First Principles

Why “retort,” gleaming or otherwise? Nowadays when the word is used as a noun, it’s most commonly in the sense that the Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines as “a quick, witty, or cutting reply; especially: one that turns back or counters the first speaker’s words.” It’s a word well-suited to blogging. For better or worse, it’s redolant of the snark that blogging has helped turn into a commodity, and the part about turning back another’s words nicely captures the quote-and-reply dynamic of so many posts.

Photo: Ott Köstner; Wikivisual

Yet the word has a second meaning, too, one less commonly intended these days but steeped in science. Again per Merriam-Webster, a retort is also “a vessel or chamber in which substances are decomposed or distilled by heat.” Traditional retorts, going back to at least the 17th century, were the pieces of glassware with rounded bottoms and long, curved necks used to isolate the components in liquid mixtures. Solutions in retorts would bubble over a flame; the more volatile components would evaporate, collect and cool in the neck, then drip into another collecting vessel. Retorts, whether in chemistry labs or moonshiners’ stills, thus helped to distill and concentrate what was precious or worthy of attentio.

So as metaphors for science blogging go, how could I hope to improve on the retort? Whether I can live up to the standard of being “quick, witty, or cutting” and producing something of value is what you readers will decide, but I’m happy to accept it as a challenge.

What can you expect to find here? My interests range throughout various sciences and technologies, but I’m most partial to biology, climate change and the environment, medicine, astronomy and technologies related to those. I was editor-in-chief of Scientific American for nearly 15 years and have been an adjunct at New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program since last year. If we are best defined by our friends and enemies, I’m happy to be known as a colleague of James Randi, the New York City Skeptics and other critical thinkers, though I’m not in lockstep with all of them. At the risk of sounding immodest, I’ve been reviled in some of the dank basements of the anti-evolution sophists, by beguiled followers of the slippery Bjorn Lomborg, and by partisans of cold fusion and nanotechnology for being unpersuaded by their fan fiction.

Lemur (photo: Ruth Flickr)

Bieber (photo: Photo Giddy)

I take science seriously but also recognize a big distinction between being serious and being somber; I like to have fun. You’ll also find that I’m more than a little caught up in popular culture and entertainment. (Won’t someone please discover a new species of lemur that can be named after Justin Bieber?) Rumors that I was raised inside a Skinner box with only a television for companionship cannot be substantiated—or disproved.

It’s a treat and a privilege to be in the company of the rest of the new Ploggers; I’ll be doing my best to keep up the high standards they set. And in closing, let me thank the talented Kityee Au-Yeung, who created the title banner at the top of this blog, thus sparing the blogosphere whatever monstrosity I might have photoshopped myself.

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