Annie Ernaux nabs Nobel for Literature; nobody won our contest

October 6, 2022 • 7:36 am

The 2022 Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to French writer (and literature professor) Annie Ernaux, already laden with awards. I’d never heard of her, and those who informed me of this award hadn’t, either. I wondered if her books haven’t been translated into English, but it turns out that many of them have been, including The Yearsmentioned by the NYT below.

Nobody guessed her in our October 4 contest, so the losing streak there continues, despite people being asked to guess just one winner. Many guessed Salman Rushdie, and I agree that he deserves a Nobel, but the  Committee surely knows what would happen if he was given that prize. But if that’s the reason he hasn’t won, they are cowards.

At any rate, it’s time for you  literature mavens to give Ernaux a try.

Here’s the announcement from the Swedish Academy (click to read):

The citation and press releases are very short, saying just this:

The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2022 is awarded to the French author Annie Ernaux “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory”.

In her writing, Ernaux consistently and from different angles, examines a life marked by strong disparities regarding gender, language and class. Her path to authorship was long and arduous.

I presume the video below will tell you more as does this NYT article (click to read):

The announcement was made with her having heard of it! From the NYT:

The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded on Thursday to Annie Ernaux, the French novelist whose intensely personal books have spoken to generations of women by highlighting incidents from her own life, including a back-street abortion in the 1960s and a passionate extramarital affair.

Mats Malm, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which that decides the prize, announced the decision at a news conference in Stockholm, lauding the “courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory.”

The committee had not been able to reach Ernaux by telephone, Malm said, but he expected her to “soon be aware of the news.” They intended to present her with the prize on Dec. 10.

Ernaux, 82, becomes only the 17th female writer to have won the prize, widely considered the most prestigious award in world literature, since it was formed in 1901. She is the second woman to be given the prize in three years after Louise Glück, who was awarded the 2020 prize for writing “that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”

. . . Outside France, she is perhaps best known for “The Years,” which weaves together events from over 70 years of Ernaux’s life with French history. In 2019, “The Years” was shortlisted for the Booker International Prize, a major British award for fiction translated into English.

And the 42-minute live announcement:

Three awarded Nobel Prize in Physics (and a contest)

October 4, 2022 • 8:00 am

Three physicists working independently, from France, the U.S., and Austria, have nabbed this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics for work on quantum entanglement. (Note the international character of the awardees.) All three share equally in the prize, a total of ten million Swedish kroner (about $1.3 million US. It’s not a munificent amount, but the value to one’s career an esteem in inestimable. The winners will henceforth always be designated as “Nobel Laureate [name here].”

What did they win for? Well, you can read about it at either the Nobel press-release site (below) or the NYT article below that; click on either to read. Trigger warning: quantum physics! The award has to do with quantum entanglement, a phenomenon that I can barely understand but that Einstein dismissed as “spooky action at a distance.” Beyond that, even the physicists who wrote me about this don’t fully understand the accomplishment that was honored, for which entanglement is just the starting point.

From the NYT:

A summary from the NYT with a good explanation of entanglement (I’ve put it in bold below):

The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser and Anton Zeilinger on Tuesday for work that has “laid the foundation for a new era of quantum technology,” the Nobel Committee for Physics said.

The scientists have each conducted “groundbreaking experiments using entangled quantum states, where two particles behave like a single unit even when they are separated,” the committee said in a briefing. Their results, it said, cleared the way for “new technology based upon quantum information.”

The laureates’ research builds on the work of John Stewart Bell, a physicist who strove in the 1960s to understand whether particles, having flown too far apart for there to be normal communication between them, can still function in concert, also known as quantum entanglement.

According to quantum mechanics, particles can exist simultaneously in two or more places. They do not take on formal properties until they are measured or observed in some way. By taking measurements of one particle, like its position or “spin,” a change is observed in its partner, no matter how far away it has traveled from its pair.

Working independently, the three laureates did experiments that helped clarify a fundamental claim about quantum entanglement, which concerns the behavior of tiny particles, like electrons, that interacted in the past and then moved apart.

And the accomplishments of the three, also from the NYT:

Dr. Clauser, an American, was the first in 1972. Using duct tape and spare parts at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., he endeavored to measure quantum entanglement by firing thousands of photons in opposite directions to investigate a property known as polarization. When he measured the polarizations of photon pairs, they showed a correlation, proving that a principle called Bell’s inequality had been violated and that the photon pairs were entangled, or acting in concert.

Clauser looks as if he won it for demonstrating the phenomenon of entanglement fifty years ago, but, according to Wikipedia, entanglement of photons was experimentally demonstrated in the year I was born.

The first experiment that verified Einstein’s spooky action at a distance or entanglement was successfully corroborated in a lab by Chien-Shiung Wu and a colleague named I. Shaknov in 1949, and was published on new year’s day in 1950. The result specifically proved the quantum correlations of a pair of photons.

Wu won the Nobel Prize for that, but what was entangled was “parity,” not “polarization” (several aspect of photons’ properties are entangled). But Wu and her colleague’s experiments seem to have demonstrated the violation of Bell’s inequality in 1949.

More from the NYT:

The research was taken up 10 years later by Dr. Aspect, a French scientist, and his team at the University of Paris. And in 1998, Dr. Zeilinger, an Austrian physicist, led another experiment that considered entanglement among three or more particles.

Eva Olsson, a member of the Nobel Committee for Physics, noted that quantum information science had broad implications in areas like secure information transfer and quantum computing.

Quantum information science is a “vibrant and rapidly developing field,” she said. “Its predictions have opened doors to another world, and it has also shaken the very foundation of how we interpret measurements.

The Nobel committee said the three scientists were being honored for their experiments with entangled photons, establishing the violation of Bell inequalities and pioneering quantum information science.

“Being able to manipulate and manage quantum states and all their layers of properties gives us access to tools with unexpected potential,” the committee said in a statement on Twitter.

Two physics mavens who wrote me about this admitted they didn’t fully grasp what the Laureates had shown.

One said this:

Hell. I don’t even understand the title of the physics area of this year’s award. My days are over!

And the other said this:

Whoooosh … right over my head !  I have absolutely no idea what they are talking about!

Readers are welcome to clarify.  But it’s quantum mechanics, Jake, and if you think you understand its physical interpretation, as Feynman said, you don’t. That’s what’s so fascinating about the area. The math seems to absolutely predict what you see, but to translate the mathematical results into language that corresponds to our everyday experience is nearly impossible.

Here’s the one-hour live announcement:

And our contest, based on the failure of readers to guess who would win all the Prizes in a given year. I’m thus restricting the contest to one prize only. To wit:

The Nobel Prize in Literature will be awarded early Thursday morning (US time). Who will win it?

