Reading Frankenstein: Chapter 6

Earlier posts in this series: Walton’s Letters, Chapters 1 & 2, Chapters 3 & 4, Chapter 5

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Last month, in the Guardian’s “My Hero” series, Neil Gaiman chose to write about Mary Shelley. His brief reflections open by recalling the circumstances that led to the writing of Frankenstein: “The cold, wet summer of 1816, a night of ghost stories and a challenge allowed a young woman to delineate the darkness, and give us a way of looking at the world.” He concludes as follows:

“The glittering promise of science, offering life and miracles, and the nameless creature in the shadows, monster and miracle all in one, back from the dead, needing knowledge and love but able, in the end, only to destroy … it was Mary Shelley’s gift to us, and we would be infinitely poorer without it.”

I like this idea of the nameless creature as Shelley’s gift to us. But what exactly is the nature of this gift? I would suggest that what Shelley has bequeathed to us is nothing less than the gift of thought. The creature is, as I see it, what some have called an object to think with, only it is an object of the imagination. It materializes, in our mind’s eye, the power conferred upon us by our knowledge, and it does so that we might think about what we can do.

At the end of her Introduction to Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, Sherry Turkle writes,

“Once we see life through the cyborg prism, becoming one with a machine is reduced to a technical problem of finding the right operating system to make it (that is, us) run smoothly. When we live with implanted chips, we will be on a different footing in our relationships with computers. When we share other people’s tissue and genetic material, we will be on a different footing with the bodies of others. Our theories tell us stories about the objects of our lives. As we begin to live with objects that challenge the boundaries between the born and created and between humans and everything else, we will need to tell ourselves different stories.”

It seems to me that, given the realities Turkle anticipates, Frankenstein is exactly the story we need. It helps us think about what we make, but primarily by helping us think about ourselves. The creature in this story is nothing if not a mirror on which we might see ourselves. Of course, so too is Frankenstein.

The sixth chapter of Shelley’s novel opens with a letter from Elizabeth. It’s worth noting, briefly, the multiple layers of narration at this point in the story. Ostensibly, we are reading Elizabeth’s words to Frankenstein relayed by Frankenstein to Walton, who is in turn relaying them to his sister, Margaret. It’s easy to lose sight of this, but keeping this framework in mind, I think, is key to interpreting Frankenstein’s self-representation. It helps us sustain a healthy suspicion of Frankenstein’s framing of the events and, by extension, to also cast a critical eye on the rationalizations and justifications we offer for our own actions and motives.

Elizabeth’s letter functions chiefly to supply details that will render subsequent events more meaningful. We learn more, for instance, about the other Frankenstein siblings, the older Ernest and the younger William. We learn as well about Justine Moritz, a longstanding household servant in the Frankenstein household, who was beloved by all of the family.

There’s a curious digression in Elizabeth’s rehearsal of Justine’s history in which she notes how the nature of Swiss political culture has “produced simpler and happier manners than those which prevail in the great monarchies that surround it.” This is to assure us of Justine’s place in the family: “A servant in Geneva,” we are assured, “does not mean the same thing as a servant in France and England. Justine, thus received in our family, learned the duties of a servant; a condition which, in our fortunate country, does not include the idea of ignorance, and a sacrifice of the dignity of a human being.”

Elizabeth goes on to speak glowingly of Ernest and, especially, of “little darling William.” All of this, of course, particularly in light of Frankenstein’s earlier claim to have lost everything, strikes us as preparation for a great tragedy.

The remainder of the chapter narrates Frankenstein’s continued recovery, which is sustained almost entirely by Henry Clerval’s loving attention. It was Clerval, Frankenstein tells us, who “called forth the better feelings of my heart; he again taught me to love the aspect of nature, and the cheerful faces of children.” Once again, well-being is presented as a kind of equilibrium between our urge to know and to do, on the one hand, and our acceptance of the world as a gift on the other. And, once again, this equilibrium is the product of friendship. Friendship is a kind of anchor that keeps us from sinking into the maelstrom of self-absorption, a victim of virtues which, unregulated, become our vices. Clerval’s particular influence on Frankenstein was twofold: he brought Frankenstein out of himself into the world, and he brought the liberal arts to bear on a scientific imagination.

But all is not well, of course. Once released into the world, our action does not simply dissipate into nothingness, whatever we might wish. The creature is still at large, and Frankenstein’s greater sin is his failure to accept responsibility for what he has made. This refusal of responsibility is reflected in the disgust Frankenstein had now developed toward his former passion: “I had conceived a violent antipathy even to the name of natural philosophy.” Just seeing the implements of his former work induced “the agony of my nervous symptoms.” While introducing Clerval to his professors, Frankenstein would become visibly agitated when they praised his talent and skill.

