UPDATE: Judges in New York have thrown out a legal bid for chimpanzee personhood.
The chimps' lawyers promise to appeal.
Can buildings be too young to save?: Ruth Graham on “what, in the end, makes a building worth saving?” In cities around the country, there’s pressure to demolish buildings constructed in the 1960s and 1970s that are now considered eyesores (examples in Boston include the JFK Federal Building and the Government Service Center). But today’s eyesores can become tomorrow’s architectural jewels. How do we know when to resist the temptation to tear down what we don’t like?
The long, lurid tradition of public health propaganda: I wrote about how the propaganda tactics being used to defend and oppose the Affordable Care Act have their roots in heavily propagandized public health debates throughout the 20th century.
A 100 mpg car? It’s already possible.: Toby Lester interviews Jason Fagone, author of the new book, “Ingenious,” which follows four teams through a competition to build a 100 mpg car. Designing a car that efficient turns out to be relatively easy, which prompts the question (that Fagone answers): Why don’t the big automakers build one?
Plus: Britt Peterson on why some selections for “word of the year” stick around, while others quickly go out of style.
And: Kevin Lewis on how prayer may give you more self-control; how men find their romantic partners more attractive following a whiff of oxytocin; how reading Supreme Court decisions may shift your politics; and more.
Over the last one hundred years, America—and the world—has built a lot of airports. Now many of them have become obsolete, either because they’re too small, in the wrong places, or no longer needed by a military that’s been trying to pare its stock of airfields. So, what do you do with these flat, concrete, often urban spaces, once they're no longer needed for air travel?
To landscape architects, it's a delightful question, and one that has generated an enormous amount of activity over the last fifteen years or so. And last month the Harvard Graduate School of Design hosted a two-day conference called "Airport Landscapes" that brought together dozens of scholars tantalized by the possibilities of forsaken airstrips.
"Because of their expansiveness, size, horizontality, the fact that they’re left over spaces, they just offer new grounds for experimentation and design," says Sonja Duempelmann, professor at the GSD and co-organizer of the conference.
"Airport Landscapes," along with an exhibition by the same name that's running at the design school through December 19, looked at landscape innovations at airports that are still functioning, along with some of the most innovative makeovers that have been given to decommissioned airports. These include turning airports into "urban prairies," building alternative energy sites (solar cell arrays fit particularly along old runways), and creating some of the best park and playground space a land windsurfer could ever ask for. Old airports are useful for lots of purposes, but their transformation is captivating in a different way, too: It's just really cool to walk where airplanes used to land.
Crissy Field in San Francisco. Photograph by Sonja Duempelmann
Tempelhof Airport, outside Berlin. Photograph by Sonja Duempelmann
A stuffed peregrine falcon, positioned to scare off swallows that get caught in jet engines. Photograph by Justin Knight, Harvard Graduate School of Design.
It's not uncommon for concerts to be postponed at the last minute: bad weather, electrical failures, the performer "out sick" (recovering from a bender)...they're all reasons we might expect the show not to go on as scheduled. But to cancel a concert because a 70-year-old, 1000-pound bomb was discovered near the performance site? That doesn't happen every day.
But it did happen in October to Tufts lecturer Paul Lehrman. On October 24, Lehrman was scheduled to premiere a piece, co-written with pianist Guy Livingston, at the SinusTon Festival for Electronic Music in Magdeburg, Germany (Lehrman was home in the United States at the time of the performance, which was given by Livingston). The performance featured a piano and a stage-full of reverberating loudspeakers, called an "acousmonium," which made it a particularly bad fit with a discovery made earlier that day at a construction site in the center of the city: a 1000-pound, unexploded American bomb that had been dropped during World War II.
Surprisingly, such discoveries are not actually rare in Germany, where it's estimated that thousands of unexploded Allied bombs lie buried in the ground. In this case, it took ordnance experts about an hour to diffuse the bomb, and Lehrman's performance took place three days later.
Also, if you're curious what an acousmonium is, and want to know why it might be a bad idea to unleash one within range of a live, creaky old bomb, watch this resounding performance from a few years back. (Of course, fear that Lehrman's performance would set off the bomb is not actually why the concert was delayed.)
