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March 24, 2014

Environmentalists Seek to Silence Those Who Dare to Disagree



(p. A13) Surely, some kind of ending is upon us. Last week climate protesters demanded the silencing of Charles Krauthammer for a Washington Post column that notices uncertainties in the global warming hypothesis. In coming weeks a libel trial gets under way brought by Penn State's Michael Mann, author of the famed hockey stick, against National Review, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, writer Rand Simberg and roving commentator Mark Steyn for making wisecracks about his climate work. The New York Times runs a cartoon of a climate "denier" being stabbed with an icicle.

These are indications of a political movement turned to defending its self-image as its cause goes down the drain.



For the full commentary, see:

HOLMAN W. JENKINS, JR. "BUSINESS WORLD; Personal Score-Settling Is the New Climate Agenda; The cause of global carbon regulation may be lost, but enemies still can be punished." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 1, 2014): A13.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Feb. 28, 2014, and has the title "BUSINESS WORLD; Jenkins: Personal Score-Settling Is the New Climate Agenda; The cause of global carbon regulation may be lost, but enemies still can be punished.")



The Krauthammer column that the environmentalists do not want you to read:

Krauthammer, Charles. "The Myth of 'Settled Science'." The Washington Post (Fri., Feb. 21, 2014): A19.






March 22, 2014

Carnegie Wanted Institution to Fund "Exceptional" Scientists "Whenever and Where Found"




So was Carnegie suggesting that we should be open to the exceptional appearing in unexpected locations?


(p. 614) In his deed of trust, Carnegie declared that his research institution in Washington should "discover the exceptional man in every department of study whenever and where found... and enable him to make the work for which he seems specially designed his life work." That notion would remain the driving philosophy behind the institution over the next century. Some of those "exceptional" scientists, supported by Carnegie money were the astronomer Edwin Hubble, who "revolutionized astronomy with his discovery that the universe is expanding," and Barbara McClintock, whose work on patterns of genetic inheritance in corn won her a Nobel Prize.


Source:

Nasaw, David. Andrew Carnegie. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.

(Note: ellipsis in original.)

(Note: the pagination of the hardback and paperback editions of Nasaw's book are the same.)






March 21, 2014

Hope for "a Morality that Maximizes Human Flourishing"



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Source of book image: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-6zEBTa23QDo/UtsQ6rZTkoI/AAAAAAAACdI/lAdUEZDMyaQ/s1600/Moral+Tribes.png



Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker discusses a favorite book of 2013:



(p. C11) "Moral Tribes," by Joshua Greene, explains the fascinating new field of moral neuroscience: what happens in our brains when we make moral judgments and how ancient impulses can warp our ethical intuitions. With the help of the parts of the brain that can engage in careful reasoning, the world's peoples can find common ethical ground in a morality that maximizes human flourishing and minimizes suffering.


For the full article, see:

"12 Months of Reading; We asked 50 of our friends--from April Bloomfield to Mike Tyson--to name their favorite books of 2013." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Dec. 14, 2013): C6 & C9-C12.

(Note: the online version of the article has the date Dec. 13, 2013.)


The book that Pinker praises is:

Greene, Joshua. Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them. New York: The Penguin Press, 2013.






March 18, 2014

Nasaw Claims Carnegie Believed in Importance of Basic Scientific Research




But notice that the two main examples of what Carnegie himself chose to fund (the Wilson Observatory and the yacht to collect geophysical data), were empirically oriented, not theoretically oriented.


(p. 480) Carnegie was, as Harvard President James Bryant Conant would comment in 1935 on the centenary of his birth, "more than a generation ahead of most business men of this country [in understanding] the importance of science to industry." He recognized far better than his peers how vital basic scientific research was to the applied research that industry fed off. George Ellery Hale, an astronomer and astrophysicist, later to be the chief architect of the National Research Council, was astounded when he learned of Carnegie's commitment to pure research. "The provision of a large endowment solely for scientific research seemed almost too good to be true.... Knowing as I did the difficulties of obtaining money for this purpose and (p. 481) devoted as I was to research rather than teaching, I could appreciate some of the possibilities of such an endowment." Hale applied for funds to build an observatory on Mount Wilson in California, and got what he asked for. It would take until 1909 to build and install a 60-inch reflecting telescope in the observatory; in 1917, a second 100-inch telescope, the largest in the world, was added.

The Mount Wilson Observatory-- and the work of its astronomers and astrophysicists-- was only one of the projects funded in the early years of the new institution. Another, of which Carnegie was equally proud, was the outfitting of the Carnegie, an oceangoing yacht with auxiliary engine, built of wood and bronze so that it could collect geophysical data without the errors inflicted on compass readings by iron and steel. The ship was launched in 1909; by 1911, Carnegie could claim that the scientists on board had already been able to correct several significant errors on navigational maps.



Source:

Nasaw, David. Andrew Carnegie. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.

(Note: ellipsis, and italics, in original.)

(Note: the pagination of the hardback and paperback editions of Nasaw's book are the same.)






March 16, 2014

Many Important Medical Articles Cannot Be Replicated




The standard scientific method is more fallible, and less logically rigorous, than is generally admitted. One implication is to strengthen the case for allowing patients considerable freedom in choosing their own treatments.


(p. D1) It has been jarring to learn in recent years that a reproducible result may actually be the rarest of birds. Replication, the ability of another lab to reproduce a finding, is the gold standard of science, reassurance that you have discovered something true. But that is getting harder all the time. With the most accessible truths already discovered, what remains are often subtle effects, some so delicate that they can be conjured up only under ideal circumstances, using highly specialized techniques.

Fears that this is resulting in some questionable findings began to emerge in 2005, when Dr. John P. A. Ioannidis, a kind of meta-scientist who researches research, wrote a paper pointedly titled "Why Most Published Research Findings Are False."


. . .


. . . he published another blockbuster, examining more than a decade's worth of highly regarded papers -- the effect of a daily aspirin on cardiac disease, for example, or the risks of hormone replacement therapy for older women. He found that a large proportion of the conclusions were undermined or contradicted by later studies.

His work was just the beginning. Concern about the problem has reached the point that the journal Nature has assembled an archive, filled with reports and analyses, called Challenges in Irreproducible Research.

Among them is a paper in which C. Glenn Begley, who is chief scientific officer at TetraLogic Pharmaceuticals, described an experience he had while at Amgen, another drug company. He and his colleagues could not replicate 47 of 53 landmark papers about cancer. Some of the results could not be reproduced even with the help of the original scientists working in their own labs.



For the full commentary, see:

GEORGE JOHNSON. "Raw Data; New Truths That Only One Can See." The New York Times (Tues., JAN. 21, 2014): D1 & D6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date JAN. 20, 2014.)


The first Ioannidis article mentioned above is:

Ioannidis, John P. A. "Why Most Published Research Findings Are False." PLoS Medicine 2, no. 8 (August 2005): 696-701.


The second Ioannidis article mentioned above is:

Ioannidis, John P. A. "Contradicted and Initially Stronger Effects in Highly Cited Clinical Research." JAMA 294, no. 2 (July 13, 2005): 218-28.


The Begley article mentioned above is:

Begley, C. Glenn, and Lee M. Ellis. "Drug Development: Raise Standards for Preclinical Cancer Research." Nature 483, no. 7391 (March 29, 2012): 531-33.






March 4, 2014

Better Wheat Is "Mired in Excessive, Expensive and Unscientific Regulation"



(p. A19) Monsanto recently said that it had made significant progress in the development of herbicide-tolerant wheat. It will enable farmers to use more environmentally benign herbicides and could be ready for commercial use in the next few years. But the federal government must first approve it, a process that has become mired in excessive, expensive and unscientific regulation that discriminates against this kind of genetic engineering.

The scientific consensus is that existing genetically engineered crops are as safe as the non-genetically engineered hybrid plants that are a mainstay of our diet.


. . .


Much of the nation's wheat crop comes from a section of the central plains that sits atop the Ogallala Aquifer, which is rapidly being depleted.


. . .


New crop varieties that grow under conditions of low moisture or temporary drought could increase yields and lengthen the time farmland is productive. Varieties that grow with lower-quality water have also been developed.


. . .


Given the importance of wheat and the confluence of tightening water supplies, drought, a growing world population and competition from other crops, we need to regain the lost momentum. To do that, we need to acquire more technological ingenuity and to end unscientific, excessive and discriminatory government regulation.



For the full commentary, see:

JAYSON LUSK and HENRY I. MILLER. "We Need G.M.O. Wheat." The New York Times (Mon., Feb. 3, 2014): A19.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Feb. 2, 2014.)






March 1, 2014

Better to Fail at Solving a Big Problem, than to Succeed at a Minor One?



BrilliantBlundersBK2014-02-23.jpg

















Source of book image: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/61s10qMqpxL._SL1400_.jpg



Francis Collins, head of the NIH, discusses a favorite book of 2013:



(p. C6) Taking risks is part of genius, and genius is not immune to bloopers. Mario Livio's "Brilliant Blunders" leads us through the circumstances that surrounded famous gaffes.   . . .   Mr. Livio helps us see that such spectacular errors are opportunities rather than setbacks. There's a lesson for young scientists here. Boldly attacking problems of fundamental significance can have more impact than pursuing precise solutions to minor questions--even if there are a few bungles along the way.


For the full article, see:

"12 Months of Reading; We asked 50 of our friends--from April Bloomfield to Mike Tyson--to name their favorite books of 2013." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Dec. 14, 2013): C6 & C9-C12.

(Note: the online version of the article has the date Dec. 13, 2013.)


The book that Collins praises is:

Livio, Mario. Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.






February 17, 2014

Would Science Progress Faster If It Were Less Academic and More Entrepreneurial?



BootstrapGeologistBK2014-01-18.jpg














Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.




(p. D5) There is Big Science, defined as science that gets the big bucks. There is tried and true science, which, from an adventurous dissident's point of view, is boldly going where others have gone before but extending the prevailing knowledge by a couple of decimal places (a safe approach for dissertation writers and grant seekers).

Then there is bootstrap science, personified by Gene Shinn, who retired in 2006 after 31 years with the United States Geological Survey and 15 years with a research arm of the Shell Oil Company.


. . .


Without a Ph.D. and often without much financing, Mr. Shinn published more than 120 peer-reviewed papers that helped change many experts' views on subjects like how coral reefs expand and the underwater formation of limestone. Some of his papers, at odds with established scientific views, were initially rejected, only to be seen later as visionary.

His bootstrap ingredients included boundless curiosity, big ideas -- "gee-whiz science," he calls it -- persistence, a sure hand at underwater demolition (dynamite was comparatively easy to come by in those remarkably innocent days) and versatility at improvising core-sampling equipment on tight budgets. The ability to enlist the talents of other scientists, many with doctorates, who shared his love of hands-on field work and his impatience with official rules and permits added to the mix.



