Friday, September 25, 2009

Fatuous Letter to the Editor

Here is a fatuous letter to the editor, published in the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

The author claims "Life is like a great stage. Besides myriad performers, there are two principal ones. The crucial choice in life is how to specify them as to their order and manner of spelling. One choice is “Me, god.” The other is “God, me.” My theory is that this choice determines one’s choice of ethics."

But what if your choice is "Family, students, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and me" and "god" doesn't even figure at all?

If you're god-soaked, you think everyone else spends all their time thinking about your god. But you're wrong.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich manuscript is a strange book, written in a strange script, with strange illustrations.

Yesterday I attended a talk on the Voynich Manuscript (VM), at MIT, by Kevin Knight of USC's Information Sciences Institute. Here's a brief summary of his talk:

The manuscript consists of 235 pages on vellum, with color drawings of plants, nymphs, stars, etc. It contains about 30,000
words written in an unknown script, and is owned by Yale University.

It has a character set that has not been observed in any other document. It is broken up into sections called "herbal",
"astrological", "biological", "cosmological", "pharmacological", and a pure text section at the end. These names reflect the pictures in each section. For example, the "herbal" section contains pictures of unknown plants being grafted onto other plants. The "biological" section depicts small nudes in baths with interconnecting tubes of liquids. The "pharmacological" section shows something that has been interpreted as a medicine jar.

A cover letter of Joannes Marcus Marci of Cronland was found tucked in the manuscript. The letter claims that the book once belonged to Emperor Rudolf II and that Rudolf beliefed that Roger Bacon was the author.

There have been many attempts to decipher the book. One was made by William Newbold at the University of Pennsylvania, He claimed that each letter consisted of many other Greek letters, which were anagrams holding the real meaning of the manuscript, and "deciphered" it on this basis. His decipherment is now regarded as completely bogus.

Athanasius Kircher once owned the book, from 1665-1680.

The Voynich script consists of between 23 and 40 distinct characters. (It is hard to say for sure, since some characters appear to be compounds of others.) There are no signs of corrections, which suggests that the manuscript was copied from some other source. There is an unusual distribution of word lengths - most "words" are of lengths 3, 4, and 5 letters. Many words are doubled, and some are tripled.

The cryptographer William Friedman worked on the manuscript during World War II. There are many claimed decipherments. A 2004 Scientific American article by Gordon Rugg, however, suggests that the manuscript is just gibberish. Perhaps Voynich faked it himself.

Kevin Knight discussed some of his own attacks on the manuscript using clustering techniques. For example, if you try breaking up the English alphabet into two types, say a and b, and use expectation maximization to generate two clusters, you get AEIOUy as one cluster, and the consonants in another. Doing the same for the Voynich manuscript, however, doesn't generate anything particularly meaningful.

You could also try this kind of clustering with the words of the manuscript instead of the letters. When you do so, you get two clusters: the words in the "herbal", "astrological", and "pharmacological" sections predominantly fall into one cluster, and the words in the "biological" and "cosmological" sections predominantly fall into another. [To me, this suggests that the manuscript probably had at least two authors.]

Voynich "B" is the "biological" + "astrological" sections. You can then try to divide the words in this section into more classes. If you do this for English, you get a cluster with words like "my, a, an, the,..."; another with "and, but, next,...", another with "had, asked, could, have, are, is, would,...", another with "for, at, in, no, that, be, but,..." etc. If you do this for Voynich you also get clusters but the meaning is less clear.

My guess is that the manuscript is some form of hoax, but I'd be delighted to be proved wrong.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Review of The Numerati

I reviewed Stephen Baker's book, The Numerati, for the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, and you can read it here.

Irving Kristol and Evolution

With all the hagiography going on for conservative "intellectual" Irving Kristol, who died on September 18, let's not forget one of his many idiotic statements: that Darwinism is on the way out because it "is really no longer accepted so easily by [many] biologists and scientists."

As Glenn Morton has exhaustively shown, the trope that "more and more scientists doubt evolution" is one of the oldest falsehoods in creationism. But then, Kristol believed that not all truths were suitable for all people, an echo of Martin Luther's view that lying for his god was acceptable.