Shelley paints Frankenstein as a man who is racked by guilt but also unwilling to confront it. His “violent antipathy ” toward what he had previously pursued with obsessive zeal suggests profound shame and a deep desire to burry and repress his transgression. More worrisome still is his decision to keep knowledge of the creature secret, even from Clerval. It’s more than a little ironic that the man who would rip open nature’s secrets now carefully guards his own.

Nothing good follows from Frankenstein’s refusal of responsibility, only an accumulation of disasters. The question this leaves us with is this: What would it mean for us to accept responsibility for what we make and for what we do with what is made for us? Makers and users both, it seems that we are, like Frankenstein, hell-bent on refusing responsibility for what we do with the technologies that have been furnished for us. It would seem, in fact, that the general tendency of our making is to create conditions that undermine the possibility of either thoughtfulness or responsibility. Shelley’s story, however, her gift to us, provokes our thinking and may even rekindle our sense of moral responsibility.

Reading Frankenstein: Chapters 1 and 2

When I began writing the first Reading Frankenstein post, I did not anticipate putting down nearly 2,000 words. I’m pretty sure that’s not the optimal length for this sort of exercise. My goal moving forward will be to take on two chapters per post and keep each post as close to 1,000 words as possible. We’ll see how that goes. Now on to chapter one.

With the first chapter the role of the narrator is handed over to Victor Frankenstein, who begins his story by telling of his charmed childhood. We learn that both his father and mother were saintly human beings of outstanding virtue. Frankenstein’s mother, Caroline, was the daughter of a man named Beaufort, whom Frankenstein’s father loved “with the truest friendship.” Unfortunately, Beaufort sank into poverty, and, despite his daughter’s best efforts, died destitute and despairing. Frankenstein’s father tracked the family down and rescued Caroline from her impoverished life. Two years later they married.

This little vignette, one of many such personal histories scattered throughout the novel, touches again on the theme of friendship already introduced in Walton’s letters. The vignette is also a fall narrative, i.e., it describes someone’s fall from a position of prestige or wealth or honor and the ensuing consequences. It’s a pattern that recurs throughout the story establishing a Fall motif that resonates with the significance of Paradise Lost to the story. As of yet, I’m not sure what more to make of it.

Frankenstein then goes on to describe the doting love his parents lavish upon him: “I was their plaything and their idol, and something better–their child, the innocent and helpless creature bestowed upon them by Heaven, whom to bring up to good, and whose future lot it was in their hands to direct to happiness or misery, according as they fulfilled their duties towards me.” Of course, this amounts to a painful indictment of Frankenstein’s own dereliction of duty toward his own creation, but it is not at all clear that Frankenstein himself registers this fact. It’s thus poignantly ironic when Frankenstein speaks of his parents’ “deep consciousness of what they owed towards the being to which they had given life.” This all prepares us to later hear with sympathy the Monster’s justification of his actions on the grounds of his abandonment and rejection by Frankenstein. Frankenstein here appears to be testifying as a witness against himself.

This first chapter concludes with the introduction of Elizabeth Lavenza. Like Caroline Beaufort, Elizabeth’s father, an Italian solider, experiences a fall; he is either dead or languishing away in an Austrian prison. She was entrusted to the care of a family who themselves had fallen on hard times. Frankenstein’s mother entered the home of this poor family in an act of charity, and she was immediately captivated by Elizabeth’s radiant beauty. Shelley’s characters are consistently described rather lavishly, some might say melodramatically. Perhaps this reflects a certain writerly immaturity, Shelley was not yet twenty when the novel was complete. Or it may by a conscious effort to cast her characters as ideal types; more on that in a moment. With the family’s blessing, Caroline takes Elizabeth home with her, and she becomes little Victor’s “beautiful and adored companion.”

In the second chapter, Frankenstein goes on to describe the deep bond he forms with Elizabeth as the two, about a year apart in age, grow up together. “Harmony was the soul of our companionship,” he explains. As he tells us of the nature of their relationship, it’s clear that “harmony” was a precise and apt word choice: they complemented one another. Although, more to the point, it was to Elizabeth that Frankenstein ascribed a kind of controlling influence. It doesn’t appear that Elizabeth derived a similar effect from Victor. This dynamic was anticipated in Walton’s desire, expressed in a letter to his sister, to find a friend who would “regulate” his mind.

