Drive and curiosity

by Eszter Hargittai on October 5, 2011

In light of today’s announcement of the Chemistry Nobel Prize winner, Dan Shechtman, I thought I’d make a shameless plug for my father’s latest book: Drive and Curiosity (AMZ, BN). Chapter 8 is all about Dan Shachtman. He is singled out for his “stubbornness” given that he did not let himself be talked out of his observation of a structure that all chemists and physicists believed impossible. Funny thing is, even Shechtman proved at one point in one of his college exams that it was impossible. Despite the journal rejections and other pushback that followed, he persevered and voila. By the way, it’s not a stretch for me to be making this connection to my father’s writing. The book source on the Nobel Prize page about Shechtman for further reading is a book co-authored by my father and my brother: Candid Science V. Conversations with Famous Scientists.

This photo (from the book) is of Dan Shechtman and Alan Mackay in my parents’ living room in 1995.

How To Write Comments On Student Papers

by John Holbo on October 5, 2011

I’ve been grading papers half my life, so I think I know a thing or two about how it should go. Here’s a simple point that, I think, is not always clear to the grader him or herself (I’ve found it necessary to explain this to newbies, when advising them about how to do their jobs); that is almost never clear to the students themselves; that really ought to be to made clear – and made explicit – to all involved. There are two basic functions comments on papers can serve.

1) Explaining/justifying to the student why she got the grade she got, not the higher grade that, perhaps, she hoped for.

2) Communicating something significant that will teach the student to be a better writer/thinker.

I think graders try to do 2 but feel vaguely obliged to make 2 do double-duty as 1. And students typically expect 1, although many of them are also healthily open to 2. But 1 and 2 often come apart. It’s damned hard to provide anything that would really be sufficient to accomplish 1 in a general way. And even harder if you’re trying to do 2, too. And 2 is more important, and do-able, so basically you should just do 2. Clear your head of the vague feeling that you should be doing 1, except a bit around the edges, in the natural course of doing just 2. [click to continue…]

Flann O’Brien’s Birthday

by Henry on October 5, 2011

Today (Wednesday, Irish time) is the hundredth anniversary of Flann O’Brien’s (Brian O’Nolan’s) birth. Several of us here at CT are fans – I think it was John Holbo who first transformed O’Brien’s Plain People of Ireland (the interlocutor in many of his newspaper columns) into the Plain People of the Internet. This “piece”: by Fintan O’Toole is the best account of his life that I’ve seen. This “longer article”: by Roger Boylan in the _Boston Review_ is also worth reading, as long as you take good care to stop reading at the point where Anthony Cronin, bard-befriending bollocks and professional bore, introduces himself and goes on to provide “many delightful insights” into his own “rich and various” life.

People may reasonably disagree about which are the very best bits of O’Brien’s work. My own favorite is the description of the practical philosopher De Selby’s efforts (in The Third Policeman) to take advantage of the “appreciable and calculable interval of time between the throwing by a man of a glance at his own face in a mirror and the registration of the reflected image in his eye.”

bq. De Selby, ever loath to leave well enough alone, insists on reflecting the first reflection in a further mirror and professing to detect minute changes in this second image. Ultimately he constructed the familiar arrangement of parallel mirrors, each reflecting diminishing images of an interposed object indefinitely. The interposed object in this case was De Selby’s own face and this he claims to have studied backwards through an infinity of reflectins by means of a ‘powerful glass.’ He claims to have noticed a growing youthfulness in the reflections of his face according as they receded, the most distant of them – too tiny to be visible to the naked eye – being the face of a beardless boy of twelve, and, to use his own words, ‘a countenance of singular beauty and nobility.’ He did not succeed in pursuing the matter back to the cradle ‘owing to the curvature of the earth and the limitations of the telescope.’