The first person who guesses the correct answer and puts it below in a post gets an autographed copy of either WEIT or Faith versus Fact, personalized to their liking and with a cat or other animal of their choosing drawn in it by me, PCC(E).

Put your choices below. The contest closes at 8 pm Eastern US time on Wednesday (tomorrow).

Svante Pääbo nabs Medicine and Physiology Nobel

October 3, 2022 • 7:30 am

I had totally forgotten that it’s Nobel Prize season, and the first one, the Medicine or Physiology Prize, was awarded today—to the human evolutionary geneticist Svante Pääbo, a Swede. The reader who sent me the news had these immediate reactions:

  • Highly unusual that there is a single winner nowadays
  • How often has the prize gone to an evolutionary scientist (of any shape or form) ?
  • Probably being Swedish helped a bit!

Yes, the last “solo” prize was given in this field in 2016 to Yoshinori Ohsumi for his work on lysosomes and autophagy. As for the evolutionary biology, I’m not aware of anybody working largely on evolution who has won a Nobel Prize. The geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan won one, but it was his students who became evolutionary geneticists.  I also remember that when I entered grad school, my Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin was helping prepare a joint Nobel Prize nomination for Theodosius Dobzhansky and Sewall Wright, but Dobzhansky died in 1975 before it could be submitted, and posthumous Prizes aren’t given.)

Of course, Pääbo has worked on the evolution of the genus Homo, and a human orientation helps with the Prize, but his substantial contributions fully qualify him for the Big Gold Medal.  As for him being Swedish, I don’t know if there’s some national nepotism in awarding prizes, but again, Pääbo’s work is iconic and no matter what nationality he was, he deserves one. And of course I’m chuffed that an evolutionary geneticist—one of my own tribe—won the Big One.

Click on the Nobel Committee’s press release or the NYT article below to read about Pääbo or go to his Wikipedia page.


Pääbo is the leader of a large team, and has had many collaborators, but it’s clear that, if fewer than four people were to get the prize for work on human evolution, Pääbo would stand out as the main motive force, ergo his solo award.  Sequencing the Neanderthal genome and estimating the time of divergence from “modern” H. sapiens (about 800,000 years)? That was Pääbo and his team. Finding the Denisovans, a separately-evolved group from Neanderthals? Pääbo and his team.  Discovering that both of these groups interbred with our own ancestors, and we still carry an aliquot of their genes? Pääbo and his team. Learning that some of the introgressed genes from Denisovans have conferred high-altitude adaptations to Tibetans? Pääbo and his team. And that some Neanderthal genes confer modern resistance to infections? Pääbo and his team.

The man can truly be seen as the father of human paleogenetics—and he’s five years younger than I? Oy!

Although born in Sweden. Pääbo works mostly in Germany. Here’s his bio from the Nobel Prize Committee:

Svante Pääbo was born 1955 in Stockholm, Sweden. He defended his PhD thesis in 1986 at Uppsala University and was a postdoctoral fellow at University of Zürich, Switzerland and later at University of California, Berkeley, USA. He became Professor at the University of Munich, Germany in 1990. In 1999 he founded the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany where he is still active. He also holds a position as adjunct Professor at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, Japan.

A prize for work in evolutionary genetics! Well done, Dr. Pääbo!

Svante Pääbo

And a bit of biography from the NYT article:

Dr. Pääbo has a bit of Nobel Prize history in his own family: In a 2014 memoir, “Neanderthal Man,” he wrote that he was “the secret extramarital son of Sune Bergstrom, a well-known biochemist who had shared the Nobel Prize in 1982.”

It took some three decades of research for Dr. Pääbo to describe the Neanderthal genome that won him his own prize. He first went looking for DNA in mummies and older animals, like extinct cave bears and ground sloths, before he turned his attention to ancient humans.

“I longed to bring a new rigor to the study of human history by investigating DNA sequence variation in ancient humans,” he wrote in the memoir.

It would be no easy feat. Ancient genetic material was so degraded and difficult to untangle that the science writer Elizabeth Kolbert, in her book “The Sixth Extinction,” likened the process to reassembling a “Manhattan telephone book from pages that have been put through a shredder, mixed with yesterday’s trash, and left to rot in a landfill.”

Audubon’s cancellation proceeds as Seattle chapter ditches his name

July 26, 2022 • 11:30 am

From KOMO News (h/t Williams), we have this headline on a short article (click to read):

. . . and that tells it all.  An excerpt:

The Seattle chapter of the Audubon Society says it is dropping “Audubon” from its name because the man the organization is named after was a slave owner and opposed abolition.

KNKX reports that Seattle Audubon is one the largest chapters of the National Audubon Society, the nonprofit dedicated to protecting birds and their habitats, but Seattle Audubon is one of the largest in the country.

Earlier this month, the board voted to change the chapter’s name because the man the organization is named after – illustrator, painter and bird lover John James Audubon, author of the seminal work “The Birds of America” – owned enslaved people.

J. Drew Lanham, a former board member of the National Audubon Society and a wildlife ecology professor at Clemson University, called the move courageous.

Lanham, who has written about Audubon and left the national chapter over concerns the nonprofit was not doing enough about racial equity, says organizations need to grapple with what to do about problematic monuments.

(Let me remark that I don’t see the move as “courageous”, except in the sense that it may cost the Society members. It takes no moral courage these days to remove someone’s name from a Society because he enslaved people.)

There is no doubt that Audubon owned slaves; the Audubon Society itself admitted it in an article on the Society’s website. And that is an unmixed bad thing to do. Short of killing someone, making them into a slave is about the worst thing you can do: you’re taking away their freedom and treating them as property, for no reason (in the antebellum US) other than their race.

The question at hand, though, is whether effacing Audubon’s name from the Society and branches of the Society is something that is worth doing. I’ve pondered this at length, and for a while I could have gone either way.

My criteria for deciding whether someone should be “erased” for having done immoral stuff has alway been twofold. If both criteria aren’t met, there’s no reason to keep a name.

1.)  The name or honorific is there for the good things people did. (That rules out, by the way, Confederate statues, though I think it might be better if they were “contexualized”; see below).

2.) The person’s life constituted a net good for the world. This is hard to determine, since “well being” is measured in many currencies.

It’s clear that Audubon passes the test for #1. The problematic part is #2. Is slave-holding so bad that it can’t ever be compensated for by the good someone does? Most people seem to think that George Washington and Thomas Jeffrerson, who were also enslavers, did sufficient good to warrant keeping their names on things like the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument (not to mention the $1 bill or Washington, D.C.

Does Audubon fall in their class? I don’t think so, but he certainly did good things, awakening naturalism and conservation impulses that resulted in the Society that bears his name.