Victor confesses that, for his part, he was “more deeply smitten with the thirst for knowledge.” By contrast, “She busied herself with following the aerial creations of the poets.” And she also found “ample scope for admiration and delight” in the “wondrous scenes that surrounded our Swiss home.” “While my companion contemplated with a serious and satisfied spirit the magnificent appearance of things,” Frankenstein notes, “I delighted in investigating their causes.” Shelley is here setting up a rather conventional dichotomy and trading on a venerable, though minor, motif in Western literature. But that is not to say that it is wholly without merit. We might say that the difference is between perceiving the world as a gift to be delighted in, on the one hand, or, as Frankenstein puts it, “a secret which I desired to divine.”

Later on, a second son is born, and the family settles down in Geneva. Then we are introduced to Henry Clerval, a classmate of Victor’s, who becomes a great friend to both he and Elizabeth. As with Walton, we first learn about Henry’s disposition by learning of the books that shaped his imagination as a child. In Henry’s case, these were “books of chivalry and romance.” We learn as well that Henry “composed heroic songs” and wrote “many a tale of enchantment and knightly adventure.” Etc.

Victor, however, returns to the course of his own interests. He confesses that “neither the structure of languages nor the code of governments, nor the politics of various states, possessed attraction for [him].” It was, rather, “the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn.”

He happily acknowledges that the influence of Elizabeth moderated the more unhealthy tendencies of his temperament, and not only his. Clerval, who “occupied himself … with the moral relation of things” also benefited from Elizabeth’s influence. It was she who “unfolded to him the real loveliness of beneficence, and made the doing good the end and aim of his soaring ambition.”

It would seem, then, that in the characters of Victor, Elizabeth, and Henry, Shelley is offering us ideal types. Victor clearly represents the spirit of the natural sciences, as Shelley understood them, and the pursuit of knowledge more generally. Henry appears to represent what we might call the political sphere. I’m not entirely sure how I would characterize Elizabeth: we may say that she represents the poetic, or simply art perhaps; maybe Nature; beauty or love also come to mind.

In fact, as I think about it, it would seem that the most obvious correspondence is to the three parts of the soul in ancient Greek philosophy: thumos, eros, and logos. Victor corresponds to the logos–roughly speaking, the rational component of the soul that is attuned to Truth. Henry corresponds to thumos, often translated “spiritedness”–the passionate, courageous aspect of the soul attuned to Goodness. And, finally, Elizabeth corresponds to eros–the varied capacity of the soul to love, which is attuned to Beauty. In Plato’s famous formulation, logos or reason, steers the chariot hitched to the unwieldy horses thumos and eros. Through the relationship of these three characters, Shelley seems to be suggesting that it is eros, the soul’s attunement to Beauty as represented by Elizabeth, that ought to be steering the soul. On this reading, the novel can’t be read simplistically as a critique of the natural sciences or the pursuit of knowledge as such. It suggests that the pursuit of knowledge has it’s place but it must be in harmony with thumos and eros, and the primacy of the latter might be the key to achieving that harmony.

Finally, and I’ll try to make this brief, the chapter concludes with a discussion of the sources of Victor’s fascination (or fixation) with the natural sciences, and particularly with the natural sciences conceived as a quest for esoteric knowledge and power. Again, books are to blame, as they were with Walton and Henry. In this case, it is a chance encounter with the writings of the famous Renaissance alchemist and magician, Cornelius Agrippa, that sets the tragic trajectory of Victor’s life. Agrippa leads Victor to the writing of other notables such as Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. He is captivated by their attempts to peer into the deep secrets of the universe, and he has no idea that their work has been roundly discredited. As a result of his reading, Victor “entered with the greatest diligence into the search for the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life,” especially the latter. Echoing Bacon and anticipating the Transhumanists, he declares, “what glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!”

With childish vigor and innocence he pursues his studies despite a rebuff from his father, who, taking one look at Agrippa’s book, casually dismisses it as rubbish. Later, when he is about fifteen years old, after watching lightning obliterate an oak tree, he is captivated by a “man of great research in natural philosophy” who, luck would have it, was visiting his family. This man was well-versed in the latest theories of electricity and galvanism, and his ensuing discussion makes Victor question all that he had learned from the alchemists. This leads him to despair of the possibility of scientific knowledge, and he turns to mathematics believing it to be “built upon secure foundations, and so worthy of my consideration.”