Correction 12/6: The first version of this post contained two inaccuracies. It cited the weight the bomb as 500 pounds when in fact it was 1000 pounds, and said that Paul Lehrman was in Germany at the time the bomb was discovered. Lehrman was actually home in the United States, frantically watching the progress of the bomb removal on his collaborator Guy Livingston's Facebook page.
When we think of the cities of the future, we inevitably think about transportation: glistening monorails, flying cars, chutes and pods that whisk us right where we want to go.
Tomorrow, a new exhibition opens at BSA Space that considers what urban transportation might look like in the future. “Rights of Way: Mobility and the City,” is full of eye-popping images. The exhibition is curated by James Graham and Meredith Miller of the architecture firm Milligram-office, and it includes plans that anticipate what transportation could look like in three “megaregions” in the year 2030: the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong Province, China, Sao Paulo, Brazil, and the Boston-Washington, DC corridor.
These plans feature some of the futuristic vehicles and dramatic infrastructure overhauls you’d expect in such forward-looking plans. But, Miller explains, real progress in transportation might be subtler than that.
“We can’t just be thinking of infrastructure,” she says. “There has to be more fluidity and connection between larger scale systems and smaller networks of mobility that fill in certain gaps.” She cites networks of microbuses in present-day Sao Paulo as one example.
One trouble with pegging transportation improvements to massive construction projects is that it makes individuals feel powerless. After all, there’s little you or I can do to install high-speed rail or build skywalks through the city.
Graham explains, though, that in addition to the plans for 2030, “Rights of Way” will also feature examples of how people are changing transportation systems on their own, today.
“It happens in a whole lot of different ways,” he says. “We can adapt these spaces for different ends than they were necessarily designed for. There’s the ‘parking day’ ethos where people take over parking lots, and LED devices that allow you to mark out your own bike lane.”
It’s appealing to image that you could solve your own commuting problems, and also interesting to think about why transportation figures so large in the way we imagine urban progress. Surely, if cities are to improve in any meaningful way, it has to begin with the unpleasantness of a crowded bus in stop-and-go traffic.
“Rights of Way: Mobility and the City” runs at BSA Space, 290 Congress Street, from December 5 to May 26, 2014.
An adaptable ground plane that changes its function depending on the needs of various users. Courtesy of Höweler+Yoon Architecture.
LightLane, a product that claims space on the street for safe biking. Courtesy of LightLane.
A new cable car bridges physical and socioeconomic gaps by connecting a removed neighborhood with other mobility networks. Image courtesy of Urban-Think Tank.
If you read a lot of scientific studies, or just encounter them in the news, you inevitably run into this problem: The results are cool, but how do I know how reliable they are? Top-level findings often generate bold headlines (“Humans are becoming more carnivorous”), but it’s hard for a layperson to get into the nuts and bolts of a study in order to determine how much it should be trusted.
Last month Nature tried to address this problem by publishing “20 tips for interpreting scientific claims.” The tips were meant especially for politicians, who usually don’t have scientific training, but often need to consider scientific evidence when making policy choices.
Many of the pointers have to do with basic elements of statistical literacy: “bigger is usually better for sample size;” “regression to the mean can mislead;” “correlation does not imply causation.” Others have to do with the best way to set up a research experiment: “controls are important;” “randomization avoids bias.” And still others have to do with the general climate in which research is conducted, which, as I’ve covered before on Brainiac, can lead to researchers overstating their results: “data can be dredged or cherry picked;” “scientists are human;” “feelings influence risk perception.”
These tips don’t make it instantly easy to evaluate scientific research (even trained researchers sometimes have a hard time assessing the reliability of each other’s results). They do, though, provide a useful crib sheet for anyone who struggles to balance credulity and skepticism when thinking about the research findings that make their way into the popular press.
You can read the complete list, with explanations for each pointer, here.
From Ideas correspondent Chris Berdik:
This past July, I wrote a cover story for Ideas about a provocative legal and ethical question: should animals, especially highly intelligent ones, have some of the same rights as people? At the center of the story was a planned lawsuit by the Nonhuman Rights Project, an advocacy group that hoped to win legal “personhood” on behalf of an animal for the first time in American court.
