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Category: Science

Jonah Lehrer jumps from Wired to the New Yorker

Jonahlehrer_2010Jonah Lehrer, the author of the popular science books "Proust Was a Scientist," "How We Decide" and 2012's "Imagine," has left his post as a contributing editor at Wired for the New Yorker, where he'll be a staff writer. He's taken his blog Frontal Cortex with him.

Like Lehrer's books, Frontal Cortex focuses on the science of the mind and how it intersects with daily life. In the latest post, Lehrer writes about the neuroscience of choking -- not in the throat, but in the mind, when forced to perform under pressure.

He visits the case laid out by Malcolm Gladwell -- in many ways, Lehrer is a younger, brain-centered version of Gladwell, making him a natural New Yorker fit -- and then looks at new research that illuminates the choking phenomenon (or, if you prefer, curse).

Using the admittedly blunt instrument of an fMRI brain scanner, researchers watched subjects play a game with an increasing financial reward, trying to see where they choked, and what was going on in their heads when they did.

[R]esearchers argue that the subjects were victims of loss aversion, the well-documented psychological phenomenon that losses make us feel bad more than gains make us feel good. (In other words, the pleasure of winning a hundred dollars is less intense than the pain of losing the same amount.)

In other words, choking is about focusing on possible loss when the stakes get higher, rather than on possible rewards. Lehrer takes that idea and suggests applying it to the workplace.
Whether that's because his own workplace has just changed is an open question. Lehrer's doing just fine in the bookselling marketplace: "Imagine: How Creativity Works" has spent 10 weeks on the L.A. Times bestseller list.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Jonah Lehrer in 2008. Credit: Thos Robinson / Getty Images for World Science Festival

When moon rocks were swag

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From July 1969 to September 1972, American astronauts regularly traveled between the Earth and the moon. In those three years, a dozen men were able to climb out of the lunar module and set foot on the moon. And while it was initially astonishing -- humans had never gotten so far into space before -- something about their presence there became expected, routine. The moon wasn't all that exciting, really. The astronauts scooped up rocks and dirt. Some clowned around to fill the television time: Alan Shepard golfed.

By the time those manned moon missions were complete, the astronauts had gathered 842 pounds of lunar samples. Nearly a half-ton of rocks and dirt. Rocks and dirt from our boring old moon.

And one particular piece of rock, after it had given up all the laboratory secrets we'd hoped it might, was broken up and turned into presidential swag. Hey, we had hundreds of pounds of it -- why not give it away?

In 1973, the bits of moon rock were encased in lucite and distributed to every U.S. state and to the heads of state in each of the world's countries. Then President Nixon, who'd left his name on the moon rock gifts, resigned in shame, and that era of the space age receded.

The lucite relics on wooden plaques almost faded into obscurity, removed from leaders' halls, relegated to museum storerooms, and, as the story of one goes, landed on a literal ash heap.

Almost, but not quite. Thank Joseph Gutheinz, NASA investigator, now retired. His obsession, from earliest little tickle to daily duty, is outlined in latest original from The Atavist, "The Case of the Missing Moon Rocks" by Joe Kloc. Gutheinz started out trying to stop con men from claiming to have moon rocks -- he was very successful -- but that led to another quest, the quest for the rocks themselves.

I'm a sucker for a quest story and, apparently, true stories about astronauts and space. Including this one.

Continue reading »

Wednesday book news: Bezos, the Elsevier boycott and more

  Dickens200_ceremony

What was it like to sit in Westminster Abbey while Prince Charles, Camilla, Ralph Fiennes and 200 descendants feted Charles Dickens on his 200th birthday? Alison Devers teared up, she writes at Slate.

Scientists and academics worldwide have signed a petition boycotting the high pricing of publisher Elsevier's acadmic journals. Professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Oxford, Carnegie Mellon, Cal State L.A., and universities in Australia, India, Italy and France are just a sampling of the more than 4,600 who have signed the online petition, refusing to publish with or act as peer reviewers for articles being published in Elsevier's journals. Other complaints: that the company's policy of offering journals to libraries in bundles means the libraries are forced to take those they don't want, and that Elsevier supported the controversial SOPA and PIPA legislation. For its part, Elsevier says the $10 price per article is "bang on the mean." Leave it to a science publisher to use a term like "mean" to make me realize I don't quite remember the difference between mean, median and, wait, what was the other one?