For the full review, see:

MICHAEL POLLAK. "BOOKS; Science on His Own Terms." The New York Times (Tues., November 5, 2013): D5.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 4, 2013.)


Book under review:

Shinn, Eugene A. Bootstrap Geologist: My Life in Science. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2013.






February 15, 2014

Big Island of Hawaii Bans G.M.O.s Despite Papaya Saved from Disease



IlaganGreggorDefenderOfGMOs2014-01-19.jpg "Greggor Ilagan initially thought a ban on genetically modified organisms was a good idea." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. 1) KONA, Hawaii -- From the moment the bill to ban genetically engineered crops on the island of Hawaii was introduced in May 2013, it garnered more vocal support than any the County Council here had ever considered, even the perennially popular bids to decriminalize marijuana.

Public hearings were dominated by recitations of the ills often attributed to genetically modified organisms, or G.M.O.s: cancer in rats, a rise in childhood allergies, out-of-control superweeds, genetic contamination, overuse of pesticides, the disappearance of butterflies and bees.

Like some others on the nine-member Council, Greggor Ilagan was not even sure at the outset of the debate exactly what genetically modified organisms were: living things whose DNA has been altered, often with the addition of a gene from a distant species, to produce a desired trait. But he could see why almost all of his colleagues had been persuaded of the virtue of turning the island into what the bill's proponents called a "G.M.O.-free oasis."

"You just type 'G.M.O.' and everything you see is negative," he told his staff. Opposing the ban also seemed likely to ruin anyone's re-election prospects.

Yet doubts nagged at the councilman, who was serving his first two-year term. The island's papaya farmers said that an engineered variety had saved their fruit from a devastating disease. A study reporting that a diet of G.M.O. corn caused tumors in rats, mentioned often by the ban's supporters, turned out to have been thoroughly debunked.

And University of Hawaii biologists urged the Council to consider the global scientific consensus, which holds that existing genetically engineered crops are no riskier than others, and have provided some tangible benefits.

"Are we going to just ignore them?" Mr. Ilagan wondered.

Urged on by Margaret Wille, the ban's sponsor, who spoke passionately of the need to "act before it's too late," the Council declined to form a task force to look into such questions before its November vote. But Mr. Ilagan, 27, sought answers on his own. In the process, he found himself, like so many public and business leaders worldwide, wrestling with a subject in which popular beliefs often do not reflect scientific evidence.


. . .


(p. 19) Ms. Wille urged a vote for the ban. "To do otherwise," she said, "would be to ignore the cries from round the world and on the mainland."

"Mr. Ilagan?" the Council member leading the meeting asked when it came time for the final vote.

"No," he replied.

The ban was approved, 6 to 3.

The mayor signed the bill on Dec. 5.



For the full story, see:

Amy Harmon. "On Hawaii, a Lonely Quest for Fact." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., Jan. 5, 2014): 1 & 18-19.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date JAN. 4, 2014, and has the title "A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops.")



PapayaGeneticallyModified2014-01-19.jpg













"Papaya genetically modified to resist a virus became one part of a controversy." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.







February 11, 2014

Global Warming Might Help Mangrove Forests Thrive in Florida



MangroveForest2014-01-19.jpg "Mangrove forests, like in the Everglades, serve as spawning grounds and nurseries for fish and as habitat for a wide array of organisms. But salt marshes are also ecologically valuable." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A14) Much of the Florida shoreline was once too cold for the tropical trees called mangroves, but the plants are now spreading northward at a rapid clip, scientists reported Monday [December 30, 2013]. That finding is the latest indication that global warming, though still in its early stages, is already leading to ecological changes so large they can be seen from space.


. . .


The mangrove forests that fringe shorelines in the tropics are among the earth's environmental treasures, serving as spawning grounds and nurseries for fish and as habitat for a wide array of organisms. Yet in many places, mangroves are critically endangered by shoreline development and other human activities.

So a climatic change that allows mangroves to thrive in new areas might well be seen as a happy development.


. . .


For years, scientists working in Florida had been noticing that mangroves seemed to be creeping northward along the coast. The new study is the first to offer a precise quantification of the change, using imagery from a satellite called Landsat, and to link it to shifts in the climate.

Patrick Gillespie, a spokesman for Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, offered no specific comment on the new paper. By email, he said the agency had indeed "seen an increase in mangrove habitats to the north and inward along the Atlantic coast. It's difficult to determine whether this is good or bad for the ecosystem because it's happened over a relatively short period (p. A16) of time and may be a result of many factors."



For the full story, see:

JUSTIN GILLIS. "Spared Winter Freeze, Florida's Mangroves Are Marching North." The New York Times (Tues., December 31, 2013): A14 & A16.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date December 30, 2013.)


The academic article on Florida's thriving mangrove forests, is:

Cavanaugh, Kyle C., James R. Kellner, Alexander J. Forde, Daniel S. Gruner, John D. Parker, Wilfrid Rodriguez, and Ilka C. Feller. "Poleward Expansion of Mangroves Is a Threshold Response to Decreased Frequency of Extreme Cold Events." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) 111, no. 2 (January 14, 2014): 723-27.



MangroveMapGraphic2014-01-19.jpg















Source of Florida map graphic: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.







February 8, 2014

Organic and Kosher Chicken Have as Much Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria as Regular Chicken



(p. D3) . . . after a trip to Israel for his sister's bat mitzvah, Jack Millman came back to New York wondering whether the higher costs of kosher foods were justified.

"Most consumers perceive of kosher foods as being healthier or cleaner or somehow more valuable than conventional foods, and I was interested in whether they were in fact getting what they were paying for," said Mr. Millman, 18 and a senior at the Horace Mann School in New York City.

That question started him on a yearlong research project to compare the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant E. coli bacteria on four types of chickens: those raised conventionally; organically; without antibiotics, and those slaughtered under kosher rules. "Every other week for 10 weeks, I would go and spend the entire Saturday buying chicken," he said. "We had it specifically mapped out, and we would buy it and put it on ice in industrial-strength coolers given to us by the lab, and ship it out."

All told, Mr. Millman and his mother, Ann Marks, gathered 213 samples of chicken drumsticks from supermarkets, butcher shops and specialty stores in the New York area.

Now they and several scientists have published a study based on the project in the journal F1000 Research. The results were surprising.

Kosher chicken samples that tested positive for antibiotic-resistant E. coli had nearly twice as much of the bacteria as the samples from conventionally raised birds did. And even the samples from organically raised chickens and those raised without antibiotics did not significantly differ from the conventional ones.



For the full story, see:

STEPHANIE STROM. "A Science Project With Legs." The New York Times (Tues., November 5, 2013): D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date November 4, 2013.)


The academic article on E. coli in different types of chicken, is:

Millman, Jack M., Kara Waits, Heidi Grande, Ann R. Marks, Jane C. Marks, Lance B. Price, and Bruce A. Hungate. "Prevalence of Antibiotic-Resistant E. Coli in Retail Chicken: Comparing Conventional, Organic, Kosher, and Raised without Antibiotics." F1000Research 2 (2013).






January 10, 2014

"Pretty Cool" Cochlear Implant: "It Helps Me Hear"



CochlearImplant2013-11-15.jpg "The cochlear implant." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ commentary quoted and cited below.


(p. A15) . . . , three pioneering researchers-- Graeme Clark, Ingeborg Hochmair and Blake Wilson --shared the prestigious Lasker-DeBakey Award for Clinical Medical Research for their work in developing the [cochlear] implant. . . . The award citation says the devices have "for the first time, substantially restored a human sense with medical intervention" and directly transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands.

I've seen this up close. My 10-year-old son, Alex, is one of the 320,000 people with a cochlear implant.


, , ,


"What's that thing on your head?" I heard a new friend ask Alex recently.

"It helps me hear," he replied, then added: "I think it's pretty cool."

"If you took it off, would you hear me?" she asked.

"Nope," he said. "I'm deaf."

"Cool," she agreed. Then they talked about something else.

Moments like that make me deeply grateful for the technology that allows Alex to have such a conversation, but also for the hard-won aplomb that lets him do it so matter-of-factly.



For the full commentary, see:

Denworth, Lydia. "OPINION; What Cochlear Implants Did for My Son; Researchers who were just awarded the 'American Nobel' have opened up the world of sound to the deaf." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., Sept. 20, 2013): A15.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed word, added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date Sept. 19, 2013.)






October 20, 2013

Hubel and Wiesel Are an Example that 'Luck Favors the Prepared Mind'



WieselTorstenAndHubelDavidNobelPrizeWinners2013-10-06.jpg





"Dr. David Hubel, right, celebrating with his longtime collaborator, Dr. Torsten Wiesel, after they won the Nobel Prize in 1981." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT obituary quoted and cited below.




(p. A25) Dr. Hubel and Dr. Wiesel liked to recall that their initial discovery about how vision works resulted from luck. Working in a tiny basement laboratory at Johns Hopkins, the pair struggled for days to coax brain cells in cats to respond to images of dark and light spots. Becoming increasingly frustrated, they waved their arms, jumped around, and, in a moment of levity, displayed images of glamorous women from magazines.

Then, as they shifted a slide in the opthalmoscope, a cell in the cat's visual cortex suddenly started to fire. The edge of the slide had cast a straight, dark line on the animal's retina. "It was what the cell wanted, and it wanted it, moreover, in just one narrow range of orientations," Dr. Hubel said in his Nobel lecture.

They studied the cell for nine hours, and then, Dr. Wiesel recalled, ran down the hall screaming with joy.



For the full obituary, see:

DENISE GELLENE. "David Hubel, Nobel-Winning Scientist, Dies at 87." The New York Times (Weds., September 25, 2013): A4.

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date September 24, 2013.)






October 10, 2013

Gene-Altered Mice Live 20% Longer



MouseGeneAltertedLivesLonger2013-09-27.jpg "NIH researchers found that lowering the expression of a single gene helped extend the life of mice by about 20%. A mouse with a manipulated gene on the right and an unchanged mouse on the left." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.



(p. A3) By reducing the activity of one type of gene, scientists said they increased the average life span of mice by about 20%, a feat that in human terms is akin to extending life by about 15 years.

Moreover, the researchers at the National Institutes of Health found that memory, cognition and some other important traits were better preserved in the mice as they aged, compared with a control group of mice that had normal levels of a protein put out by the gene.

The findings, published Thursday [August 29, 2013] in the journal Cell Reports, strengthen the case that the gene, called mTOR, is a major regulator of the aging process.


. . .


The results . . . build on a growing body of research challenging the belief that aging is an intractable biological process, prompting scientists to think of slowing aging as a possible way to prevent disease.

"What we need right now is for scientists and the public to wake up to the concept that you can slow aging," said Brian Kennedy, president of the Buck Institute for Aging Research in Novato, Calif., who wasn't involved in the new study. "If you do, you prevent many of the diseases that we're so scared of and that are associated with aging." They include cardiovascular disease, cancer and Alzheimer's disease.



