Thursday, 19 September 2019

Borges-like dreaminess

From The Horse, the Wheel, and Language by David W. Anthony:

The Cucuteni-Tripolye culture first appeared around 5200—5000 BCE and survived a thousand years longer than any other part of the Old European world. Tripolye people were still creating large houses and villages, advanced pottery and metals, and female figurines as late as 3000 BCE. They were the sophisticated western neighbors of the steppe people who probably spoke Proto-Indo-European.
Cucuteni-Tripolye is named after two archaeological sites: Cucuteni, discovered in eastern Romania in 1909, and Tripolye, discovered in central Ukraine in 1899. Romanian archaeologists use the name Cucuteni and Ukrainians use Tripolye, each with its own system of internal chronological divisions, so we must use cumbersome labels like Pre-Cucuteni III/Tripolye A to refer to a single prehistoric culture. There is a Borges-like dreaminess to the Cucuteni pottery sequence: one phase (Cucuteni C) is not a phase at all but rather a type of pottery probably made outside the Cucuteni-Tripolye culture; another phase (Cucuteni Al) was defined before it was found, and never was found; still another (Cucteni A5) was created in 1963 as a challenge for future scholars, and is now largely forgotten; and the whole sequence was first defined on the assumption, later proved wrong, that the Cucuteni A phase was the oldest, so later archaeologists had to invent the Pre-Cucuteni phases I, II, and III, one of which (Pre-Cucuteni I) might not exist. The positive side of this obsession with pottery types and phases is that the pottery is known and studied in minute detail.

Sunday, 2 June 2019

our work on relative motion

“I need my wife. She solves for me all my mathematical problems”, Albert Einstein used to say [1]. What?

I have to admit that until today I knew literally nothing about Mileva Marić (1875—1948). It was thanks to publication of Rosa Montero in El País Semanal [2] that I looked her up. Her life was fascinating and tragic. Quite apart from being a brilliant mind, her husband was an ordinary asshole.

I look forward to resume our new common work. You must now continue with your research — how proud I will be to have a doctor for my spouse when I’ll only be an ordinary man.
Albert Einstein to Mileva Marić, September 1900 [1]
We will send a private copy to Boltzmann to see what he thinks and I hope he will answer us.
Mileva Marić to Helene Savić, 20 December 1900 [1]
How happy and proud I will be when the two of us together will have brought our work on relative motion to a victorious conclusion.
Albert to Mileva, 27 March 1901 [1]
<Michele Besso> visited his uncle on my behalf, Prof. Jung, one of the most influential physicists in Italy and gave him a copy of our article.
Albert to Mileva, 4 April 1901 [1]
Marić in 1896

Whatever was Mileva’s actual contribution, we may never learn. Einstein submitted articles signed by his name only. Abram Ioffe claimed that “he saw the original three submission papers of the 1905 theory of relativity paper and said they were signed Einstein-Marity <Hungarian variant of Marić>. However, Marity was removed from the final publication” [3].

In 1912, Albert embarked on an affair with his first cousin, Elsa Einstein (Löwenthal). He forced Mileva to sign a humiliating contract [4, 5]:

  1. You will make sure:
    1. that my clothes and laundry are kept in good order;
    2. that I will receive my three meals regularly in my room;
    3. that my bedroom and study are kept neat, and especially that my desk is left for my use only.
  2. You will renounce all personal relations with me insofar as they are not completely necessary for social reasons. Specifically, You will forego:
    1. my sitting at home with you;
    2. my going out or travelling with you.
  3. You will obey the following points in your relations with me:
    1. you will not expect any intimacy from me, nor will you reproach me in any way;
    2. you will stop talking to me if I request it;
    3. you will leave my bedroom or study immediately without protest if I request it.
  4. You will undertake not to belittle me in front of our children, either through words or behavior.
“Mileva moved back to Zurich with her two sons on 29 July 1914. In 1919, she agreed to divorce, with a clause stating that if Albert ever received the Nobel Prize, she would get the money. <...> In 1925, Albert wrote in his will that the Nobel Prize money was his sons’ inheritance. Mileva strongly objected, stating the money was hers and considered revealing her contributions to his work” [1]. Here’s what her ex responded:
You made me laugh when you started threatening me with your recollections. Have you ever considered, even just for a second, that nobody would ever pay attention to your says if the man you talked about had not accomplished something important. When someone is completely insignificant, there is nothing else to say to this person but to remain modest and silent. This is what I advise you to do.
Albert to Mileva, 24 October 1925 [1]


  1. Gagnon, P. The forgotten life of Einstein’s first wife. Scientific American, 19 December 2016.
  2. Montero, R. Ella también. El País Semanal, 2 June 2019.
  3. Banovic, R. Does Albert Einstein’s first wife Mileva Maric deserve credit for some of his work? Independent, 13 June 2018.
  4. Smith, D. Dark side of Einstein emerges in his letters. The New York Times, 6 November 1996.
  5. Isaacson, W. Einstein: His Life and Universe. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2007.