It’s a tough call, but I decided that the name “Audubon” should stay because of two considerations:

a.) You can and should contextualize his name, letting people know that Audubon did things that were seen as immoral even in his time. (There were plenty of abolitionists.) If you can contextualize history rather than erasing it, I’d prefer the former.

b.) Taking Audubon’s name off societies and the like is a performative, symbolic act that doesn’t do anything to achieve racial equality. If you want people to know about the bad stuff in history, contextualize it and condemn it rather than erase it. I would feel more strongly about removing the name if doing so was more than a symbolic act.

So my overall take—an I pondered this a lot vis-à-vis Audubon—is to keep his name on the Society and on Awards (see the list of distinguished awardees of the Audubon Medal, given for conservation efforts); but be sure that people know his history.

Readers may disagree, and feel free to do so in the comments.

Was Ernst Mayr a eugenicist?

July 13, 2022 • 1:30 pm

A while back the Society of Systematic Biologists (SSB) had second thoughts about the name of its Ernst Mayr Award, a prize given to the best student paper presented at the SSB’s annual meeting. (Mayr, one of my scientific heroes, also endowed that award and left a sum in his will to keep funding it.) If you look at the rationale for the proposed de-naming of the award, given at the link above, you’ll find there were two reasons proposed by the SSB Council for this:

Many current members do not see themselves reflected in awards that bear the names of these early scientists and can feel excluded as potential recipients as a result. In a field whose composition still does not reflect global human diversity, having an award named after a particular individual reinforces that members with other identities are outsiders.

In other words, Mayr was an old white man and its name could make people feel unsafe. I have strong doubts about whether this is true, although perhaps a tiny handful of individuals could object on those grounds, but they would surely be outweighed by the proud recipients of the “Ernst Mayr Award”, who could put it on their c.v.s. Many of these would be people of color.. The other reason was this:

This proposal is not intended to cast judgement on the legacy of Ernst Mayr, who was a prolific and profound scholar of evolutionary biology and a dedicated champion of students, nor are we intending to defend the contents of his writings which some find problematic.

Yes, Mayr was one of the greats, a man who in fact helped found and fund the SSB. And the proposal doesn’t even mention which writings people found “problematic”. I wasn’t aware of any, and I read a lot of Mayr, but of course I didn’t know about his correspondence or other personal issues. I know that he wrote a lot of antiracist stuff, some of which you’ll see here and some of which you can see at this link.

At any rate, thanks to the intercession of Ceiling Cat, the SSB membership narrowly voted down the deplatforming of Mayr.  It was a squeaker, though, as most of the SSB voted to remove the name. Fortunately, it takes a 2/3 vote to do so. From the SSB’s announcement:

After much deliberation, the Council approved sending the constitutional amendment to the membership for their vote. Under our constitution, all amendments require approval by two-thirds of the voting members. While 63.4% of the voting members favored the change, this is short of the 66.7% required for the amendment to be adopted. Thus, the award will continue to be called the “Ernst Mayr Award in Systematic Biology”.

That was a victory for rationality, especially because the reasons for the renaming were either unclear or unspecified, and I suspect that most of the “rename” votes were by people who didn’t know much about Mayr.

Since I wrote my posts on this, one reader informed me that a letter existed from Mayr to his friend Francis Crick, a letter in which Mayr apparently espoused some pro-eugenic views. This letter, written in 1971, can be found in the NIH collection here, and a better version, a pdf, is here.

And indeed, Mayr does show himself in favor of what he calls “positive eugenics”, but eugenics based not on race but on rewarded breeding for “positive traits”, or, alternatively, as one correspondent interpreted it, on eliminating genetic defects that could be somehow rectified. But it is absolutely clear in Mayr’s views, and in this paper he wrote, is that his views had absolutely nothing to do with race (Mayr was an anti-racist), and that he thought in terms of incentives for individuals possessing more “desired” traits to have more children. He absolutely abjured the racist views of Shockley and others. Here’s are excerpts from his 1971 letter to Crick, but I urge you to read it for yourself

I have been favoring positive eugenics as far back as I can remember. As I get older, I find the objective as important as ever, but I appreciate also increasingly how difficult it is to achieve this goal, particularly in a democratic western society. Even if we could solve all the biological problems, and they are formidable, there still remains the problem of coping☂with the demand for “freedom of reproduction,” a freedom which fortunately will have to be abolished anyhow if we are not drown in human bodies. The time will come, and perhaps sooner than we think, when parents will have to take out a license to produce a child. No one seems to question that it requires a license for such a harmless activity as driving a car, and yet such an important activity as influencing the gene pool of the next generation can be carried out unlicensed. A biologist will understand the logic of this argument, but how many non-biologists would? Obviously, then, we need massive education. Such education is going to be – paralyzed at the very start if it gets mixed up with racist and anti-racist arguments. This is why the Academy has to disassociate itself from Shockley’s arguments. JI have heard him argue by the hour, and it is very obvious that he treats human beings like so many sodium atoms or pi mesons. Population differences for him are real, the differences between individuals, however, are errors of sampling that can be ignored by focusing on mean values. I will not claim that Shockley does not somewhere know that his approach is wrong, because he must realize that even differences between individuals have a significant genetic basis. What is crucial, however, is that he seems to ignore these individual differences in his conclusions and generalizations.

Now as to positive action! The most important thing at this time/to stop talking about “The White” and “The Black.” As long as we use this language, we will produce only heat but no light. We must think in terms of adopting a strategy that will permit meaningful research without offending people’s sensitivities and without coming too aggressively in conflict with popular prejudices. Please do not forget that thinking in anthropology in this country was shaped by Boas (and his various disciples) and in psychology by the behaviorist school. Both schools magnify the importance of the environment and hardly mention or even deny the role of inheritance. The American school of psychoanalysis, likewise, denied any importance of inheritance, even in such clearly genetic conditions as schizophrenia. This must be kept in mind when one is thinking about strategies to be adopted for the initiation of meaningful eugenic research. A bull-in-the-china-shop attitude, like that of Shockley, will result only in the erection of impassable roadblocks. What is equally deplorable is the action of certain geneticists who imply, by overemphasizing the environmental uncertainties, that the genetic factors can be ignored as far as human abilities are concerned. But this is not the place to discuss this any further.

The question, then, is what Mayr meant by “positive eugenics”.  Did he want to encourage breeding of individuals to, say, raise the IQ of human populations, or was he trying to encourage people to breed who were free of genetic defects like schizophrenia? (We do some of the latter already, by either choosing embryos free from specific genetic diseases or telling parents early in pregnancy and allowing them to abort the fetus.)