Today, the group filed suit and announced its plaintiff: Tommy, a 26-year old chimpanzee owned by a used-trailer salesman in Gloversville, New York.
The suit makes its argument very directly: it’s a writ of habeas corpus petition asserting that Tommy, like all chimpanzees, has enough self-awareness and cognitive capacity to qualify as a “legal person,” and thus enjoys certain inherent rights, namely the right to bodily liberty. In this case, liberty would mean retirement to one of two large chimpanzee sanctuaries in Florida.
The lawsuit is the opening shot in the group’s campaign to achieve legal rights for a handful of animal species, including elephants and orcas, that meet a cognitive threshold that the group’s leader, Steven Wise, calls “practical autonomy.” In the eyes of the law, animals are currently considered property rather than “persons.” Though it may seem like a leap, the group’s argument notes that courts have historically granted personhood to entities other than human beings, including corporations and ships.
Once the group identified New York State as the most promising jurisdiction, the right plaintiff wasn’t easy to nail down: their first choice, another chimpanzee in New York State, died before lawsuit preparations were complete. Two more potential plaintiffs then died in quick succession.
The group is now going to court on behalf of all four known captive chimps remaining in the state. Two more suits will follow later this week, one to free Hercules and Leo - two young male chimps housed at Stony Brook University - and another for Kiko an older, deaf male previously used in TV commercials and movies who is now kept on private property near Niagra Falls.
The argument for animal personhood is highly controversial, even among animal advocacy groups. After all, animals already enjoy a raft of legal protections in the form of anti-cruelty laws. What’s more, earlier this year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service extended endangered species protections to captive chimps, and the National Institutes of Health announced it would stop funding biomedical research on chimps and send most of its chimps to wildlife sanctuaries. Given this momentum, I asked Wise why chimpanzees needed legal personhood.
“All of history shows that the only way a being’s interests are protected is if they have legal rights that they can enforce,” said Wise. “If they’re not competent—like somebody with Alzheimer’s, or a young child, or a chimpanzee—you appoint a guardian whose job is to represent the best interests of their ward. All other ways lead to abuse.”
Donor-advised funds: Where charity goes to wait: Leon Neyfakh on a charitable giving/tax deduction strategy that's changing the world of philanthropy. Donor-advised funds, run by big investment firms like Fidelity and Vanguard, allow individuals to set aside money for charitable giving and take a tax deduction today, even if the money isn't actually donated to a charity for years to come. Currently about $45 billion sits in donor-advised funds. Proponents say these funds are a good way to donate, while detractors say they distort philanthropic giving and bottle up money that could be doing some real good right now.
Is Dubai the future of cities?: Thanassis Cambanis on the challenge of turning Dubai into a truly sustainable international city. Dubai, like other fabulously wealthy upstart cities on the Persian Gulf, has been built on oil dollars. Now, though, its leaders are trying to diversify the city's economic base, and in the process, prove wrong conventional wisdom about how cities need to grow in order to be successful.
The most important people who ever lived: I wrote about a new book, "Who's Bigger," that uses Wikipedia data to rank the most important people in human history. You know who's #1, but you'll never guess who's #36.
Yes, but what are neutrinos for?: Ray Jayawardhana on how that famously elusive subatomic particle might actually be useful for lots of practical purposes. Jayawardhana walks us through the possibilities, which include, finding exploding stars, exposing rogue nuclear reactors, and communicating with aliens.
Plus: Kevin Lewis on how liberals underestimate how similar they are to other liberals, while conservatives overestimate how similar they are to other conservatives; how college kids learn more in classes with more short quizzes and fewer big tests; how dressing-down in a high-end setting makes you look more important; and more.
Most university news releases are filled with flashy research findings: a new understanding of how cells behave, new developments in computer technology, new insights into why human beings behave the way we do. In that light, there was something enjoyably down to earth about a recent article from the University of Wisconsin Magazine on that least sexy of all topics- dairy farming.
Dairy is big business in Wisconsin, accounting for a tenth of the state's overall economy and 26 percent of all the cheese produced in the United States. Since the late 1950s the University of Wisconsin has bolstered the enterprise by running the Dairy Cattle Center, which supports research on everything from milk economics to the genetics of milk production.