Sunday, 28 April 2019

the power of wish to distort and deny

From the Foreword to the 1990 Edition of Awakenings by Oliver Sacks:

In the summer of 1970, then, in a letter to the Journal of the American Medical Association, I reported these findings, describing the total effects of L-DOPA in 60 patients whom I had maintained on it for a year. All of these, I noted, had done well at first; but all of them, sooner or later, had escaped from control, had entered complex, sometimes bizarre, and unpredictable states. These could not, I indicated, be seen as ‘side-effects,’ but had to be seen as integral parts of an evolving whole. Ordinary considerations and policies, I stressed, sooner or later ceased to work. There was a need for a deeper, more radical understanding.
My JAMA letter caused a furor among some of my colleagues. I was astonished and shocked by the storm that blew up; and, in particular, by the tone of some of the letters. Some colleagues insisted that such effects ‘never’ occurred; others that, even if they did, the matter should be kept quiet, lest it disturb ‘the atmosphere of therapeutic optimism needed for the maximal efficiency of L-DOPA.’ It was even thought, absurdly, that I was ‘against’ L-DOPA — but it was not L-DOPA but reductionism I was against. I invited my colleagues to come to Mount Carmel, to see for themselves the reality of what I had reported; none of them took up my invitation. I had not properly realised, until this time, the power of wish to distort and deny — and its prevalence in this complex situation, where the enthusiasm of doctors, and the distress of patients, might lie in unconscious collusion, equally concerned to wish away an unpalatable truth.

Friday, 29 June 2018

cheers, BEERx!

It’s been a while since a did a MOOC. But I just couldn’t resist doing The Science of Beer, a five-week course from the Wageningen University & Research. The best thing about this course, in my view, is that it was developed not by the academic staff but by the students of WUR. Apart from the videos and quizzes, there are optional “fun assignments” every week. Regretfully, I didn’t do any of them. (Why oh why?) My special regrets go to the first and probably most fun of the Fun Assignments, viz. Home Brewing, complete with this sweet disclaimer:

It is important to realise that this assignment involves the creation of an alcoholic beverage. It is possible for anyone to participate in this assignment, but please be aware that drinking or brewing an alcoholic beverage may be subject to laws and regulations in your country and can be hazardous. We cannot be held responsible for any consequences related to this assignment in any situation or circumstance. By continuing with this assignment, you agree to do so responsibly at your own risk.
No MOOC is perfect and this one is no exception. It being a student project, however, ensures that wabi-sabiness is practically built in. Whether or not a rerun of BEERx is planned, I highly recommend you checking it out. Currently the course is archived but the materials remain available to everybody.

Learning Outcomes

After successful completion of this course, the students will be able to:

  • identify the steps involved in the supply chain of beer and describe the scientific disciplines involved;
  • explain the effect of each step in beer production on the final product;
  • identify the main beer styles and explain how the production process can be designed to achieve their differences;
  • describe the characteristics and cultivation of the main raw materials of beer;
  • name the main historical events related to beer and explain how the image of beer changed in time;
  • explain how marketers try to influence consumer behaviour;
  • describe the pathway of beer through the human body after consumption;
  • discuss their own opinion on responsible drinking by looking at the health effects related to beer consumption.

Course structure

  • Module 1: Production - Processing and Categories
      This module covers three production topics: processing steps, process design and beer styles. During the processing, malt is produced, enzymes become active, chemical reactions take place, yeasts produce alcohol and flavour compounds, proteins are needed for foaming, and much more. Fun Assignment: Home Brewing.
  • Module 2: Production – Quality and Logistics
      This module focusses on the quality aspects involved in beer brewing. Also, it sheds light on the final steps of the production process: packaging and distribution. Fun Assignment: Beer Tasting.
  • Module 3: Raw materials of beer and cultivation practices
      This module goes back to the basics of beer. The students get a broader picture of the main ingredients and have a look at their characteristics and cultivation; discuss what defines a sustainable production, learn where beer comes from and explore important events in its history. Fun Assignment: Brewmasters through time (card game).
  • Module 4: Marketing of beer and cultural effects
      How are beers marketed? The students learn the essential activities in the process of bringing a beer onto the market. They also explore the world of advertising and discover the image of beer and how it changed over time. Fun Assignment: Advertisement.
  • Module 5: Consumption of beer and health effects
      The students follow the pathway that beer takes after it is consumed. They form their own opinion on responsible drinking, by comparing both positive and negative effects on the human health. Fun Assignment: Awareness.
  • Module 6: Recap and Exam
      This final module wraps up the course with a final exam.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

mujer pelota

In her 2013 book La ridícula idea de no volver a verte (The ridiculous idea of not seeing you again), Rosa Montero wrote:

Simone de Beauvoir llamaba mujeres pelota a aquellas que, tras triunfar con grandes dificultades en la sociedad machista, se prestaban a ser utilizadas por esa misma sociedad para reforzar la discriminación; y así, su imagen era rebotada contra las demás mujeres con el siguiente mensaje: «¿Veis? Ella ha triunfado porque vale; si vosotras no lo conseguís no es por impedimentos sexistas, sino porque no valéis lo suficiente.» ¿Fue Marie Curie una mujer pelota?