For the full story, see:

RON WINSLOW. "Altered Gene Points Toward Longer Life Spans; Successful Experiment With Mice May One Day Play Role in Slowing Human Aging; Side Effects Could Be Problematic." The Wall Street Journal (Fri, August 30, 2013): A3.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date August 29, 2013, and has the title "Genetic Manipulation Extends Life of Mice 20%; But Translating Findings to Humans Faces Many Hurdles.")


The scientific article being discussed above, is:

Wu, J.  Julie, Jie Liu, Edmund B Chen, Jennifer J Wang, Liu Cao, Nisha Narayan, Marie M Fergusson, Ilsa I Rovira, Michele Allen, Danielle A Springer, Cory U Lago, Shuling Zhang, Wendy DuBois, Theresa Ward, Rafael deCabo, Oksana Gavrilova, Beverly Mock, and Toren Finkel. "Increased Mammalian Lifespan and a Segmental and Tissue-Specific Slowing of Aging after Genetic Reduction of mTor Expression." Cell Reports 4, no. 5 (Aug. 29, 2013): 913-20.






September 8, 2013

How to Win the Nobel Prize with Dyslexia



GreiderCarolDyslexicNobelPrizeWinner2013-08-10.jpg "HER TURN; Dr. Carol W. Greider is a researcher at Johns Hopkins." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT interview quoted and cited below.



(p. D1) Q. Did you always want to be a biologist?

A. My parents were scientists. But I wasn't the sort of child who did science fairs. One of the things I was thinking about today is that as a kid I had dyslexia. I had a lot of trouble in school and was put into remedial classes. I thought that I was stupid.

Q. That must have hurt.

A. Sure. Yes. It was hard to overcome (p. D3) that. I kept thinking of ways to compensate. I learned to memorize things very well because I just couldn't spell words. So later when I got to take classes like chemistry and anatomy where I had to memorize things, it turned out I was very good at that.

I never planned a career. I had these blinders on that got me through a lot of things that might have been obstacles. I just went forward. It's a skill that I had early on that must have been adaptive. I enjoyed biology in high school and that brought me to a research lab at U.C. Santa Barbara. I loved doing experiments and I had fun with them. I realized this kind of problem-solving fit my intellectual style. So in order to continue having fun, I decided to go to graduate school at Berkeley. It was there that I went to Liz Blackburn's lab, where telomeres were being studied.



For the full interview, see:

CLAUDIA DREIFUS. "A CONVERSATION WITH CAROL W. GREIDER; On Winning a Nobel Prize in Science." The New York Times (Tues., October 13, 2009): D1 & D3.

(Note: bold in original; questions capitalized as in print version.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date October 12, 2009.)






August 31, 2013

Science Discovers New Six-Foot Lizard



MonitorLizardLuzonIsland2013-08-10.jpg "A 6-foot monitor lizard discovered on Luzon Island in the Philippines." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. D3) The number of lizard species in the world -- by most counts, around 4,000 -- has just increased by one, with the announcement of a new species found on Luzon island in the Philippines.

But this is not a reptile you'd want in a home terrarium. It's a 6-foot monitor lizard, gray with a spectacular pattern of colorful dots and other markings on its scales.

How did a species of lizard the size of a human remain undetected all these centuries? The answer is it didn't. "It's only new to science," said Rafe M. Brown, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas and senior author of a paper describing the new species, Varanus bitatawa, in Biology Letters.



For the full story, see:

HENRY FOUNTAIN. "OBSERVATORY; A New Lizard? Well, New to Science." The New York Times (Tues., April 13, 2010): D3.

(Note: the online version of the article has the date April 12, 2010.)






August 24, 2013

A Path to Bringing Back the Extinct Woolly Mammoth



(p. D3) For the first time in 43,000 years, a woolly mammoth has breathed again on earth.

Well, not the mammoth itself but its hemoglobin, the stuff in red blood cells that takes on oxygen in the lungs and offloads it in the tissues. By reconstructing the mammoth's hemoglobin, a team led by Kevin L. Campbell of the University of Manitoba in Canada has discovered how the once-tropical species adapted to living in arctic temperatures.

Dr. Campbell's work raises a somewhat astonishing possibility: that much of the physiology of extinct animals may one day be recoverable from the DNA extracted from their remains.


. . .


Two years ago, scientists at Penn State University sequenced a large part of the mammoth's genome from a clump of hair. They published the sequence along with the arresting suggestion that for just $10 million it might be possible to complete the sequence and use it to generate a living mammoth.

The suggestion was not as wild as it might seem, given that the idea came from George Church, a leading genome technologist at the Harvard Medical School. The mammoth's genome differs at about 400,000 sites from that of the African elephant. Dr. Church has been developing a method for altering 50,000 sites at a time, though he is not at present applying it to mammoths. In converting four sites on the elephant genome to the mammoth version, Dr. Campbell has resurrected at least one tiny part of the mammoth.



For the full story, see:

NICHOLAS WADE. "Mammoth Hemoglobin Offers More Clues to Its Arctic Evolution." The New York Times (Tues., May 4, 2010): D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date May 3, 2010.)






July 29, 2013

Biofuels Are Bad for the Planet



(p. A13) Biofuels are under siege from critics who say they crowd out food production. Now these fuels made from grass and grain, long touted as green, are being criticized as bad for the planet.

At issue is whether oil alternatives -- such as ethanol distilled from corn and fuels made from inedible stuff like switch grass -- actually make global warming worse through their indirect impact on land use around the world.

For example, if farmers in Brazil burn and clear more rainforest to grow food because farmers in the U.S. are using their land to grow grain for fuel, that could mean a net increase in emissions of carbon dioxide, the main "greenhouse gas" linked to climate change.


. . .


A study published in February [2008] in the journal Science found that U.S. production of corn-based ethanol increases emissions by 93%, compared with using gasoline, when expected world-wide land-use changes are taken into account. Applying the same methodology to biofuels made from switch grass grown on soil diverted from raising corn, the study found that greenhouse-gas emissions would rise by 50%.

Previous studies have found that substituting biofuels for gasoline reduces greenhouse gases. Those studies generally didn't account for the carbon emissions that occur as farmers world-wide respond to higher food prices and convert forest and grassland to cropland.



For the full story, see:

STEPHEN POWER. "If a Tree Falls in the Forest, Are Biofuels To Blame? It's Not Easy Being Green." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., November 11, 2008): A13.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)



Two relevant articles appeared in Science in the Feb. 29, 2008 issue:

Fargione, Joseph, Jason Hill, David Tilman, Stephen Polasky, and Peter Hawthorne. "Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt." Science 319, no. 5867 (Feb. 29, 2008): 1235-38.

Searchinger, Timothy, Ralph Heimlich, R. A. Houghton, Fengxia Dong, Amani Elobeid, Jacinto Fabiosa, Simla Tokgoz, Dermot Hayes, and Tun-Hsiang Yu. "Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases through Emissions from Land-Use Change." Science 319, no. 5867 (Feb. 29, 2008): 1238-40.






July 18, 2013

Ignoring Einstein's Mistakes by Deifying Him, Makes Us Forget His Struggles



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Source of book image: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41zyL4LVYxL.jpg




(p. A13) Mr. Ohanian finds that four out of five of the seminal papers that Einstein produced in the so-called "miracle year" of 1905, when he was working as a patent inspector in Zurich, were "infested with flaws."


. . .


. . . he notes Einstein's errors for a purpose, showing us why his achievement was all the greater for them.

In this Mr. Ohanian provides a useful corrective, for there is a tendency, even today, to deify Einstein and other men of genius, treating them as if they were immortal gods. Einstein himself objected to the practice even as he reveled in his fame. "It is not fair," he once observed, "to select a few individuals for boundless admiration and to attribute superhuman powers of mind and of character to them." In doing so, ironically, we make less of the person, not more, forgetting and simplifying their struggle.


. . .


. . . Einstein's ability to make use of his mistakes as "stepping stones and shortcuts" was central to his success, in Mr. Ohanian's view. To see Einstein's wanderings not as the strides of a god-like genius but as the steps and missteps of a man -- fallible and imperfect -- does not diminish our respect for him but rather enhances it.



For the full review, see:

McMahon, Darrin M. "BOOKSHELF; Great and Imperfect." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., September 5, 2008): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)


The book under review is:

Ohanian, Hans C. Einstein's Mistakes: The Human Failings of Genius. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008.






July 6, 2013

In the England of the Late 1600s, Coffeehouses Were "Crucibles of Creativity"



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Source of book image: http://www.drinkoftheweek.com/wp-content/plugins/simple-post-thumbnails/timthumb.php?src=/wp-content/thumbnails/23682.jpg&w=250&h=400&zc=1&ft=jpg



(p. 8) Like coffee itself, coffeehouses were an import from the Arab world.


. . .


Patrons were not merely permitted but encouraged to strike up conversations with strangers from entirely different walks of life. As the poet Samuel Butler put it, "gentleman, mechanic, lord, and scoundrel mix, and are all of a piece."


. . .


. . . , coffeehouses were in fact crucibles of creativity, because of the way in which they facilitated the mixing of both people and ideas. Members of the Royal Society, England's pioneering scientific society, frequently retired to coffeehouses to extend their discussions. Scientists often conducted experiments and gave lectures in coffeehouses, and because admission cost just a penny (the price of a single cup), coffeehouses were sometimes referred to as "penny universities." It was a coffeehouse argument among several fellow scientists that spurred Isaac Newton to write his "Principia Mathematica," one of the foundational works of modern science.

Coffeehouses were platforms for innovation in the world of business, too. Merchants used coffeehouses as meeting rooms, which gave rise to new companies and new business models. A London coffeehouse called Jonathan's, where merchants kept particular tables at which they would transact their business, turned into the London Stock Exchange. Edward Lloyd's coffeehouse, a popular meeting place for ship captains, shipowners and traders, became the famous insurance market Lloyd's.

And the economist Adam Smith wrote much of his masterpiece "The Wealth of Nations" in the British Coffee House, a popular meeting place for Scottish intellectuals, among whom he circulated early drafts of his book for discussion.



For the full commentary, see:

TOM STANDAGE. "OPINION; Social Networking in the 1600s." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., June 23, 2013): 8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date June 22, 2013.)



The author of the commentary is also the author of a related book:

Standage, Tom. A History of the World in Six Glasses. New York: Walker & Company, 2005.






July 1, 2013

Mainstream Climatologists Lower Best Guess Estimates of Global Warming (and Find High End Estimates "Pretty Implausible")



(p. D1) Since 1896, scientists have been trying to answer a deceptively simple question: What will happen to the temperature of the earth if the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doubles?

