If you know where to look, the internet has some very interesting bookshelves, like the basement of a dank library. I don’t even remember what I was researching recently, when I found myself browsing through the 1921 textbook, “Readings in Evolution, Genetics, and Eugenics” by Horatio Hackett Newman (I swear I’m not making up these names). On p. 87 (p. 113 of the copy) is this sketch of “The Java ape-man, Pithecanthropus erectus.” I knew that Java Man had originally been called Pithecanthropus erectus and later reclassified as Homo erectus, though I had never quite understood why.
Now, I’m no paleontologist, but I have been researching Homo erectus quite a lot lately, and I could spot in a moment that this skull didn’t look right. And what was that dashed line? Two major facial features didn’t make any sense. Look at those canines! (C, below) Those are “honing” canines. Chimps, gorillas, and other apes have them, but our hominin ancestors lost them at least 6 million years ago. What were they doing here on a Homo erectus less than a million years old? Second, where is his nose?! Homo erectus had a projecting nasal bone like we do. This representation shows a concave nose like an African ape (N). Even for an armchair paleoanthropologist like me, these features stood out as oddly as if someone had drawn a tail on a modern human.
It occurred to me that the face must have been a guess. The dashed line was probably a fracture (F below). If Eugene Dubois, the scientist who discovered Java Man, had only the skullcap to work with, then he would be impressed by the oblong skull (O) and the heavy browridge (B). These are definitely ape-like (chimp / gorilla) features. It would only be logical for Dubois to assume — falsely, as it turns out — that the rest of the face was ape-like too.
Not much later, by chance, I happened upon a photograph of the Java Man skull. Here it is. The break is shaped a little differently, but indeed, it’s only the skullcap!Dubois was especially perplexed to find this skullcap with an upright thigh bone. That’s why he named it Pithecanthropus erectus, “erect ape-man”. He was envisioning creatures like you’d see on “Planet of the Apes”. Later discoveries revealed the mistakes, and this species was reassigned to Homo, the human genus. The resulting term Homo erectus, “erect human”, is redundant and does not describe anything special. Like non-honing canines, we now know that erect bipedality goes back to the very first hominins.
I am interested in the history of ideas as well as the history of reality. That’s why I found it such a thrill to discover this rare textbook illustration reminding us of yester-century’s forgotten assumptions.
For further reading, I discuss hominin evolution in Chapter 7 of this website-book.
A simulation of gravitational waves in the 3D space surrounding an inspiraling black hole pair.
In the 2010’s, science seems to produce miracles every day. We are constantly enthralled by ever-changing smart phones and life-saving medicines. Yet one of this decade’s most important science stories is something that didn’t have much media reach – the direct detection of gravitational waves. This post will explain what gravitational waves are, how they were recently detected, and what this means for the sake of science.
What are gravitational waves?
A boat sitting on a lake displaces (pushes aside) some of the water. As the boat moves, the displacement of water follows it. The disturbance in the water then propagates outward from the boat in waves. Physicists predicted a century ago that gravity can behave in a similar way. A massive body like a star warps space-time, especially in its vicinity. When the star is disturbed in certain ways, the space-time warp radiates outward from the star in gravitational waves, carrying energy with it. If the star is massive enough and particularly agitated, the waves could even be detected from Earth.
How do we know this?
Our best understanding of gravity today is Einstein’s general theory of relativity (GR). His theory gave physicists much to think about, as it was a degree more refined and explanatory than Newton’s 17th century model of “action at a distance”. When Einstein published this theory in 1915, however, it was mostly theoretical. It made good sense to those (few) who understood it, and it went a long way toward explaining how the universe works on a large scale. Believers were eager to see if relativity were really supported by astronomical observations. There were a few early corroborations. GR immediately explained anomalies in Mercury’s orbit that made no sense otherwise. Astronomers knew that if Einstein were right about gravity as the warping of space-time, light rays from distant stars should be bent as they passed near the sun, slightly shifting the stars’ locations in the sky. That can only be observed during a total solar eclipse. The opportunity came in 1919, and during that eclipse stars near the sun did in fact appear slightly offset from their true positions. Since then, distant galaxies have been observed acting as “gravitational lenses”, making galaxies directly behind them appear as rings of light rather than points!
