Category Archives: Society

A Prayer for Puerto Rico

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

Crescent moon high above the Castillo San Felipe del Morro

Vlad loved Puerto Rico. One of his dreams was that we’d go there together some day, perhaps even circumnavigate the island by kayak (though he warned me about sharks).

Vlad knew the island well. For many years, he collaborated with a colleague at the Institute for Neurobiology at the University of Puerto Rico. That meant taking regular trips to Puerto Rico, at least annually, sometimes more often. And he took advantage of those trips to explore the island and its environs.

View of La Perla from the Institute of Neurobiology

Entirely aside from the exciting work he did with his colleagues, Vlad really loved the place itself: the warm, moist tropical air, the vivid colors, and most of all, the people.  He often told stories about his time there. One of my favorites was about the “palmetto bugs” that scientists caught from the lab floor for experiments (apparently it was cheaper and easier to catch your own than to order them from suppliers.)

View from the Castillo San Felipe del Morro

But my all-time favorite story was when he talked about how the scientists in his lab were almost universally young, beautiful women. I didn’t believe him, so he forwarded a photo “as evidence” (as he put it). Unfortunately I can no longer find it, but the photo indeed featured a half-dozen or so mini-skirt-clad young women holding martini glasses and smiling at the camera (it was an evening outing of the lab). Not exactly the first image that comes to mind when one thinks of “a gathering of neuroscientists”–no wonder Vlad was enamored of the place!

Beyond the sheer physical beauty of the island and its inhabitants, Vlad also appreciated its many biological wonders. Among  them: the bioluminescent bay
at Vieques Island, the bat caves, and the El Yunque Rain Forest.

Clouds after sunset, San Juan, Puerto Rico

I know he would be deeply saddened by the devastation that Hurricane Maria has wreaked on Puerto Rico. Fortunately the Institute for Neurobiology has reported that it has survived; but recovery will be a long, slow, painful process for them, and for everyone affected by the storm.

If you want to contribute, here is a list of charities that have been highly rated by CharityWatch and are contributing to Irma relief in Puerto Rico.

Blown Away

Vlad as a child

By Johna Till Johnson

It’s 11:30 on a sweltering summer weekday. I’m on my way to a client meeting downtown. I step into the subway car, grateful there’s a seat and working air conditioning. The people in the car are the usual mix of ages, races, genders. We avoid eye contact.

At the next stop, a heavyset young man gets in, with a little boy, about three, in a stroller. The man settles into a seat across from me, and I glance at the little boy.

He’s adorable. There’s something hauntingly familiar about his expression: placid yet worried, with his brows drawn up in a look of concern. I smile at him and try to get his attention. Out of shyness or embarrassment he looks away, towards his father. Or maybe he’s put off by my unnatural hair color and the giant, bug-eyed sunglasses covering half my face.

“Can you wave hello?” the father asks, but the boy won’t turn towards me. “It’s ok,” I say, smiling, to the father. “He doesn’t have to wave at the strange lady.”

Then I suddenly realize, with a pang, why the child’s expression is so familiar.

I turn to the woman next to me, a kind-looking middle-aged Hispanic woman. She’s also smiling at the little boy.

“My husband has a photo of himself at about that age, with that same expression,” I say to her. “So sweet!” I notice I’m speaking of Vlad in the present tense, but don’t bother to correct myself.

“So sweet,” the lady agrees, and tries to get the boy to look at her, but he won’t.

The familiar wave of grief washes over me. I feel my eyes watering, and I’m grateful for the sunglasses hiding my face. To distract myself, I look at the people across from me. There’s a couple, sitting close together. Both are looking down at their phones, oblivious. The only way I know they’re a couple is how close they’re sitting. A couple. Another pang.

A few moments later, my stop is approaching. In preparation, I get up and head towards the door. As I do, I hear the people around me start to stir and murmur, but I’m not paying attention. Then the man who was across from me says, “Ma’am, look!”

I turn, and the boy is reaching out for me, his hand a starfish, his body straining against the stroller straps. He says nothing, but the beseeching look on his face is clear, and clearly directed at me.

“He doesn’t want you to leave!” the woman gasps in surprise. We all exchange looks of wonder.

The subway doors open. I step off the train, glad once again for the oversized sunglasses.

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By Johna Till Johnson

This is why I love NYC…

Halloween Postmortem, Part II

By Vladimir Brezina and Johna Till Johnson

Even skeletons check their cell phonesThis year’s Halloween decorations were plenty scary. But in our neighborhood, they’re just the backdrop: Every year, Carnegie Hill Neighbors, the local neighborhood association, puts on “Spooktacular”, a Halloween block party that features entertainers (including a lively DJ/MC playing dance music) and a costume contest—and of course trick-or-treating, with lots, and lots, and LOTS of candy!

Whole families show up in costume, including mother, father, kids, pets, and—this being the Upper East Side—nanny. (For those who don’t know, the Upper East Side is home to financiers, top lawyers, and other Masters of the Universe.)

The party is open to the whole neighborhood, and it seems to be getting bigger, and better, each year.  (Here are the photos from 2011, 2012, and 2013.)