Anti-evolution idiocy seemingly ran in the family. In 1959, Kristol's wife Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote a terrible book, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, demonstrating a lack of understanding of biology and a warped view of Darwin's influence. One perceptive reviewer penned that Himmelfarb had "an advanced case of Darwinitis, a complaint that afflicts those of a literary bent and strong attachments to pre-scientific culture, who find in the theory of evolution a disturbing and mysterious challenge to their values". Kristol wrote a favorable review of Himmelfarb's book for Encounter, without bothering to mention that he was Himmelfarb's husband. So much for Kristol's ethics.

Kristol wrote a piece for the September 30 1986 New York Times about evolution. Here are a few excerpts:

Practically all biologists, when they engage in scientific discourse, assume that the earth's species were not created by divine command. As scientists, they could not make any other assumption. But they agree on little else - a fact which our textbooks are careful to ignore, lest it give encouragement to the religious. There is no doubt that most of our textbooks are still written as participants in the ''warfare'' between science and religion that is our heritage from the 19th century. And there is also little doubt that it is this pseudo-scientific dogmatism that has provoked the current religious reaction...

Though this theory [the neo-Darwinian synthesis] is usually taught as an established scientific truth, it is nothing of the sort. It has too many lacunae. Theological evidence does not provide us with the spectrum of intermediate species we would expect. Moreover, laboratory experiments reveal how close to impossible it is for one species to evolve into another, even allowing for selective breeding and some genetic mutation. There is unquestionably evolution within species: every animal breeder is engaged in exemplifying this enterprise. But the gradual transformation of the population of one species into another is a biological hypothesis, not a biological fact.

Moreover, today a significant minority of distinguished biologists and geneticists find this hypothesis incredible and insist that evolution must have proceeded by ''quantum jumps,'' caused by radical genetic mutation. This copes with some of the problems generated by neo-Darwinist orthodoxy, but only to create others. We just don't know of any such ''quantum jumps'' that create new species, since most genetic mutations work against the survival of the individual. So this is another hypothesis - no less plausible than the orthodox view, but still speculative.

And there are other speculations about evolution, some by Nobel prize-winning geneticists, that border on the bizarre - for example, that life on earth was produced by spermatozoa from outer space. In addition, many younger biologists (the so-called ''cladists'') are persuaded that the differences among species - including those that seem to be closely related -are such as to make the very concept of evolution questionable.

So ''evolution'' is no simple established scientific orthodoxy, and to teach it as such is an exercise in dogmatism...

I imagine we'll be seeing some biographies of Kristol coming out. I can only hope that any honest biographer will make space to assess Kristol's ignorance of biology and his arrogance in thinking that he understood it better than professional biologists.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Giving a Bad Talk at a Scientific Conference

Here are some tips to give a really bad talk at a scientific meeting. The more tips you follow, the more likely you are to be memorably awful.

These are all based on talks I have witnessed.

1. Come with a retinue of students of the same ethnic background, assert a proof for a famous unsolved problem, give a proof for completely elementary simple cases and omit the proof of the main result, assert your results have been overlooked by those of a different ethnic background, insult established scientists who have recently made progress on similar problems, and have your students cheer wildly when you are done. Extra points if your talk is in "call and response" format.

2. Speak so softly that even with a microphone you are completely inaudible.

3. Speak rapidly with an extremely strong accent, and have your slides full of incomprehensible sentences that look like they were drawn randomly from a bag of scrabble tiles.

4. Sigh frequently during your talk, as if giving it is the most boring thing you can possibly imagine, and you can't wait for the damn thing to be over.

5. Give your talk by writing with a marker on overhead transparencies, and when you run out of transparencies, lick off one of the ones you already used. While it is still wet, put the slide, wet side down, on the projector so the ink mixes with your saliva and spreads all over the glass plate of the overhead.

6. Begin by insulting the organizers. State that you are so important, they should have found a larger room for you to speak in. Say that everyone else is stupid. Do not give any details, simply refer the audience to your web page.

7. Consistently point at the screen of your computer with your finger, as if you are convinced that by doing so the audience will magically see what you are pointing at on the screen of the projector.

8. Give results in your talk that are identical to those of the previous speaker. When you are questioned about it, deny that the results are the same.

I'm sure these helpful tips will create a memorable experience for you and your audience.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Louise Shallit (1919-2009)

My mother, Louise Shallit, died this morning at 12:55 AM.

More information can be found here.

The obituary from the Inquirer is here.

And the obituary from the Daily News is here.