So what are the cutting edge questions in dairy research? One is treatment for “milk fever.” Dairy cows need calcium in their bodies for lots of different functions, but most of that calcium ends up diverted into milk. This creates a condition called hypocalcemia (a deficit of calcium in the bovine body) and the Wisconsin dairy science department is developing serotonin-based drugs that would help cows recover faster from the rigors of intensive milking.
Another big research interest is “feed efficiency”—or, the conversion rate between the grain cows eat and the milk they produce. The more efficient the conversion, the less expensive it is to raise cows, and the more profitable dairy farming becomes. Researchers are currently searching for any genes that might regulate the process, in the hope of breeding more feed efficient cows in the future.
Consumer products don’t get much simpler than milk, which makes it interesting to think about the science that goes into getting a gallon to market. Research at Wisconsin’s Dairy Cattle Center also demonstrates the mode of thinking in every realm of food production: How do we take a cow, that wants to lactate, and turn it into the next best thing to a milk machine?
Today’s edition of The Justice, the Brandeis student newspaper, includes a strange case of institutional intrigue. The story centers on the university’s History of Ideas program, which was once prestigious, is now dormant, yet continues to sit atop a pile of endowed money that may or may not have been improperly redirected to unintended purposes.
As Justice reporter Sam Mintz explains, the History of Ideas program originated in the 1950s and has graduated some high-profile alumni over the years, including top political philosophers Michael Walzer and Michael Sandel. More recently, though, for reasons unexplained, the program has gone into decline. Currently, it has no students, offers no courses, and keeps no faculty members. The one thing it does have, though, is money. Over the last 20 years the Hannah Oberman Trust has donated $1.5 million to Brandeis with the stipulation that the money be used “exclusively” to support the History of Ideas program.
And here’s where the intrigue comes in. While the History of Ideas has turned into a shell of a department, a trustee with the Hannah Oberman Trust alleges that the program’s money has been going out the backdoor. Amelie Rorty, now a philosophy professor at Tufts, ran the History of Ideas from 1995 to 2003, and currently helps to oversee the trust that funds it. In 2012 she sent an email to high-ranking Brandeis administrators saying that History of Ideas funds were being “misappropriated” to support unrelated university programming. Examples include a 2004 conference on “Civil Liberties in an Age of Surveillance” and, more recently, a talk earlier this month called, “The Great LOL of China—What’s Funny in the Middle Kingdom.”
The Justice article is full of fun little palace-intrigue details: skipped meetings, dodged emails, and carefully worded statements about the need to "tweak" the language in gift agreements. The stakes, of course, are relatively low in the whole affair, and no one is charging that serious wrongdoing has occurred. Still, the article sheds some interesting light on the complicated world of university funding. The setup also just begins to suggest grander schemes- corporate embezzlement, maybe, or government contractor fraud- which makes it an entertaining read on this cloudy Tuesday before Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving, or how to eat American politics: Rachel Laudan on the political values that gave rise to the standard Thanksgiving menu. The simple foods enjoyed on Thanksgiving, which was first declared a national holiday in 1863, draw “on a long tradition of antimonarchical political and culinary thought,” and are a deliberate repudiation of haute cuisine. The article includes capsule explanations of the culinary origins of many favorite Thanksgiving dishes, from turkey (an abundant, native bird served in contrast to elite fare like swans and herons) to Jell-O salad.
The Alfred Russell Wallace Revival Club: Liz Leyden on a small but determined campaign to give Alfred Russell Wallace his due. Wallace formulated a theory of species change nearly identical to Charles Darwin’s, and presented it to the world at the same time. But, Darwin went on to become one of the most famous men in history while Wallace has been largely ignored. Now, though, historians and scientists are publishing new books on Wallace and trying to push his important contributions to the forefront.
Want the best person for the job? Don’t interview: Sarah Laskow on new research showing that unstructured job interviews might make it harder to identify the best candidate. “Interviews give us so much information, the researchers say, that they pull our attention away from more relevant data.”
Plus: Kevin Lewis on how college kids pursue immediate gratification more often when surrounded by peers; how male political candidates bait female opponents into talking about “feminine” issues like education and welfare; how taking a semester off in college may hurt you later in the eyes of prospective employers; and more.
Image by Maurice Vellekoop for The Boston Globe.
