»  National Review Online Diary

  February 2005


Gaffe of the month     This was the month when I remarked, in a Corner post, that scientists are generally libertarian. Whoops. I have been spending too much time with biologists and geneticists, who do trend that way, mainly because their fields are undergoing explosive growth and they can smell free-enterprise fortunes to be made.

In the physical sciences, which feed on grants from feddle gummint behemoths like the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, leftism is much more the norm. As witness …


The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists     Nuclear weapons are about as physical as you can get, so I suppose it isn't surprising that one of the most ferociously left-wing science magazines is the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It's not so plain from their website, but if you read the actual magazine, you quickly understand that you are down there among foam-flecked Bush-haters. I have the Jan/Feb '05 issue here on my desk. The issue apparently went to press in early December. It includes:

I have made known my own opinion about nuclear weapons. Surely there must be some atomic scientists who feel the same way? Where is their magazine?


Larry Summers     This month's release of the full transcript of that January speech did nothing to get Summers off the hook, but it did demonstrate that he is a mathematically literate guy well-informed about the human sciences.

Which is more than can be said for most of the commentariat. Andrea Peyser in the New York Post extruded the following bit of malicious nonsense: "Well, he said it. Harvard University President Lawrence Summers did, in fact, declare that, in his learned opinion as head of one of the world's leading educational institutions, women, on average, are dumber than men. Just read the transcript."

OK, Ms. Peyser, I have read the transcript. Where, exactly, does he say the thing you said he said? I couldn't find anything even close. Summers's only reference to averages in this context — he uses the word "means," which is favored by statisticians — was as follows: "There is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means — which can be debated — there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population." How you get from there to Ms. Peyser's statement is a mystery to me. Perhaps she doesn't understand the difference between "mean" and "standard deviation." Perhaps she isn't very good at math …

Not that male commentators did much better with Larry Summers's mathematically-sophisticated argument. Bill O'Reilly: "Harvard President Lawrence Summers is still bruised after saying some women might not be as good as men in math and science." What's up with that? Some women are not as good as some men? Some women are not as good as the average man? Dumb women are not as good as smart men? Smart women are not as good as dumb men? Or what?

The maddening thing is that all public discussion of the human sciences is conducted like this, by people so statistically illiterate that they simply cannot understand the most elementary points of fact. If a person who does have a clue what he's talking about sticks his head above the parapet and states one of the basic truths garnered from decades of research, he gets a bullet between the eyes. It's appalling.

When a friend of mine lost his human-sciences academic position in Scotland, and his career too, and had a book withdrawn by his cowardly publisher just before publication, because of politically incorrect statements he had made, I advised him to apply for an academic position in China or Japan. In those countries, unprejudiced research into human differences is still going on, and nobody sees anything immoral about it. Perhaps Larry Summers might consider some similar move. On the other hand, he should avoid Sweden, where research into innate male-female differences has recently been banned by the government.


The Big One     I've been getting really interesting email about my C-Span gig last month, when I did a panel discussion of Tom Wolfe's new novel I Am Charlotte Simmons. Sample, from reader Sidney Houff:

I wanted to take this opportunity to congratulate you on your discussion of Tom Wolfe's novel which appeared on C-Span. I also found the neuroscience angle as a great way of reading the novel. Wolfe appears to have a sound understanding of contemporary neuroscience, including evolutionary psychology.

I am a neurologist and neuroscientist. I also am a Virginian who grew up 60 miles from where Wolfe went to college, and went to medical school in his home town of Richmond. So I am prejudiced but, still, I think he is right on with his take on neuroscience.

I was interested in your optimism that we are going to "solve" the consciousness problem in the next few years. The gap between biology and subjectivity is going to be difficult to span. I am still troubled with the idea that there is not a "central" place where everything is routed. How does subjective unity arise from such a process? I believe Dennett's solution to this problem is not at all satisfying. Not to bore you any longer, this is going to be one of the "hard problems."

