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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, July 08, 2005


I have nothing useful to say about the terror attacks in London. Granted, this hasn't stopped any number of people from spouting off (Hint: nobody involved in the production of SportsCenter has anything meaningful to contribute. Please stop.), but I'm in the middle of one of my intermittent attempts to be a better person, so I will merely offer my pitifully inadequate condolences, and then shut up.

If you want useful information, go here. Or, better yet, turn your computer off and go do something else for a few hours.

Inconsequential blogging (and really, there is no other kind) will resume after a decent interval.

Posted at 9:53 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Top Sports Moments

Having snarked in Kevin Drum's direction earlier today, and having had a very long day at work, I'll lift a happier post topic from Calpundit Monthly: "What are the ten most memorable sports moments that you yourself have either seen in person or watched live on TV?"

This is, of course, a fairly personal and idiosyncratic list, consisting mostly of moments that were important to me, and not so much the all-time classic moments in their respective sports.

#1: The top spot is a tie between Maryland winning the 2002 NCAA basketball title and Syracuse winning the 2003 NCAA basketball title. Not only did I watch both of those live on tv, I stayed up until 2 am both times to watch the post-game coverage...

If pressed, I would probably give the edge to Syracuse, just because Jim Boeheim had come so close twice before. But that Maryland team was a pretty special bunch, so it's a tough call.

#3 is the Giants winning the Super Bowl, when Scott Norwood yanked a potential game-winning field goal for the Bills. This was especially sweet given that the run-up to the game had all been about how great the Bills were, while the Giants had limped into the championship. I was a sophomore in college that year, and wound up watching the game with a bunch of Bills fans, one of whom was literally dancing on a table when the Bills got a safety in the first half. Watching them deflate as the Giants hammered the ball down the field for two clock-killing drives was so much fun, I'm almost ashamed to admit it.

#4 would probably be the Yankees winning the World Series in 1996, for the first time in umpteen years. A couple of friends had come down to DC to run in the Marine Corps marathon the next day, and we stopped off in a sports bar to watch the game. When the game ended, they briefly debated driving back to The City for the celebration, but they actually did run the race.

It ends up high on the list because the Yankees were so bad through the 80's and early 90's-- basically all of my sports-fan life-- and I took so much crap for rooting for them (to the limited degree that I follow baseball). That was an interesting team, too, with John Wetteland as the closer-- he would come in with a one-run lead in the ninth, and promptly load the bases before striking three guys out . If you want to know why Joe Torre always looks sick to his stomach, well, it starts there.

#5 is the Patriots beating the Rams in the Super Bowl (I refuse to look up the Roman numerals-- you know which game I mean). Not only because it made Kate happy, but because I hated, hated, hated that Rams team.

#6 is a weird one: Ray Bourque winning the Stanley Cup. I don't even like hockey, but the man spent twenty-two years-- 22!-- as a top-rank professional hockey player without winning a championship. You've just got to root for a guy like that. Kate was living in New York that summer, and I was down visiting, and I remember watching the final five minutes or so on the tv in her sweltering apartment. The look on Bourque's face when they handed him the cup was unforgettable.

#7: Syracuse losing to Indiana on a last-second Keith Smart jumper in 1987. They're not all happy memories, OK?

#8: The Williams-Amherst football game in... 1996, I think. Amherst took a late lead on a two-point conversion when they lined up as if to kick the extra point, and then passed to a tight end standing all alone over by the sideline. Williams got the ball back with something like a minute left, drove the length of the field, and kicked a game-winning field goal that hit both uprights before bouncing through.

(Hey, it was shown on NESN, and on a satellite feed for an alumni event in DC...)

#9: There are a whole bunch of college basketball upsets that could go here-- Hampton beating Iowa State would be a good one, or Princeton over UCLA-- but instead, I'll go with one that didn't happen: #16 Princeton losing to #1 Georgetown in 1989, after playing a nearly perfect game. They should've won, too-- Alonzo Mourning clocked the Princeton center, who played the rest of the game with a bloody nose. He should've been tossed, but the ref didn't see it. That was a fantastic basketball game, and I watched the whole thing from about eight inches away from the tv screen.