A popular Android voice app called Iris (an inversion of Apple's Siri) has turned up some unusual resuts. Ask "Is Noah's Ark real?" and the answer is that it "is biblically believed to be real. It gave forth a new beginning to a underserving earth." Ask if humans come from monkeys, and the answer is "a part of Darwin's Theory of Evolution is that human's over time evolved from apes. Since it is a theory, it can't be proven." Curious about these answers -- and others that are even more extreme -- Gizmodo dug into the companies behind them. They come from a Q&A site called ChaCha, which boasts that one of its "prestigious investors" is Bezos Expeditions, the personal funding arm of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Read the complete report at Gizmodo, which includes many other surprising Iris answers.

Elsewhere in England, the Hatchet Job of the Year was awarded Tuesday. The winner of the first annual award for a deliciously nasty book review went to Adam Mars-Jones for his review of Michael Cunningham's "By Nightfall." The judges wrote:

Every one of his zingers –- “like tin-cans tied to a tricycle”; “it seems to be the prestige of the modernists he admires, rather than their stringency”; “that’s not an epiphany, that’s a postcard” –- is earned by the argument it arises from. By the end of it Cunningham’s reputation is, well, prone.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Ralph Fiennes reads Charles Dickens at Westminster Abbey as Prince Charles and Camilla look on. Credit: Arthur Edwards / WPA Pool / Getty Images

 

 

A baffling work from Philip K. Dick discussed at ALOUD

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Jonathan Lethem and Pamela Jackson, the two editors of the new 976-page book "The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick," were joined by Dick's eldest daughter Laura and writer Steve Erickson Monday night at the L.A. Public Library's ALOUD series to talk about the book and the writer, who died in 1982 at age 53.

Dick, who has entered the pantheon of great American science fiction novelists, was massively prolific, occasionally paranoid, somewhat nuts and/or brilliantly visionary. Between 1951 and 1982 he published 121 short stories and 36 novels; in 1966, he wrote three books, including "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," the story upon which the film "Blade Runner" was based, and "Ubik," which was included in Time magazine's list of the 100 greatest modern American novels. In the last eight years of his life, while Dick was writing stories and novels at his regular pace, he worked on his Exegesis, too; when he died, it was 8,000 pages long.

"It's as if the novels themselves were visions," Lethem said Monday night. "He was preparing to be the writer of the Exegesis from the very beginning."

So if it's not a novel and it's not a collection of short stories, what is it, exactly? That's what moderator David L. Ulin asked about a third of the way into the conversation.

Nobody could sum it up quickly, but the impression they left was that it's a philosophical, spiritual, religious exploration; it's inconsistent, contradictory; it's a restless, impossible exploration of the boundaries of perception and reality and time. Lethem explained that Dick "has a rupture with reality, then he spends 8,000 pages trying to describe it."

There have been various hypotheses that the rupture was physical. "The earliest and most common was that he had temporal lobe epilepsy," Laura said. "He was also clearly manic depressive. And I became fairly certain that he was having a series of small strokes." She acknowledged that he was a frequent user of amphetamines. Yet, she added, "Whatever it was, it was also a legitimate mystical experience."

"This is a guy who argued, again and again, that time was round, and his novels were round," Steve Erickson added. He wrote an important piece for the LA Weekly in 1990 that shone a new critical light on Dick's work. Erickson said Dick's writing, centered around three themes: What is reality? What is memory? What is God?

"The quip is," Lethem said, "He became a character in a Philip K. Dick novel."

Laura said the family was initially reluctant to find a way to publish the Exegesis because it would confirm the suspicions of people who dismissed her father as "crazy as a loon." Now, after 30 acclaim-filled years, during which Dick's reputation has grown and he became the first science fiction writer to be published by the Library of America, Laura said, "they won't think he's crazy."

" 'Crazy writer' is a redundancy," Erickson assured her.