Some recent scientific papers have made a splash by claiming that the answer might not be as bad as previously feared. This work -- if it holds up -- offers the tantalizing possibility that climate change might be slow and limited enough that human society could adapt to it without major trauma.


. . .


In 1979, after two decades of meticulous measurements had made it clear that the carbon dioxide level was indeed rising, scientists used computers and a much deeper understanding of the climate to calculate a likely range of warming. They found that the response to a doubling of carbon dioxide would not be much below three degrees Fahrenheit, nor was it likely to exceed eight degrees.

In the years since, scientists have been (p. D6) pushing and pulling within that range, trying to settle on a most likely value. Most of those who are expert in climatology subscribe to a best-estimate figure of just over five degrees Fahrenheit.


. . .


What's new is that several recent papers have offered best estimates for climate sensitivity that are below four degrees Fahrenheit, rather than the previous best estimate of just above five degrees, and they have also suggested that the highest estimates are pretty implausible.

Notice that these recent calculations fall well within the long-accepted range -- just on the lower end of it.



For the full story, see:

JUSTIN GILLIS. "BY DEGREES; A Change in Temperature." The New York Times (Tues., May 14, 2013): D1 & D6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date May 13, 2013.)






June 24, 2013

We Should Disenthrall Ourselves of False Scientific Certainties



An Optimists Tour of the Future CoverBK2013-06-21.jpg
















Source of book image: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-ELpfH2bTO7c/Tb53WpKuDxI/AAAAAAAADrE/Zq8BQiiasJc/s640/An+Optimists+Tour+of+the+Future+Cover.jpg



(p. C4) Among the scientific certainties I have had to unlearn: that upbringing strongly shapes your personality; that nurture is the opposite of nature; that dietary fat causes obesity more than dietary carbohydrate; that carbon dioxide has been the main driver of climate change in the past.

I came across a rather good word for this kind of unlearning--"disenthrall"--in Mark Stevenson's book "An Optimist's Tour of the Future," published just this week. Mr. Stevenson borrows it from Abraham Lincoln, whose 1862 message to Congress speaks of disenthralling ourselves of "the dogmas of the quiet past" in order to "think anew."

Mr. Stevenson's disenthrallment comes in the course of a series of sharp and fascinating interviews with technological innovators and scientific visionaries. This disenthralls him of the pessimism about the future and nostalgia about the past that he barely realized he had and whose "fingers reach deep into [his] soul." It eventually turns him into an optimist almost as ludicrously sanguine about the 21st century as I am: "I steadfastly refuse to believe that human society can't grow, improve and learn; that it can't embrace change and remake the world better."

Along the way, Mr. Stevenson is struck by other examples of how the way he thinks and reasons is "in thrall to a world that is passing." The first of these bad habits is linear thinking about the future. . . .

We expect to see changes coming gradually, but because things like computing power or the cheapness of genome sequencing change exponentially, technologies can go from impossible to cheap quite suddenly and with little warning.



For the full commentary, see:

MATT RIDLEY. "MIND & MATTER; A Key Lesson of Adulthood: The Need to Unlearn." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., February 5, 2011): C4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


The book praised by Ridley, in the passages quoted above, is:

Stevenson, Mark. An Optimist's Tour of the Future: One Curious Man Sets out to Answer "What's Next?". New York: Avery, 2011.






June 22, 2013

Self-Taught Ovshinsky Created New Field in Physics and Licensed His Patents



OvshinskyStanfordSelfTaughtInventorPhysicist2013-06-21.jpg














"Stanford Ovshinsky helped to establish a new field of physics." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ obituary quoted and cited below.



(p. B5) Inspired by the structure of the brain, Stanford Ovshinsky created a new class of semiconductors that helped lead to flat-panel displays, solar cells and nickel-metal hydride batteries for cars, laptops and cameras.

Mr. Ovshinsky, who died Wednesday [October 17, 2012] at age 89, was an industrialist and self-taught scientific prodigy who helped found a new field of physics that studies the electronics of amorphous materials resembling glass.


. . .


"It was like discovering a new continent, like discovering America," said Hellmut Fritzsche, former chairman of physics department at the University of Chicago who worked with Mr. Ovshinsky. "Nobody in the past 50-60 years has created such a revolution in science."

The new materials--dubbed ovonics--were switches like transistors but worked better for many applications.

Mr. Ovshinsky used his discovery to fund a publicly traded research laboratory that teamed up with companies such as 3M Co., Atlantic Richfield Oil Corp. and General Motors, for which he developed the battery that powered the EV1, GM's electric car.

Companies around the world license his patents.

What made Mr. Ovshinsky's work particularly remarkable was that he had little connection to mainstream physics.

His education stopped after high school, . . .



For the full obituary, see:

STEPHEN MILLER. "Stanford Ovshinsky 1922-2012; An Inventor of Chips and Batteries." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., October 19, 2012): B5.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date October 18, 2012.)






June 5, 2013

Early Societies Were Violent, Superstitious and Unfair



(p. 89) Human nature is malleable. We use our minds to change our values, expectations, and definition of ourselves. We have changed our nature since our hominin days, and once changed, we will continue to change ourselves even more. Our inventions, such as language, writing, law, and science, have ignited a level of progress that is so fundamental and embedded in the present that we now naively expect to see similar good things in the past as well. But much of what we consider "civil" or even "humane" was absent long ago. Early societies were not peaceful but rife with warfare. One of the most common causes of adult death in tribal societies was to be declared a witch or evil spirit. No rational evidence was needed for these superstitious accusations. Lethal atrocities for infractions within a clan were the norm; fairness, as we might think of it, did not extend outside the immediate tribe. Rampant inequality among genders and physical advantage for the strong guided a type of justice few modern people would want applied to them.


Source:

Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.






May 27, 2013

How Electricity Matters for Life



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Source of book image:
http://media.npr.org/assets/bakertaylor/covers/t/the-spark-of-life/9780393078039_custom-86637e64da2201ed3081e0f26f40e0d139cbbf9d-s6-c10.jpg




(p. C9) Top-drawer scientists always are excited about their field, but many have difficulty conveying this to a general audience. Not so Frances Ashcroft. She is a distinguished physiologist at Oxford University whose work has provided crucial insight into how insulin secretion is connected to electrical activity in cells. Her research has meant that children born with one form of diabetes can control it using oral medication instead of regular and painful insulin injections.

After Ms. Ashcroft made her breakthrough in 1984, she felt as if she were "dancing in the air, shot high into the sky on the rocket of excitement with the stars exploding in vivid colours all around me," she writes in her engaging and informative "The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body." Even today, thinking of it "sends excitement fizzing through my veins."

Like so much else in our bodies, insulin secretion depends on crucial proteins in the cell walls that regulate the flow of ions (electrically charged atoms or molecules) between the interior of the cell and the fluids that surround it. The ions, mostly sodium, potassium and calcium, literally provide "the spark of life." Ms. Ashcroft uses her research into cellular "ion channels" as an overture to a rich and stimulating account of how electricity and the varied ways in which animals and plants produce it explain so much of evolutionary biology.


. . .


. . . all of Ms. Ashcroft's themes and variations represent facets of the same underlying ionic mechanism. In describing its wonders, she has produced a gem that sparkles.



For the full review, see:

WILLIAM BYNUM. "Singing the Body Electric." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., September 29, 2012): C9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date September 28, 2012.)



The book under review, is:

Ashcroft, Frances. The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.






April 15, 2013

Scientists May Bring Back Extinct Woolly Mammoths to Help Fight Global Warming



SouthernGastricBroodingExtinctFrog2013-04-05.jpg

"The Southern gastric brooding frog, extinct for a quarter-century. Scientists made early embryos of the frog but they died." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A1) Last week at a conference in Washington, scientists from Australia reported on their attempt to bring back a weird frog, the Southern gastric brooding frog, that went extinct about a quarter century ago. So far they have only made early embryos, which have died.

It is the early days for this new endeavor -- it could be years before scientists succeed in bringing species back from extinction. But many species are now gleams in scientists' eyes as they think of ways to bring them back. Woolly mammoths. A 70,000-year-old horse that used to live in the Yukon. Passenger pigeons, a species that obsessed Dr. Church's former student.


. . .


(p. A16) Before humans killed them, the nation had three billion to five billion passenger pigeons. They would take days to cross a city, noted Hank Greely, the director of the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University. "They left cities covered in an inch of guano," he said.


. . .


But there could be some unexpected advantages to bringing back certain species, or even to adding their DNA to that of today's species, Dr. Church said. For example, suppose elephants could live again in the Arctic. When woolly mammoths lived in the Arctic they would knock down trees and enable Artic grasses to flourish. Without trees, more sunlight was reflected and the ground was cooler. In winter, they would tramp down snow into the permafrost, enhancing it.

"Permafrost has two to three times more carbon than all the rain forests put together," Dr. Church said. "All you have to do to release carbon dioxide and methane is to melt it. With rain forests you have to burn it."


. . .


Mr. Greely cited another argument in favor of bringing back extinct species. He did not quite buy it, he said, but for him it had "a visceral appeal."

It is an argument about justice. Take the passenger pigeon. "We are the murderers," Mr. Greely said. "We killed them off. Shouldn't we bring them back?"



For the full story, see:

GINA KOLATA. "So You're Extinct? Scientists Have Gleam in Eye." The New York Times (Tues., March 19, 2013): A1 & A16.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 18, 2013.)

(Note: ellipses added.)






April 11, 2013

Global Warming Causes Trees to Grow Faster and Absorb More CO2



CentralParkTrees2013-03-08.jpg "CITY TREE, COUNTRY TREE; Scientists have been looking more closely at urban plant growth in places like Central Park." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. D3) . . . , some . . . scientists have moved beyond political questions to explore how rising levels of heat and emissions might provide at least some benefits for the planet.


. . .


Lewis H. Ziska, a plant physiologist for the Department of Agriculture, . . . [said] . . . , "we need to think about the tools we have at hand, and how we can use them to make climate change work for us."

Among the tools are cities, which have conditions that can mimic what life may be like in the temperate zone of a heated planet.

"The city is our baseline for what might happen in future decades, and with all the negative effects global warming may have, there may be a bit of a silver lining," said Stephanie Searle, a plant physiologist who led a Columbia University research project on tree growth, and now works as a biofuels researcher at the nonprofit International Council on Clean Transportation. "Higher nighttime temperatures, at least, may boost plant growth." Robust growth takes more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.


. . .


The effects of higher, mostly urban emissions are what prompted Dr. Ziska to reappraise global warming as a potential benefit to humanity. In an essay last summer in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Dr. Ziska and a group of colleagues from across the world argued that an expected increase in world population to 9 billion people from 7 billion by 2050 necessitated a "green revolution" to enhance yields of basic grains. Carbon dioxide, the group suggested, could be the answer.

Since 1960, world atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have risen by 24 percent to 392 parts per million and could reach 1,000 parts per million by the end of this century.


