December 23, 2005
From The Island of the Colorblind by Oliver Sacks (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996, ISBN: 0679451145), I quote footnote number 75 in its entirety:
The Copernican revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with its revelation of the immensity of space, dealt a profound blow to man's sense of being at the center of the universe; this was voiced by no one more poignantly than Pascal: "The whole visible world is but an imperceptible speck," he lamented; man was now "lost in this remote corner of Nature," closed into "the tiny cell where he lodges." And Kepler spoke of a "hidden and secret horror," a sense of being "lost" in the infinity of space.
The eighteenth century, with its close attention to rocks and fossils and geologic processes, was to radically alter man's sense of time as well (as Rossi, Gould and McPhee, in particular, have emphasized). Evolutionary time, geologic time, deep time, was not a concept which came naturally or easily to the human mind, and once conceived, aroused fear and resistance.
There was great comfort in the feeling that the earth was made for man and its history coeval with his, that the past was to be measured on a human scale, no more than few score of generations back to the first man, Adam. But now the biblical chronology of the earth was vastly extended, into a period of eons. Thus while Archbishop Ussher had calculated that the world was created in 4004 B.C., when Buffon introduced his secular view of nature -- with man appearing only in the latest of seven epochs -- he suggested an unprecedented age of 75,000 years for the earth. Privately, he increased this time scale by forty -- the original figure in his manuscripts was three million years -- and he did this (as Rossi notes) because he felt that the larger figure would be incomprehensible to his contemporaries, would give them too fearful a sense of the "dark abyss" of time. Less than fifty years later, Playfair was to write of how, gazing at an ancient geologic unconformity, "the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time."
When Kant, in 1755, published his Theory of the Heavens, his vision of evolving and emerging nebulae, he envisaged that "millions of years and centuries" had been required to arrive at the present state, and saw creation as being eternal and immanent. With this, in Buffon's words, "the hand of God" was eliminated from cosmology, and the age of he universe enormously extended. "Men in Hooke's time had a past of six thousand years," as Rossi writes, but "those of Kant's times were conscious of a past of millions of years."
Yet Kant's millions were still very theoretical, not yet firmly grounded in geology, in any concrete knowledge of the earth. The sense of a vast geologic time filled with terrestial events, was not to come until the next century, when Lyell, in his Principles of Geology, was able to bring into one's vision both the immensity and the slowness of geologic change, forcing into consciousness a sense of older and older strata stretching back hundreds of millions of years.
Lyell's first volume was published in 1830, and Darwin took it with him on the Beagle. Lyell's vision of deep time was a prerequisite for Darwin's vision too, for the almost glacially slow processes of evolution from the animals of the Cambrian to the present day required, Darwin estimated, at least 300 million years.
Stephen Jay Gould, writing about our concepts of time in Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle, starts by quoting Freud's famous statement about mankind having had to endure from science "two great outrages upon its naive self-love" -- the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions. To these, Freud added ("in one of history's least modest pronouncements," as Gould puts it) his own revolution, the Freudian one. But he omits from his list, Gould observes, one of the greatest steps, the discovery of deep time, the needed link between the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions. Gould speaks of our difficulty even now in "biting the fourth Freudian bullet," having any real, organic sense (beneath the conceptual or metaphorical one) of the reality of deep time. And yet this revolution, he feels, may have been the deepest of them all.
It is deep time that makes possible the blind movement of evolution, the massing and honing of minute effects over eons. It is deep time that opens a new view of nature, which if it lacks the Divine fiat, the miraculous and providential, is no less sublime in its own way. "There is grandeur in this view of life," wrote Darwin, in the famous final sentence of the Origin, that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
From The Island of the Colorblind by Oliver Sacks (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996, ISBN: 0679451145), I quote footnote number 74 in its entirety:
Marie Stopes was born in London in 1880, showed insatiable curiosity and scientific gifts as an adolescent and despite strong disapprobation (similar to that which delayed the entry of women into medicine at the time) was able to enter University College, where she obtained a Gold Medal and a first-class degree in botany. Her passion for paleobotany was already developing by this time, and after graduating she went to the Botanical Institute in Munich, where she was the only woman among five hundred students. Her research on cycad ovules earned her a Ph.D. in botany, the first ever given a woman.
In 1905 she received her doctorate in science from London University, making her the youngest D.Sc. in the country. The following year, while working on a massive two-volume Cretaceous Flora for the British Museum, she also published The Study of Plant Life for Young People, a delightful book which showed her literary power and her insight into youthful imaginations, no less than her botanical expertise. She continued to publish many scientific papers, and in 1910 another popular book, Ancient Plants. Other writings, romantic novels and poems, were also stirring in her at this time, and in A Journal from Japan she gave poignant fictional form her own painfully frustrated love for an eminent Japanese botanist.
By this time other interests were competing with botany. Stopes wrote a letter to The Times supporting women's suffrage, and became increasingly conscious of how much sexually, as well as politically and professionally, women needed to be liberated. From 1914 on, though there was an overlap with paleobotany for a few years, Stopes's work dealt essentially with human love and sexuality. She was the first to write about sexual intercourse in a matter-of-fact way, doing so with the same lucidity and accuracy she had in her description of the fertilization of cycad ovules -- but also with a tenderness which was like a foretaste of D.H. Lawrence. Her books Married Love (1918), A Letter to Working Mothers (1919), and Radiant Motherhood (1920) were immensely popular at the time; no one else spoke with quite her accent or authority.
