Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Sandy Studies

The clock says, "Hoboken lost power at 9:05." Or so. City clocks are always off a bit.

A Hoboken City Clock at 11th and Washington


It's like a mystery novel. The detective looks down at the body on the ground, and his eyes scan to the wrist; the watch has struck some object during the fall; it's broken; the time stopped. Ah ha, that's when . . .


Embracing and Communicating Uncertainty

I am hesitant to blog about the hurricane ripping through the Mid-Atlantic, especially while I'm sitting comfortably safe and warm, six time zones away. I've read too many sad stories already and seen, electronically, too much destruction to want to drain the moment of its significance, its discomforts, and too often its tragedies. To my friends in the path, and every one else: I hope you're experiencing a speedy recovery.

Sandy's Cone of Uncertainty, National Weather Service


Still I think it is appropriate to notice the success of the National Weather Service and its associated forecasters. Without their efforts, and subsequent evacuations, many more people might have been been killed or injured. One key to that success, according to Nate Silver, is the NWS's embrace of uncertainty, its frank acknowledgement of error, and its skepticism of its own models. The "cone of uncertainty," above, exemplifies the NWS ethos and makes it public. Instead of simple trajectory, we get a range of possible paths, and the caveat that areas outside the path may still feel some impact of the storm. I'm sure you've all seen some version of this graphic recently.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

On Eclipses and Scientific Thinking: Simon Newcomb, Mark Twain, Ernst Mayr, and Bing Crosby

What do Newcomb, Twain, Mayr, and Crosby have in common? No, they aren't a 60s folk rock band. The answer is that they all tell us something interesting about the cultural power of the eclipse.
28 March 2006 Solar Eclipse, courtesy of NASA

What is most interesting about them is the way they reflect various ideas about the capacity for scientific thinking among Americans and others, past and present. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Talking to Insects

Autumnal forest in Charlevoix, Quebec.  From the series The Earth from Above by Yann Arthus-Bertrand.


The painter and experimental filmmaker Jeff Scher has a wonderful video in today's NY Times entitled Leaf and Death. Scher collected fallen leaves from around his neighborhood, dried them, and placed them on a light table to photograph. The result is stunningly beautiful, no less because there is something haunting and melancholy about its subject matter. 

As the summer begins to wane, leaves turn to brilliant colors before they are shed and fall to the ground. “Entire landscapes are transformed into a state of agitated Technicolor,” Scher writes in a statement that accompanies his piece. “It’s nature’s color-coded warning of the approaching longer nights and colder days sneaking up the calendar.”

But why do autumn leaves really change their color?