Monday, 3 April 2017

xièxiè, TsinghuaX

Here’s a story: in 2015, I did my first MandarinX course and quite liked it. Last year, I did the second one. And then, when the third instalment was announced, I thought it could be a good idea to refresh a bit of Mandarin in my memory. So I decided to try another basic course, TsinghuaX (TM01x Tsinghua Chinese), and see how it compares with MandarinX.

Now that edX scrapped their free honor code certificates, and I don’t have any spare money to pay for a “verified certificate”, I am doing these courses purely for myself.

Tsinghua Chinese: Start Talking with 1.3 Billion People

Just like MandarinX, TsinghuaX is a six-week course with estimated effort of 4 hours/week. Each of the six lessons contains the following sections:

  • Dialogue (several short videos and quiz)
  • Characters (several short videos and quiz)
  • Listening comprehension (quiz)
  • Tea time with Peter (study tips and cultural notes)
Like in MandarinX, most of the material is also presented by “talking heads” but here we have more diversity. In the Dialogue section, Ms Lǔ (or Lǔ lǎoshī) talks about grammar and vocabulary. Another teacher, Ms Wáng (Wáng lǎoshī), introduces a few Chinese characters. Although the focus of TsinghuaX course is on speaking (Ms Lǔ only uses Pinyin in her presentations), I have to say that I remember more of hanzi from Ms Wáng than from all MandarinX courses. I love the way she explains the origin of the characters. (On the other hand, I like that in MandarinX we are always given hanzi together with Pinyin. Even if it slows down my note-taking, I prefer to have both things.)

Here are the topics of TsinghuaX:

  • Lesson 1: Greetings
  • Lesson 2: Self-introduction
  • Lesson 3: Transportation
  • Lesson 4: Food
  • Lesson 5: Accommodation
  • Lesson 6: Shopping
There is no final exam, but you have to take quizzes (18 in total). To pass, you only have to get 60% right, which is really easy. The quizzes are good fun. For example, you are given the Beijing subway map. The task is to find a certain hanzi in the station names!

I was so inspired by this course that I decided to start yet another blog, just some symbols, where I present one symbol (usually a Chinese character) a day and write a short story about it.

Now back to MandarinX.

Basic Mandarin Chinese – Level 3

Here are the topics of MX103x:

  • Lesson 1: Movies
  • Lesson 2: Talking about studying Chinese
  • Lesson 3: Health / going to hospital
  • Lesson 4: Sports / getting fit
  • Lesson 5: Staying in touch / 21st century telecom
  • Lesson 6: Talking about studying (again!) and dating
Now MX102x had a “Question of the week” section. To do it, one had to set up an account with Prollster. The participation marks for this section were worth 10% of the grade. Like many other students, I found this requirement incredibly annoying (why do we need to register with one more platform?) and have chosen to ignore this section altogether. I’m glad that in MX103x they scrapped this nonsense. Just like in MX101x, each weekly quiz is worth 10% of the final score and the final exam is worth 40%. You need to get at least 80% to pass.

Estella, as always, was super-charming. However, listening to the dialogues, even with my level of understanding Mandarin, I had a distinct feeling that nobody talks like that in real life.

“Physical appearance isn’t everything, but I do like women who are shorter than me.”
“Your figure is very good, so you’re probably interested in exercise, too.”
“If I could find a girl like you that’s this perfect, it’d be too good to be true.”

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

the DNA journey

Yesterday, I came across this short film, as usual, looking for something completely different at Film English.

“This should be compulsory”, says one of its protagonists, talking about the DNA test. I am not sure about that. Danish scientists questioned the logic behind these tests (as any scientist would do). In absence of national reference datasets (what is “100% Icelandic”, for example?), the results of comparison do not seem to make much sense.