I’ve had answers from colleagues on both sides. For example, one colleague interpreted Mayr as holding the former view: breeding of the best classes. I quote:

Yes this is par for the course for mid-century intellectuals. Very tiresome. Crick’s eugenics was undigested Galton.: very English and Edwardian, and based on class. Crick, for instance, supported Shockley’s right to spout his garbage along with many others. From the 1970s onwards, Crick learned to keep his opinions to himself. And don’t forget that Linus Pauling himself wanted people to be tattooed with their genetic defects so people would avoid having sex with them!
The key point is that [Mayr’s thinking] reveals how bad these people were about thinking through things they had learned as kids. Both just repeated garbage from the 1920s, which was very disappointing.
Another colleague plumped for the second alternative:

One problem is that the words “positive eugenics” have changed in meaning over time. People now associate those words with encouraging “genetically advantaged” people to have children. What Mayr meant by “positive eugenics” would now be called “gene therapy”: using molecular techniques to cure genetic diseases. He also considered other future technologies (in his time)  like in vitro fertilization to be a type of “positive eugenics”. Those are the two examples that he gave in discussing the future and potential uses and dangers of “positive eugenics.”

Even in this letter, Mayr is very careful to note the dangers associated with racism, and is very clearly an anti-racist.
It is not fair to damn Mayr for using a word in a reasonable, but different, way than people now use it. Now no one would use the word “eugenics” to talk about the things that Mayr was discussing, like gene therapy and in vitro fertilization. In vitro fertilization is now widely used and accepted. Gene therapy is more controversial and still in development, but there are lots of people who would happily use it to cure their genetic disease if they could.
The question, then, is whether Mayr really is using the words “positive eugenics” to mean “gene therapy” rather than “selective breeding of the best and the brightest.” If you read this paper from 1967, you see the antiracism, but also a sense that Mayr thinks that the human species could be improved by specified differential reproduction. But he’s also very pessimistic, saying that we know very little about the genetics of human traits and that nothing could be done for many generations.

Well, now that we have whole-genome sequencing and the construction of Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS), we could indeed begin to do incentivized selection by rewarding people with traits that society wants to change: we just give bonuses to people with, say, high career achievement if they have more children. That would work given the estimates of heritability for such traits given by people like Kathryn Harden.

Would it work? Almost certainly, for most human traits have substantial heritability with a measured populations (Harden’s statistics come from whites), and if there is heritability, then there will nearly always be a response to selection.

Should we do this? HELL NO!  Getting the government or biologists involved in trying to make humanity move in a certain direction by choosing which traits are “best”, and then rewarding people that have those traits for producing more kids seems deeply unethical.  Who decides? Wouldn’t people object? And of course it would have to be implemented on a worldwide scale if you wanted to change our species. Besides, we are doing fine as we are and, I think, are not being dragged down by “bad genes”. Cultural changes are far better and faster at improving humanity, and far less invidious, than effecting genetic change. Plus this kind of incentivized breeding is extra odious because it would increase inequality among people.

But relevant to this topic, did Mayr espouse the “selective breeding” form of eugenics? I think you can say that he did in places, though you cannot say that he supported a bigoted form of eugenics that labeled ethnic groups as inferior, or wanted to impede people’s reproduction. And at any rate he never did anything about it.  To say that “eugenics” = “Nazi” is simply a boorish, tendentious, and unnuanced way to address a historical controversy, one that continues today with discussions about gene therapy and selective abortion.

So yes, you can find at least this letter as “slightly problematic”. Is that enough to remove Mayr’s name from an award? Not in my view, not unless you want to remove Crick’s and Pauling’s names from awards, and basically deplatform every biologist who was working before, say, 1950. Is anyone’s closet free from skeletons?

Indeed, it’s hard to think of any biologist of earlier generations who didn’t have views that many of us, including me, reject in our day. But given Mayr’s immense positive contributions, both to biology and to antiracism, I don’t see one letter, or even several and a paper, as sufficient to efface his name from an award. I’ve always thought that a name should be kept if it’s there to honor the positive achievements of a person, and also if that person’s existence was a plus for humanity. Surely Mayr qualifies on both counts.

Here’s Ernst in New Guinea as a young white biologist, before he became an old white biologist:

Four awarded the Fields Medal for mathematics, including only the second woman to get it (and she’s Ukrainian)

July 5, 2022 • 9:00 am

Every four years since 1936, the prestigious Fields Medal is awarded to a maximum of four young mathematicians (under 40) for outstanding accomplishments. The awarding organization is the International Congress of the International Mathematical Union.

It’s seen as the “Nobel Prize in Mathematics,” even though it isn’t formally a Nobel. But in one way it’s better: it’s awarded every four years instead of yearly. Since the Nobel Prize in any area can be given to up to three people, the maximum number of Nobelists in four years is twelve—compared to four for the Fields.

The down side, if there is one given the immense prestige the Fields confers, is that it doesn’t come with a lot of dosh—about $15,000 Canadian. In contrast, a Nobel Prize comes with a sum of 10 million Swedish kroner—almost exactly one million U.S. dollars. (If there are two winners it’s split evenly, if three the division is decided by the Swedes.) $15,000 won’t enable you to buy a beach house, as Feynman did with his Nobel money. But money seems of much smaller consequence than the fact that winners are topped for the life with the halo “Fields Medal Winner.” (See the movie “Good Will Hunting.”)

The Fields was just awarded to four people, including only the second woman ever to win. And she’s from Ukraine!

Click to read:

The details and accomplishments of the four are in the article, but here are their names and institutions:

Hugo Duminil-Copin; Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques, France andUniversity of Geneva, Switzerland

June Huh Princeton University, US

James Maynard;  Oxford University, UK

Maryna Viazovska;  École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland

Viazovska is the only woman to win the prize besides Maryam Mirzakhani of Stanford, who won in 2014 and is of Iranian descent.

I’ll highlight Maryna Viazovska to applaud not only the advance of women in math, but as a boon to the much-beleaguered Ukraine. Here’s what the NYT says about her in a summary by Kenneth Chang:

Maryna Viazovska, a Ukrainian who is now a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, is known for proofs for higher-dimensional equivalents of the stacking of equal- sized spheres. She is also only the second woman ever to win the Fields Medal.

Of the 60 mathematicians who won Fields Medals before this year, 59 were men. In 2014, a Stanford mathematician, Maryam Mirzakhani, was the first and, until now, the only woman to receive one.

“I feel sad that I’m only the second woman,” Dr. Viazovska said. “But why is that? I don’t know. I hope it will change in the future.”

Dr. Viazovska’s work is a variation of a conjecture by Johannes Kepler more than 400 years ago. Kepler is best known for realizing that the planets move around the sun in elliptical orbits, but he also considered the stacking of cannonballs, asserting that the usual pyramid stacking was the densest way that they could arranged, filling up just over 75 percent of the available space.