#10: Derek Redmond being helped across the finish line at the 1992 Olympics. He pulled a hamstring halfway through the race, and fell to the ground. A medical crew came out to get him, but he got to his feet, and started hopping the rest of the way. Eventually, his father came out of the stands, and helped him along for the last fifty meters or so.

The most remarkable thing about it was probably that the tv announcers just kept their mouths shut, and let the moment happen. I'm not sure who was calling the Olympics that year, but whoever it was, they deserve a medal-- most sportscasters would've walked all over one of the most moving things I've ever seen at a sporting event.

There are a whole bunch of other things that could go on here-- all of Michael Jordan's championships, for example, some notable boxing championships-- Tyson losing to Buster Douglas, George Foreman winning at 45-- the "Dream Team" in 1992, and a bunch of other stuff.

It's probably also worth noting a few classic ones that I didn't see: I was on a plane during the famous Duke-Kentucky semifinal in 1992, and I've never actually seen that game. I remember hearing about the 1980 Olympic hockey victory, but I didn't see it, as I was nine, and don't like hockey. There are also a whole bunch of famous baseball moments-- Bill Buckner, Kirk Gibson, Bucky Dent-- that I didn't see because I'm not a baseball fan.

I don't think I saw the Fred Brown pass to James Worthy in 1982, Lorenzo Charles's dunk in 1983, or Villanova's perfect game in 1985 live, but I've seen them so many times on highlight shows that I can't be sure. Memory is a malleable thing.

I could keep jabbering about this stuff for hours, but I've probably bored most of my regular readers to tears already, so I'll stop now.

Posted at 9:36 PM | link | follow-ups | 6 comments

Man Never Is But Always To Be Blest

Kevin Drum writes:

One argument that I hear frequently from moderate conservatives is that although they don't like the Christian right much, they continue to support the Republican party because they don't think it has that much influence. Liberals, they say, are just overreacting.

If there's anything good that might come from the impending Supreme Court fight, it's the possibility that these folks might realize that times have changed: the Christian right is no longer just a bunch of marginalized yahoos who get nothing but lip service from cynical Republican leaders. That was arguably the case in the 80s, but it's not anymore. If progressive groups have any brains, they'll do their best to goad the Dobson/Falwell/Bauer faction into revealing their real natures on a national stage once and for all. The more publicity these guys get, the better it is for the liberal cause.

Yeah, that'll work. And keep pounding on the lack of justification for the Iraq debacle. Any day now, people will figure it out and give up on Bush.

See, this is why I try not to talk about politics...

Posted at 8:15 AM | link | follow-ups | 10 comments

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Look Over There!

Things are pretty busy at work at the moment, though not in a way that inspires much in the way of blog posts. I've got a few ideas for things that I'll type up when I have time, but I can't really say when I'll get to them.

I have started to hack through some of the gigantic booklog backlog, though, with four new posts in the last few days: The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy for Teens, Killing Yourself to Live, The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, and Odd Thomas. This still leaves me several months behind, but every little bit helps.

If you're just dying for something to read, that'd be a good place to look.

Posted at 9:42 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Monday, July 04, 2005

Dry Your Eyes and Baby Walk Outside

In a comment to the previous post, in with a bunch of other stuff, Jasper Janssen writes:

Having a top ten that is 7/10ths Presidents is ridiculous though. Oprah Winfrey is the Token Ladi Di.

See, I don't aqctually have a problem with the list being dominated by political figures. In fact, despite what I said in the last post, if you asked me for a list of "Greatest Americans," I doubt that I'd have any scientists in the top ten.

The reason for that is that nationality is sort of incidental to scientific fame. Einstein's famous because he was a brilliant physicist. He would've been just as famous had he been born a citizen of a different country. The same is true for almost any scientist-- Jonas Salk did great things, but they had little to do with his being an American.

If you ask me for a list of "Greatest Americans," I interpret that as people whose fame is inextricably bound up in their American-ness. That is, people who helped define the idea of what America is, and what it should be, not just famous people who are American citizens by an accident of birth.