Still, I think it’s a great, if scientifically flawed, short. I did show it today to my students (all in their early 20s) and saw tears in their eyes. They might have not understood half of the language used in the film but they’ve got the message. Watch it.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

the romance of science

From Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks:

Scheele was one of Uncle Dave’s great heroes. Not only had he discovered tungstic acid and molybdic acid (from which the new element molybdenum was made), but hydrofluoric acid, hydrogen sulfide, arsine, and prussic acid, and a dozen organic acids, too. All this, Uncle Dave said, he did by himself, with no assistants, no funds, no university position or salary, but working alone, trying to make ends meet as an apothecary in a small provincial Swedish town. He had discovered oxygen, not by a fluke, but by making it in several different ways; he had discovered chlorine; and he had pointed the way to the discovery of manganese, of barium, of a dozen other things.

Scheele, Uncle Dave would say, was wholly dedicated to his work, caring nothing for fame or money and sharing his knowledge, whatever he had, with anyone and everyone. I was impressed by Scheele’s generosity, no less than his resourcefulness, by the way in which (in effect) he gave the actual discovery of elements to his students and friends – the discovery of manganese to Johan Gahn, the discovery of molybdenum to Peter Hjelm, and the discovery of tungsten itself to the d’Elhuyar brothers.

Scheele, it was said, never forgot anything if it had to do with chemistry. He never forgot the look, the feel, the smell of a substance, or the way it was transformed in chemical reactions, never forgot anything he read, or was told, about the phenomena of chemistry. He seemed indifferent, or inattentive, to most things else, being wholly dedicated to his single passion, chemistry. It was this pure and passionate absorption in phenomena – noticing everything, forgetting nothing – that constituted Scheele’s special strength.

Scheele epitomized for me the romance of science. There seemed to me an integrity, an essential goodness, about a life in science, a lifelong love affair. I had never given much thought to what I might be when I was “grown up” – growing up was hardly imaginable – but now I knew: I wanted to be a chemist. A chemist like Scheele, an eighteenth-century chemist coming fresh to the field, looking at the whole undiscovered world of natural substances and minerals, analyzing them, plumbing their secrets, finding the wonder of unknown and new metals.

Monday, 20 June 2016

collectively known as cells

There are few things as demotivating as discovering that in the end, in spite of (or maybe thanks to) all your efforts, your students learned absolutely nothing. Some of mine, apparently horrified by the exam study guide I presented them with, sent me a list of their own questions. That surprised me a bit but hey, sure, why not. And so, I have incorporated some of these questions into the exam, in a hope that this class at least would know some of the correct answers. Naturally, I was wrong.

Here’s an illustration.

The following three questions refer to the figure below.
  1. Identify the cells A, B and D. What is the name of the process C? (4 points)
  2. If the cell A has n chromosomes, the cell B has      chromosomes and the cell D has      chromosomes (2 points).
  3. Both cells A and B are collectively known as                    .
Easy peasy, even for those who were absent or asleep 90% of the time. Right?

And here are some unexpected answers, from three different students.

  1. Identify the cells A, B and D. What is the name of the process C? (4 points) *
    1.              Luan Zi             
    2.                Jing Zi             
    3.              Shou Jing             
    * I'm gonna to write chinese, because I don't how to write in English, you can search internet
Althought it is not in my job description, I did that search and should say that the (Mandarin) Chinese terms are correct. Except the symbol is not even Chinese (it’s just this student’s doodle of cell D), so it doesn’t count.
  1. If the cell A has n chromosomes, the cell B has   r   chromosomes and the cell D has   m   chromosomes (2 points).
I can’t say it is wrong. Just a bit too generic for my liking. Ditto this:
  1. Both cells A and B are collectively known as        cells        .
Here’s another one. I lifted this question from the textbook, but you don’t really need to know anything to solve the problem. Or so I thought.
  1. It takes just 1 minute for a bacterium to add 30 000 nucleotides to one DNA strand undergoing replication. The rate of replication in this bacterium is   5 000   nucleotides per second.
  2. * I don't have a calculator to determine this.

Friday, 18 March 2016

evolve or perish

In my first two-and-a-bit months working as a science teacher, there were only a few things that actually worked. And when I say “worked”, I mean made those incredibly lazy and bored pupils of mine to pay any attention for more than a minute. In case of Evolve or Perish, it worked for a good half an hour with Grade 7. They even might have learned something about geologic periods.

The preparation is minimal: you just have to print out the two pages of the game. Then tell the students to trim and glue them together to make a “board”. That’ll keep them busy for additional ten—fifteen minutes. If you have even more time to spare, you can print out the black-and-white version and then ask them to colour it. Then you’ll need dice and counters. I bought a box of four dice and I don’t know how many counters in a Chinese shop for €1. Three-four players per board work the best.

I didn’t expect that the Grade 11 students, better behaved but even more bored, to enjoy it as much if not more than Grade 7. But here they were, suddenly wide awake, rolling their dice and shouting “¡Ñoss!” when landing on “blast to the past”. What’s more, when they finished, they started from the beginning. One team played two games, another three games. All without me telling them what to do. Marvellous.