Kepler could not prove that statement, however. Neither could anyone else until Thomas Hales, then at the University of Michigan, succeeded in 1998 with a 250-page proof and, controversially, the help of a computer program.

Proving something similar for the packing of equal-size spheres in dimensions higher than three has been impossible so far — with a couple of exceptions.

In 2016, Dr. Viazovska found the answer in eight dimensions, showing that a particularly symmetric packing structure known as E8 was the best possible, filling about one-quarter of the volume. Within a week, she and four other mathematicians showed that a different arrangement known as the Leech lattice was the best possible packing in 24 dimensions. In high dimensions, the filled volume is not very full, with the Leech lattice of 24-dimensional spheres occupying about 0.2 percent of the volume.

What’s so special about eight and 24 dimensions?

“I think that’s a mystery,” Dr. Viazovska said. “It’s just in these dimensions, certain things happen which don’t happen in other dimensions.”

She said that a method that generally gives an upper bound on the packing density turns out to be the exact solution in these cases.

High-dimensional sphere packings are related to the error-correcting techniques used to fix garbles in the transmission of information.

She said that the Russian invasion of Ukraine had taken its toll on her family. “It’s very difficult,” she said.

Her parents still live near Kyiv, Dr. Viazovska said, while her sisters, nephew and niece left and joined her in Switzerland.

Here’s the Fields Medal (caption from Wikipedia, the Latin translation is “Rise above oneself and grasp the world”), and a photo of Viazovska:

Photo of the obverse of a Fields Medal made by Stefan Zachow for the International Mathematical Union (IMU), showing a bas relief of Archimedes (as identified by the Greek text). The Latin phrase states: Transire suum pectus mundoque potiri

Maryna Viazovska, from the Guardian:

h/t: Tom

The late evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr survives deplatforming by the Society for Systematic Biologists

June 27, 2022 • 10:45 am

In January of this year, I wrote a post opposing the proposal by the Society of Systematic Biologists (SSB; the premier society dealing with the “family tree” of life), to get rid of its “Ernst Mayr Award” handed out at its annual meeting for the best student paper given at the meeting. The proposal was to change the award’s name to “Outstanding Student Presentation Award in Systematic Biology.” (How dull!)

One would think that Mayr must have done something odious or ideologically unacceptable to be subject to this kind of “deplatforming,” but one would be wrong. Ernst Mayr was not only one of the outstanding evolutionary biologists of our time, a scientist who helped bring speciation into the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis”, but he was a liberal and an egalitarian. He never advocated eugenics or promoted racism or white supremacy. As I described in my earlier post, he was a mentor of sorts to me, and although sometimes dogmatic in his views, he was not someone deserving such a “ban.”

In fact, as renowned systematist and evolutionist David Hillis (a past president of the SSB), and biologist Nick Matzke pointed out in a piece at Panda’s Thumb (see also Hillis’s comment on my post), Mayr was an egalitarian:

Even given all of Mayr’s vast biological accomplishments, I think what most impresses me about him were his efforts to build a better world for all. For example, in 1951, in support of “UNESCO 1951: The race concept: Results of an inquiry,” Mayr made a public statement opposing the views of R. A. Fisher, and supporting the UNESCO statement:

Mayr stated that he hoped that “the authoritative Statement prepared by UNESCO will help to eliminate the pseudo-scientific race conceptions which have been used as excuses for many injustices and even shocking crimes”… “I applaud and wholeheartedly endorse [it],” Mayr wrote, adding: “It cannot be emphasized too strongly that all so-called races are variable populations, and that there is often more difference between extreme individuals of one race than between certain individuals of different races. All human races are mixtures of populations and the term “pure race” is an absurdity. The second important point which needs stressing is that genetics plays a very minor part in the cultural characteristics of different peoples. . . . The third point is that equality of opportunity and equality in law do not depend on physical, intellectual and genetic identity. There are striking differences in physical, intellectual and other genetically founded qualities among individuals of even the most homogeneous human population, even among brothers and sisters. No acknowledged ethical principle exists which would permit denial of equal opportunity for reason of such differences to any member of the human species.”

So why the proposal, which was simply presented to the SSB membership as a fait accompli to be voted on—and was never subject to discussion by the SSB membership— to ditch the named award?  There are two reasons suggested

a.) Mayr was a white man (and he became an old white man, dying at 100). Naming an award after him would not be “inclusive” (see the SSB announcement below). This, in turn, could discourage women or members of minorities from applying for such awards, or even starting a career in systematics. In other words, the named award would be “harmful”. As the SSB itself notes on its webpage:

Renaming the award is one step toward greater inclusivity within the society, as named awards often lead to feelings of exclusion among those who are members of underrepresented groups whose scientific contributions continue to remain unrecognized.

That is pure nonsense and there’s no evidence to back it up. Who has felt excluded by the name “Ernst Mayr Award? Can we have some names? In contrast, I know that some people who have won such awards, even if they’re “people of color”, are proud of getting a prize named after a famous person in their field. That’s anecdotal, the other side has no evidence save assertion.

b.) Apparently someone, somewhere, objected to something Mayr wrote, as given in the original proposal for denaming reproduced in my original post:

This proposal is not intended to cast judgement on the legacy of Ernst Mayr, who was a prolific and profound scholar of evolutionary biology and a dedicated champion of students, nor are we intending to defend the contents of his writings which some find problematic.

No people or “problematic” writings are described. I can’t think of anything politically problematic that Mayr wrote, so what is the problem? Do people not like his Biological Species Concept, or his defense of allopatric (geographic) speciation?

This reason, too, is nonsense.

Yet despite this, the motion to dename the Mayr award in favor of an anodyne name went forward, and without public discussion. That in itself is a bad move on the part of the SSB, for the issue became divisive, with people on opposite sides of the issue calling each other names, even if they were colleagues. At least they could have aired the issue in a discussion at the meeting before the vote.

In fact, I strongly suspect that many people who wanted Mayr’s name removed didn’t know anything about the man and his work, but wanted to vote for denaming simply because it was presented to SSB members by the Council as a motion to amend the Society’s constitution, and therefore Mayr must have done something bad.

But the other day they did have a vote. And, glory be, THE DENAMING MOTION WAS DEFEATED! But it wasn’t defeated by much. In fact, most of the SSB members voted to dename the award, but it requires two-thirds of the members to vote for that, and only 63.4% did.  So it was pretty damn close: a few percent change would have denamed the award.

Here’s the SSB’s official announcement of the vote. The take-home message is in bold, but the SSB can’t resist, after this defeat, emphasizing their continuing initiatives in DEI, as if the failure to dename the Mayr award was some kind of blow against these initiatives.