Einstein was not perfect. His model of GR was based on the assumption that the large-scale universe was static. When it became clear that the universe is actually expanding, he had to modify his equations to suit observational reality. Thus, even the best ideas from the smartest people cannot be taken as gospel. They have to be borne out by reality.
Over the decades, all of Einstein’s predictions were directly confirmed, except one – gravitational waves. There was actually good indirect evidence dating back to the 1970s. Binary black holes were seen spiraling in toward one another, gradually losing energy. That observation was consistent with the idea that they were transmitting gravitational energy out into space. Still, the next logical step in nailing down general relativity was detecting those waves and studying them.
Gravitational Wave Detection
A gravitational wave causes periodic stretches and compressions of space. If such a wave were headed straight toward you right now, it would cause space in your vicinity to stretch horizontally while compressing vertically, and then to stretch vertically while compressing horizontally, in a continued cycle. To detect these fluctuations, scientists shine lasers in two perpendicular directions, essentially vertical and horizontal. The lasers travel equal distances until they each strike a mirror and get reflected back to meet each other in the middle. They are polarized so that, on a normal day, they cancel each other out at this middle point. But if a gravity wave passes by, one laser beam gets longer while the other one gets shorter, and then they no longer quite cancel in the middle! Any residual light patterns are recorded, producing a trace of the gravitational wave.
The problem is that gravitational waves are difficult (frankly, all but impossible) to detect. They are only generated by extreme systems like binary black holes. There aren’t many of those within a billion light years. By the time those waves reach us, they are inconceivably small. A typical gravity wave is described mathematically as having dimensionless strain amplitude of 10-20. This means that a distance of 1020 centimeters (from here to a typical star in the night sky) gets distorted by only 1 centimeter (the width of your pinky finger)! How on Earth (literally) can we detect that?!
The secret lies in engineering that is just as incredible as the science of relativity. Fortunately, the lasers don’t have to shift very much to produce an interference pattern. Mirrors are used to lengthen the lasers’ paths, thus lengthening their stretches and compressions. The real challenge is separating out these miniscule oscillations from normal everyday movement; gravitational waves are much smaller than disturbances in the laboratory such as footsteps or even air currents. Engineers have found workarounds. The mirrors are suspended from four levels of pulleys, each of which dampens movement by orders of magnitude. The whole system is controlled by advanced “noise reduction” technology. If a truck passes by outside, the control system creates its own minor vibrations to cancel out the truck’s! Finally, the results from one gravitational-wave observatory are checked against another one elsewhere in the world. All these steps ensure that the equipment is not falsely reading local jostles as cosmological events. 1
A handful of gravity wave detectors such as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) have been in operation since the 1990s. They produced absolutely no results for two decades. As a Caltech alumnus, I was long aware of and curious about the LIGO, which is a Caltech lab in conjunction with MIT and the NSF. After some key engineering improvements in 2015, LIGO finally made a breakthrough and detected gravitational waves. In fact, it almost immediately detected waves from three different events. Go Caltech! The most recent detection was just announced in June, 2017.
Can we see or hear gravitational wave events?
Well … yes and no.
The gravitational waves detected so far were all caused by the same phenomenon, called a black-hole in-spiral. A pair of black holes in very close, very fast orbits around each other spiral inward for a collision. The forces behind a system like that are impossible to imagine. Picture two large stars, each ten times more massive than the sun. Then shrink each star down to the size of a baseball. As they orbit each other, they radiate energy away in gravitational waves, causing them to inch closer toward their mutual center. After millions of years, their small size permits them to get within a few kilometers of one another. Like an ice skater pulling in her arms, their angular momentum causes them to spin faster and faster until they are twirling at ludicrous rates, stirring the very space around them. The gravitational waves reach a climax as the two black holes merge into one. Only the peak of this wave is detectable on Earth, literally the split second of coalescence. After that, the new larger black hole behaves in a spherically symmetrical way and becomes gravitationally quiescent.
We cannot literally “see” such an event with telescopes, but a computer simulation of such a black hole mating – with gravitational waves emanating outward – is shown here: 2
Just about any wave can be converted into a sound wave so we can “listen” to it. A black-hole collision produces a powerful but brief burst of waves that is detectable for about one second. As shown in the video, the waves increase in frequency during that second, which we would interpret as a rising pitch. Scientists call it a “chirp”. You can listen to the chirps of the first two detections in this video: 3
These waves are a scientific breakthrough. For starters, they are Einstein’s final witness. Everything he said about general relativity is now seen to be true. We now feel that we have a very complete understanding of what gravity does (though the ultimate question of why mass distorts space-time is still unknown).