Did I really say that we are going to solve the consciousness problem? If so, I mis-spoke, as I don't feel sure we are. I believe that over the next few decades we shall learn much more about how consciousness works, and how various aspects of it connect with brain physiology, but on matters of essence we may exit the 21st century as clueless as we entered it. Once in a while I look through the Journal of Consciousness Studies. When they run something on actual experimental neuroscience, it catches my interest. The meta-scientific stuff, however, sends me to sleep. You can bat around Free Will vs. Determinism for ever — the human race pretty much has been doing so — without ending up any wiser.

What on earth is consciousness? What is present in the universe five minutes after I have woken up in the morning, that wasn't present an hour earlier? What ceases to be present when I go unconscious, or die? "A field of consciousness," says Prof. Searle. So … what's that?

I suspect there is a singularity lurking in here somewhere. (In the mathematical sense, I mean: a point where the rules break down, as when a formula requires you to divide by zero, which is not permitted in math.) As with what cosmologists call "the initial singularity" — more popularly known as the Big Bang — science may take us closer and closer to the nature of consciousness, but never permit us to get all the way there. We shall be stuck with two unfathomable mysteries: How did the universe come to exist? and: What the heck is it that is asking these questions?


The spirit of science     We bade farewell two some good friends this month: neurogeneticist Huifu Guo and his wife, whom we have known for some years. Huifu worked at Cold Spring Harbor lab, just down the road from us here, trying to improve the memories of fruit flies. Now he is moving to fresh woods and pastures new. Good luck to him.

We gave the Guos a farewell dinner, at which I asked Huifu about the state of his science in China. They are way behind the US, he said. But aren't Chinese geneticists allowed to do much more work on human genetics than we are, because of different public and official attitudes to that kind of thing? "Oh yes. But they have no money, you see. Money drives everything."


Milestones     My diary's been all science so far. For a little human interest, I note the following disturbing milestone.

We went up to the Catskills for the Derb family annual ski trip. The skiing itself was fine, except that I had been too lazy busy to do my preparatory squats and calf raises in the preceding weeks, so that after a few hours on the slopes my legs came out on strike.

I did, though, notice the following distressing phenomenon. I suppose it goes with fatherhood, but I'm just not ready for it, and am not sure I ever shall be. What I noticed was, guys looking at Nellie, my daughter. I mean, looking. Nellie is only 12, but tall for her age, and slender, with a pretty face and long straight hair. She has no figure to speak of, but in ski clothes that doesn't notice. So these guys were looking at her. They weren't her coevals, either; these were brutes — sorry, I mean lads — of 17, 18, 19. It was all very disturbing. Memo to teen boys everywhere: I have guns.


Lunch date of the month     I don't get too many celebrity lunches, but I got one to remember this month, with Hal and Rebecca Bynum. They were visiting New York and invited me to join them. I rode in on the train reading Hal's book, which he'd sent me a couple of weeks before but which I'd had no time to open. It's a gem, pure Americana, seasoned with some personal stories that are deeply moving. Amongst other things, it tells you what to do if you don't want to be kept waiting in some suit's outer office …

I have added Hal to my collection of Brother Jonathans — that is, true, natural American gentlemen. There aren't too many Brother Jonathans, and when I encounter one, he is generally, depressing to say, in the senior demographic. So long as there's just one left to set the example, though, this country will be all right.


Math Corner     Last month I posted a riddle about Diophantus from the Greek Anthology. Solutions: Diophantus was

For this month, since I've been packing in the science, I'll assume that if you got this far, you have at least high school calculus, which is all you'll need.

Consider the following function. The letter e stands for Euler's e of course, and "sin" is the familiar sine function.

        f(x) = x 4 × e −x ² / 4 × sin (8 / x ³)  if x ≠ 0,  and f(0) = 0.

This function's derivative exists and is bounded everywhere; but it has a rather peculiar property in the interval from −1 to 1, or in fact (I think) in any interval that includes zero. What is that property?