Three years ago, the Society of Systematic Biologists Council began the discussion of whether to change the name of the “Ernst Mayr Award in Systematic Biology” to the “Outstanding Student Presentation Award in Systematic Biology”.  One goal in proposing this change was to make the award more inclusive and descriptive (see for instance, Pourret et al. (2021) and Bazner et al. (2020)). This proposal is part of SSB’s many efforts to broaden the reach of our Society, especially to students. Drawing students into the Society is something Ernst Mayr himself advocated, through his work for the Society and donations that helped support it. After much deliberation, the Council approved sending the constitutional amendment to the membership for their vote. Under our constitution, all amendments require approval by two-thirds of the voting members. While 63.4% of the voting members favored the change, this is short of the 66.7% required for the amendment to be adopted. Thus, the award will continue to be called the “Ernst Mayr Award in Systematic Biology”.  SSB will continue its efforts to remove barriers and create a better environment for all, as there remains much work to do. The SSB Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee has been working hard, often in collaboration with committees of our sibling organizations in SSE and ASN. Initiatives include commissioning a climate survey of our community, preparing a Leading Culture Change Through Professional Societies of Biology (BIO-LEAPS) proposal to NSF, organizing workshops on field safety, and much more. Additionally, we launched a new open access journal, where publishing is free of charge for all SSB members, in order to lower barriers to participation in systematics; we broadened the panel of associate editors for our flagship journal,Systematic Biology; and we give out over $150,000 in research grants annually to help grow the field.We look forward to working together to grow the Society of Systematic Biologists in an inclusive, positive direction.

Well, although the bad news is that most of the members voted for denaming, over a third had some sense and voted to keep the honor to Mayr, who always supported the SSB.

Could this herald a change in the extreme wokeness permeating scientific societies? It would be pretty think so, but given the vote I’m not looking for a sea change.  And to the SSB, the next time you try to pull a stunt like this, how about allowing some open discussion among members of the society? They might learn something about people like Ernst Mayr.

Ernst Mayr

Frank Wilczek, the newest Templeton Prize winner, talks about science, religion, and their relationship

May 20, 2022 • 9:15 am

The Los Angeles Times has a long interview with Frank Wilczek, polymath and physics Nobel Laureate who recently nabbed the $1.3-million Templeton Prize. As I wrote a couple of days ago, Wilczek doesn’t fit the mold of those who’ve won the Prize over the past decades, as he professes no belief in a personal god (he’s a pantheist), and emphasizes the power of science versus faith. It is the case, though, that the prize, which used to go to believers like Mother Teresa and Billy Graham, is increasingly being conferred on scientists.

My main impression of the article is that the paper is subtly pressuring Wilczek to admit to some belief in the numinous, but Wilczek won’t bite. He does say a few strange things, but on the whole Wilczek seems to be one of us “nones”: a “pantheist” who rejects the idea of a personal God. Instead, he sees the whole of nature as “God”.  Well, I could say that, too, professing that I see all the panoply of evolution as God. Does that qualify me for the Templeton Prize?

Originally I saw no harm in giving the prize to someone who is, in effect, an atheist in the sense of being an “a-theist”—someone who rejects any conventional notion of gods. But several readers noted that giving Wilczek the Templeton Prize enables the Foundation to enfold him into their stable of faithheads and, to some extent, justify their aim, which the L.A. Times says involves extols “the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.” The very notion of a “purpose” for humankind immediately conjures up the notion of God. And those readers may be right: Wilczek’s acceptance harms science.

Click to read:

Here are some statements by the Times and by Wilczek that struck me. First, the paper tries to draw a connection between Wilczek and belief in God:

As a theoretical physicist, Wilczek has been peeking under the hood of our perceived reality for more than 50 years. His insights and ideas have led to several revolutionary scientific discoveries, as well as an almost theological perspective on the nature of the world and our role in it that he shares in his myriad articles, books and talks for a general audience.

And yet, Wilczek has said some stuff that can be used to claim that he believes in a God, even though he’s a pantheist (in my view, a humanist). Here’s a quote from him given by the paper:

You’ve written that “in studying how the world works, we are studying how God works, and thereby learning what God is.” So, what do you think God is?

Let me lead into that by talking about two of the greatest figures in physics and their very different views of what God is. Sir Isaac Newton was very much a believing Christian and probably devoted as much time to studying Scriptures and theology as he did to physics and mathematics.

Einstein, on the other hand, often talked about God — sometimes he used that word, sometimes he said “the old one” — but his concept was much different. When he was asked seriously what he meant by that, he said he believed in the God of Spinoza, who identified God with reality, with God’s work.

That was Einstein’s view and that is very much closer to my spirit. I would only add to that that I think God is not only the world as it is, but the world as it should be. So, to me, God is under construction. My concept of God is really based on what I learn about the nature of reality.

Now I think that the quote in bold (from the Times’s question) is poor, and clearly leads to misinterpretation.  The “God” of Wilczek is not the kind of God that nearly any believer accepts. Later on in the article, he emphasizes that. I’m still symied, though, by Wilczek’s statement that “God is not only the world as it is, but the world as it should be.” What does he mean by that? Even as a pantheist, how can you take as God a reality that doesn’t even exist? And how should the world be?

But here again, the L.A. Times tries to imply that there’s a more conventional religious cast to Wilczek’s views. From the paper:

In addition to groundbreaking discoveries, Wilczek’s work has also led him to some of the same conclusions shared by mystics from all religions: the myth of separateness and the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.

As he wrote in “Fundamentals,” “Detailed study of matter reveals that our body and our brain — the physical platform of our ‘self’ — is, against all intuition, built from the same stuff as ‘not-self,’ and appears to be continuous with it.”

Other spiritual insights from his decades of scientific study include the idea of complementarity — that different ways of viewing the same thing can be informative, and valid, yet difficult or impossible to maintain at the same time, and that science teaches us both humility and self-respect.

The quote given by Wilczek is far from “spiritual”: it argues that the stuff of our body and brain obeys the laws of physics, be they deterministic or indeterministic. That’s NOT “spiritual!  (He also more or less rules out a “soul.”)

And the idea of “complementarity” clearly refers to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics: an electron can behave as a particle and a wave at the same time. We don’t understand quantum mechanics at its most basic level—does it correspond to any reality?—but our lack of understanding doesn’t promote spirituality, any more than our failure to understand what dark matter or dark energy are constitute “spiritual insighta.”

The Q&A with Wilczek tells us more about him. The stuff in bold is the paper’s questions (my comments are flush left):

Do you consider yourself an atheist, agnostic? Do you have a definition you’re comfortable with?