The first gravitational wave was detected in September, 2015 and announced in February, 2016. It’s a pretty cool coincidence that this processing period spanned the date November 25, 2015, the 100th anniversary of publication of Einstein’s general relativity.
In addition, gravitational wave detectors bring the promise of a new generation of observatories. Classic telescopes detect visible light. Modern versions such as radio telescopes see outside the spectrum of the human eye, but they are still detecting variants of light, electromagnetic radiation. Gravitational waves are completely outside the realm of electromagnetics. They are not obscured by physical objects or dimmed by dust, so observatories such as LIGO have an unobstructed view of them wherever they occur. They also emerge from very interesting astronomical phenomena that do not emit light. That includes black holes, of course, and even the big bang. The oldest electromagnetic radiation in the universe came about 100,000 years after the big bang. Gravitational wave detectors could pierce that veil and peer indefinitely closer to the actual moment of creation.
What gravitational waves are not
The name “gravitational waves” can be a little misleading. They are not the normal mechanism by which gravity works. The earth goes around the sun because of the sun’s gravity, which does warp space-time in the solar system, but in a static field. There are no gravitational waves emanating from the sun to the earth. Waves are an exception rather than a rule in GR, simply a consequence of certain asymmetric movements.
It is also important not to confuse gravitational waves with gravitons. The graviton is a hypothetical construct that some theoreticians use to explain what could cause gravity in the first place (ie why mass warps space-time). The three other forces of nature (electromagnetism, the weak nuclear interaction, and the strong nuclear force) are all transmitted by strange subatomic units called bosons, which can behave as particles or waves. The most familiar boson is the photon, the light wave / particle. Could it be that gravity is also transmitted by bosons? Nobody knows. Certainly nobody has ever detected one. The graviton hypothesis comes at gravity from a very different direction – Einstein came at it cosmologically, on the very large scale, whereas the graviton model emerged from quantum mechanics, the study of the very small. As for myself, I am skeptical. Graviton theory is mathematically consistent only if it allows “hidden extra dimensions” for the gravitons to wiggle around like little strings. It seems to be a non-falsifiable speculation. To be clear, gravitons did not come out of Einstein’s theory of relativity. On the other hand, GR only explains how mass warps space-time, not why. A full understanding of gravity would have to go beyond even Einstein’s imagination.
Tomorrow, Donald Trump will be sworn in as one of the most controversial presidents-elect in US history. 1 Because it was a complicated election and Clinton won the plurality of votes, many protesters characterize Trump’s election victory as “illegitimate”, and (as in most elections) there is a lot of grumbling that the Electoral College system is flawed. The underlying assumption seems to be that this system must be “outdated” since it is centuries old, and that only a one-person / one-vote rule would be fair.
Police talk to Trump protesters, downtown Los Angeles, 11/12/16
As a math instructor who has taught lessons in political science, my simple message today is this: There is no such thing as a perfect election method. Every conceivable system has inherent unfairness or even contradictions. The only principle that’s really essential is that all parties agree to the rules before the election.
Here’s an example to give you an idea of how a voting system can be paradoxical. Consider a three-candidate race among Arthur, Buchanan, and Cleveland. The presidency will go to the candidate who receives the plurality of votes, i.e. more votes than anyone else. A survey (which we will consider accurate!) reveals these voter preferences:
10,000,000 voters prefer Arthur 1st, Buchanan 2nd, and Cleveland 3rd.
8,000,000 voters prefer Buchanan 1st, Cleveland 2nd, and Arthur 3rd.
4,000,000 voters prefer Cleveland 1st, Buchanan 2nd, and Arthur 3rd.
If the election were held that day, Arthur’s 10 million votes would win him the election. Cleveland would come in last place. Discouraged by the polls, Cleveland announces at the last minute that he is dropping out of the race. But then something very interesting happens at the election: Cleveland’s 4,000,000 votes go to Buchanan. Buchanan now wins the election, 12 to 10 million!
