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Preview: Interview - CultureLab

Interview - CultureLab

Updated: 2010-03-16T11:19:11Z


Kees van Deemter: The importance of being vague


The computational linguist argues that the world is not made of discrete objects nor represented by binary logic – time to embrace our fuzzy reality Liz Else, Associate editor In his book Not Exactly: In praise of vagueness, Kees van Deemter argues that the very foundations of science don't come in black and white. I spoke with him about seeing the world in shades of grey. Forgive the oxymoron, but how do you define vagueness? A vague concept allows borderline cases. The potential confusion is that people think vagueness is when they don't quite get what someone means. For people in my area of logic, it's actually a much narrower phenomenon, such as the word "grey". Some birds are clearly grey, some are clearly not, while others are somewhere in between. The fact that such birds exist makes "grey" a vague concept. The vagueness does not arise from insufficient information: some concepts are fundamentally vague. On the other hand, if I say that I have fewer than three children, that's not vague. In fact, it is the opposite, it is "crisp". It is true if I have zero, one or two children, and it is false if I have three or more. Is vagueness anathema to science? Put a magnifying glass to many scientific concepts and you find vagueness. Take the idea of "species". For centuries, biologists searched for crisp distinctions between species. A common definition today is to say that two animals only belong to the same species if they can interbreed. But if A can interbreed with B, and B with C, it doesn't always follow that A can interbreed with C. Take the Ensatina salamander, which has six subspecies. Suppose subspecies A can interbreed with B, B with C, and so on until the end of the chain when F can no longer breed with A. Intuitively you want to say that they are all one species, but your criterion disagrees. Should we give up on the concept? The notion is incoherent, but biologists continue using it - with a pinch of salt. Richard Dawkins calls this tendency to think in discrete categories "the tyranny of the discontinuous mind". So we think in discrete categories, but reality really isn't that way? In the book I talk about a vintage racing car that has been repaired so many times that 70 years later only a few of the original parts remain. Is it the same car? The boundaries of objects are vague - and that goes for us, too. The average age of adult cells is 10 years. We are changing all the time. Describing the world in terms of discrete objects is a useful fiction. Classical logic is discrete, too, based on binary dichotomies: yes/no, true/false. But that is not suited to thinking about the world's fundamentally vague things, which include some of the things science is based on, such as measurement. There is, for example, no such thing as a "perfect" metre, imperfect approximations are all we have. We should recognise we often need other forms of mathematical logic to describe the world. How vague is everyday life? Vagueness seeps in everywhere. We think we know what things like obesity or poverty are but they are context-based concepts. It can be a matter of life and death. We have laws prohibiting poisonous substances in food, say, but ask toxicologists what poisonous means, and all they give you is degrees of toxicity. Thresholds are arbitrary. Is it ever important to be vague? Doctors use vagueness all the time. For example, when researching for a project to automate messages about the condition of babies in intensive care, my colleagues found that doctors' written reports say things like: "heart rate OK most of the night, on the high side in the morning". The vagueness of the messages works in a very smart way - leaving out irrelevant details while adding a little bit of opinion. By calling the heart rate high, for example, they suggest there may be cause for worry. For all these reasons, vagueness is crucial if you want to build computers and robots that communicate with people. If you want to understand or generate language, getting to grips with vagueness is key. Will the web need vagueness? As[...]

What would you ask Ian McEwan?


Tomorrow New Scientist is going to interview author Ian McEwan about, among other things, his latest novel Solar. Send us your questions for him We know it's late notice, but tomorrow afternoon New Scientist is going to interview Ian McEwan about, among other things, his latest novel Solar. The book stars a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who attempts to save the world from climate change.

We'd love to put some of your questions to him, so ask away in the comments space below. We'll run the interview in a forthcoming issue.

Remember, the more original your question is, the more likely it is we'll pick it - which means "Where do you get your ideas?" is out, for a start. And bear in mind we cover science and technology, not writing or publishing.

Please include your first and last name, as well as your city/state of residence (not your full address).