Not affiliated with any specific recognized church is certainly part of it, but I’m more comfortable saying that I’m a pantheist. I believe that the whole world is sacred and we should take a reverential attitude toward it.

What, exactly, does he mean by saying the “whole world is sacred”? We can have a “reverence” towards it because it’s amazing and yet still comprehensible, but that’s not the same thing as believing in God. It would have helped had Wilczek defined what he means by “reverential” and “sacred”. In fact, I’d love to interview him myself.  These answers, of course, involve words that would put him into the running for the Templeton Prize.

Are science and religion in conflict with each other?

No, they are not in conflict with each other. There have been problems when religions make claims about how the world works or how things got to be the way they are that science comes to make seem incredible. For me, it’s very hard to resist the methods of science which are based on the accumulation of evidence.

On the other hand, science itself leads to the deep principle of complementarity, which means to answer different kinds of questions you may need different kinds of approaches that may be mutually incomprehensible or even superficially contradictory.

He’s just admitted that they ARE in conflict with each other! For there are very few religions—none of them Abrahamic—that don’t at bottom rest on certain empirical assumptions about the world and Universe. He’s also admitted that science is based on evidence (but omits the obvious addendum: “and religion is based not on evidence but on faith”). The “deep principle of complementarity”, by which I assume he means quantum complementarity, is baffling but doesn’t show there’s anything wrong with science, much less that the answer involves the numinous. By saying “on the other hand,” though, he implies that “complementarity” is immune to scientific evidence.

You’ve written that “in studying how the world works, we are studying how God works, and thereby learning what God is.” So, what do you think God is?

Let me lead into that by talking about two of the greatest figures in physics and their very different views of what God is. Sir Isaac Newton was very much a believing Christian and probably devoted as much time to studying Scriptures and theology as he did to physics and mathematics.

Einstein, on the other hand, often talked about God — sometimes he used that word, sometimes he said “the old one” — but his concept was much different. When he was asked seriously what he meant by that, he said he believed in the God of Spinoza, who identified God with reality, with God’s work.

That was Einstein’s view and that is very much closer to my spirit. I would only add to that that I think God is not only the world as it is, but the world as it should be. So, to me, God is under construction. My concept of God is really based on what I learn about the nature of reality.

Here again Wilczek admits that he sees God as “reality”, not as something supernatural. The Gods of Einstein and Spinoza were not goddy gods, but simply physical reality, and wonder before reality is not religion. Einstein, of course, rejected the idea of a personal God, and I don’t believe ever said that “reality” is “God’s work” (but I’m willing to be corrected). As far as I know from my reading of Einstein, he was a straight-up pantheist, and any palaver about what God did or wanted (like “not playing dice”) were mere musings about the nature of reality.

Does that God have a will?

Not a will as we would ascribe to human beings, although I’m not saying that’s logically impossible. I would say it’s really a stretch, given what we know. The form of the physical laws seems to be very tight and doesn’t allow for exceptions.

The existence of human beings, as they are, is a very remote consequence of the fundamental laws. One thing that [the physicist] Richard Feynman said really sticks in my mind here. He said, “The stage is too big for the players.” If you were designing a universe around humans and their concerns, you could be a lot more economical about it.

Of course a god with a will is not logically impossible, but it’s clear that Wilczek doesn’t buy it. And of course he must know that Feynman was an atheist, and appears to share Feynman’s view that the universe doesn’t look as it it were constructed with humans in mind.

There is more Q&A, but I’ll just give one last exchange:

While I was preparing for our interview, I came across a statement by the Catholic Bishops of California that said science cannot answer our deepest and most perplexing questions like, “Why am I here?” “What is the purpose of my life?” “Why have I suffered this loss?” “Why is God allowing this terrible illness?” They said these are religious questions. Do you agree?

Science doesn’t answer those questions. On the other hand, you ignore science at your peril if you are interested in those questions. There’s a lot you can learn from science by expanding your imagination and realizing the background over which those questions are posed. So, saying that science doesn’t have a complete answer is a very different thing than saying, “Go away, scientists; we don’t want to hear from you, leave it to us.”

Now here Wilczek missed a shot, but it’s a shot that would have made Templeton revoke its Prize. What he should have said is this: “Science doesn’t answer those questions (though it can inform them), but religion doesn’t either.” He’s cleverly avoiding dissing religion.

The problem with softball interviews like this is that nobody ask Wilczek the really hard questions, or at least questions that would lay his disbelief out clearly. Example: “what exactly did you mean when you said that “the world is ‘sacred'”? And so on.  What’s clear is that Wilczek doesn’t adhere to the notion of God shared by the vast majority of religious believers around the world. Instead, he sees God as physical reality, pure and simple.

The only remaining question is, “With Wilczek’s views, why did Templeton give him the Prize?” There are many possible reasons, but, thank Ceiling Cat, I’m not on the board of those who have to weigh the factors.

2022 Templeton Prize goes to Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek

May 13, 2022 • 8:00 am

The Templeton Prize, now worth $1.3 million, was initiated by the hedge-fund magnate Sir John Templeton (1912-2008) to award accomplished people of faith.  As its Wikipedia entry notes, the prize originally went solely to religionists like Mother Teresa (now a saint) and Billy Graham, but has recently morphed more and more into a prize given to those who unite spirituality and religion with science (Sir John’s view was that the more we learn about science, the closer we get to God—not to some apophatic and abstruse deity like “love” or “nature”, but to a real personal-type god.) Here’s a bit about the annual prize from Wikipedia:

The Templeton Prize is an annual award granted to a living person, in the estimation of the judges, “whose exemplary achievements advance Sir John Templeton’s philanthropic vision: harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.” It was established, funded and administered by John Templeton starting in 1972. It is now co-funded by the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and Templeton World Charity Foundation, and administered by the John Templeton Foundation.[1]

The prize was originally awarded to people working in the field of religion (Mother Teresa was the first winner), but in the 1980s the scope broadened to include people working at the intersection of science and religion. Until 2001, the name of the prize was “Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion”, and from 2002 to 2008 it was called the “Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities”. Hindus, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Muslims have been on the panel of judges and have been recipients of the prize.

The monetary value of the prize is adjusted so that it exceeds that of the Nobel Prizes; Templeton felt, according to The Economist, that “spirituality was ignored” in the Nobel Prizes. As of 2019, it is £1.1 million. It has typically been presented by Prince Philip in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

The list of prizes at the Wikipedia site shows this morphing, and the latest recipient: theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek, continues the trend (last year’s recipient was Jane Goodall). As far as I can see, Wilczek is basically an agnostic who pays lip service to “God” as meaning “everything in the world.” Wikipedia notes, “Wilczek was raised Catholic but later ‘lost faith in conventional religion’. He claims no religious tradition, and has been described as an agnostic but tweeted in 2013 that ‘pantheist’ is ‘closer to the mark’.”  In other words, he’s a “none.”

