interested in the long-term effects of alcohol consumption. The lastest study in the BMJ find that, unlike cardiovascular health, there is a straight dose relationship in the harm long-term alcohol consumption does to the corpus callosum and right hippocampus. The study is not as strong as the one I previously linked, showing cardiovascular benefits to moderate drinking, looking at only 500 people rather than two million, few of whom were heavy drinkers. But it did look at functional changes over a thirty year time period. The graph (left) differentiating deterioration of lexical score by amount of drinking is worrisome. It also raises the puzzle that lexical scores at the baseline were elevated by the amount people drank!

It is quite plausible that both studies have correct conclusions, that moderate drinking has some cardiovascular benefit, while any amount of alcohol more quickly ages certain parts of the brain. That would create confusing results with regard to long-term cognitive function, depending on how studies were designed. On the one hand, alcohol consumption degrades parts of your brain. On the other hand, it might save you from a stroke.

Britain following US’s footsteps?

June 14, 2017

The Economist views the recent UK election as a turn toward American-style value politics. If that is so, alas poor Britain.