Despite the joy and tranquility that ensued, Victor’s turn away from the pursuit of the secrets of life would not last. He describes this temporary sobriety as “the last effort made by the spirit of preservation to avert the storm that was even then hanging in the stars, and ready to envelope me.” There’s more than a hint of fatalism in the way that Victor narrates his own story. “Destiny was too potent,” he says, “and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction.”

That destiny begins to unfold in the next chapter, which we’ll look at in the next day or two.

The Humanities, the Sciences, and the Nature of Education

Over the last couple of months, Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier have been trading shots in a debate about the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. Pinker, a distinguished scientist whose work ranges from linguistics to cognitive psychology, kicked things off with an essay in The New Republic titled, “Science is Not Your Enemy.” This essay was published with a video response by Wieseltier, the The New Republic’s longstanding literary editor, already embedded. It was less than illuminating. A little while later, Wieseltier published a more formal response, which someone unfortunately titled, “Crimes Against the Humanities.” A little over a week ago, both Pinker and Wieseltier produced their final volleys in “Science v. the Humanities, Round III.”

I’ll spare you a play-by-play, or blow-by-blow as the case may be. If you’re interested, you can click over and read each essay. You might also want to take a look at Daniel Dennett’s comments on the initial exchange. The best I can do by way of summary is this: Pinker is encouraging embattled humanists to relax their suspicions and recognize the sciences as friends and ally from which they can learn a great deal. Wieseltier believes that any “consilience” with the sciences on the part of the humanities will amount to a surrender to an imperialist foe rather than a collaboration with an equal partner.

The point of contention, once some of the mildly heated rhetoric is accounted for, seems to be the terms of the relationship between the two sets of disciplines. Both agree that the sciences and the humanities should not be hermetically sealed off from one another, but they disagree about the conditions and fruitfulness of their exchanges.

If we must accept the categories, I think of myself as a humanist with interests that include the sciences. I’m generally predisposed to agree with Wieseltier to a certain extent, yet I found myself doing so rather tepidly. I can’t quite throw myself behind his defense of the humanities. Nor, however, can I be as sanguine as Pinker about the sort of consilience he imagines.

What I can affirm with some confidence is also the point Pinker and Wieseltier might agree upon: neither serious humanistic knowledge nor serious scientific knowledge appears to be flourishing in American culture. But then again, this surmise is mostly based on anecdotal evidence. I’d want to make this claim more precise and ground it in more substantive evidence.

That said, Pinker and Wieseltier both appear to have the professional sciences and humanities primarily view. My concern, however, is not only with the professional caste of humanists or scientists. My concern is also with the rest of us, myself included: those who are not professors or practitioners (strictly speaking), but who, despite our non-professional status, by virtue of our status as human beings seek genuine encounters with truth, goodness, and beauty.

To frame the matter in this way breaks free of the binary opposition that fuels the science/humanities wars. There is, ultimately, no zero-sum game for truth, goodness, and beauty, if these are what we’re after. The humanities and the sciences amount to a diverse set of paths, each, at their best, leading to a host of vantage points from which we might perceive the world truly, apprehend its goodness, and enjoy its beauty. Human culture would be a rather impoverished and bleak affair were only a very few of these path available to us.

I want to believe that most of us recognize all of this intuitively. The science/humanities binary is, in fact, a rather modern development. Distinctions among the various fields of human knowledge do have an ancient pedigree, of course. And it is also true that these various fields were typically ranked within a hierarchy that privileged certain forms of knowledge over others. However, and I’m happy to be corrected on this point, the ideal was nonetheless an openness to all forms of knowledge and a desire to integrate these various forms into a well-rounded understanding of the cosmos.

It was this ideal that, during the medieval era, yielded the first universities. It was this ideal, too, that animated the pursuit of the liberal arts, which entailed both humanistic and scientific disciplines (although to put it that way is anachronistic): grammar, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, music, geometry, and astronomy. The well-trained mind was to be conversant with each of these.

All well and good, you may say, but it seems as though seekers of truth, goodness, and beauty are few and far between. Hence, for instance, Pinker’s and Wieseltier’s respective complaints. The real lesson, after all, of their contentious exchange, one which Wieseltier seems to take at the end of last piece, is this: While certain professional humanists and scientists bicker about the relative prestige of their particular tribe, the cultural value of both humanistic and scientific knowledge diminishes.

Why might this be the case?

Here are a couple of preliminary thoughts–not quite answers, mind you–that I think relevant to the discussion.