Later Stopes met Margaret Sanger, the great American pioneer of birth control, and she became its chief advocate in England. Contraception, Its Theory, History and Practice was published in 1923, and this led to the setting up of Marie Stopes clinics in London and elsewhere. Her voice, her message, had little appeal after the Second World War, and her name, once instantly recognized by all, faded into virtual oblivion. And yet, even in her old age, her paleobotanical interests never deserted her; coal balls, she often said, were really her first love.
November 01, 2004
O Post Captain, My Captain
The notion of tenure is a natural topic of obsession for junior faculty in universities. Most normal people (non-academics) are nonplussed by this notion of a tenure-track position. And since most people will not find satire particularly enlightening, I offer an excerpt taken from Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian. An excerpt, which I think, inadvertently sheds some light on the state of mind of those in a tenure-track position.
For those not familiar with the characters: Captain Jack Aubrey, an 18th century Royal Navy officer, has been given his first ship to command at the start of the novel, and in conversation with him is Stephen Maturin, the ship's doctor. This conversation occurs on page 271 (of 403) in the HarperCollins paperback.
'I wonder you should be so concerned about a mere title -- a tolerably Byzantine title,' observed Stephen, `After all, you are called Captain Aubrey now, and you would still only be called Captain Aubrey after that eventual elevation; for no man, as I understand it, ever says "Post-captain So-and-so". Surely it cannot be a peevish desire for symmetry -- a longing to wear two epaulettes?'
`That does occupy a great share of my heart, of course, along with eagerness for an extra eighteenpence a day. But you will allow me to point out, sir, that you are mistaken in everything you advance. At present I am called captain only by courtesy -- I am dependent on upon the courtesy of a parcel of damned scrubs, much as surgeons are by courtesy called Doctor. How should you like it if any cross-grained brute should call you Mr M the moment he chose to be uncivil? Whereas, was I to be made post some day, I should be captain by right; but even so I should only shift my swab from one shoulder to the other. I should not have the right to wear both until I had three years' seniority. No. The reason why every sea-officer in his right wits longs so ardently is this -- once you are over that fence, why there you are! My dear sir, you are there! What I mean is, that from then onwards all you have to do is to remain alive to be an admiral in time.'
`And that is the summit of human felicity?'
`Of course it is,' cried Jack, staring. `Does it not seem plain to you?'
February 11, 2004
"Market dysfunctions in the scholarly communication system"
Many academics who have editorial responsibilities in journals are taking action to counter the huge price increases over the last few years for journals published by commercial presses like Elsevier and Springer-Verlag. There has been an increase of approximately 250% in the price of journals over the last ten years. But that's not the only impact that commercial presses are having on the journals in university libraries.
There are many quality journals published by university presses. But these journals are in danger of being crowded out of the budgets allocated to university libraries. In the last few years, commercial presses like Elsevier are keen on selling contracts for online access to their entire collection. They want to move from the shipping of print journals to the libraries, to the subscription model where the university pays for access to the entire journal collection (back issues as well, for higher prices). Each year, the money has to keep coming in, otherwise access is cutoff. The key to higher profits for the commercial presses is that the entire collection is offered for online access; typically the library cannot pick and choose which journals to access online. The result is that departments have to vote on whether they want to have online access, but this might actually take up the entire budget allocated to the department as library funds leaving little or nothing for journals from university presses.
Academics, in many fields, are not passively accepting these changes in how they communicate their results to each other. There are several cases in which the entire editorial board has resigned from a journal published by a commercial press and in each case a new, open-access journal has been created that usually has the same set of editorial board members.
Here is a short list of some examples:
- "Scientific Publishing: A mathematician's viewpoint" by Joan Birman of Columbia University, published in Notices of the AMS 47, 7 (August 2000).
This article provides a distinction between various journal publishers and provides a case study of alternatives:
- Shop for a new publisher
In November 1999 the complete editorial board (50 editors) of the Journal of Logic Programming (JLP), published by Elsevier Science, collectively resigned and founded a new journal Theory and Practice of Logic Programming (TPLP) published by Cambridge University Press (SFU faculty member Veronica Dahl is an area editor for TPLP). The price reduction for libraries was 55%.
- Start a new non-profit journal
Birman documents the efforts of Warwick University professors in starting Geometry and Topology (G&T) as a free online journal.
- Shop for a new publisher
- "Towards free access to scientific literature," by Kryzystof Apt published in Niuw Archief voor Wiskunde 5, 2 (2001), 251-255.
- Journal of Machine Learning Research was created in response to the pricing of the major journal in the field of machine learning: Machine Learning published by Kluwer. The current subscription rate for Machine Learning for institutions is USD 1148.00 plus 20% for the online version. In contrast, final versions of JMLR are published electronically (ISSN 1533-7928) and freely available on the web, and a paper volume (ISSN 1532-4435) is published 8 times annually and sold to libraries and individuals by the MIT Press. The print version of JMLR is available to libraries for USD 400 which includes the online version.
- In 2003, the editorial board of Journal of Algorithms, published by Elsevier, resigned to form a new journal called ACM Transactions on Algorithms. The history of this move is documented in the following letters:
The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) labels the contemporary trend towards overpriced journals and subscription-based pay-per-view journal publishing as "market dysfunctions in the scholarly communication system". Their web page lists the growing number of open-access journals, where the papers they choose to publish (based on the usual mechanisms of peer review) are freely available on the web.
It is important to note that in many cases, the original journal that was abandoned by the editorial board is taken over by other academics, and in some cases are still publishing vital results in the field. The key here is that in each of these cases, there is an alternative source of archival quality results for that field. The creation of new journals also does not address the price of access to older, seminal results in a field. In some cases, libraries are actually getting rid of older print copies of journals, since now there is online access to those journals (but now as a subscription service).