That doesn’t seem fair. The winner changed just because the loser dropped out. To look at it another way, the three-man election wasn’t really fair either. More people preferred Buchanan over Arthur but, with Cleveland in the race, Arthur would win. This hypothetical election violates the “Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives” criterion of fairness.
Political theorists have a handful of other criteria for what makes an election fair. They have names such as the Majority Criterion, Universality, Monotonicity, and Citizen Sovereignty. I won’t bore you with the details here, but they are basic conditions that most of us would agree seem fundamentally fair.
Now here’s the kicker. In his 1951 PhD dissertation, a Columbia student named Ken Arrow proved mathematically that no election system can possibly satisfy all of these fairness criteria all of the time! It’s an idea now called the Arrow Impossibility Theorem. OK, there is one exception to this rule. In a two-candidate race, “Majority Rules” is perfectly fair. However, while the US has two major parties, there are several minor parties too. If we insisted that our elections be perfectly fair in every way, we would have to eliminate minor parties … and that already isn’t very fair or democratic.
I often say, “Life is 90% great, 9% imperfect, and 1% terrible.” This is part of that 9% that we just have to accept. Since there is no such thing as a perfectly fair voting system, we have to pick one and deal with its quirks. In the case of the Electoral College, it is possible to get a national winner with a relatively small fraction of individual votes. What is vital is that everyone agrees to the election system before the votes are cast. Gray areas and surprises will happen. We want them to be resolved by a rulebook that everyone knew they were playing by.
That’s why the part of this election cycle that bothered me most was when the Republican party was still debating its nomination rules just a few weeks before the convention! If you recall, there was a rule from 2012 requiring a candidate to have won a majority of delegates in at least eight states in order to be considered as a Republican nominee. As the convention drew near, dark horse candidate Trump was the only one who had met that threshold. He started to gloat about it, but other candidates were saying, “Wait now; there’s no guarantee that rule will apply to this convention.” I was stunned. I would have thought the party had firmed up its nominating rules years earlier. In fact, though, those rules were only decided one week before the convention! That’s a problem, because rules can be crafted for or against specific candidates at that stage.
The Electoral College has some legitimate strengths and weaknesses. The constitutional purpose was to let each state decide how to determine its electors. Every state starts out with two votes (that’s fair when counting states) and then an additional number of votes proportional to population (that’s fair when counting voters). On balance, the system is biased toward small / rural (presently Republican) states. For instance, blue California has a population of 40,000,000 – as much as the 19 least-populous red states combined. That red bloc has 36 more electoral votes than California, for the same number of people. That’s why you actually don’t hear much talk about California in national campaigns. It has the most diluted votes in the nation.
If we switched to a one-person / one-vote system, we would bypass the states. It would then be essentially a race of Democratic cities versus Republican countryside. That could pose its own challenges; for instance, it is much easier to organize and to campaign in dense cities than in sparse counties. We would also lose the sense of regional interests. Here is an incredible map that shows “where the voters are” as granularly as possible. Each county’s population is represented by area, and its Republican : Democratic ratio is represented on the red / blue spectrum. It’s hard to see any sense of party identity other than the urban / rural divide. (Large cities are concentrated on the coasts). Here you can see that the country as a whole is pretty evenly split. The new “swing” areas are the most medium purple; you see a lot in Arizona, Texas, Florida, and the Northeast.
Trump can credit his victory to a handful of counties where he out-campaigned Clinton. 2 In a popular vote, the candidates would have learned how to “game” this system instead of the state-based electoral one. Trump said so himself.
So, sure, the Electoral College system has its wrinkles. But so does direct popular voting. To drive the point home, the unfair Arthur / Buchanan / Cleveland example above was a popular vote. The Electoral College is not perfect, but it’s perfectly legitimate and as good a system as any.
Love him or hate him, Donald Trump duly won the election.
The ongoing saga of the “Iran nuclear deal” is difficult to follow for the casual news watcher. It never seems to end. Israelis, Saudis, and US Republicans oppose it without explaining which terms they are against, or what they would like to propose instead. The opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba is also hotly debated. But these are positive developments in two ways. First, in the true spirit of a contract or treaty, the Iran nuclear deal offers something positive for both sides. Second and more broadly, this recent trend indicates an opening of communications between geopolitical enemies. Obama’s belief in “talking to the enemy” has been one of the most controversial elements of his presidency. With a perspective outside of political bias, I agree that it is the right course. Communication is healthy for international relations just as it is for personal relations. This has already been proven by Republican presidents Nixon and Reagan. At the very least, communication humanizes the enemy. The US and the West should continue the policy of talking openly to its adversaries – Iran, Cuba, North Korea, and more.