1. Sustaining wonder is critical. 

The old philosophers taught that philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom, began with wonder. Wonder is something that we have plenty of as children, but somehow, for most of us anyway, the supply seems to run increasingly dry as we age. I’m sure that there are many reasons for this unfortunate development, but might it be the case that professional scientists and humanists both are partly to blame? And, so as not to place myself beyond criticism, perhaps professional teachers of the sciences and humanities are also part of the problem. Are we cultivating wonder, or are we complicit in its erosion?

2. Eduction is not merely the transmission of information

To borrow a formulation from T.S. Eliot: Information, that is an assortment of undifferentiated facts, is not the same as knowledge; and knowledge is not yet wisdom. One may, for example, have memorized all sorts of random historical facts, but that does not make one a historian. One may have learned a variety of mathematical operations or geometrical theorems, but that does not make one a mathematician. To say that one understands a particular discipline or field of knowledge is not necessarily to know every fact assembled under the purview of that field. Rather it is to be able to see the world through the perspective of that field. A mathematician is one who is able to see the world and to think mathematically. A historian is one who is able to see the world and to think historically.

Wonder, then, is not sustained by the accumulation of facts. It is sustained by the opening up of new vistas–historical, philosophical, mathematical, scientific, etc.–on reality that continually reveal its depth, complexity, and beauty.

Maybe it’s also the case that wonder must be sustained by love. Philosophy, to which wonder ought to lead, is etymologically the “love of wisdom.” Absent that love, the wonder dissipates and leaves behind no fruit. This possibility brings to mind a passage from an Iris Murdoch novel, The Sovereignty of Good, in which the main character describes the work of learning Russian:

“I am confronted by an authoritative structure which commands my respect. The task is difficult and the goal is distant and perhaps never entirely attainable. My work is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me…. Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal. The honesty and humility required of the student — not to pretend to know what one does not know — is the preparation for the honesty and humility of the scholar who does not even feel tempted to suppress the fact which damns his theory.”

We should get it out of our heads that education is chiefly or merely about training minds. It must address the whole human person. The mind, yes, but also the heart, the eyes, the ears, and the hands. It is a matter of character and habits and virtues and loves. The most serious reductionism is that which reduces education to the transfer of information. In which case, it makes little difference whether that information is of the humanistic or scientific variety.

As Hubert Dreyfuss pointed out serval years ago in his discussion of online education, the initial steps of skill acquisition most closely resemble the mere transmission of information. But passing beyond these early stages of education in any discipline involves the presence of another human being for a variety of significant reasons. Not least of these is the fact that we must come to love what we are learning and our loves tend to be formed in the context of personal relationships. They are caught, as it were, from another who has already come to love a certain kind of knowledge or a certain way of approaching the world embedded in a particular discipline.

What then is the sum of this meandering post? First, the sciences and the humanities are partners, but not primarily partners in the accomplishment of their own respective goals. They are partners in the education of human beings that are alive to fullness of the world they inhabit. Secondly, if that work is to yield fruit, then education in both the sciences and the humanities must be undertaken with a view to full complexity of the human person and the motives that drive and sustain the meaningful pursuit of knowledge. And that, I know, is far easier said than done.

Why Did Curiosity’s Landing Generate So Much Attention?

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Take a look at the image to the right. Care to guess what you’re looking at?

I might very well be wrong, but I imagine that more than a few people would guess that they are looking at an image of Curiosity during its descent stage onto the surface of Mars — there’s the chute and there’s the capsule. This would be a reasonable conjecture, but also an incorrect one.

The image is of another rover, Phoenix, making its final descent onto the surface of Mars on May 25, 2008. Remember that one? I didn’t. It was, as it turns out, the first time the landing of one spacecraft on the surface of a planet was photographed by another spacecraft.

Now, I don’t want to make too much of my own forgetfulness or inattentiveness, but I was surprised to learn that Curiosity’s successful landing was the sixth such success in NASA’s history.

Viking 1 and Viking 2 each landed on Mars in 1976. The Mars Pathfinder and its rover, Sojourner landed in 1997. Two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, landed in 2004. And finally, Phoenix, landed in 2007. (Check out a great info graphic of missions to Mars here. H/T Jeremy Antley.)

I’ve been a low-level space geek since I was child, and so I wasn’t entirely oblivious to this history. But being reminded of it did make the publicity surrounding Curiosity, well, curious.

Why was it that Curiosity’s landing was received with such fanfare? And why was it that it evoked such a powerful emotional response when previous landings, recent and impressive, had not?