. . .


In New York, the Columbia researchers studied for eight years the growth of red oak seedlings at four locations, including an "urban" site near the northeastern edge of Central Park at 105th Street and a "remote" site in the Catskills 100 miles north of Manhattan near the Ashokan Reservoir.


. . .


The Columbia team's first red oak experiments ended in 2006, and average minimum temperatures in August were 71.6 degrees at the city site, but 63.5 degrees in the Catskills. Researchers also noticed that the city oaks had elevated levels of leaf nitrogen, a plant nutrient.

The team did two more rounds of experiments, then in 2008 made a final outdoor test using fertilized rural soil everywhere so all the seedlings got plenty of nitrogen. The urban oaks, harvested in August 2008, weighed eight times as much as their rural cousins, mostly because of increased foliage.

"On warm nights, the tree respires more," Dr. Griffin said. "It invests its carbon sugars to build tissue." By morning, the tree's sugars are depleted, and it has to photosynthesize more during the day, he continued. The tree grows more leaves and gets bigger.



For the full story, see:

GUY GUGLIOTTA. "Looking to Cities, in Search of Global Warming's Silver Lining." The New York Times (Tues., November 27, 2012): D3.

(Note: ellipses and bracketed "said" added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date November 26, 2012.)



The Ziska article mentioned above, is:

Ziska, Lewis H., James A. Bunce, Hiroyuki Shimono, David R. Gealy, Jeffrey T. Baker, Paul C. D. Newton, Matthew P. Reynolds, Krishna S. V. Jagadish, Chunwu Zhu, Mark Howden, and Lloyd T. Wilson. "Food Security and Climate Change: On the Potential to Adapt Global Crop Production by Active Selection to Rising Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide." Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 279, no. 1745 (Oct. 22, 2012): 4097-105.


The article co-authored by Searle and Griffin, and mentioned above, is:

Searle, Stephanie Y., Danielle S. Bitterman, Samuel Thomas, Kevin L. Griffin, Owen K. Atkin, and Matthew H. Turnbull. "Respiratory Alternative Oxidase Responds to Both Low- and High-Temperature Stress in Quercus Rubra Leaves Along an Urban-Rural Gradient in New York." Functional Ecology 25, no. 5 (Oct. 2011): 1007-17.






March 25, 2013

Scientist Sees Benefits in Plan to Increase Global Warming



(p. D2) Plants are . . . part of one theoretical plan for turning Mars into a suitable environment for human beings, a process called terraforming.


. . .


Chris McKay, a Mars expert at the NASA Ames Research Center, theorizes that engineers would first have to encourage the kind of global warming they want to avoid on Earth. This could be done by releasing greenhouse gases, like chlorofluorocarbons or perfluorocarbons, into the atmosphere. The goal would be to increase the surface temperature of Mars by a total of about 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit.


. . .


With the rise in temperature, heat-trapping carbon dioxide would eventually be released from the planet's south polar ice cap, producing a further average temperature rise of even greater magnitude, perhaps as much as 70 degrees Celsius, or 126 degrees Fahrenheit.

These high temperatures would melt ice to produce the water needed for living things.



For the full story, see:

C. CLAIBORNE RAY. "Q & A; At Home on Mars." The New York Times (Tues., December 11, 2012): D2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date December 10, 2012.)


McKay wrote up some of his ideas in:

McKay, Christopher P. "Bringing Life to Mars." Scientific American Presents: The Future of Space Exploration (1999): 52-57.






March 17, 2013

NYT Climate Blogger Sees Evidence "Trending" Toward Less Global Warming



"Worse than we thought" has been one of the most durable phrases lately among those pushing for urgent action to stem the buildup of greenhouse gases linked to global warming.

But on one critically important metric -- how hot the planet will get from a doubling of the pre-industrial concentration of greenhouse gases, a k a "climate sensitivity" -- some climate researchers with substantial publication records are shifting toward the lower end of the warming spectrum.

There's still plenty of global warming and centuries of coastal retreats in the pipeline, so this is hardly a "benign" situation, as some have cast it.

But while plenty of other climate scientists hold firm to the idea that the full range of possible outcomes, including a disruptively dangerous warming of more than 4.5 degrees C. (8 degrees F.), remain in play, it's getting harder to see why the high-end projections are given much weight.


. . .


In fact, there is an accumulating body of reviewed, published research shaving away the high end of the range of possible warming estimates from doubled carbon dioxide levels.


. . .


(. . . recent work is trending toward the published low sensitivity findings from a decade ago from climate scientists best known for their relationships with libertarian groups.)

Nonetheless, the science is what the science is.



Revkin, Andrew C. "CLIMATE CHANGE; A Closer Look at Moderating Views of Climate Sensitivity." Dot Earth: New York Times Opinion Pages Climate Blog. (posted February 4, 2013).

(Note: ellipses added.)






March 12, 2013

Resveratrol Activates Sirtuins to Switch on Energy Producing Mitochondria




A new study, just published in the prestigious journal Science, appears to substantially vindicate the recently beleaguered resveratrol longevity research of David Sinclair:


. . . a new study led by David Sinclair of the Harvard Medical School, who in 2003 was a discoverer resveratrol's role in activating sirtuins, found that resveratrol did indeed influence sirtuin directly, though in a more complicated way than previously thought.    . . .    . . . activated, the sirtuins do several things, one of which is to switch on a second protein that spurs production of the mitochondria, which provide the cell's energy. This would explain why mice treated with resveratrol ran twice as far on a treadmill before collapsing from exhaustion as untreated mice.


For the full story, see:

NICHOLAS WADE. "New Optimism on Resveratrol." New York Times "Well" Blog    Posted on MARCH 11, 2013. URL: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/11/new-optimism-on-resveratrol/

(Note: ellipses added.)


The Sinclair article (see last-listed co-author) is:

Hubbard, Basil P., Ana P. Gomes, Han Dai, Jun Li, April W. Case, Thomas Considine, Thomas V. Riera, Jessica E. Lee, Sook Yen E (sic), Dudley W. Lamming, Bradley L. Pentelute, Eli R. Schuman, Linda A. Stevens, Alvin J. Y. Ling, Sean M. Armour, Shaday Michan, Huizhen Zhao, Yong Jiang, Sharon M. Sweitzer, Charles A. Blum, Jeremy S. Disch, Pui Yee Ng, Konrad T. Howitz, Anabela P. Rolo, Yoshitomo Hamuro, Joel Moss, Robert B. Perni, James L. Ellis, George P. Vlasuk, and David A. Sinclair. "Evidence for a Common Mechanism of Sirt1 Regulation by Allosteric Activators." Science 339, no. 6124 (March 8, 2013): 1216-19.






March 4, 2013

Stanford Meta-Study Finds Organic Food Is No More Nutritious than Much Cheaper Non-organic Food



StrawberriesNonorganicWatsonvilleCalifornia2013-02-23.jpg "Conventional strawberries in Watsonville, California. Researchers say organic foods are no more nutritious and no less likely to be contaminated." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A20) Does an organic strawberry contain more vitamin C than a conventional one?

Maybe -- or maybe not.

Stanford University scientists have weighed in on the "maybe not" side of the debate after an extensive examination of four decades of research comparing organic and conventional foods.

They concluded that fruits and vegetables labeled organic were, on average, no more nutritious than their conventional counterparts, which tend to be far less expensive. Nor were they any less likely to be contaminated by dangerous bacteria like E. coli.

The researchers also found no obvious health advantages to organic meats.


. . .


The conclusions will almost certainly fuel the debate over whether organic foods are a smart choice for healthier living or a marketing tool that gulls people into overpaying. The production of organic food is governed by a raft of regulations that generally prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides, hormones and additives.

The organic produce market in the United States has grown quickly, up 12 percent last year, to $12.4 billion, compared with 2010, according to the Organic Trade Association. Organic meat has a smaller share of the American market, at $538 million last year, the trade group said.


. . .


In the study -- known as a meta-analysis, in which previous findings are aggregated but no new laboratory work is conducted -- researchers combined data from 237 studies, examining a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and meats. For four years, they performed statistical analyses looking for signs of health benefits from adding organic foods to the diet.

The researchers did not use any outside financing for their research. "I really wanted us to have no perception of bias," Dr. Bravata said.



For the full story, see:

KENNETH CHANG. "Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce." The New York Times (Tues., September 4, 2012): A20.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date September 3, 2012.)






March 2, 2013

Organic Food May Be Less Healthy than Non-Organic Food



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Source of book image: http://www.leckeragency.com/sites/default/files/books/Schwarcz,%20Joe%20-%20The%20Right%20Chemistry%20Cover.jpeg



(p. D7) . . . , when did "chemical" become a dirty word? That's a question raised by one of Canada's brightest scientific minds: Joe Schwarcz, director of the Office for Science and Society at McGill University in Montreal. Dr. Schwarcz, who has received high honors from Canadian and American scientific societies, is the author of several best-selling books that attempt to set the record straight on a host of issues that commonly concern health-conscious people.

I've read two of his books, "Science, Sense and Nonsense" (published in 2009) and "The Right Chemistry" (2012), and recently attended a symposium on the science of food that Dr. Schwarcz organized at McGill.

What follows are tips from his books and the symposium that can help you make wiser choices about what does, and does not, pass your lips in 2013.


. . .


ORGANIC OR NOT? Wherever I shop for food these days, I find an ever-widening array of food products labeled "organic" and "natural." But are consumers getting the health benefits they pay a premium for?

Until the 20th century, Dr. Schwarcz wrote, all farming was "organic," with manure and compost used as fertilizer and "natural" compounds of arsenic, mercury and lead used as pesticides.

Might manure used today on organic farms contain disease-causing micro-organisms? Might organic produce unprotected by insecticides harbor cancer-causing molds? It's a possibility, Dr. Schwarcz said. But consumers aren't looking beyond the organic sales pitch.

Also questionable is whether organic foods, which are certainly kinder to the environment, are more nutritious. Though some may contain slightly higher levels of essential micronutrients, like vitamin C, the difference between them and conventionally grown crops may depend more on where they are produced than how.

A further concern: Organic producers disavow genetic modification, which can be used to improve a crop's nutritional content, enhance resistance to pests and diminish its need for water. A genetically modified tomato developed at the University of Exeter, for example, contains nearly 80 times the antioxidants of conventional tomatoes. Healthier, yes -- but it can't be called organic.



For the full story, see:

JANE E. BRODY. "PERSONAL HEALTH; What You Think You Know (but Don't) About Wise Eating." The New York Times (Tues., January 1, 2013): D7.

(Note: ellipses added; bold in original.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date DECEMBER 31, 2012.)



The Schwarcz books mentioned above, are:

Schwarcz, Joe. The Right Chemistry: 108 Enlightening, Nutritious, Health-Conscious and Occasionally Bizarre Inquiries into the Science of Daily Life. Toronto, Ontario: Doubleday Canada, 2012.