Whatever it is, "The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick" is an important, fascinating, and baffling addition to his legacy.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Philip K. Dick in the 1970s. Credit: Isa Dick Hackett

Marie Curie, in 'Radioactive'

RadioactiveToday's Google Doodle let searchers know that Nov. 7 is the 144th anniversary of Marie Curie's birth. That seemed like the perfect occasion to take a quick look at one of the most unusual books among this year's National Book Award finalists: "Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love And Fallout" by Laura Redniss.

Redniss is an author and artist; her version of the story of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie's life (and Pierre's) is up for the nonfiction award. What makes that unusual is that "Radioactive," published by It Books, a pop culture imprint of HarperCollins, is a blend of artwork and text wherein the art is just as important as the words. It's not a graphic novel, exactly -- for one thing, it's not fiction, and for another, it has no pages in which panels advance the story. The artwork and text take over each page or page spread completely. Maybe that is a graphic novel -- and graphic nonfiction? A graphic dual history-biography?

What looks like pretty, slightly sadly romantic artwork is actually well-researched. Redniss visited the house in Warsaw where Marie Curie was born, interviewed her granddaughter at the Curie Institute in Paris, went to Idaho to learn about nuclear research and space, visited Nevada to talk to nuclear weapons specialists and went to San Bernardino to learn about new radiation treatment for cancer.

But what's really lovely about "Radioactive" is how closely the form of the book hews to the content (see some pages here). On her website, Redniss writes:

I made the artwork for the book using a process called “cyanotype.” Cyanotype is a camera‐less photographic technique in which paper is coated with light‐sensitive chemicals. When the chemically treated paper is exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, it turns a deep blue color. Photographic imaging was critical to both the discovery of X-rays and of radioactivity, so it made sense to me to use a process based on the idea of exposure to create the images in Radioactive.

The cover of the book is even printed, in part, with glow-in-the-dark ink. "I always loved things that glowed in the dark," she told the Economist's More Intelligent Life earlier this year. "I love anything from underwater creatures that phosphoresce to luminescent ink. I went through a period a few years ago when I was doing a lot of silkscreen printing, and in every print I included luminescent ink. So all of those prints would have one presence with the lights on and if you turned the lights off they would become different prints. I just find it magical."

The National Book Awards will be Nov. 16 in New York.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

ALOUD's 2011 schedule selling out fast

Joandidion_1996
A highlight of this fall's ALOUD series from the Los Angeles Public Library will be Joan Didion's appearance, discussing her new memoir, "Blue Nights." She'll be at St. Vibiana's Cathedral in conversation with Times book critic David L. Ulin; tickets are sold out, but there will be some for sale at the door.

Some ALOUD events, such as Didion's appearance, include a ticket fee; others are free. One free event that's already completely booked is rapper Common's appearance Sept. 16 at the Central Library in conversation with television journalist Kevin Frazier. Standby tickets may become available.

However, there are plenty of events for which you can still make reservations. Karl Marlantes, author of "Matterhorn," will appear in November to discuss his memoir of Vietnam. That month, there will also be a discussion on Philip K. Dick with his daughters Ilsa Dick Hackett, Laura Leslie and Jonathan Lethem, co-editor of the forthcoming "The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick."

September appearances include those by Adam Winkler, discussing his nonfiction book "Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America"; memoirist Alexandra Fuller; and author Diana Reiss on her work with dolphins.

In October, Liberian political activist Leymah Roberta Gbowee will discuss her book "Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War"; David M. Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, will talk about his book "Don't Shoot" with LAPD chief Charlie Beck; and Ariel Dorfman will discuss Chile, his friend Salvador Allende and his new memoir, "Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile."

There will also be a dose of fiction in October from Irish novelist Anne Enright and MacArthur "genius" fellow Colson Whitehead, who takes on zombies in his upcoming novel, "Zone One."

See the complete list of ALOUD fall events here.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Joan Didion in 1996. Credit: Los Angeles Times

NASA teaming up with Tor/Forge for spacey novels

Nasa_w340
NASA is teaming up with publisher Tor/Forge to help create what sounds a little like an oxymoron: science-based science fiction. But getting the science wrong can make a science-fiction novel fall flat on its face. Now, novelists in the Tor/Forge stable will have access to NASA scientists to get the facts of their fiction right.

