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notes on science, fiction, and points in between
14 Apr 1998

Winners and runners-up for this year's Pulitzer Prizes in the arts, announced today, April 14th, were mostly from among the usual suspects, titles familiar from other competitions and summaries of notable books of 1997. The fiction prize went to Philip Roth for American Pastoral, with arch-rival Don DeLillo's Underworld named one of two runners-up. The other fiction runner-up was Robert Stone's Bear and His Daughter: Stories.

In nonfiction, the winner was Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, an ambitious, scientifically informed analysis of human history in terms of geography and ecological circumstance (rather than, say, the genetic superiority of one demographic group over another). Runners-up were Stephen Pinker's How the Mind Works and Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster.

The winner in history was also science-themed: Edward J. Larson's Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion.

The Pulitzer Prizes have been awarded by Columbia University in New York for achievements in journalism and the arts since 1917. Recipients must be American (and in the case of the fiction prize, the work preferably deals with American life). Arts winners receive a $5,000 award. This year's complete results are here.

Mary's Face
The New York Times Magazine for April 12th (page 15; it's not online) reports that apparitions of the Virgin Mary have increased from 17 sightings in the 18th century to more than 400 so far in the 20th, most of them since the 1960s. A retired theology professor at Notre Dame is quoted: ''My opinion is that a lot of these sightings are authentic'' and ''Our Lord is trying to warn His people about the trouble we're getting ourselves into''.

There was a new sighting on the TV news just the other night...just as we were checking the web for new pictures of the Mars Face.

Information Wants to Be Free
An op-ed piece by David Handelman in the April 11th New York Times elaborates on the theme we touched on last week in the item about Salon's Haiku error messages. Handelman, a writer for such magazines as TV Guide and Premiere, discovered articles he'd written reprinted, or even retyped (with misspellings), on websites around the Internet. Such casual misappropriations are becoming rife. Famous examples include an article by a Chicago Tribune columnist that was circulated on the web last year and misidentified as a commencement speech by Kurt Vonnegut, and a Dr. Seussian doggerel about the Monica Lewinsky affair (''Starr I Are'') so widely circulated that its creator, cartoonist Tom Tomorrow, had to defend himself against accusations of plagiarism.

Alas, cut-and-paste and email makes it all to easy to liberate words. Handelman advises writers to becoming Internet-savvy and keep tabs on their own work: use search engines to hunt for distinctive phrases. The problem will only get worse.

How Science Really Works
From a review by Jonathan Rauch in the April 12th Los Angeles Times Book Review, of Deborah Tannen's book The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue -- a book that claims discourse in America is overly dominated by polarization of viewpoints and argument for the sake of argument -- this paragraph, which offers insight into the process of science:

Criticism, of course, need not be nasty, but it can be. In the heat of argument, claims are overstated, integrity is impugned, positions harden, fur flies. Do people go too far? All the time. As each debate matures, however, the wackos and firebrands are marginalized because being unreasonable is a bad way to convince people. In the end, reasonableness pays, even in politics (ask Newt Gingrich). And, in the end, nastiness can pay too, at least from a social point of view. The philosopher of science David L. Hull, in his indispensable book, "Science as a Process," notes that one of science's best motivators is pique, the desire to "get that son of a bitch." Time and again, he says, "the scientists whom I have been studying have told stories of confrontations with other scientists that roused them from routine work to massive effort." A critical culture's greatest genius is to channel differences of opinion into research agendas and campaign ads, instead of into creed wars and political coups. And it is no coincidence that the world's most rambunctiously critical society--America--is also far and away its most intellectually productive.

Alternate Histories, Who Needs 'Em?
Recently a publicity party was held in New York for a new book about the artist Nat Tate, a little-known abstract expressionist painter who had met Picasso and Braque and who committed suicide at the age of 31, leaving behind only a single painting. Had anyone at the book party heard of Tate? Many had (as recounted in Time Magazine, April 20th 1998). Trouble was, it was all a hoax, perpetrated by novelist William Boyd and publisher David Bowie; there never was a Nat Tate.

In response to the New York Times coverage of this event came a letter (published April 13th) from a Hollywood filmmaker, Mark Dodson, which read in part:

My recent film, "The Landing," described as fact the tragic conclusion of a fictitious moon mission, Apollo 18. At every screening across the country my co-director and I were confronted by people who said they recalled the dreadful event -- a few even claimed to have met one of the astronauts.

Our pleasure at having duped audiences with the realism of our film faded when we paused long enough to consider what such an impulse to associate oneself with a fictitious event really meant.

In a media society where slavish devotion to "breaking news" about freeway chases and celebrity incarcerations is considered the same as knowing what's going on, we should not have been surprised that many people don't have the slightest clue as to what is real and what is not.

The letter's heading was ''Remember Apollo 18 Mission? Sure You Do''.

All that is solid melts into air
Then there's James Gleick, in the same New York Times Magazine (April 12th), worrying about what happens to websites when their creators lose interest, or die. Turns out there are several organizations already devoted to salvaging and preserving such sites. And of course, anything ever posted to a Usenet newsgroup is being recorded for posterity. His column is called ''The Digital Attic: An Archive of Everything''.

But there's a larger and more serious problem; the fragility of the electronic infrastructure. For one thing, the physical media aren't as durable as most people think, especially magnetic tapes. More practically, technology changes so fast that formats of electronic data quickly become obsolete. If you have digital records a decade old, do you still have the software to read them? Some businesses have begun actively 'refreshing' old records by copying them into new media with new software. Archiving information on paper doesn't seem so bad after all.
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