Schwarcz, Joe. Science, Sense & Nonsense. Toronto, Ontario: Doubleday Canada, 2009.






February 22, 2013

Darwin Shared His Thought Processes Without Condescension



DarwinCharlesIn1881.jpg














"SAGE OF AGES; Portrait of Charles Darwin in 1881, by Julia Margaret Cameron." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.






(p. C14) . . . Mr. Johnson observes:

No scientific innovator has ever taken more trouble to smooth the way for lay readers without descending into vulgarity. What is almost miraculous about the book is Darwin's generosity in sharing his thought processes, his lack of condescension. There is no talking down, but no hauteur, either. It is a gentlemanly book.

In both style and substance, this passage is classic Paul Johnson.


. . .


What makes Darwin good, in the biographer's estimation, is the scientist's democratic dissemination of knowledge. Darwin triumphed with "The Origin of Species," Mr. Johnson contends, not only because of his ability to portray the theory of evolution as the inescapable outcome of his decades of study and the work of fellow scientists, whom he was careful to praise, but because he was acutely aware that he had to present his notions of natural selection and survival of the fittest so as not to stir up public controversy. To an extraordinary degree, Darwin deflected attacks by couching his discoveries in terms of the plants he liked to examine and cultivate. He had relatively little to say about human evolution.



For the full review, see:

CARL ROLLYSON. "Studies of the Moral Animal." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., December 15, 2012): C14.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review essay has the date December 14, 2012.)



The book under review is:

Johnson, Paul M. Darwin: Portrait of a Genius. New York: Viking Adult, 2012.







February 8, 2013

Lichen Fungi May Never Age



PringleAnneLichenResearch2013-01-12.jpg "ANNUAL VISITOR; For the last eight years, Anne Pringle of Harvard has been collecting data about the lichens on the gravestones at a cemetary in Petersham, Mass." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. D3) PETERSHAM, Mass. -- On a sparkling New England afternoon, as hawks coasted overhead and yellow leaves drifted to the ground, Anne Pringle stood before a large granite obelisk that marked the graves of a family called French.


. . .


For eight years, Dr. Pringle, 42, has been returning to this cemetery each fall, to measure, sketch and scrutinize the lichens, which belong to the genus Xanthoparmelia. She wants to know whether they deteriorate with the passage of time, leaving them more susceptible to death.


. . .


Lichens are not individuals but tiny ecosystems, composed of one main fungus, a group of algae and an assortment of smaller fungi and bacteria.


. . .


While lichens are communities, Dr. Pringle is largely interested in the fungi. Mycologists, the scientists who study fungi -- not the most glamorous corridor of biology -- have long assumed that many of these organisms don't age.

. . .


"What you know is based on the organisms you study," she said. "What would you say about the evolution of senescence if instead of working with insects, you worked with modular organisms, which is what lichen are?"

Daniel Doak, a University of Colorado ecologist, agrees that the question is worth asking. Research like Dr. Pringle's -- along with other studies of species including the bristlecone pine tree and the wandering albatross, a bird, both of which may avoid senescence -- suggests another possible path.

"It's saying something fundamental," Dr. Doak said, "that senescence is not an inevitable part of life. Which means there might be ways to prevent it." That idea could eventually have implications for human medicine.


. . .


Dr. Pringle's preliminary results show that as a lichen grows older and larger, it is less likely to die. "If you made me answer the question now," she said, "I'd say there can be senescence of parts of an individual. But I don't think an individual ever senesces."



For the full story, see:

HILLARY ROSNER. "In a Place for the Dead, Studying a Seemingly Immortal Species." The New York Times (Tues., January 1, 2013): D3.

(note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date December 31, 2012.)



LichenCommunity2013-01-12.jpg"THRIVING; Dr. Pringle's initial results show that as a lichen grows older and larger, it is less likely to die." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.






February 4, 2013

Social Scientists Prefer Articles that Contain Bogus Math



MathBiasGraphic2013-01-12.jpgSource of graphic: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.




(p. A2) . . . research has shown that even those who should be especially clear-sighted about numbers--scientific researchers, for example, and those who review their work for publication--are often uncomfortable with, and credulous about, mathematical material. As a result, some research that finds its way into respected journals--and ends up being reported in the popular press--is flawed.

In the latest study, Kimmo Eriksson, a mathematician and researcher of social psychology at Sweden's Mälardalen University, chose two abstracts from papers published in research journals, one in evolutionary anthropology and one in sociology. He gave them to 200 people to rate for quality--with one twist. At random, one of the two abstracts received an additional sentence, the one above with the math equation, which he pulled from an unrelated paper in psychology. The study's 200 participants all had master's or doctoral degrees. Those with degrees in math, science or technology rated the abstract with the tacked-on sentence as slightly lower-quality than the other. But participants with degrees in humanities, social science or other fields preferred the one with the bogus math, with some rating it much more highly on a scale of 0 to 100.

"Math makes a research paper look solid, but the real science lies not in math but in trying one's utmost to understand the real workings of the world," Prof. Eriksson said.



For the full story, see:

CARL BIALIK. "THE NUMBERS GUY; Don't Let Math Pull the Wool Over Your Eyes." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., January 5, 2013): A2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date January 4, 2013,)



A pdf of Eriksson's published article can be downloaded from:

Eriksson, Kimmo. "The Nonsense Math Effect." Judgment and Decision Making 7, no. 6 (November 2012): 746-49.






January 23, 2013

David Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research



LangerRobertResearchLab2013-01-12.jpg "Dr. Robert Langer's research lab is at the forefront of moving academic discoveries into the marketplace." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. 1) HOW do you take particles in a test tube, or components in a tiny chip, and turn them into a $100 million company?

Dr. Robert Langer, 64, knows how. Since the 1980s, his Langer Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has spun out companies whose products treat cancer, diabetes, heart disease and schizophrenia, among other diseases, and even thicken hair.

The Langer Lab is on the front lines of turning discoveries made in the lab into a range of drugs and drug delivery systems. Without this kind of technology transfer, the thinking goes, scientific discoveries might well sit on the shelf, stifling innovation.

A chemical engineer by training, Dr. Langer has helped start 25 companies and has 811 patents, issued or pending, to his name. More than 250 companies have licensed or sublicensed Langer Lab patents.

Polaris Venture Partners, a Boston venture capital firm, has invested $220 million in 18 Langer Lab-inspired businesses. Combined, these businesses have improved the health of many millions of people, says Terry McGuire, co-founder of Polaris.


. . .


(p. 7) Operating from the sixth floor of the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research on the M.I.T. campus in Cambridge, Mass., Dr. Langer's lab has a research budget of more than $10 million for 2012, coming mostly from federal sources.


. . .


David H. Koch, executive vice president of Koch Industries, the conglomerate based in Wichita, Kan., wrote in an e-mail that "innovation and education have long fueled the world's most powerful economies, so I can't think of a better or more natural synergy than the one between academia and industry." Mr. Koch endowed Dr. Langer's professorship at M.I.T. and is a graduate of the university.



For the full story, see:

HANNAH SELIGSON. "Hatching Ideas, and Companies, by the Dozens at M.I.T." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., November 25, 2012): 1 & 7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date November 24, 2012.)






January 21, 2013

The Creation of Consistent, Predictable Dyes and Paints



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Source of book image: http://www.kristenlovesdesign.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/The-Color-Revolution-by-Regina-Lee-Blaszczyk.png




(p. C12) Few things seem as eternal as color. Yet as Regina Lee Blaszczyk argues, color has a history, a history largely created by business. In "The Color Revolution," Ms. Blaszczyk shows how the invention of synthetic organic chemistry in the 1850s allowed chemists to create consistent, predictable colors in dyes and paints. Once a chemical company's magenta was reliable, manufacturers could select it from a color card, order it by mail, and use it to produce dresses and dishware in exactly the promised hue.


For the full review essay, see:

Marc Levinson. "Boardroom Reading of 2012." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., December 15, 2012): C12.

(Note: the online version of the review essay has the date December 14, 2012.)



The book under review, is:

Blaszczyk, Regina Lee. The Color Revolution, Lemelson Center Studies in Invention and Innovation. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012.






January 13, 2013

Harvard University Press Dropped Watson's "The Double Helix" as Too Controversial



WatsonAndCrick2013-01-11.jpg



"Partners; James D. Watson, left, with Francis Crick and their model of part of a DNA molecule in 1953. Crick did not like Dr. Watson's book at first." Source of caption: print version of the NYT article quoted and cited below. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.





(p. D2) Anyone seeking to understand modern biology and genomics could do much worse than start with the discovery of the structure of DNA, on which almost everything else is based. The classic account of the discovery, "The Double Helix," by James D. Watson, was first published in 1968 and has now been reissued in an annotated and illustrated edition.


. . .


An appendix makes it clear how close "The Double Helix" came to being suppressed. Dr. Watson sent the manuscript to many of the central players, inviting their comments on its accuracy. Harvard University Press had accepted it for publication, but the Harvard authorities came to feel it was too hot a potato and dropped it.

Atheneum Publishers, which picked it up, requested a blander title -- previous versions had included "Honest Jim" and "Base Pairs." The latter -- referring to the paired sets of chemical bases that form the steps in the double helix, and by extension to the two discoverers -- gave particular offense to Crick, who failed to see why he should be considered base. Atheneum's lawyers then tried to make the text inoffensive to the many possible litigants.

But Dr. Watson was able to resist many changes. He had cannily persuaded Bragg to write a foreword, and this endorsement from an establishment figure provided sufficient protection for the book to be published. It proceeded to sell more than a million copies.



For the full review, see:

NICHOLAS WADE. "BOOKS ON SCIENCE; Twists in the Tale of the Great DNA Discovery." The New York Times (Tues., November 13, 2012): D2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 12, 2012.)



The annotated version of the Watson book is:

Watson, James D. The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.






December 23, 2012

Internet Posting May Be Replacing Peer Reviewed Publishing



The article quoted below provides additional signs that institutions of knowledge production and dissemination may be changing in important ways. (Wikipedia is another, even bigger, sign.)


(p. 635) Over the past decade, there has been a decline in the fraction of papers in top economics journals written by economists from the highest-ranked economics departments. This paper documents this fact and uses additional data on publications and citations to assess various potential explanations. Several observations are consistent with the hypothesis that the Internet improves the ability of high-profile authors to disseminate their research without going through the traditional peer-review process.


Source:

Ellison, Glenn. "Is Peer Review in Decline?" Economic Inquiry 49, no. 3 (July 2011): 635-57.






December 8, 2012

"It Isn't What You Know that Counts--It Is How Efficiently You Can Refresh"



HalfLifeOfFactsBK2012-12-01.jpg












Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.