That gets you a list that's pretty heavily skewed toward Presidents and politicians and the occasional general. People like Lincoln and Jefferson and both Roosevelts. Non-Presidents making that sort of list also tend to be politically active types-- Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony, Ben Franklin. You can probably sneak the occasional general on there (though most of the really big ones were also Presidents), and some other Cabinet members (George Marshall of Marshall Plan fame comes to mind). Given the way I interpret the question, though, I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

This reading of the question is also why I'd give Washington the top spot, by the way. Not only did he play an important role in winning the Revolution in the first place, his actions after the war, particularly in stepping down after two terms, were instrumental in allowing us to keep the republic, once we had it. And there's nothing more essential to American-ness than that.

And that's as good a place to end an Independence Day post as any.

Posted at 8:28 AM | link | follow-ups | 14 comments

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Greatest Overlooked American Scientist

Jim Winter, sitting in for John Scalzi, mentions the "Greatest American" poll done by the Discovery Channel. The final list is depressingly stupid even by the standards of list shows on basic cable:

1.) Ronald Reagan
2.) Abraham Lincoln
3.) Martin Luther King
4.) George Washington
5.) Benjamin Franklin
6.) George W. Bush
7.) Bill Clinton
8.) Elvis Presley
9.) Oprah Winfrey
10.) Franklin Delano Roosevelt

I mean, really. Even leaving aside the fact that nobody who became famous in the last twenty-five years ought to even be on the list, this is absurd. Oprah Winfrey, fer Chrissakes? Unless I'm getting my pop-culture dingbats mixed up, didn't she launch the career of "Dr. Phil"? That alone ought to get her a war-crimes trial, not a "Greatest American" vote...

Jim offers a much more reasonable list (read the post for his reasoning):

1.) Abraham Lincoln
2.) Martin Luther King
3.) George Washington
4.) Benjamin Franklin
5.) Albert Einstein
6.) Thomas Jefferson
7.) Franklin Delano Roosevelt
8.) Theodore Roosevelt
9.) Thomas Alva Edison
10.) Bill Gates/ Steve Jobs

I don't have any big complaints about this list, though I'd personally have the top three as Washington, Lincoln, King, in that order. But that's a quibble.

The interesting thing to me is that Jim, being a person with a brain, put a bunch of science types on his list. As a science type myself, I applaud this, and it's just disgraceful that Albert Einstein comes in at #14, trailing not only Elvis and Oprah, but also Billy Graham and Walt Freakin' Disney. I apparently live in a nation whose citizens are, on average, dumber than eggplant.

In an attempt to accentuate the positive, though, I want to talk about the science side of things for a second. It doesn't really feel right to count Einstein as a "great American," even though he died as an American citizen-- his finest work was done in Europe.

If you exclude Einstein, the top scientist on the list probably ought to be Jonas Salk (who did at least get nominated). His omission, ironically, is probably the greatest testament to his success-- probably very few of the people voting can remember a time before the polio vaccine. His work helped to nearly eradicate one of the nastiest diseases around, though, and that's an achievement that ought to be celebrated. He did as much to shape the world we live in as any of the others in the top ten, but he did it quietly.

I want to throw out the name of another great American scientist, though, who didn't even make the list of nominees: John Bardeen. Bardeen is, I believe, the only person ever to win two Nobel Prizes in the same field (Linus Pauling (another glaring omission from the Top 100) has two, one in Chemistry and one in Peace, and Marie Curie got two, in Physics and Chemisty). He shared the Physics prize in 1956 for helping invent the transistor (with Walter Brattain and William Shockley), and again in 1972 for helping develop a working theory of superconductivity (the "BCS" theory, with Leon Cooper and Robert Schrieffer).

Jim writes of Gates and Jobs that:

These guys share the #10 slot because they've done more to change the way we live our lives than any other business person or inventor in the last fifty years.

Without Bardeen, Brattain, and Shockley, Gates and Jobs would have nothing to invent. The whole computer revolution really begins with the invention of the transistor. That by itself would be worth a spot on the list, and BCS theory is a pretty impressive second act.

He's more deserving than Oprah, that's for damn sure. And really, it doesn't speak well of our society that men like Bardeen, Salk, and Pauling are left off the list in favor of talk-show hosts and televangelists.

Posted at 1:38 PM | link | follow-ups | 13 comments

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