You're in a desperate situation: You need some toilet paper, but there's not a square around. Then you spy a roll, hanging perfectly on the wall. You reach for it, only to discover that it's made of...sandpaper?
This dynamic, of allure and risk, is at the heart of the captivating sandpaper sculptures made by Mandy Smith of England. Smith has a good eye for the kinds of things that lend themselves to such rough (yet delicate) recreation: a roll of toilet paper, a bikini, a playground slide. Working with photographer Bruno Drummond, she creates bold, technicolor images that make her sculptures look as enticing as candy. The slide beckons to be slid down, the bikini wants to be slipped on, and their scratchy surfaces make it so that you can almost feel the experience before it happens. But watch yourself, there's danger in every desire.
In the late 1870s, New York’s loss was Boston’s gain: Frederick Law Olmsted, renowned for designing Central Park but then booted from the Big Apple, landed in Brookline. Over the next decade he’d set in motion the Emerald Necklace and transform the young field of landscape architecture.
A new volume of Olmsted’s papers details those momentous years. “The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted: The Early Boston Years, 1882-1890,” is the eighth of nine planned volumes of Olmsted’s papers edited by Charles Beveridge and published by Johns Hopkins University Press. This one actually opens in 1878, when political infighting led to the elimination of Olmsted’s job as New York City's resident landscape architect . At the same time, officials in Boston were struggling to find a suitable proposal for restoring the Back Bay Fens (which Ideas wrote about in 2011). Olmsted swooped in with a plan and four years later, in 1882, he set up shop at 99 Warren Street in Brookline. The good work was just beginning.
“The Boston park system is the one where Olmsted’s ideas are the most fully developed,” says Ethan Carr of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who co-edited the volume. During the 1880s Olmsted designed the Back Bay Fens, Franklin Park, and the Muddy River Improvement as parts of the Emerald Necklace, the country’s first real parks system.
“Different types of parks connected by a parkway system,” says Carr, “that’s the essence of a modern urban park system. Some would be neighborhood playgrounds, some would be large rural landscapes like Franklin Park, and they’d all be connected by a parkway that emphasized pedestrians.”
The letters, photographs, and drawings in the new volume are being used today to guide restoration projects in the Emerald Necklace, including a major restoration of the Muddy River Improvement by the Army Corps of Engineers.
They also shed light on something more academic: the birth of landscape architecture as a defined field and practice. Olmsted could have gone anywhere when he left New York, and he chose Boston because the city offered the best opportunity for intellectual collaboration. Out of his home in Brookline—known as Fairsted—Olmsted and his stepson, John Charles Olmsted, developed the first modern landscape architecture firm. Olmsted was also close friends with Charles Eliot, son of Harvard University president Charles William Eliot, and in 1900 Harvard opened the country’s first landscape architecture program.
There’s no clean way to separate ideas from events from ideas, but Olmsted’s Boston years do show how the two modify each other. There’s no Emerald Necklace without the provocation of an idea, and sometimes it takes a grand demonstration to motivate a new line of inquiry.
The General Plan for Franklin Park, 1885
Boylston Street Bridge in the Back Bay Fens, c. 1900
Back Bay Fens, 1895
Playstead Overlook Shelter in Franklin Park, 1889
Images courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site.
Yesterday, I blogged about new technology being developed at MIT that would allow you to (almost) literally reach through your computer screen. As mind-boggling as that is, it's good to remember that people in bygone eras were capable of incredible invention, too.
This month Nature noted the recently discovered documents showing that in the 15th century, the Chinese used ice roads to transport rocks weighing over 100 tons to the construction site of the Forbidden City. On a smaller, but maybe even more ingenious scale, earlier this year the BBC reported on "The Writer," an automaton writing machine in the form of a miniature young boy, created in Switzerland in the 1770s. The machine-boy guides a quill pen perfectly over a piece of paper, dips the pen just so in an inkwell, and could be programmed, using an elaborate set of gears housed in his back, to pen anything you'd have him write. Best of all, though, is the studied, ghostly expression on the boy's face, which hints that he knows about his own remarkableness.
