Archive for October, 2013

A Short Bright Flash, 2

October 13, 2013 Leave a comment


After reading the first third of Theresa Levitt’s A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse and writing about it two weeks ago, I proceeded to put it aside for over a week. The opening portion about Fresnel’s scientific career and his development of lighthouse technology in early nineteenth-century France was fascinating, but then I got bogged down as Levitt traced Fresnel’s successors and France’s successful effort by mid-century to light its coast.

Eager to get on with other books, I returned to A Short Bright Flash a few days ago, finishing it yesterday morning. After treating France and Britain, Levitt turns to the United States. In a long chapter, she lays out the harm done by Stephen Pleasonton, head of the US Lighthouse Establishment, over decades in refusing to introduce Fresnel’s technology. Finally, in 1847, Congress approved the construction of new lighthouses in five locations, the first to be completed being our very favorite lighthouse, Nantucket’s Sankaty Head. (Though the one we love is not the original.) Things picked up from there, only for the Civil War to bring the systematic destruction of Fresnel lenses across the South’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts, the subject of another chapter.

Sankaty Head, Nantucket

Sankaty Head, Nantucket

[Photo by me, September 2011]

A whirlwind final chapter takes us back to Europe, down to the Suez Canal, and through World Wars I and II, the latter of which brought radar and a halt to the production of first-order seacoast lights. Levitt observes that Fresnel’s “original design remains downright ubiquitous, spurred by the increasingly inexpensive techniques of molding glass and plastic. Fresnel stage lights have become a staple of theaters everywhere. Stoplights, car lights, and overhead projectors all employ the genius of his optical insight. … Even as the U.S. decommissions many of its lighthouses, the lenses become museum centerpieces.”

In this era of anti-government politics in the US, one point that emerges from the book is that the creation of a system of lighthouses in France—and later the US—depended entirely on government investment. Both because of the difficulty of manufacturing precision lenses and the scale of production required, no private company would have taken on such a project by itself. Levitt contrasts France with Britain.

The glass industry was undergoing its own transformation. In many ways, it was emblematic of the French style of industrialization, characterized by much stronger government involvement than what was seen with the English model.

Writing about the Exposition Universelle of 1855, in which a Fresnel lens was on prominent display, Levitt quotes from the exposition guide, which

stressed the lens’s role as France’s gift to humanity. Its manufacture was an “eminently national industry,” which showed France in its best light:

The invention of these devices, due to a French engineer, encouraged and developed by the public administration, brings to a very high degree the imprint of the particular nature of our spirit and general tendencies, for which it was deduced from considerations of a purely scientific order, conceived outside of any private speculation, in view of general interests, and classed immediately in the number of benefits for humanity. …

Two of the features that separated French industrialization from its English counterpart were its strong contingent of scientifally trained state engineers and its lesser dependence on private investment.

Turning to the US of the 1840s and 1850s, Levitt writes that the “government’s investment in rail, steam, and telegraphs was all done with an eye toward improving trade. The Fresnel lens sat perfectly within this constellation, as an exemplar of scientific technology, an enabler of increased trade, and a compelling argument for government investment.”

I suppose I’ve made my point. But let me offer one more quote, from Levitt’s closing assessment of Fresnel’s legacy.

Fresnel’s lens united the major themes of burgeoning modernity: science, industrialization, national ambition. There is a well-known phrase in French that touches on the particular mixture of glory, nationalism, and global ambitions: Faire rayonner la France, or “make France radiant.” This is precisely what the Fresnel lens did, in the most literal of ways. Making their way into the remotest corners of the world, these products of France not only shed light on the seas, but also illuminated the French system of valuing pure science and providing state support for industry.

With this in mind, one might have a look at the letter that Nobel Prize laureate and National Cancer Institute director Harold Varmus wrote two days ago to NCI staff, grantees, and reviewers, the full text of which is embedded in a post by Jim Fallows earlier today. A radical segment of today’s Republican Party is showing, through the shutdown, how little they value pure science. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise, given their propensity for denying scientific evidence.

Categories: Books, History, Science, Technology

Low Unpopularity

October 12, 2013 Leave a comment


[Gallup Poll]

I rarely enjoy listening to NPR Morning Edition’s host Steve Inskeep conducting interviews on political issues. More often than not, when I turn on the radio during breakfast and discover him engaged in such activity, I switch to something else. But yesterday I didn’t, and I was rewarded with an astonishing English language construction.

The segment was called Reason For Optimism? Two Sides Talking On Debt Ceiling, and it found Steve talking with NPR’s national political correspondent Mara Liasson about the government shutdown.

Three questions in, Inskeep asks, “What prompted Republicans to change course?” Liasson replies:

They were losing. They were just getting battered politically. And here’s a pretty good example of what was happening to the Republican political position. This is a new Wall Street Journal-NBC poll. By a 22 point margin the public thinks the Republican Party is more to blame for the shutdown than President Obama. That’s a bigger margin of blame than the Republicans received during the last shutdown in 1995.