The Iran Nuclear Deal in a Nutshell
Iran has a large nationwide program of uranium enrichment. Enriched uranium can be used either for nuclear power plants or (at much higher concentrations) nuclear weapons. Obviously, nobody would like to see Iran develop an arsenal of nuclear bombs. Thus, the primary interest in the West is to keep Iran free of weapons-grade uranium.
To put pressure on the Iranian government – for nuclear activities and other reasons – the US has “boycotted” Iran with trade sanctions since the revolution of 1979. The UN and EU followed with major sanctions in the 21st century. Other nations have imposed minor sanctions as well. The sanctions have had their primary intended effect of making it difficult for Iran to develop nuclear weapons. However, they have also had a major impact on Iran’s overall economy, including high inflation and a current unemployment rate of well above 20%. After four decades, these actions directed against the Iranian government have made life very difficult for ordinary people throughout the entire country. This is bad not only for Iran, but for perpetuating Iran’s negative perception of the outside world.
For decades, the US and Iran’s mutual strategy was to be strong-headed and hope to win a battle of wills. The US hoped that sanctions would eventually cripple Iran to capitulation; lifting sanctions was not an option. Iran felt that it had no choice but to arm itself into a stronger position; nuclear enrichment was non-negotiable.
Diplomatic overtures began in 2003. Iran offered to negotiate a middle ground. The US refused, after which Iran vastly increased its nuclear enrichment program. A decade later, after UN and EU sanctions had strained Iran even further, a tentative agreement was reached between Iran and a multinational coalition representing the US, UN, and EU. The gist of the agreement was very simple. In exchange for sanctions relief, Iran would limit its uranium enrichment to peaceful purposes, and open its nuclear energy program to international monitoring. The 2013 agreement gave Iran and its negotiators time to work out a “framework,” and then the details of execution. A framework for such a deal was reached last week, in April, 2015.
The agreements of 2013 and 2015 are historic and significant. This is the first time that Iran has offered any sort of concessions on its nuclear program. The agreement-in-progress includes important provisions allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect Iran’s uranium industry closely. Easing of sanctions would make life better for average Iranians. It would also start to open the Iranian market to many importers and exporters around the world. Until Iran proves its commitment to the deal, the most important sanctions (those related to uranium and military imports / exports) would remain in place. In short, there would be clear benefits for the global economy and safety. This is an important step forward.
As the deadline for the framework approached, the “nuclear deal” became hotly controversial. Iran’s greatest regional enemies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, oppose the idea of negotiating with Iran. They are not part of the current talks. In the US, the Republican Party follows Israel’s lead. Interestingly, opponents of the talks are very vague about exactly what they oppose. Benjamin Netanyahu argues that the deal would only favor Iran, “without receiving anything tangible in return.” He does not acknowledge the value of Iran’s changing stance, from defiance to compromise. US Republicans complain vaguely that the deal is not tough enough, that it should insist on more enrichment curtailment while offering less sanction relief. Essentially, what they are arguing for is a repudiation of negotiations altogether; they believe in principle that the US should continue opposing Iran with brute force instead of diplomacy. I have not heard Republicans propose specific alternatives to any of the deal’s terms. Keep in mind that congressional opponents are not the same people who are involved in talks. The negotiators have had years to get to know specific Iranians, their attitudes, needs, and points of flexibility. Third parties are expressing opposition for opposition’s sake. Israel and Saudi Arabia’s stance is apparently, “If Iran is for it, we’re against it,” while Republicans feel, “If Obama is behind this, we won’t allow it.” Some Republicans raise a legitimate point about which branch of government should be involved in the negotiations. That’s for Congress and the White House to wrestle over.
