Friday, January 10, 2014

Ninth Grader Gives His Life To Save Schoolmates and Teachers From Suicide Bomber

This morning on the news I learned that a 14-year-old student, Aitzaz Hassan Bangash, tackled a suicide bomber who was preparing to enter his school and blow the place up -- that would be the Ibrahimzai School in his home village of Hangu.  This particular student was late to school that day, and was sent outside the building to stand and think over what he'd done.  He became suspicious of a man approaching the school, AND WAS HE EVER RIGHT.  Both Hassan and the bomber were blown to kingdom come.  Nobody else was even scratched during this incident.  Hassan saved 1,000 lives.
NOW HERE'S MY QUESTION:  Which one of the men blown up was a martyr to the glory of Allah?  The suicide bomber, or the unarmed, incredibly brave rescuer of his entire school?
Discuss amongst yourselves.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014


OK, I just read this one (ISBN 1590208544) and here's the review. 

SUMMARY:  Michael Brooks tries to knock you off your pins with the news that SCIENTISTS ARE NOT THE WAY CERTAIN MOVIE DIRECTORS PORTRAY THEM.  The stereotype he wants to explode is the one about how scientists are always logical and straight-arrow honest, not to mention tireless, self-sacrificing and without personal lives of any sort.  The author fills the book with case examples of scientists solving their research problems by taking street drugs until an answer occurs to them; by conversing with angels or spirits; by ripping off someone else's research findings; by sort of skimming over the parts of their own theories they can't get to make sense, even to themselves; and sometimes by experimenting on their own bodies or minds to get their answers.  He also steps away from the question of scientific research entirely and mentions some famous scientists who cheat on their wives, get fired or arrested, lie about their findings in order to make headlines, or otherwise make asses of themselves.


>>  Is the information in this book really news to anyone?  That scientists are human beings rather than lab-coated paragons of pure logic, immune to the lures of fame and big money?

>>  I went into this book hoping to find some blistering new examples of malfeasance or crackheadism in the scientific ranks, or at least some juicy new details of old scandals -- like the one in which the NIH Tumor Cell Lab and the Pasteur Institute crossed swords over who really discovered HIV first.   Not one such item did I find in this book.  Brooks only uses the old, familiar examples we've read over and over in other people's books, leaving out only one that I noticed -- the one about the dream of a snake eating its tail that led to the discovery of benzene's ring structure.  The case examples, in fact, were pretty "meh" if you ask me.  My pins are still right where they were before I opened this book.  What if he published the hate mail exchanged between Carl Sagan (an outspoken antinuke activist) and Robert Oppenheimer (who worked on the Mahattan Project)?  What if he produced solid evidence that Ignaz Semmelweis (the father of sterile technique) bowed to the ridicule of his colleagues and went back to not washing his hands, because his embarrassment in front of the guys was more important than the women who died under his care?

>> I have to ask whether this "paragon of logic" idea is really the stereotype that needs exploding. Some others I can think of would be lots more fun to explode -- as messily as possible. What about buffoons like the cancer researcher in Island of Terror who developed a totally new lifeform and raised it in an aquarium without a lid, oblivious to the possibility that it might prove to be dangerous? What about the questionable professional ethics of Dr. Herbert West in that old H.P. Lovecraft story? What about that team of ecologists in Mega Piranha working hard on developing a bigger, more aggressive Piranha for absolutely no understandable reason? What about Hannibal Lecter, who violates core principles of his own area of specialty by being a high-functioning psychiatrist/ musician/ professional con artist/ patron of the arts AND mentally messed-up enough to eat people? What if those stereotypes proved to be, you know, too mild to match reality?  Now that would be a book worth buying.

>> There are also plenty of examples of scientists in Free Radicals  who are quite a nice fit with the stereotype he means to undermine, like the woman who made revolutionary discoveries about DNA working with corn plants, and didn't give a damn if she never got recognized for them because it allowed her to keep working in peace without having to go on the lecture circuit.  While she's a wonderful example of the best qualities of someone you'd like to see working in pure research, I'm not at all sure why Brooks included her here.

>> What bothers me most about this book is the author's definition of the word "anarchy."  He never really spells it out for you, but if you read the whole book and look at the ways he uses the word, he seems to think that anarchy = "any behavior that ventures outside an extremely narrow and unrealistic cardboard characterization of science that is never seen outside the movies."  Any actual creative thought -- surely the wellspring of all scientific research! -- would have to fall under his definition.  And, Mike, is it really so anarchic to have your carefully-worked-out lab results make more sense than your private life?  Seriously?

Now, you want a book about scientific anarchy?  Check this one out:

THIS fine volume (ISBN 978-0393045826) talks about the real deal -- the mad scientist archetype in print and at the movies.  David Skal simply points out the way we seem to have tentacles reaching out from OUR DEEPEST FEARS to tap nervously at those test tubes containing human embryos, fissionable materials and spliced DNA containing the genetic code of both soybeans and man-eating sharks.  He mentions one real scientific breakthrough after another and describes how uneasy they make us, even as we eagerly buy products that come of those discoveries. 

He doesn't even mention the real scientists out there doing crazy shit like drinking a piping-hot cup of bacteria to prove that Koch's Postulates apply to someone's new theory about what causes brain cancer.  HE KNOWS THAT WE KNOW.

My only real gripe about this book is that he spends too long on Victor Frankenstein -- he IS the dean of mad scientists, but he's far from the only one!  And even though he crapped himself and ran away screaming from his own experimental results, hey, his heart was in the right place.  He just wanted to defeat Death.  Is that asking so much?  He wasn't trying to infuriate the giant roaches from the center of the earth, like Dr. Parmiter in Bug,  or spilling the nerve gas that will make his oppressed experimental apes intelligent enough to stage a revolt, like the research team in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  Skal could profitably have spent more time on research (and lab accidents) like this.  But he implies over and over that it is out there, happening right now...and we won't realize it until it's far too late.

I don't remember this author using the word "anarchy" even once, but he uses the concept on every page.  Natures is Pandora's REAL box and if you keep stirring what's in it with a stick, well, I hope you wear your protective gear.

Both of these books are pretty much fun reading. But only one of them is about anarchy, and it's not the one with the word "anarchy" in the title. Figures.