Naturally, I took to Twitter with my query. Now, I don’t have nearly enough followers to make this as fruitful a venture as it might be for others, but, thanks to some retweets, it did return a few interesting suggestions.

Here was my initial tweet:

My suggestions were arrived at as follows. Size? Curiosity was by far the largest such vehicle. Degree of difficulty? Given its size, landing the rover safely necessitated an ingenious and elaborate multi-stage landing system. Trailer? I was referring to the dramatically titled video produced by NASA, “Seven Minutes of Terror,” depicting Curiosity’s planned descent. Social media? Well, for starters, Curiosity has its own twitter feed: MarsCuriosity.

So what kind of responses did I get? A few suggested what one person neatly summed up as “Space shuttle ennui.” In other words, Curiosity stepped in to fill a gap created by the retirement of the space shuttles — the last voyage of which tapped the technological sublime.

Relatedly, it was suggested that Curiosity filled a void created by the absence of any inspiring visions for our future in relation to space, or perhaps for any future.

Others pointed to some variation of the suggestions I offered. The complexity of the skycrane, social media coverage of the landing, and NASA’s improved self-promotion.

All of these seem to have some role to play in creating the event that was Curiosity’s landing — the “Seven Minutes of Terror” video hooked me — but I’m not sure that any of these alone, or even all of them together satisfactorily explain the phenomenon.

Here’s my take as it stands: It mostly is a case of the distinctly American technological sublime. This actually draws both streams of responses together: those that focused on the filling up of some collectively felt absence and those that emphasized the sophistication of the technology involved. David Nye’s account of the American technological sublime included both the existential experience of a technology that left one in awe and a participation in what amounted to a (Durkheimian) civil religion.

As a civil religious experience, the technological sublime provided a sense of national identity, purpose, and destiny. Experiences of the technological sublime — whether seeing the first railroads or the first electrified cityscapes, standing before the Hoover Dam, or witnessing a Saturn V launch, to name a few instances — forged the collective national character. They were rituals of solidarity. They inspired confidence in what we could accomplish and, therefore, hope for the future.

It could be argued that we are a nation casting about for renewed unity and sense of purpose. There is a felt need for what the technological sublime had supplied earlier generations of Americans. The consumer technologies which surround us today, impressive as they are in many respects, don’t quite have the capacity to elicit the sublime experience. In part, because they merely (and “merely” is not  quite the right word there) enhance or repackage what earlier technologies had first accomplished long ago. The latest cell phone technology can never compete with the experience of hearing a voice over the telephone for the first time, for example.

Curiosity stepped into this fractured and disillusioned cultural milieu and it was dynamic and extraordinary enough to evoke the sublime response. Remember the tears that flowed at mission control. It was the right technology, at the right time. And social media supplied the sense of collective experience so critical to its civil religious function.

So now your thoughts. Did you tune in to the live feed from mission control? Did you give Curiosity more attention than you usually would to the space program? Were you moved by the whole thing? Did you notice that this was the case for others even if wasn’t quite your reaction? Pure media hype? Sheer awesomeness? To what does Curiosity owe its vaunted status?

Maybe its all just Curiosity’s WALL•E-esque anthropomorphic charm. Or, am I the only one that sees that?

Beware of Reporters Bearing the “Latest Studies”

Some while ago I posted a pretty funny take on the Science News Cycle courtesy of PHD Comics. Every now and then I link to it when posting about some “recent study” because it is helpful to remember the distortions that can take place as information works its way from the research lab to the evening news.

I was reminded of that comic again when I read this bit from a story in New Scientist:

“To find out if behaviour in a virtual world can translate to the physical world, Ahn randomly assigned 47 people either to inhabit a lumberjack avatar and cut down virtual trees with a chainsaw, or to simply imagine doing so while reading a story. Those who did the former used fewer napkins (five instead of six, on average) to clean up a spill 40 minutes later, showing that the task had made them more concerned about the environment.”

Surely something has been lost in translation from data to conclusion, no? The author notes that this is from an “unpublished” study which gives me renewed confidence in the peer review process.

Well, that is until I read a somewhat alarming post by neuroscientist Daniel Bor, “The dilemma of weak neuroimaging papers”, which contains this summation and query:

“Okay, so we’re stuck with a series of flawed publications, imperfect education about methods, and a culture that knows it can usually get away with sloppy stats or other tricks, in order to boost publications.  What can help solve some of these problems?”

All in all, we do well to proceed with healthy skepticism.