(p. A17) Knowledge, then, is less a canon than a consensus in a state of constant disruption. Part of the disruption has to do with error and its correction, but another part with simple newness--outright discoveries or new modes of classification and analysis, often enabled by technology.


. . .


In some cases, the facts themselves are variable.  . . .


. . .


More commonly, however, changes in scientific facts reflect the way that science is done. Mr. Arbesman describes the "Decline Effect"--the tendency of an original scientific publication to present results that seem far more compelling than those of later studies. Such a tendency has been documented in the medical literature over the past decade by John Ioannidis, a researcher at Stanford, in areas as diverse as HIV therapy, angioplasty and stroke treatment. The cause of the decline may well be a potent combination of random chance (generating an excessively impressive result) and publication bias (leading positive results to get preferentially published).

If shaky claims enter the realm of science too quickly, firmer ones often meet resistance. As Mr. Arbesman notes, scientists struggle to let go of long-held beliefs, something that Daniel Kahneman has described as "theory-induced blindness." Had the Austrian medical community in the 1840s accepted the controversial conclusions of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis that physicians were responsible for the spread of childbed fever--and heeded his hand-washing recommendations--a devastating outbreak of the disease might have been averted.

Science, Mr. Arbesman observes, is a "terribly human endeavor." Knowledge grows but carries with it uncertainty and error; today's scientific doctrine may become tomorrow's cautionary tale. What is to be done? The right response, according to Mr. Arbesman, is to embrace change rather than fight it. "Far better than learning facts is learning how to adapt to changing facts," he says. "Stop memorizing things . . . memories can be outsourced to the cloud." In other words: In a world of information flux, it isn't what you know that counts--it is how efficiently you can refresh.



For the full review, see:

DAVID A. SHAYWITZ. "BOOKSHELF; The Scientific Blind Spot." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., November 19, 2012): A17.

(Note: ellipses added, except for the one internal to the last paragraph, which was in the original.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated November 18, 2012.)


The book under review, is:

Arbesman, Samuel. The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date. New York: Current, 2012.






October 25, 2012

Reality Is Not Always "Elegant"



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Source of book image: http://images.betterworldbooks.com/067/Ordinary-Geniuses-Segre-Gino-9780670022762.jpg



(p. C9) In the summer of 1953, while visiting Berkeley, Gamow was shown a copy of the article in Nature where Watson and Crick spelled out some of the genetic implications of their discovery that DNA is structured as a double helix. He immediately realized what was missing. Each helix is a linear sequence of four molecules known as bases. The sequence contains all the information that guides the manufacture of the proteins from which living things are made. Proteins are assembled from 20 different amino acids. What is the code that takes you from the string of bases to the amino acids? Gamow seems to have been the first to look at the problem in quite this way.

But he made a physicist's mistake: He thought that the code would be "elegant"--that each amino acid would be specified by only one string of bases. (These strings were dubbed "codons.") He produced a wonderfully clever code in which each codon consisted of three bases. That was the only part that was right. In the actual code sometimes three different codons correspond to the same amino acid, while some codons do not code for an amino acid at all. These irregularities are the results of evolutionary stops and starts, and no amount of cleverness could predict them.



For the full review, see:

JEREMY BERNSTEIN. "The Inelegant Universe." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., August 13, 2011): C9.


The book under review is:

Segrè, Gino. Ordinary Geniuses: Max Delbruck, George Gamow, and the Origins of Genomics and Big Bang Cosmology. New York: Viking, 2011.






October 20, 2012

Much Innovation Has "Nothing to Do with Science--It's Just Creative Mankind Chipping Away at Things"



(p. 122) VANE and MULHEARN: The prize rewards specific discoveries, achievements, or breakthroughs in economic science. Your pioneering contributions have opened up a rich seam of research for others to mine. Does academic knowledge largely progress through the lead taken by a small number of creative innovators?
PHELPS: That's such a good question. It resonates with a subject in the area of innovation theory. The old guys like Arthur Spiethoff thought that progress was due to the great discoveries of the scientists and navigators. Schumpeter (1934) (p. 123) didn't depart altogether from that, he simply said, well, that's right but you've got to have some entrepreneur to actually implement it. But don't think there's much creativity there--everybody knows what's in the air. And it's very rare that anything new really gets created in the course of this development work. But now we don't think about innovation in that way so much. We recognize that once in a while there is a big leap which creates the ground for a surge of innovations to follow. Nowadays we realize that an awful lot of innovation just comes from business people operating at the grass roots having ideas on the basis of what they see around them. Nothing to do with science--it's just creative mankind chipping away at things. I know that the Sens and the Mundells and the Lucases are towering figures, but they couldn't have become so if they hadn't read a lot of papers by, well, pretty average people who are just doing a good job of exploring a question and giving inspiration. I guess the towering figures are people with just a little more drive, a little more imagination, just a little cleverer in putting some things together. In other words, I don't know the answer to the question [laughter].


For the full interview, from which the above is quoted, see:

Vane, Howard R., and Chris Mulhearn, interviewers. "Interview with Edmund S. Phelps." Journal of Economic Perspectives 23, no. 3 (Summer 2009): 109-24.






October 9, 2012

"Extinct" Snail Found Alive



RocksnailAlabama2012-09-03.jpg "The oblong rocksnail in Alabama, 12 years after it was declared extinct." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. D3) A freshwater snail has been rediscovered on the Cahaba River in Alabama, 12 years after it was declared extinct.

Nathan Whelan, a graduate student in biology at the University of Alabama, spotted the snail -- called the oblong rocksnail, or Leptoxis compacta -- on a small stretch of the river.



For the full story, see:

SINDYA N. BHANOO. "OBSERVATORY; Snails Appear Reborn, or Were Overlooked." The New York Times (Tues., August 14, 2012): D3.

(Note: the online version of the article has the date August 13, 2012.)


Whelan and co-authors report their findings in:

Whelan NV, Johnson PD, Harris PM (2012) Rediscovery of Leptoxis compacta (Anthony, 1854) (Gastropoda: Cerithioidea: Pleuroceridae). PLoS ONE 7(8): e42499. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0042499






October 3, 2012

Big Science Done Privately at Great Risk



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Source of book image: http://t0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQPLdrVlC1FT3ojxyxWJLq55AeAs87pw_Bw6ks1ugFnkcI_DBa_1w&t=1



(p. 23) Next time you find yourself grousing when the passenger in front reclines his seat a smidge too far, consider the astronomers of the Enlightenment. In 1761 and 1769, dozens and dozens of stargazers traveled thousands of miserable miles to observe a rare and awesome celestial phenomenon. They went by sailing ship and open dinghy, by carriage, by sledge and on foot. They endured discomfort that in our own flabby century would generate years of litigation. And they did it all for science: the men in powdered wigs and knee britches were determined to measure the transit of Venus.


. . .


The British astronomer Edmond Halley had realized that precise measurement of a transit might give astronomers armed with a clock and a telescope the data they needed to calculate how far Earth is from the Sun. With that distance in hand, they could work out the actual size of the solar system, the great astronomical problem of the era. The catch was that it would take multiple measurements from carefully chosen locations all over the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. But that was somebody else's problem. Halley knew he wouldn't live to see the transit of 1761.

That challenge fell to the French astronomer Joseph-Nicolas Delisle, who managed to energize and rally his colleagues in the years leading up to the transit, then coordinate the enormous effort that would ultimately involve scientists and adventurers from France, Britain, Russia, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Sweden and the American colonies. When you think about how hard it is to arrange a simple dinner with a few friends who live in the same city and use the same language when e-mailing, it's enough to take your breath away.


. . .


Sea travel was so risky in 1761 that observers took separate ships to the same destination to increase the chances some of them would make it alive. The Seven Years' War was on, and getting caught in the cross-fire was a constant concern. One French scientist carried a passport arranged by the Royal Society in London advising the British military "not to molest his person or Effects upon any account." Others were shelled by the French or caught in border troubles with the Russians. An observer en route to Tobolsk, in Siberia, found himself floating in ice up to his waist when his carriage fell through the frozen river they were traveling in lieu of a road. He made it to his destination. Another, heading toward eastern Finland via the iced-over Gulf of Bothnia, was repeatedly catapulted out of his sledge as the runners caught on the crests of frozen waves. He made it too.



For the full review, see:

JoANN C. GUTIN. "Masters of the Universe." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., May 20, 2012): 19.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 18, 2012.)


The full reference for the book under review, is:

Wulf, Andrea. Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.



ApparatusTransitVenus2012-09-01.jpg Source of image: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.






October 1, 2012

Global Warming Expands Range of Brown Argus Butterfly



BrownArgusButterfly2012-09-03.jpg "The brown argus butterfly has expanded its range in England." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



(p. D3) A butterfly species in England is expanding its range, thanks to climate change.

In the current issue of Science, researchers at the University of York report that the brown argus butterfly has spread its reach in England northward by about 50 miles over 20 years as a warmer climate allows its caterpillars to feed off wild geranium plants, which are widespread in the countryside.



For the full story, see:

SINDYA N. BHANOO. "OBSERVATORY; A Butterfly Takes Wing on Climate Change." The New York Times (Tues., May 29, 2012): D3.

(Note: the online version of the article has the date May 24, 2012.)


The results summarized above are reported to the scientific community in:

Chen, Ching, Jane K. Hill, Ralf Ohlemüller, David B. Roy, and Chris D. Thomas. "Report; Rapid Range Shifts of Species Associated with High Levels of Climate Warming." Science 333, no. 6045 (August 19, 2011): 1024-1026.






September 29, 2012

How a Group of "Natural Philosophers" Created Science in a London "Full of Thieves, Murderers and Human Waste"



clockworkuniverseBK2012-09-01.jpg

















Source of book image: http://www.edwarddolnick.net/images/clockworkuniverse-cover.jpg



(p. 19) London before the mid-1600s was a general calamity. The streets were full of thieves, murderers and human waste. Death was everywhere: doctors were hapless, adults lived to about age 30, children died like flies. In 1665, plague moved into the city, killing sometimes 6,000 people a week. In 1666, an unstoppable fire burned the city to the ground; the bells of St. Paul's melted. Londoners thought that the terrible voice of God was "roaring in the City," one witness wrote, and they would do best to accept the horror, calculate their sins, pray for guidance and await retribution.

In the midst of it all, a group of men whose names we still learn in school formed the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge. They thought that God, while an unforgiving judge, was also a mathematician. As such, he had organized the universe according to discernible, mathematical law, which, if they tried, they could figure out. They called themselves "natural philosophers," and their motto was "Nullius in verba": roughly, take no one's word for anything. You have an idea? Demonstrate it, do an experiment, prove it. The ideas behind the Royal Society would flower into the Enlightenment, the political, cultural, scientific and educational revolution that gave rise to the modern West.

