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Chaim Weizmann’s Passport

A passport can be a profoundly personal thing, as Orhan Pamuk wrote in the New Yorker. But it can sometimes mean a whole lot more. Chaim Weizmann, eminent scientist and statesman, was Israel’s first president. When I was at the Weizmann Institute of Science (founded by Weizmann and renamed in his honor in 1949) a few summers ago doing research, I had the opportunity to take a tour of his home. This home, on the grounds of the Institute, was used to greet foreign dignitaries and host a great deal of gatherings. From what I remember, most of the house didn’t particularly interest me. But off to the side, there was a display of Weizmann’s personal effects, including his passport, which I scrutinized. After looking a little more carefully, I noticed the number of Weizmann’s Israeli passport: ‘1’. Never has founding a country had so clear an effect on one’s travel papers.

Update: Here’s photographic evidence of the passport number (click the top photo to zoom in).

Mutated Manuscripts: The Evolution of Genes and Texts

I have an article today in The Atlantic Online entitled Mutated Manuscripts: The Evolution of Genes and Texts. It’s about the surprising (and hopefully interesting) ways that studying ancient manuscripts is similar to studying genetics, mainly coming down to the analysis of mutation:

Insertions can occur during copying in both genetics and paleography as well. This is called dittography for manuscripts, and, well, insertions, in genetics. There are also reversals: metathesis in paleography and chromosomal transpositions in genetics. And point mutations, substituting the wrong genetic base when copying DNA, also occur in handwritten manuscripts. In both cases, the wrong letter is written, based on probabilities of being similar. In DNA, A and T are quite similar chemically and can be confused easily. In ancient Greek, lambda and delta look similar and are more likely to be exchanged as well. And the list goes on.

Exciting News: A Book Deal!

I have some exciting news for the readers of my blog: I recently got a book deal! I have begun work on a book for Current, the new popular science imprint of Penguin Group.

For that reason, I would also like to welcome the readers of the newly-defunct Mesofacts blog to this site, as I am consolidating all my online writing into a single location. Please enjoy the site, New Readers.

Emotional Tradeoffs of Daylight Saving Time

Much has been written about the economics of Daylight Saving Time. But I’m more interested in the emotional tradeoffs of the concept, which I view as an emotional wash. The annoyance of losing an hour in the spring is balanced by the fact that, to reset your digital clocks, you only need to press the hour button once. On the other hand, don’t complain about having to press the hour button 11 (or 23 times) in the fall; you’re getting an extra hour on Saturday night.

And thus emotional balance is achieved when it comes to dealing with Daylight Saving Time.

Humor in Scientific Publications

A couple of years ago, two researchers at the Technion tested whether or not funnier scientific article titles yielded higher citations. Their article, Amusing titles in scientific journals and article citation, takes the titles of over 1000 articles and has them rated on two scales, pleasantness and how amusing they are. They then checked to see if the articles that were funnier (as well as more pleasant) were more or less likely to be cited. Some examples of said titles:

Examples of Top Amusing titles that were also in the Top Pleasant titles group include: ‘Beware of a half-tailed test’, and ‘The unicorn, the normal curve, and other improbable creatures’. An example of a Top Amusing title that was not in the Top Pleasant title group is: ‘Modeling the days of our lives: using survival analysis when designing and analyzing longitudinal studies of duration and the timing of events’.

Well, the upshot is that more humorous titles actually yield lower amounts of citation. They discuss the possible reasons, including the fact that “Traditionally, scientific publication is considered a serious matter, and humor seems antithetical to it”.

Of course, humor aside, there is the additional problem of whether or not a paper is well-written. I would love to have evidence that well-written papers do better, but thus far, the only evidence we have is that bafflegab doesn’t increase prestige (Armstrong 1989). Not a strong result, but at least it’s a start towards an empirical argument for good writing in scientific publications.

Sagi, I., & Yechiam, E. (2008). Amusing titles in scientific journals and article citation Journal of Information Science, 34 (5), 680-687 DOI: 10.1177/0165551507086261

Armstrong, J. (1989). Readability and prestige in scientific journals Journal of Information Science, 15 (2), 123-124 DOI: 10.1177/016555158901500209

No Wizard Left Behind: The Failure of The Hogwarts Educational System

When it comes to the world of Harry Potter, no doubt many children think the idea of learning witchcraft and wizardry at Hogwarts seems wonderful. Unfortunately, the magical world of education in J.K. Rowling’s books is terribly broken.

As near as I can tell, if you grow up in the magical world (as opposed to be Muggle-born, for example), you do not go to school at all until the age of eleven. In fact, it’s entirely unclear to me how the children of the wizarding world learn to read and write. There is a reason Hermione seems much more intelligent than Ron Weasley. It’s because Ron is very likely completely uneducated.

And even at Hogwarts, while they learn about spells and potions, they completely neglect the fundamentals. They are made to write essays on the history of magic, but are never taught to write. They take Arithmancy, but never learn mathematics.

And then, to top it off, at the age of eighteen seventeen, they complete their education. Perhaps some go off to college and graduate school. But that seems unlikely due to the dim view they take of the Muggle world. More likely, they go off to work in such places as a governmental agency, entirely unaware of political theory. Or they write for a daily newspaper, without knowing anything about journalism.

Thanks, J.K. Rowling, it’s okay to have a subculture in England that provides only seven years of education, and then releases their children to the world, completely unprepared for critical thinking in any way. Because, don’t worry, they have flying broomsticks, and can cast spells that make cooking easier.

The Amount of Laughter on NFL Pre-Game Shows

The Wall Street Journal, in one of their ever-entertaining sports analyses, examined the amount of laughter by the hosts on pre-game NFL shows. Fox comes out on top, with Terry Bradshaw in a class by himself:

The five hosts on Fox’s show—Curt Menefee, Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Michael Strahan and Jimmy Johnson—had a combined laughing time of two minutes, 22 seconds. That’s about 11.6% of the 20 minutes, 27 seconds they were shown on set together. Mr. Bradshaw was easily the laughing leader, going for about 92.4 seconds—including 2.5 seconds at the start of the show before anyone said anything. [emphasis added]

Mesofacts and the Census of Marine Life

Remember mesofacts (introductory essay here)? Well, yesterday the Census of Marine Life released a treasure trove of data on new sea species, with over a thousand new species confirmed (and lots more sure to follow). In addition to lots of new knowledge, included within its census are a few mesofacts that require updating:

… an ancient shrimp thought to have become extinct 50 million years ago…

Science fiction had long imagined “anaerobic” creatures that could live without oxygen. A team sampling the deep Mediterranean found three such species. These creatures, each the size of a pin head, live their entire lives hidden in sediment on the seafloor without oxygen.