The relationship between the US and the Castros has always been rocky. After Fidel Castro’s first few aggressive years in office, the US imposed a particularly strong embargo against Cuba and cut off diplomatic ties. It can be said that this only made matters worse. Shut off from the US, Cuba turned to the USSR for oil, money, and defense, setting the stage for the particularly bad crises of the 1960s. Even after the USSR collapsed and Cuba went into depression, neither nation made a move to mend fences. Talks have only resumed under Raul Castro’s administration. A trickle of trade is now being allowed, and there is talk of reopening the embassies. An open channel of communication could even lead to an easing of the embargo in exchange for Castro concessions. Again, there could be something good in it for both sides. Nevertheless, of course there is some opposition to these gestures of peace too.
Aside from some matters of asylum, political prisoners, and allying with other dictators, the Castros have not actually posed a threat to the US since at least 1980. They have just been corrupt dictators in their own nation. Most of the pressure to shut them out comes from two sources: Cuban-Americans who have family left behind on the island, and those who once again misunderstand the purpose of communication.
To communicate does not mean to condone. Yes, Fidel Castro wrongfully took his country by force, seized US assets, and harbored Soviet nuclear weapons. By all accounts, the Castros and their government never should have been in power. But let’s face it, they are awfully entrenched there. What are we going to do about it? Ignoring them has not proven very effective at accomplishing anything. The US embargo, like the sanctions against Iran, has a strong grip on Cuba. It is obviously not squeezing the Castros out of power, and is hurting ordinary Cubans more than the government. The UN recommends lifting it. The embargo’s greatest value now is as a bargaining chip. In this century, the US’s main goal is to see a Cuban transition to democracy, at least after the Castros’ death. Maybe the best way to get Raul to listen to what the US has to say is for the US to listen to what he has to say. It sounds like he could be willing to negotiate some democratic reforms in exchange for some economic relief.
If a man were having serious problems with his boss, a neighbor, or his wife, most people would give the same advice: Talk to her! Whether it may be at the dining room table or in pre-trial litigation, at some point they need to figure out how to end the conflict without hurting each other. That’s still true if the neighbors-at-odds are governments – even bad governments.
The alternatives to communication are recalcitrance, failure to understand each other, demonization, retribution, and violence. Negotiation can be difficult, because it requires compromise. But the very act of negotiation, even the willingness to negotiate, can facilitate a mutually agreeable position. And communication does not necessarily have to mean negotiation or validation. Formal discussions force each side to identify specific points of contention, rather than reacting emotionally to each other.
Iran is willing to cap enrichment and open its nuclear industry to inspection. That’s worth an easing of sanctions. The Castros have not threatened the US in decades, and they are willing to normalize relations. That’s worth meeting them in the middle. I think we’d all prefer to have international seats at the table when discussing a post-Castro Cuba.
When I was an undergrad at Caltech, I worked on campus at the Red Door Café. It was a popular hangout for grad students, post-docs, and faculty. Those strata are highly international at Caltech; I informally counted about 50% non-native-English speakers. It was an interesting chance to witness diversity and to observe cultural differences. After working there for several months, I noticed a very striking pattern. I discovered the “International Sense-of-Humor Line,” dividing a jocular western world from a stern east. People from west of the line were much more carefree and lighthearted. Westerners would stop to chit-chat or joke about how many calories were in our desserts. I could give them a hard time about how predictable their orders were. Those from the other side of the Humor Line were not into small talk. They were there to study or do their job. Jokes would bounce right off of them without eliciting a smile. I also noticed that the International Sense-of-Humor Line was strongly coincident with the erstwhile Iron Curtain, right down the middle of Europe.
The International Sense-of-Humor line is a funny but sad reminder of how personality is shaped by culture.
Yes, I know, this is a generalization. I don’t have any quantitative data to back up my characterization, and of course there are exceptions. But to me in that particular environment, the overall pattern stood out pretty prominently. I realized that maybe the dimension of humor / humorlessness can be measured as a personal or cultural value. I had grown up in a very fun-loving environment. I wondered why some persons — or peoples, even — would prefer to be stiff. This little pseudo-study has made me mindful of humorlessness ever since.
In my culture, I have come to feel that a good sense of humor is a sign of mental health and social grace. I’m not talking about comic brilliance. A sense of humor is a social interest in joking around, making light of life’s imperfections, talking about trivialities, imagining and pretending, poking fun at ourselves and others. It indicates an elasticity of spirit. It puts others at ease. Humorlessness is just the opposite — rigidity, a focus on serious topics, nervousness around others, lack of charisma. When someone is humorless, it indicates that he isn’t particularly interested in me. Then I don’t feel like talking to him for very long either.
