Helen Scales

Helen Scales

A new book about seahorses has appeared; the author is a marine biologist named Helen Scales.  In its review, The Economist grants that “Scales” is an apt name for a person interested in fish. 



Emily Hornett

Emily Hornett

Some new discoveries have come from examinations of old collections of butterflies; the lead researcher is a biologist named Emily Hornett.  In his note about these findings, Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science mentions that Hornett is a “great name for an entomologist.” 


A name that is especially suited to the profession of its owner is sometimes called an “aptronym.”  The Wikipedia page for aptronyms lists some famous cases of this coincidence, including such ironic examples as the sometime primate of the Philippines, Jaime, Cardinal Sin.  According to blogger and aptronym maven Nancy Friedman of the “Fritinancy” blog, the American Name Society had a panel about aptronyms at its annual session this January.  Friedman cites a New York Times blog that had a little contest a couple of years ago for best aptronym; the winners included Peru, Indiana’s Eikenberry funeral home.  Friedman also mentions that Slate has posted lists of aptronyms from time, including lawyer Soo Yoo, psychiatrist William Dement, and former White House press secretaries Larry Speakes, who spoke, and Tony Snow, who snowed ’em under.  Here is a list of 180 aptronyms, including such worthies as a financial-services scammer named Robin Banks.  Some aptronyms are really quite eloquent, as for example in the anti-Apartheid activism of actress Honor Blackman


The Economist, 18 July 2009

economist 18 july 2009Three pieces in this issue address the state of economics as an academic discipline.  One laments the current state of macroeconomics, characterizing it as a discipline in which too many practitioners have been “seduced by their [theoretical] models” and have lost interest in data that might contradict those models.  Another discusses the efficient markets hypothesis, the role that hypothesis has played in shaping the theory and practice of modern finance, and tries to asses the likelihood that the efficient markets hypothesis will retain credibility in light of the world’s current financial crises.  A leading article calls on economists to bring about a “reinvention” of their discipline.  Evidently the requirements of this reinvention dictate that “Economists need to reach out from their specialised silos: macroeconomists must understand finance, and finance professors need to think harder about the context within which markets work. And everybody needs to work harder on understanding asset bubbles and what happens when they burst.”  Economists must recognize that “in the end” they are “social scientists, trying to understand the real world.”  I’ve always been rather skeptical of economics, but I suspect that most economists knew that last part already. 

There are also two pieces about lunar exploration.  One asks whether it makes sense to send more people to the Moon, quoting Buzz Aldrin’s opinion that it would be wiser simply to move on to other destinations.  Another reviews two new books on the Apollo 11 landing, in time for the 40th anniversary of that event.

The Atlantic, July/ August 2009

the atlantic july and august 2009We as a species are currently dumping massive amounts of carbon into the upper atmosphere.  Average temperatures around the world are rising at an alarming rate, evidently at least in part as a consequence of this dumping.  No movement is in prospect that would stop the dumping, or even reduce it substantially.  So, what to do?  Some scientists and engineers want to remake the rest of the earth’s climate to accommodate our carbon dumping habit.  How could this be done?  There are several possible methods. 

We could shoot sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere.  That would be remarkably affordable- for as little as a billion dollars, it could end global warming.  The drawback is that eventually sulphur would rain down from the sky, and if we stopped shooting new sulphur dioxide up there global temperatures would increase dramatically in a very short period.  Also it would cause severe droughts throughout central Africa, a region which has not exactly been among the big winners of industrialization to start with, so that seems unfair. 

Also we could dump iron powder in the Antarctic Ocean, causing a huge plankton colony to bloom and suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.  We’d have to be a bit careful about that- half a supertanker’s worth of iron powder could feed a big enough plankton bloom to trigger a new Ice Age.  And when plankton dies, it releases methane, which is a much more effective greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. 

There are also people who would like to block sunlight by shooting millions of clay discs at the Lagrange point between the earth and sun.  These skeets might well reduce average temperatures on the earth, but they could also stop the formation of ozone in the atmosphere.  And without an ozone layer, life as we know it could not exist on the surface of the earth.  So that’s a little bit on the risky side too.  So it seems like reducing carbon emissions might be worthwhile after all. 


Some interesting things in this week’s issue of The Economist

economist 27 june 2009I subscribed to The Economist for years and years.  I liked its quick notes about little countries that major media outlets ignore completely.  After a few years of reading it regularly, it came to seem like a person.  In particular, it seemed like a 23 year old bond trader who thinks that he rules the world, or is about to.  Obnoxious as that fellow might be in person, in the form of a magazine he was, at his worst, something I could set on a table and forget about.  More often his outlandish politics were good for a laugh.  I still remember the first number of The Economist I read, a 1983 issue with Nicolae Ceaucescu’s picture on the front, labeled “The Sick Man of Communism.”  What sticks out is a leading column about Lebanon, the last paragraph of which began with some phrase like “Though colonialism is unfashionable at the moment,” and went on to suggest that the best thing for that country might be occupation and domination by Syria.  Time and again The Economist makes remarks like that, which only a staff as extremely young as that which in fact does produce the magazine could make innocently.  And it can be a useful read- if I’d bet against every market prediction they made in the 1990s, I’d be a millionaire today. 

This time around, they have a leader and an article about the new Acropolis Museum, each concerned chiefly with the effect this facility will have on the dispute between Britain and Greece over the ownership of the friezes Lord Elgin took from the Parthenon in the period 1801-1805.  The British Museum has been taking care of them for over 200 years, the Greek government has been campaigning for their return to the Acropolis for almost 30 years.  The Economist is impressed by the new museum on the Acropolis, and wishes the British Museum would lend the friezes to the Greeks.  This solution would require the Greeks to renounce their claim of formal ownership of the friezes.  Previous Greek governments have seemed willing to make this concession, but the current one is not.  The Economist predicts that an uncompromising stand by the Greeks could unravel a great deal of the progress that has been made since December of 2002, when the world’s leading museums issued a statement called “the Munich Declaration”: 

The Munich declaration, as it is called, asserts that today’s ethical standards cannot be applied to yesterday’s acquisitions; but in return it acknowledges that encyclopedic museums have a special duty to put world culture on display.

This has led to a new level of co-operation between museums over training, curating, restoration and loans. Thousands of works are now lent each year between museums on every continent.

All this apparently will come crashing down unless the Greeks take the advice of The Economist.  Considering that much of the 6 March 1999 issue of that magazine was devoted to dire warnings of the chaos the world would face in the next decade as the price of oil dropped below $5 a barrel and stayed there, I wouldn’t worry overmuch about its predictions.