The Republican Party is now at record low levels of unpopularity. Only 24 percent of people have a favorable opinion of the Republican Party. The Democrats aren’t doing much better, but at least they have a 39 percent favorable rating and they’re not dropping like the Republicans. And here’s the other thing. The president’s approval rating actually went up in this poll.

Read the opening of that second paragraph again. Yes, Mara said that the Republican Party is at record low levels of unpopularity.

I thought, oh my gosh, I have to post this. But I delayed. This morning I wrote to Language Log co-founder Mark Liberman to offer the quote as an addition to the mis-negation files that he maintains. Tonight, I sat down to write my post, only to discover that Mark was already on the case.

Categories: Language, Logic

The Good Old Days

October 9, 2013 Leave a comment

A.W. Tucker

A.W. Tucker

[From AMS, courtesy of Alan Tucker]

I received my copy of the latest American Mathematical Monthly today. The Monthly is a publication of the Mathematical Association of America, which describes itself as “the largest professional society that focuses on mathematics accessible at the undergraduate level.” (They complement the American Mathematical Society, whose mission is to “further the interests of mathematical research and scholarship.”)

An article in the new Monthly caught my eye, Alan Tucker’s “The History of the Undergraduate Program in Mathematics in the United States.” This is not likely to interest you as much as me, so you may not be too disappointed to learn that for non-members it sits behind a pay wall, available at JSTOR for $12. Thus you’re likely to miss out on the following paragraph:

In the early 1950s faculty at many leading research departments still saw teaching as their primary mission. Even senior administrators often taught two courses per semester. When my father, A. W. Tucker, was chair of the Princeton mathematics department in the 1950s, not only did he have the same teaching load as other senior faculty, but every other semester he was also in charge of the freshman calculus course taken by almost all students. When I questioned him years later why he took on this huge extra obligation, he responded, “The most important thing that the Princeton Mathematics Department did was teach freshman calculus and so it was obvious that as chair, I should lead that effort.”

Just as well. I wouldn’t want you to get any crazy ideas.

(It may be useful to explain that at many large research universities, including mine, the math department chair has no teaching obligations.)

Categories: Math, Teaching


October 9, 2013 Leave a comment


Ten days ago, I had a post laid out in my head on the mainstream press’s tendency toward false equivalence, but I didn’t get around to writing it. Now Tom Tomorrow’s latest cartoon makes it redundant. See especially the fourth panel. Plus, Jim Fallows has been on the beat with a steady stream of posts (latest here).

The reference to the Constitution in Tom’s fifth panel is a natural lead-in to a post by Gary Wills at the New York Review of Books today. An excerpt:

The people behind these efforts are imitating what the Confederate States did even before they formally seceded in 1861. Already they ran a parallel government, in which the laws of the national government were blatantly disregarded. They denied the right of abolitionists to voice their arguments, killing or riding out of town over three hundred of them in the years before the Civil War. They confiscated or destroyed abolitionist tracts sent to Southern states by United States mail. In the United States Congress, they instituted “gag rules” that automatically tabled (excluded from discussion) anti-slavery petitions, in flagrant abuse of the First Amendment’s right of petition.

The Southern states were able to live in such open disregard for national law because of two things. First, the states were disproportionately represented in Congress because they got three extra votes for seats in the House of Representatives for every five slaves owned in the state—giving them 98 seats instead of 73 in 1833, and similar margins up to the war. Second, the national Democratic-Republican Party needed the Southern part of its coalition so badly that it colluded with the Southern states’ violations of the Constitution. In 1835, for instance, President Andrew Jackson did not enforce the sacredness of the US mail, allowing states to refuse delivery of anti-slave mailings unless a recipient revealed his identity, requested delivery, and had his name published for vilification.

Just as the Old South compelled the national party to shelter its extremism, today’s Tea Party leaders make Republicans toe their line. Most Republicans do not think laws invalid because the president is a foreign-born Muslim with a socialist agenda. But they do not renounce, or even criticize, their partners who think that. The rare Republican who dares criticize a Rush Limbaugh is quickly made to repent and apologize. John Boehner holds the nation hostage because the Tea Party holds him hostage. The problem with modern Republicans is not fanaticism in the few but cowardice in the many, who let their fellows live in virtual secession from laws they disagree with.

Categories: Journalism, Law, Politics

Quote of the Day

October 6, 2013 Leave a comment


From the NYT Sunday Vows column—the column that keeps on giving—a passage today. The column features newly married Philippe Cousteau Jr., grandson of Jacques Cousteau, and Ashlan Gorse. We learn that Mr. Cousteau was

mesmerized by her spontaneity and boldness, particularly after she told him that she had once volunteered to swim with sharks wearing only a bikini and a mask. Not to mention that she has visited over 60 countries, thrown the first pitch at a Dodgers game, sky-dived with the Army, zip-lined through a Costa Rican rain forest and nearly sacked Joe Montana during a celebrity football game.