Humorlessness is often a byproduct of emotional damage. When a person suffers enough adversity or trauma, it seems that his emotional response ossifies and becomes part of his psyche. The person becomes coldly serious. Hot emotions often lie just below the surface and can come out in flashes. The hot emotions tend toward fear in conservatives (think of apocalyptic survivalists or right-wing alarmists) and anger in liberals (think of protest marches, union strikes, and revolutionaries). Wounded emotions become inflexible, and the person is unable to come back to moderation and take matters lightly anymore.
An overly serious mindset can also be a product of family values, education, peer pressure, or propaganda. College activists are always upset about something involving race, gender, or socioeconomic status. In their campus culture, you’re just supposed to be angry about the system. Meanwhile, I joke that the notoriously right-wing FOX News stands for …
For those of us not on the far right, programs like Fox News seem melodramatically fearful and serious.
When I do my own research, I immediately discard sources written with a tone of anger or fear. Emotions make lousy filters for truth. I want to learn for the pleasure of it. Even challenges can be inspiring. I don’t need to hear someone’s top ten reasons that the world is about to end.
I keep negative nellies and party poopers out of my life. I’m just better off without them. Sometimes I’ve taken on a client who gave me that first impression: “Wow, this person is stiff! But I need her business.” Almost invariably, it leads to a personality clash down the line. As a small businessman, reputation is everything. It can hurt my business to upset a client, and if a client is easily upset, I have to walk on eggshells. It distracts me from the more patient and respectful clients. I have a strict policy now: I don’t need emotionally demanding clients!
What’s downright remarkable is that over-seriousness can become a widespread cultural value. I have a friend from Iran. One December day, we were walking around a mall with a Santa’s Village, Christmas music and lights. “I guess you didn’t grow up with this stuff,” I realized aloud. “No way,” he said. “We were never allowed to have any fun!” He was half-joking.
I believe that Eastern cultures must have a different attitude about levity. It’s hard to imagine an entire nation where everyone is glum due to emotional baggage. Besides, the vibe East of the International Sense-of-Humor Line is different from the grumps of the West. Easterners are not on the edge of anger or fear. They’re just so darn serious all the time! I’m sure you know the type – the Russian woman who talks like a drill sergeant, the Indian guy who’s never smiled. I suppose that in these cultures, seriousness is seen as a sign of mutual respect, whereas in the West we prefer to be easy-going and joke around with each other. We must also acknowledge, of course, that some of the Eastern countries have had a very bleak history over the last century or more.
Many Eastern cultures are more bureaucratic than Western republics. Here in the US, the highest value is the right to do your own thing. I’m no expert on nations like China, Saudi Arabia, or Ukraine, but I envision them as crowded countries with little personal space. I imagine orders coming from on high, with many government or religious officials telling people what to do. I imagine social disobedience being a big deal. If you don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, maybe you must guard your privacy more seriously.
I think that dictators are one of the world’s worst problems, and I feel that one of their greatest evils is imposing their humorlessness on their countrymen, from the top down. Most dictators strike me as being humorless in the Mafioso, psychopathic sense of the word. Easy-going, lovable guys don’t usually claw their way to the top of a power vacuum … I’m just saying. And the weight of the bully at the top presses down on his whole national system. It’s hard to imagine anyone cutting loose in Nazi Germany or ISIS. I have recently seen videos of Putin at speeches and ceremonies, where he was so puffy-chested as to be almost Mussolinian. That glimpse of his pompousness, just as much as his policies, really jarred me. Yikes, I don’t trust a person who takes himself that seriously to be running a country.
The clip below is a pretty damn interesting case study on these effects. When Gorbachev allowed greater free speech, his people found courage to joke about the government — though this is not exactly Comedy Club material here. Say what you will about Reagan (and I know that Democrats have many choice words), but he collected these jokes to monitor the Soviet condition. He also used them to reach out to the citizenry of the USSR, even as he was working to unravel their corrupt and heavy-handed government. That took some sense of humor.
If you are the owner of any images or videos in this blog and would like me to remove them, just ask. I make no money from this blog. And if you don’t have a sense of humor, I apologize for this terribly offensive blog post. Please don’t bother leaving comments tinged with anger and fear. Oh, the irony. >P