Looking left... and looking rightVlad in the crowd

The photographer stalking his prey (while being stalked by a giant floating spider)…

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… and here are some of his photos:

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Christmas in February

By Johna Till Johnson

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Maggie’s Magic Garden

Last week I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a while: I went to Maggie’s Magic Garden to take a few photos.

Vlad and I had passed this space many times. It’s a community garden, a small, open plot of land surrounded by buildings. As the seasons changed, it provided a lovely glimpse of nature amidst the urban setting.

So I was curious to see what I’d find in midwinter, after the first few snowfalls of the year. I don’t know what  I expected, but it wasn’t what I found: Christmas in February!

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Christmas in February

My favorite part of the Christmas decorations was the homemade creche, with what looked like a bedsheet draping over the figurines. (Also note the angled angel over the manger.)

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Homemade creche

And there were more secular decorations as well…

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Bright candy canes

Alas, I wasn’t able to get into the garden to explore—despite the sign, it was closed when I visited. But it clearly lives up to its description: Magical indeed. I’ll be back there in the spring, to see what magic is afoot then!

The Sunspot Story

By Johna Till Johnson

Suspended lion face
Spilling at the centre
Of an unfurnished sky
How still you stand,
And how unaided
Single stalkless flower
You pour unrecompensed.

The eye sees you
Simplified by distance
Into an origin,
Your petalled head of flames
Continuously exploding. …

—Philip Larkin, Solar

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What’s the longest-running scientific experiment in history?

I bet you didn’t think of monitoring sunspots.

Sunspots

Sunspots (photo by NASA)

And I can’t definitively say it’s the longest-running experiment —there may be others I haven’t heard of yet. But the first recorded systematic observation of sunspots in the West was by astronomers Thomas Harriot, Johannes and David Fabricius  in 1610 (Chinese astronomers observed them as far back as 300 BC). Scientists have been monitoring sunspots ever since—which means that sunspots have been monitored for the past 405 years!

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Two MacArthur Geniuses

By Johna Till Johnson

I don’t normally pay a lot of attention to the MacArthur Genius awards. The name alone annoys me, because it’s simultaneously elitist and undefined.  What makes artist X a “genius” while her peers are merely “talented”? And how can we be sure that out of all the talented people in the universe, the committee has miraculously selected the 12, or 20, that are talented enough to be considered geniuses?

But I do like the notion of awarding creative people a big chunk of change—this year, it was $625,000 over a period of five years—with no constraints. And I also think it’s cool that the awards are so broad-ranging. They go to poets, activists, artists, musicians… and even the occasional scientist, mathematician, or engineer.

Which brings me to this year’s awards. I was overjoyed to see the award given to two people in particular.  One was Craig Gentry, a cryptography researcher at IBM’s T. J. Watson research center, who’s done groundbreaking work in the area of homomorphic encryption.

Craig Gentry

Craig Gentry

Homomorphic encryption is, in some respects, the holy grail of encryption, because it enables machines to process encrypted data without ever decrypting it. That doesn’t sound like much, but consider: Today, if your email is stored on Google’s servers, it’s fully accessible to Google (which has been known to turn it over to the NSA).

It’s fully accessible because you need Google to do useful things for you (like sort the mail into folders). With homomorphic encryption, you could keep your mail entirely encrypted without giving up any of the functionality (such as folder-sorting). But Google would have no idea what you named your folders, or what was in your email—and the NSA couldn’t read it, either.

Now imagine that instead of ordinary email, we’re talking about medical or financial records—and you can see the benefit.

The issue at the moment is that the computational horsepower required to make homomorphic encryption is immense, so only starting to become practical in real-world applications. But Craig was among the first to show it was theoretically possible. And he did it incredibly elegantly, using a Zeno’s-paradox-like approach that started with “somewhat homomorphic” encryption that iteratively refined itself to become “fully homomorphic”.

And there’s one other thing I like about Craig: He writes really, really well. His Stanford University PhD thesis, which you can find here, is a joy to read. I don’t mind ploughing through dense scientific papers—but I really appreciate it when someone writes gracefully and well.

Yitang Zhang

Yitang Zhang

Another one of this year’s “geniuses” is Yitang Zhang, who is a number theorist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Yitang (who I’ve read goes by “Tom”) recently proved the “bounded gaps” conjecture about prime numbers.

Slate’s Jordan Ellenberg (who’s a mathematics professor at the University of Wisconsin) does a much better job explaining what this is and why it matters than I could do. I urge you to read his writeup here.

Suffice it to say that Tom cracked a really, really hard problem in one of the most demanding areas of mathematics. And he’s apparently a really nice, funny, down-to-earth guy, as described in this University of New Hampshire Magazine article.

But that’s not all: Tom is 57—and has done much of his most creative work in the past 10 years (ie from his late 40s onwards).

Mathematics is a field as notorious as gymnastics or ballet for having a youthful peak–the joke among mathematicians is that anyone over 30 is washed up. Gauss, one of the most famous mathematicians ever, did his most significant work by the age of 22—a fact pointed out by my overly gleeful number theory professor when I was 21 or so.

So it’s great to see someone not only doing great things, but doing them at the relatively “advanced” age of 57.

I’m sure the other 19 MacArthur Fellows have done equally great work in their fields. But seeing the awards go to these two made me happy—and I wanted to share my joy with you!