Well, that’s good enough for me so long as he isn’t engaged in promulgating any kind of faith (belief without evidence), which he isn’t (see below for more).

Wilczek was born in 1951 and is listed as “The Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Founding Director of T. D. Lee Institute and Chief Scientist at the Wilczek Quantum Center, Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU), distinguished professor at Arizona State University (ASU) and full professor at Stockholm University.. That’s a lot of positions! But the big deal is that he won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2004 for work on the strong nuclear force, but he also has distinguished accomplishments in other areas of physics. He’s somewhat of a physics polymath.

You can see a collection of videos about Wilczek and the Templeton Prize on the JTF site. They don’t show any visible strain of religiosity, conventional or otherwise, and a Scientific American interview with him, though playing up the “God” angle in its title, has nothing to say about a deity (click to read).

I’ll give just two Q&A’s  from the interview here:

Congratulations on receiving the Templeton Prize. What does this award represent for you?

My exploratory, science-based efforts to address questions that are often thought to be philosophical or religious are resonating. I’m very grateful for that, and I’ve started to think about what it all means.

One kind of “spiritual” awakening for me has been experiencing how a dialogue with nature is possible—in which nature “talks back” and sometimes surprises you and sometimes confirms what you imagined. Vague hopes and concepts that were originally scribbles on paper become experimental proposals and sometimes successful descriptions of the world.

Well, when you read on, those “questions that are often thought to be philosophical or religious” turn out to be questions about science. The rest of his answer says nothing about a god, but defines Wilczek’s spirituality as the feeling he gets when his squiggles on paper that turn out to be correct representations of reality. But in that sense many theoretical physicists, like Dirac, Schrödinger, and Einstein, were “spiritual” too. The word is emptied here of any of its numinous significance.

One more.

You don’t now identify with any particular religious tradition, but in your 2021 book Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality, you wrote, “In studying how the world works, we are studying how God works, and thereby learning what God is.” What did you mean by that?

The use of the word “God” in common culture is very loose. People can mean entirely different things by it. For me, the unifying thread is thinking big: thinking about how the world works, what it is, how it came to be and what all that means for what we should do.

I chose to study this partly to fill the void that was left when I realized I could no longer accept the dogmas of the Catholic Church that had meant a lot to me as a teenager. Those dogmas include claims about how things happen that are particularly difficult to reconcile with science. But more importantly, the world is a bigger, older and more alien place than the tribalistic account in the Bible. There are some claims about ethics and attitudes about community that I do find valuable, but they cannot be taken as pronouncements from “on high.” I think I have now gathered enough wisdom and life experience that I can revisit all this with real insight.

If “God” means “thinking about how the world works and how that conditions our actions”, then we’re pretty much all religious.! I can live with that definition. His second paragraph not only disses the Bible, but touts a form of humanism as well as downgrading Earth, much less humans, as a special locus of God’s concern and action.

The rest of the interview is about Wilczek’s science, and is by far the most interesting bit.


This year’s Golden Steve nominees for motion picture achievement

April 1, 2022 • 9:00 am

My nephew Steven’s website now has only about one post per year: his list of the “Golden Steve Awards”—both nominees and winners for Steven’s best movies of the year. In the post below (click on screenshot), you can see his nominees from this year, but in the post below I list only the Big Six categories plus “Best Foreign Film” (the latter for the reason given below).

The winners from each of the categories below will be announced on April 10.

My nephew cannot be described as modest, but he knows his onions, so I’d pay attention to his choices and view them if you can.

I quote Steven’s introduction to the nominations

Far and away the most coveted of motion picture accolades, Golden Steves are frequently described as the Oscars without the politics. Impervious to bribery, immune to ballyhoo, unswayed by sentiment, and riddled with integrity, this committee of one might be termed in all accuracy “fair-mindedness incarnate.” Over 165 of the year’s most acclaimed features were screened prior to the compilation of this ballot. First, some caveats:

1) Owing to a lifelong suspicion of prime numbers, each category comprises six nominees, not five.

2) A film can be nominated in only one of the following categories: Best Animated Feature, Best Non-Fiction Film, Best Foreign Language Film. Placement is determined by the Board of Governors. Said film remains eligible in all other fields.

3) This list is in no way connected with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—a fact that should be apparent from its acumen. Please look elsewhere for Oscar analysis.

Best Picture

Drive My Car
The Lost Daughter
The Power of the Dog
Red Rocket
The Worst Person in the World

Best Director

Sean Baker, Red Rocket
Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Lost Daughter
Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car
Michael Sarnoski, Pig
Joachim Trier, The Worst Person in the World

Best Actor

Nicolas Cage, Pig
Clifton Collins Jr., Jockey
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
Winston Duke, Nine Days
Hidetoshi Nishijima, Drive My Car
Simon Rex, Red Rocket

Best Actress

Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter
Penelope Cruz, Parallel Mothers
Isabelle Fuhrman, The Novice
Alana Haim, Licorice Pizza
Brittany S. Hall, Test Pattern
Renate Reinsve, The Worst Person in the World

Best Supporting Actor

Richard Ayoade, The Souvenir Part II
Anders Danielsen Lie, The Worst Person in the World
Mike Faist, West Side Story
Vincent Lindon, Titane
Will Patton, Sweet Thing
Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog

Best Supporting Actress

Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter
Ann Dowd, Mass
Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog
Toko Miura, Drive My Car
Ruth Negga, Passing
Suzanna Son, Red Rocket

And I’ll add this category, since Steven mentions if below.

Best Foreign Language Film

Drive My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
A Hero (Asghar Farhadi)
Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Parallel Mothers (Pedro Almodovar)
Petite Maman (Celine Sciamma)
The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier)

When I asked Steven what he thought of the “offcial” Oscar awards, he said this:

I don’t agree with any of the main winners, and would nominate only Campion. CODA is predictable, feel-good pabulum. Its win derives from a ranked balloting system in place since 2009, in which voters order their choices from 1-10 instead of checking the box of their favorite film. As such, it’s better to be everyone’s second or third choice than divisive (and possible to win without a single #1 vote). But of course nearly all great films are divisive, and middle-of-the-road picks like The King’s Speech, Argo, Green Book, and now CODA are black marks on the Academy’s record.

A rare bright spot was the victory of the truly exceptional Drive My Car. It’s the first Japanese film ever nominated for Best Picture, and a most deserving choice for Best International Film.

And here are the Rotten Tomatoes ratings (click on latter to read critics’ reviews):