As a bonus, we’re treated to two brief but tantalizing descriptions of our wonder woman. At the civil ceremony at the city hall of Paris’s 8th arrondissement:

The bride, in gilded stilettos and a tight white dress with a low-cut back, clutched a red rose and her livret de famille, a family record book that is given to all the newlyweds in France.

At a second ceremony three days later, which took place in “a 16th-century castle near Versailles that has been turned into a flamboyant four-star hotel”:

Before the vows were pronounced, the long-legged bride, dressed up in a dashing white bustier dress from Lazaro, stood in front of the groom with a bouquet of lilies, as tears occasionally fell from her eyes.

Categories: Journalism, Life

Abraham Nemeth

October 6, 2013 Leave a comment


[National Federation of the Blind]

Mathematician and Braille pioneer Abraham Nemeth died last Wednesday. From tomorrow’s NYT obit:

Abraham Nemeth, whose frustrations in pursuing an academic career in math prompted him to develop the Nemeth Code, a form of Braille that drastically improved the ability of visually impaired people to study complex mathematics, died on Wednesday at his home in Southfield, Mich. He was 94.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his niece Dianne Bekritsky.

Blind since he was an infant, Dr. Nemeth grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the grandson of a kosher butcher. He was a bright child who taught himself to play the piano using Braille music books and was increasingly drawn to what he later called “the beauty of mathematics.”

Yet as his math skills increased, he found that Braille could take him only so far. It was too easy to confuse letters and numbers in certain situations and too cumbersome to constantly clarify. The more complicated math became, the more limited Braille became.

“There was no way of doing square roots, partial differentials, et cetera,” said Joyce Hull, who worked with Dr. Nemeth for many years, refining and writing manuals for his code. “That’s one of the reasons they said, ‘No, blind people can’t do math.’ ”

Dr. Nemeth knew that they could. Even as college advisers steered him in other directions — he earned his master’s in psychology from Columbia in 1942 — he began tinkering with the six-dot cell that is the foundation of Braille. By the late 1940s, while working in the shipping department of the American Foundation for the Blind (and playing piano in Brooklyn bars to make extra money), he had come up with a customized Braille code for math; he made symbols for the basics of addition and subtraction but also for the complexities of differential calculus. He even made a Braille slide rule.

He began informally sharing his new symbols with others, and the code quickly caught on. In 1950, he presented it to the American Joint Uniform Braille Committee. By the mid-1950s, the Nemeth Code had been adopted by national groups and incorporated into textbooks, providing him with a new career. In 1955, he was hired by the University of Detroit to teach math — to sighted students, using a chalkboard.


Dr. Nemeth received his doctorate in mathematics from Wayne State University in Detroit. He began studying computer science in the 1960s and later started the university’s computer science program. He retired in 1985. For two years he served as the chairman of the Michigan Commission for the Blind.

Throughout his life, he dedicated much of his spare time to creating Braille versions of Jewish texts, including helping to proofread a Braille Hebrew Bible in the 1950s. He also helped develop MathSpeak, a method for communicating math orally.

Dr. Cary Supalo, a professor at Illinois State University who is blind and works to make science and science laboratories accessible to the blind, said Dr. Nemeth was revered among educators focused on the blind.

And from a National Federation of the Blind news release:

Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, said: “Dr. Nemeth had a great mind and a wonderful sense of humor. His invention of the Braille code that bears his name has enabled many blind people to learn, work, and excel in scientific, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and his tireless Braille advocacy work undoubtedly changed countless lives. He will be sorely missed and his contributions will be valued by generations to come.”

The news release also links to a 1991 interview with Nemeth, from which I’ve taken the photo above.

Categories: Math, Obituary

America: Basket Case

October 3, 2013 Leave a comment

[Photograph by Jason Reed/Reuters]

The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland has a piece this evening at the New York Review of Books blog whose ending I can’t resist quoting. His subject is the view from abroad of the US government shutdown.

… is mere prelude to the greater panic to come if Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling, triggering a default. Markets around the world have October 17 circled on their calendars—and the global financial community is holding its breath.

Perhaps this doesn’t matter much to American voters. They might not realize how closely the rest of the world—their economies as well as their media and popular culture—follow, react to, and are affected by the ups and downs of US political life. But they do. And right now, they look at the stalemate in Washington the same way they look at the periodic gun massacres that afflict the United States: with a bafflement that America, mighty America, for so long the most innovative, creative, energetic society on the planet, cannot solve problems that smaller, poorer, feebler countries cracked long ago. Americans might not realize it, but this shutdown, like the gun epidemic, reduces US influence in the world. It makes nations, and individuals, who still want to regard America as a model see it instead as a basket case.

Categories: Politics