Good literature offers a nice escape, especially in bleak times. When Washington politics feel especially hopeless, there’s consolation in a Jane Austen novel. But a new book argues that fiction doesn’t want to be a retreat. Instead, it wants to send us back out into the world, revitalized for action, and it achieves this provocation through surprising means: by reflecting bleakness right back at us.
In “Futurity: Contemporary Literature and the Quest for the Past,” Stanford comparative literature professor Amir Eshel looks at many recent examples of unremittingly dour fiction, including “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy and the 2007 movie, “Children of Men.”
All of these works feature characters swamped by titanic historical forces. Eshel argues that this mode of fiction grows out of the real life traumas of the last hundred years—the world wars, the Holocaust, genocide, 9/11. These events had many awful consequences and one of them was to create a widespread sense of powerlessness, a feeling that the only thing we can do is mill around onshore (or take after each other) while the tsunami sweeps in.
Authors often draw on these historical events to create stories with themes of loneliness and paralysis. It’s easy to see the bleakness in books like W.G. Sebald’s 2001 Holocaust novel “Austerlitz,” but Eshel argues that such grim visions usually also imply a way out of the morass. He invents the concept of “futurity” to describe the way that literature helps us face past historical traumas, while also prompting us to remain optimistic about shaping the future.
“I think what literature and the arts teach us,” he says in a video produced by Stanford, “is that human history is in fact human history. That is, humans are those who make their history, they are the agents of their fate and not just victims to external circumstances.” He points out that while the setting of “Children of Men” is completely depressing (mass sterility, riots), the concerted effort of Clive Owen’s character still counts for something.
It’s a nice idea, that the most depressing fiction is also potentially the most catalytic. In this way, authors are trying to say, I get it, things are awful, but if [insert character’s name here] can do it, so can you.
Children, new to television, want to reach through the screen to touch the people inside (and maybe expect the people inside to reach out and touch them). It's a fantasy, of course. Matter moves through screens no more than it does through black holes. That is, until the Tangible Media Group at MIT's Media Lab got involved. In a paper published last month and an accompanying video (below), a team of five engineers introduced inFORM, an interactive computer system that allows a person on one side of a screen to physically interact with the world on the other side. How? On one side of the screen, a Microsoft Kinect tracks hand movements. On the other side, a stacked system of "actuators," "linkages," and "pins," (not entirely dissimilar to those fun Pin Art boards) creates a fine-grained, physical translation of those movements, so that the user's hands actually seem to emerge from, well, it's hard to say exactly where. In the demonstration video, a user rolls a red ball around in his "hands," aims a flashlight, and turns the pages of the book. The MIT team hopes that one day inFORM could help architects, urban planners, and surgeons model their work. Meanwhile, it might be time to update what we tell our kids: No, that man can't come out of the television...at least not yet.
The weird science of in-laws: Leon Neyfakh on what social scientists are discovering about how relationships with in-laws work (or don’t work). Your relationship with your in-laws is one of the most difficult relationships you’ll have, and it has big consequences for the health of a marriage: Men who are close with their in-laws after a year of marriage are 20 percent less likely to get divorced, while women who are close with their in-laws are 20 percent more likely to get divorced.
Michael Ignatieff, the intellectual who wanted to be a politician: Jordan Michael Smith on Michael Ignatieff’s disastrous bid to become prime minister of Canada. For decades, Ignatieff was one of most influential intellectuals in the world, best known for advocating “liberal interventionism” in foreign policy. In 2005 he won a seat in the Canadian parliament, but in 2011 he led the Liberal Party to an unprecedented defeat. Now he’s back in academia, teaching at Harvard, and he has a new book, “Fire and Ashes,” that considers the fundamental mismatch between intellectualism and politics.
King David, ‘vile human being’: Toby Lester interviews Joel S. Baden, author of the new book, “The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero.” Baden explains that while King David is credited in Judeo-Christian lore with transforming the world, the historical record suggests he likely used unscrupulous means (extortion, murder, treason) to achieve those ends.
Zombie-proof your home: Kyle Hill offers 7 tips for keeping zombie-produced infectious diseases out of your home. Among them? Seal all the cracks around doors and windows with duct tape and increase the air pressure in your house.
Plus: Britt Peterson on how Thomas Menino’s verbal slipups may actually be a sign of his confidence rather than a strike against his intellect.