In a press release, Tor/Forge explains:

Tor/Forge and NASA hope that pairing scientists and engineers with the imprints’ award-winning roster of writers will raise awareness and inspire the study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), in line with the President’s Technology Agenda.  They also hope to contribute towards the goal of attracting and retaining students in the above fields, thereby strengthening NASA and the nation's future workforce in a compelling manner....

GSFC’s Innovative Partnerships Program (IPP) Office will host a select group of Tor/Forge authors -- some of whom already write science based fiction -- to learn more about science and space exploration. Authors will visit GSFC for a two day workshop in November consisting of presentations, facility tours and one-on-one sessions with SMEs. NASA contributions to the project will also provide access to their data, facilities, and educational design and evaluation experts.

While space exploration and astrophysics may not be the easiest topics to understand, getting to learn about space projects from NASA scientists is pretty cool.

Then again, scientists can sometimes be buzzkill for imaginative novelists -- like in July, when they decided that time travel was impossible.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Two galaxies colliding. Credit: NASA

Happy 91st birthday, Ray Bradbury!

Raybradbury_kirkmckoy
Ray Bradbury celebrates his 91st birthday today. The author of "The Martian Chronicles," "Dandelion Wine," "Something Wicked This Way Comes" and "Fahrenheit 451," who makes his home in Los Angeles, has had a wide cultural influence, consulting with the likes of both Disney and NASA.

Bradbury is the author of more than 30 books, hundreds of short stories, plus poetry, plays and books for children. He is credited as a writer on dozens of movie and television projects; he worked with John Huston on the screenplay of the 1956 film version of "Moby-Dick." He has recieved a National Medal of Arts, a special citation from the Pulitzer board, a medal for distinguished contribution to American letters from the National Book Foundation. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and an asteroid named in his honor.

Ray Bradbury has frequently made appearances at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and other literary events around the Southland. Last year, his 90th birthday was celebrated during the officially declared Ray Bradbury Week.

This year, he's taking it easy, but there is equal cause to celebrate the visionary science-fiction writer and his work. Happy birthday, Ray Bradbury!

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Ray Bradbury in 2000. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times

Festival of Books: Homo sapiens, capitalize on those family connections

Panel
How water will shape our future.

How “survival of the fittest” gets it wrong.

How Homo sapiens triumphed over the Neanderthals.

All of these threads are connected — at least, that was idea behind Saturday’s panel "Essential Ecosystems" where journalist Steven Solomon, scientist Tim Flannery and archaeologist Brian Fagan brought their respective disciplines to the table to grapple with the problems of our planet.

Los Angeles Times environmental editor Geoffrey Mohan moderated the hour-long panel in which all of the planet’s problems weren’t solved, though it was agreed that the solution lies less in science and  more in society, in our organizational structures and interpersonal relationships. 

Continue reading »

Jennifer Egan wins L.A. Times book prize in fiction

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This post has been corrected. See note at the bottom for details.

Jennifer Egan's "A Visit from the Goon Squad," won the L.A. Times 2010 book prize for fiction, it was announced in a ceremony in Los Angeles on Friday night. The top nonfiction prize went to Micahel Lewis for his book "The Big Short."

Read more about the prizes here.

The Los Angeles Times 2010 Book Prize winners:

•Fiction: Jennifer Egan, "A Visit From the Goon Squad" (Knopf)

•Nonfiction: Michael Lewis, "The Big Short" (W.W. Norton)

•Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction: Peter Bognanni, "The House of Tomorrow" (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam)

•Biography: Laura Hillenbrand, "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience & Redemption" (Random House)

•Graphic Novel: Adam Hines, "Duncan the Wonder Dog: Show One" (AdHouse Books)

•History: Thomas Powers, "The Killing of Crazy Horse" (Knopf)

•Mystery-Thriller: Tom Franklin, "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter" (William Morrow)

•Poetry: Maxine Kumin, "Where I Live: New & Selected Poems 1990-2010" (W. W. Norton & Company)

•Science & Technology: Oren Harman, "The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness" (W. W. Norton & Company)

•Young Adult Literature: Megan Whalen Turner, "A Conspiracy of Kings" (Greenwillow/HarperCollins)

For the record, 12:38 a.m. April 30: In an earlier version of this post, the title of the winner of the fiction prize was incorrectly given as "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience & Redemption" in the list of winners.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Jennifer Egan. Credit: Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times

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