October 17, 2013 12:42 pm
This week, Man Booker Prize was given to the youngest winner ever for the longest book the prizes’ judges have even honored. Eleanor Catton is 28, and her book, The Luminaries, is over 800 pages long.
According to the BBC, Catton started the book when she was 25, and finished it at 27. That makes her four years younger than the previous youngest winner, and seven years younger than the previous youngest female winner. Reviewers struggled over the length, writes Chris Bohjalian of the Washington Post:
I needed to create my own Cliffs Notes to keep straight the cast of 19 breathing characters, the corpse (whose name one of the living occasionally commandeers), the location of five dresses filled with gold, the source of yet more gold discovered in a dead hermit’s cottage, why a lovely young prostitute has nearly overdosed on opium, the different owners of a boat named the Godspeed, and the motivations of the dozen “luminaries” who have gathered together in the smoking room of a second-rate New Zealand hotel when the novel opens to discuss a few of these curiosities.
Robert Macfarlane, chair of the judges for the prize agreed that the gigantic book takes work, but told the BBC that it won because the payoff was worth it. “It does require investment… but it operates like the best kind of goldmine. You pan and then the yields are huge.”
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October 9, 2013 1:42 pm
You probably know that Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Prizes, was a ridiculously wealthy Swedish scientist, a chemical engineer who earned his coin developing and designing explosives and weapons. You also probably know that before his death Nobel set the vast majority of his fortune aside to found the five Nobel Prizes: chemistry, physics, medicine, literature, and the (arguably ironic) peace prize.
As the inventor of dynamite, Nobel was already set for the history books. What prompted him to found his prizes? Sloppy journalism. Or so the story goes:
In 1888, Nobel’s brother Ludvig died. A French newspaper, confusing the two brothers, ran an obituary for Alfred calling him “the merchant of death,” a man who “became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.”
Nobel, says Dan Lewis for NowIKnow, didn’t like this very much.
Nobel spent much of the rest of his life trying to avoid the horrible legacy portended by the erroneous obituary. In September of 1895, unbeknownst to his heirs, he revised his will to leave over 90% of his fortune — accounting for inflation, roughly $250 million (but in Swedish kronor) — to establish what is now known as the Nobel Prizes.
It’s a neat tale, and it’s curious how the world may have been different had the French reporters done their fact checking. Legacy.com spoke to the Nobel Foundation’s Annika Pontikis, who suggested, “Yes, Nobel saw his obituary in advance. And yes, he was unhappy about what he read. Still, it was probably not the only factor that influenced him to create a peace prize.” Maybe the obit was the entire impetus for the prizes; maybe it was just the last push Nobel needed to convince him he needed to shore up his legacy.
The story is neat. But is it too neat? The French paper in question, Ideotie Quotidienne, basically doesn’t exist except attached to this tale. Every telling of the story, of which there are many, relies on the same two quotes used above (or their French translations: “Le marchand de la Mort est mort. Le Dr Alfred Nobel, qui ﬁt fortune en trouvant le moyen de tuer plus de personnes plus rapidement que jamais auparavant, est mort hier.”) Searching Google books offers nothing new, nor does a search of the news archives. The Nobel Foundation doesn’t tell this tale (though Al Gore did when he accepted his Peace Prize in 2007).
This origin story may just be, as the Economist‘s Oliver Morton suggested last year, a case of “printing the legend.” Sometimes a neat morality tale is just too good to pass up.
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May 1, 2013 3:22 pm
It took Santiago Ramón y Cajal quite a while to find his true calling in life. He tried his hand at cutting hair and at fixing shoes. As a boy in the mid-1800s, he planned for a career as an artist. But his father, an anatomy professor, shook his head and decided that young Ramón y Cajal would pursue medicine instead. The would-be artist went on to found the field of modern neuroscience, earning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along the way. Born May 1, 1852, in Spain, Ramón y Cajal would have celebrated his 151st birthday today.