And: Kevin Lewis on how elite women are less religious than elite men; how corporate lobbyists do more to raise their CEO’s salary than the company’s stock price; how laws limiting child labor in India had the unintended effect of increasing the number of hours children actually worked; and more.
Image by Kyle T. Webster for the Boston Globe.
If human beings trailed spiderwebs, the result might be something like Amanda McCavour's thread paintings. McCavour, of Toronto, stitches colorful thread into fabric that dissolves in water. The thread remains after the fabric is gone, and McCavour suspends her thread paintings in the air, like virtuosic spiderwebs, or wobbly, fading representations of our familiar, solid world. Her work is also a nice counterpoint to the proliferation of three-dimensional light paintings, which I wrote about back in March. Those images also hang colorfully in the air, but they don't so much evoke the world- the way McCavour's do- as try to eclipse it.
Images courtesy of Amanda McCavour.
It's an unassuming question on its face: Can we predict how often a research paper will be cited by other research papers in the future? It's an unassuming question, but also a very important one, because how often a research paper is cited- or its "impact"- is tantamount to how important its ideas have become. And up until now, scholars haven't been very good at making those kinds of predictions.
A new model developed by Albert-László Barabási, professor of physics at Northeastern, may change that, though. In a paper published last month in Science, Barabási and his two co-authors note that there are lots of models out there that correctly measure the impact a study has had from its publication date to the present day. These models may sound esoteric but they're used in all sorts of consequential real world decisions, from who gets tenure at universities to how grant money is awarded by the National Science Foundation.
The only problem is that while existing models are good at quantifying a study's impact retrospectively, they're not very good at predicting its impact in the future. The Barabási model may change that, though. The model takes into account three factors that shape future citation patterns: the fact that the more a paper has been cited in the past, the more likely it is to be cited in the future; the fact that, in general, the older a paper is, the less it's cited; and a measure called "fitness," which uses the past citation record to quantify the perceived novelty and importance of a discovery. Barabási applied this model to 463,348 papers published between 1893 and 2010. His model was able to make accurate predictions about how often 93.5 percent of those papers were in fact cited 25 years later (which means that for papers published today, it should be able to predict accurately 25 years into the future).
There were some citation patterns the model couldn't account for, and these represent some of the real sea changes in how we think about the world around us (which are, of course, the kinds of things we'd most like to be able to predict). For example, the model couldn't anticipate the bump in citations for papers on superconductivity, which occurred after high temperature superconductivity was discovered in the 1980s. Still, where accurate (and if it stands up to scrutiny), the model is a unique kind of crystal ball, that might help us find the few really important ideas hidden in the blizzard of new research around us.
You can read the whole paper here (PDF).
How do ideas get lost to history? Memories fade, documents burn and disintegrate. Libraries are supposed to be a countervailing force, as places that conserve and catalog the past for future examination. But it turns out they have their own obscuring tendencies, too: It’s possible for institutions to collect so much historical material that they don’t even know what they have.
Which is the case at Harvard. An article yesterday in the Harvard Gazette includes some eye-popping statistics about the size of the historical collections the university has acquired—400 million items, including 35 miles of manuscripts. In the article, Harvard University librarian Robert Darnton says much of this material is “unprocessed,” which is a euphemism for “no one knows what’s down there.”
But Harvard is trying to change that by digitizing and tagging the items in its collection, beginning with the roughly 30 million pages that date to the 17th and 18th centuries. The effort is called the Colonial North America project, and it likely will be replicated elsewhere, at universities and historical societies around North America sitting on dusty crates of unread documents. While we already have a fairly comprehensive accounting of papers from famous colonialists—George Washington and the like—there’s hope that this digitization effort will shed light on everyday life from the period, and give new historical voice to marginalized groups, like women, the poor, and Native Americans.
We usually think of historical discovery as serendipitous, like a box of books being found beneath the eaves of an old New England barn, or Richard III’s skeleton turning up in a parking lot. It’s striking, then, to realize that discovery may hinge instead on cataloging material we’ve already kind of found. There are good reasons to be skeptical about the scholarly value of digital tools—like Big Data solutions for everything—but the Colonial North America project is a clear example of how computers can put more of life—and more of history—right before our eyes.
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.