Chanee Brulé: Last night a DJ saved a gibbon


The Borneo-based DJ is rescuing the apes, playing matchmaker and releasing them to sing in the wild Chanee Brulé is on a mission to save Borneo's gibbons, but it hasn't proved an easy task.Sanjida O'Connell talks with the radio DJ about the obstacles he's encountered, his flair for playing gibbon matchmaker and the music he's using to rescue these "singing" apes.When did gibbons first grab your attention?I saw gibbons for the first time when I was 12 in a zoo in southern France, where I grew up. I spent all my time trying to understand them - they are so different from other primates.Then I wrote a guide to keeping them in captivity, which was published when I was 15 and is still used by zoos today.When I was 17 I went to Thailand to see wild gibbons. On the plane ride home, I realised that I would have to go back if I wanted to help them. So I travelled to where they were most endangered: Indonesia. Why are gibbons under threat?In Borneo there are thousands of gibbons in captivity because local people keep them as pets. There is also massive deforestation.Ten years ago my goal was to protect what forest remained but most forests have now been converted to palm oil plantations.Rescued gibbons are particularly difficult to rehabilitate into the wild. Why?Unlike other apes, gibbons are monogamous for life and cannot survive alone. But it's hard to choose the right partner for them - we don't understand how they choose one another.A pair can't be released onto the same land as another pair as they're so territorial. Gibbons sing every morning, saying, "This is my territory, don't come here or I'll kill you."Hear the gibbonsMore gibbon song (recordings courtesy of International Primate Protection League)Gibbons are monogamous and cannot survive alone, but it's hard to choose the right partner for them.In addition, we don't have any more forest to release them back into. The last remnants of rainforest already have wild gibbons living there, so we've had to create sanctuaries in Borneo, and now in Sumatra as well.Another problem is that in the wild, gibbons never touch the ground - they stay in the canopy. When they're kept by humans they learn to walk, so we have to make them go back into the trees.What makes you such a good gibbon matchmaker?It's experience; you have to understand each animal. But it's hard to predict which gibbons will go together.In each pair one dominates and the other is dominated - it can be either male or female - and it's not easy to tell who will accept being dominated. If we get it wrong they can kill each other.How did you end up being a DJ in a local radio station?When I first arrived in Borneo I worked with the police to confiscate gibbons that were being kept as pets, but local people became very angry and threatened me and my family.I realised I needed to help them understand gibbons and thought that radio would be a good way to get a message across about conservation. We started up a small radio station, Radio Kalaweit, which means "Radio Gibbon", playing music and broadcasting environmental messages.Now, after six years, 1000 people listen 24 hours a day and we get many calls about gibbons that need to be rescued.What kind of music do you play?The audience is very young, 13 to 20 years old. We play mostly international pop, like Britney Spears and the Black Eyed Peas, and then some Indonesian pop, like the local band Peter Pan.All Indonesian artists want to work with us to promote their albums and concerts, but we also get them to record messages about animal welfare and gibbon conservation, so more people will listen. Radio Gibbon is an episode of BBC Television's Natural World series. It will air on BBC2 in the UK on 10 December at 9pm. Hear Radio Kalaweit online at Image: Joe Kitsch [...]

Belle de Jour: On science and prostitution


The professional scientist and former prostitute Brooke Magnanti told her agent, "If New Scientist asks for an interview, I'll do it." We did ask Rowan HooperUnder the name Belle de Jour, Brooke Magnanti wrote about her experiences as a prostitute for a London escort agency, and her blog became a bestselling book, The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl, and a television series.She has a master's degree in genetic epidemiology and a PhD from the University of Sheffield's department of forensic pathology.She currently works at the Bristol Initiative for Research of Child Health and told her agent: "if New Scientist asks for an interview, I'll do it". We did ask. In one of your early papers you established a possible link between thyroid cancer in women in Cumbria, in north-west England, and fallout from Chernobyl in Ukraine.The trends in thyroid carcinomas in young women in north-west England show a consistent rise since the late 1980s. But our research also shows an increase in areas that didn't receive fallout from Chernobyl, so there may be multifactorial causes at work.You've also looked at policy for the assessment of risks from organophosphates.There are pesticides that have been banned from indoor use in the US but are legal in the European Union, which may cause developmental, emotional and possibly autistic-spectrum disorders.We're collating the evidence and consulting experts to put forward a case to policy-makers to implement a similar ban to the one in North America.Your colleagues have reportedly been very supportive but do you worry that the publicity around you being Belle de Jour will hinder your career?Yes. That was the main reason for my anonymity. If I had just wanted to be a writer it probably would have been more profitable to come out sooner, but working in science is important to me.Science was so important to you, in fact, that you worked as an escort.Let's be frank, postdocs are not well paid - being debt-free enabled me to continue to choose science jobs I love rather than changing career.So for you the benefits of not being in debt outweighed the dangers of prostitution?The particular situation I was in was far less dangerous than streetwalking and paid sufficiently well that I didn't have to do it for very long. Also I met fewer men than a streetwalker would in the same period, and again that decreased the chances of a bad experience.I trusted my instincts, and the agency was very good about vetting clients as well.Should British PhD students be paid a proper wage, as they are in other countries?I'm in two minds about this: if paid a wage, they may also be expected to do more teaching, which would result in the PhD taking far longer, as it does in other countries.I had offers of PhD places both here and in the US, and chose Sheffield because it would take half the time.You are currently writing a novel. How does being a scientist inform your writing?Science is my main career ambition. Writing up a project is an especially satisfying pursuit, which probably puts me in a minority of scientists.What do you say to the charge that you have glamorised prostitution?Call girls existed long before I got into the game, and details of what that life is like were well established before I started writing about it. Implying I single-handedly turned the business around is flattering but doesn't stand much scrutiny.There are science-based arguments to be made for legalising the sex trade: for example, it would reduce the spread of STIs such as HIV. Is this something you would support?In the UK, prostitution itself is legal - pimping, soliciting and brothels are not. This results in a huge safety gap between call girls and streetwalkers.Doesn't it make sense for women at all price points in the sex business to have the same protection I did, and in doing so, possibly gain the leverage over traffickers and clients they need to protect their personal and sexual health?How were you able to conceal your identit[...]