Before he began to stand out as a researcher, Ramón y Cajal had been an anatomy school assistant, a museum director and a professor and director of Spain’s National Institute of Hygiene. His most important work did not begin until around 1887, when he moved to the University of Barcelona and began investigating all of the brain’s different cell types. He discovered the axonal growth cone, which control the sensory and motor functions of nerve cells, and the interstitial cell of Cajal (later named after him), a nerve cell found in the smooth lining of the intestine. Perhaps most significantly, he developed the “neuron doctrine,” which demonstrated that nerve cells were individual rather than continuous cellular structures. Researchers consider this discovery the foundation of modern neuroscience.
In 1906, the Nobel committee awarded Ramón y Cajal and an Italian colleague the prize in Physiology or Medicine ”in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system.”
While Ramón y Cajal may have changed neuroscience forever, he maintained his original childhood passion. Throughout his career, he never gave up his art. He sketched hundreds of medical illustrations, and some of his drawings of brain cells are still used in classrooms today.
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February 4, 2013 11:52 am
A team of Russian geographers took winter swimming to an extreme last Friday. In a record-breaking dive, the head of the Russian Geographical Society sunk to the bottom of Lake Labynkyr in Siberia, one of the coldest lakes in the world, RIA Novosti reports, where air temperatures regularly hit minus 50 degrees Celsius. The team hopes to get its name in the Guinness Book of World Records for the stunt.
In addition to breaking records for cold dives, the geographers sought to follow up on mysterious discoveries of past years. Though no one is known to have ever entered the lake before, Labynkyr has been remotely explored with echo-sounders and probes. Sonars revealed unusually large objects in the lake, but scientists could not figure out what they were based on echolocation alone.
Locals in the nearby village of Oymyakon—which has a population of around 500 and is the coldest permanently inhabited settlement in the world—have their own ideas of what those objects could be. An old legend claims that Labynkyr is home to a Loch Ness-like water monster called “the devil” by nearby villagers.
According to the Voice of Russia, the team reported finding jaws and skeletal remains of a large animal with their underwater scanner, though these claims are not yet confirmed.
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October 15, 2012 11:21 am
When you consider the field of economics, you may think of using money as a basis on which to trade time and things. But some systems operate outside the realm of money, yet may still be explained by economic principles. The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences went this year to two American researchers who worked on the problem of matching up groups—students to schools, doctors to hospitals—when money can’t be used as an arbiter.
“For example,” says the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, “many schools and universities are prevented from charging tuition fees and, in the case of human organs for transplants, monetary payments are ruled out on ethical grounds. Yet, in these – and many other – cases, an allocation has to be made. How do such processes actually work, and when is the outcome efficient?”
Alvin Roth, a Stanford professor and blogger, says Dylan Matthews for the Washington Post, “is an expert at “market design,” or the creation of matching systems or other mechanisms in situations in which normal markets are, for whatever reason, impracticable.”
Paired with the work of Lloyd Shapley, a game-theoretician, the two broke new ground in exploring and explaining how stable, cooperative systems can be built. Ironically, Roth and Shapley never actually worked together directly. Rather, says the Associated Press:
Shapley made early theoretical inroads into the subject, using game theory to analyze different matching methods in the 1950s and ’60s.
…Roth took it further by applying it to the market for U.S. doctors in the ’90s.
The easiest way to describe this is to consider the market for marriage. Nowadays we can consider this as a market without prices (well at least not ex ante prices) but a market nonetheless as there are only a certain number of ways you can match equal numbers of men and women. As it turns out, if you imagined the market as organised — something that surely takes a ton of imagination — you might consider each side ranking the people they would like to marry of the other gender in the population. Then the algorithm would pick one side, say, women, and give them their preferences first. If several women ranked the same man as No.1, then the men’s preferences would come into play. Without going into full details, this simple procedure led to three things. First, the matching outcome was stable in that you could not find individual pairs of men and women who were not married to one another who would prefer to be so over their matched partners. Second, and related, the outcome was Pareto optimal in that there was no other stable allocation where everyone could be made better off. Finally, whichever side got to propose first (say, the women in my discussion above) got, loosely, the better deal.
These same concepts, of pairing groups of things together, says Gans, have been applied to all sorts of issues: such as putting college roommates together, organizing staff layouts or even pairing up organ donors.
Roth, says Gans, “is an economic theorist who hasn’t just made things more efficient. He has actually saved lives. It is unclear whether it is the economics Nobel he deserved or the Nobel prize for medicine.”