This little history begins Edward Dolnick's "Clockwork Universe," so the reader might think the book is about the Royal Society and its effects. But the Royal Society is dispatched in the first third of the book, and thereafter, the subject is how the attempt to find the mathematics governing the universe played out in the life of Isaac Newton.


. . .


To go from sinful "curiositas" to productive "curiosity," from blind acceptance to open-eyed inquiry, from asking, "Why?" to answering, "How?" -- this change, of all the world's revolutions, must surely be the most remarkable.



For the full review, see:

ANN FINKBEINER. "Masters of the Universe." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., March 27, 2011): 19.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 25, 2011, and had the title "What Newton Gave Us.")


The full reference for the book under review, is:

Dolnick, Edward. The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011.







September 27, 2012

The Mockingjay as Symbol and Reality



MockingjayBurningPoster2012-09-03.jpg












A burning Mockingjay symbol appears on this movie poster for "The Hunger Games." Source of poster: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.




(p. D4) "They're funny birds and something of a slap in the face to the Capitol," Katniss explains in the first book. And the nature of that slap in face is a new twist on the great fear about genetic engineering, that modified organisms or their genes will escape into the wild and wreak havoc. The mockingjay is just such an unintended consequence, resulting from a failed creation of the government, what Katniss means when she refers to "the Capitol." But rather than being a disaster, the bird is a much-loved reminder of the limits of totalitarian control.


. . .


I asked Joan Slonczewski, a microbiologist and science fiction writer at Kenyon College in Ohio, about her take on the mockingjay. Dr. Slonczewski, whose recent books include a text and a novel, "The Highest Frontier," teaches a course called "Biology in Science Fiction." The tools needed to modify organisms are already widely dispersed in industry and beyond. "Now anybody can do a start-up," she said.

That's no exaggeration. Do-it-yourself biology is growing. The technology to copy pieces of DNA can be bought on eBay for a few hundred dollars, as Carl Zimmer reported in The New York Times in March. As to where D.I.Y. biology may lead, Freeman Dyson, a thinker at the Institute for Advanced Study known for his provocative ideas, presented one view in 2007 in The New York Review of Books. He envisioned the tools of biotechnology spreading to everyone, including pet breeders and children, and leading to "an explosion of diversity of new living creatures."

Eventually, he wrote, the mixing of genes by humans will initiate a new stage in evolution. Along the way, if he is right, the world may have more than its share of do-it-yourself mockingjays.



For the full story, see:

JAMES GORMAN. "SIDE EFFECTS; D.I.Y. Biology, on the Wings of the Mockingjay." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., May 15, 2012): D4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date May 10, 2012.)






September 25, 2012

"Science Is Weakest in the Lands of Islam"



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Source of book image: http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1327925578l/10379376.jpg



(p. 18) The upshot was, while the Greek works in particular were disappearing in Europe, they were being preserved in Arabic to be retranslated later into Latin for a rebirth of "lost" knowledge. This is one half of the point the author makes frequently in the text and, in boldface, as the book's subtitle.

The other half is that contrary to some doubters, the Arab interest in learning extended well beyond translations: thinkers working alone or in observatories and houses of wisdom were conducting original research during "the world's most impressive period of scholarship and learning since ancient Greece." Accordingly, al-Khalili writes that ­al-Mamun stands as "the greatest patron of science in the cavalcade of Islamic rulers."

Sometimes al-Khalili, like a lawyer who suspects a jury of unyielding skepticism, strains to give stature to the leading lights of Arabic science in the Middle Ages. But modern historians of science agree that more attention should be given to the Arab contribution to the preservation and expansion of knowledge at this critical period, and the author has done so in considerable detail and with rising passion.

But that was then, and al-Khalili is obligated to end on an inescapable but deflating note: science today is in a chronic state of neglect in the Arab world and the broader Islamic culture of more than one billion people. Al-Khalili spreads the blame widely, citing inadequate financing for research and education, sclerotic bureaucracies, religious conservatism, even an ingrained fear of science. The Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam, perhaps the greatest Muslim scientist of the last century, won a Nobel Prize in 1979 and did what he could to promote a scientific renaissance among his people, without success. "Of all civilizations on this planet, science is weakest in the lands of Islam," Salam said in despair. "The dangers of this weakness cannot be overemphasized since the honorable survival of a society depends directly on its science and technology in the condition of the present age."

By recounting Arabic science's luminous past, al-Khalili says, he hopes to instill a sense of pride that will "propel the importance of scientific enquiry back to where it belongs: at the very heart of what defines a civilized and enlightened society."



For the full review, see:

JOHN NOBLE WILFORD. "The Muslim Art of Science." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., May 22, 2011): 18.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 20, 2011.)


The full reference for the book under review, is:

al-Khalili, Jim. The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance. New York: The Penguin Press, 2010.






September 21, 2012

Models Often "Ignore the Messiness of Reality"



SuperCooperatorsBK2012-08-31.png




















Source of book image: http://www.namingandtreating.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/SuperCooperators_small.png



(p. 18) Nowak is one of the most exciting modelers working in the field of mathematical biology today. But a model, of course, is only as good as its assumptions, and biology is much messier than physics or chemistry. Nowak tells a joke about a man who approaches a shepherd and asks, ''If I tell you how many sheep you have, can I have one?'' The shepherd agrees and is astonished when the stranger answers, ''Eighty-three.'' As he turns to leave, the shepherd retorts: ''If I guess your profession, can I have the animal back?'' The stranger agrees. ''You must be a mathematical biologist.'' How did he know? ''Because you picked up my dog.''


. . .


Near the end of the book, Nowak describes Gustav Mahler's efforts, in his grandiloquent Third Symphony, to create an all-encompassing structure in which ''nature in its totality may ring and resound,'' adding, ''In my own way, I would like to think I have helped to give nature her voice too.'' But there remains a telling gap between the precision of the models and the generality of the advice Nowak offers for turning us all into supercooperators. We humans really are infinitely more complex than falling apples, metastasizing colons, even ant colonies. Idealized accounts of the world often need to ignore the messiness of reality. Mahler understood this. In 1896 he invited Bruno Walter to Lake Attersee to glimpse the score of the Third. As they walked beneath the mountains, Walter admonished Mahler to look at the vista, to which he replied, ''No use staring up there -- I've already composed it all away into my symphony!''



For the full review, see:

OREN HARMAN. "A Little Help from Your Friends." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., April 10, 2011): 18.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date April 8, 2011, and has the title "How Evolution Explains Altruism.")


The full reference for the book under review, is:

Nowak, Martin A., and Roger Highfield. Supercooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed. New York: Free Press, 2011.






September 15, 2012

Where Credit Is Due



SchatzWaksmanStreptomycinLab2012-09-02.jpg "EVIDENCE; A lab notebook belonging to Albert Schatz, left, with his supervisor, Selman A. Waksman, and discovered at Rutgers helps puts to rest a 70-year argument over credit for the Nobel-winning discovery of streptomycin." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. D3) NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- For as long as archivists at Rutgers University could remember, a small cardboard box marked with the letter W in black ink had sat unopened in a dusty corner of the special collections of the Alexander Library. Next to it were 60 sturdy archive boxes of papers, a legacy of the university's most famous scientist: Selman A. Waksman, who won a Nobel Prize in 1952 for the discovery of streptomycin, the first antibiotic to cure tuberculosis.

The 60 boxes contained details of how streptomycin was found -- and also of the murky story behind it, a vicious legal battle between Dr. Waksman and his graduate student Albert Schatz over who deserved credit.

Dr. Waksman died in 1973; after Dr. Schatz's death in 2005, the papers were much in demand by researchers trying to piece together what really happened between the professor and his student. But nobody looked in the small cardboard box.


. . .


Thomas J. Frusciano, the head archivist of the Alexander Library special collections, recalled that the Waksman papers had been acquired in 1983, 10 years after the professor's death, and had even included a vial of streptomycin. He asked a member of his team, Erika Gorder, to search the stacks.

She remembered seeing the small box next to Dr. Waksman's papers. "I must have passed by it a million times," she said, "but I always thought it must contain miscellaneous material from the Waksman papers when they were cataloged."

When she pulled down the box and carefully opened it, however, there, loosely piled inside, were five clothbound notebooks -- just like Dr. Waksman's, but marked "Albert Schatz."

In the notebook for 1943, on Page 32, Dr. Schatz had started Experiment 11. In meticulous cursive, he had written the date, Aug. 23, and the title, "Exp. 11 Antagonistic Actinomycetes," a reference to the strange threadlike microbes found in the soil that produce antibiotics. Underneath the title he recorded where he had found the microbes in "leaf compost, straw compost and stable manure" on the Rutgers College farm, outside his laboratory.

The following pages detailed his experiments and his discovery of two strains of a gray-green actinomycete named Streptomyces griseus, Latin for gray. Each strain produced an antibiotic that destroyed germs of E. coli in a petri dish -- and, he was to find out later, also destroyed the TB germ. The notebook shows that the moment of discovery belongs to Dr. Schatz.

One of the pages in Experiment 11 had indeed been cut out, but the page was toward the end of the experiment, after Dr. Schatz had made his discovery. There was no evidence of a break in the experiment to suggest that Dr. Schatz might have removed the page to conceal something he didn't want the rest of the world to know.

And in Dr. Waksman's own papers -- in the 60 boxes -- there was confirmation that the professor knew the missing page was not a real issue. His legal advisers had told him bluntly that it was a distraction. As one lawyer wrote, the missing page was "insignificant."

As for the professor's story that Dr. Schatz's uncle had carried off the key 1943 notebook, Dr. Waksman's own documents make clear it could not have been true. At the time the key notebook was not at Rutgers; it was with university-appointed agents who were preparing the streptomycin patent application. Here, indeed, was evidence that Dr. Waksman had deliberately spread doubt and confusion about Dr. Schatz's Experiment 11 in a campaign to belittle the work of his student.



For the full story, see:

PETER PRINGLE. "Notebooks Shed Light on an Antibiotic's Contested Discovery." The New York Times (Tues., June 12, 2012): D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 11, 2012.)


The issues treated above are discussed in more detail in Pringle's book:

Pringle, Peter. Experiment Eleven: Dark Secrets Behind the Discovery of a Wonder Drug. New York: Walker & Company, 2012.






August 21, 2012

Global Warming Heretic Svensmark May Be the Next Shechtman



(p. C) The list of scientific heretics who were persecuted for their radical ideas but eventually proved right keeps getting longer. Last month, Daniel Shechtman won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of quasicrystals, having spent much of his career being told he was wrong.

"I was thrown out of my research group. They said I brought shame on them with what I was saying," he recalled, adding that the doyen of chemistry, the late Linus Pauling, had denounced the theory with the words: "There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists."

The Australian medical scientist Barry Marshall, who hypothesized that a bacterial infection causes stomach ulcers, received similar treatment and was taken seriously only when he deliberately infected himself, then cured himself with antibiotics in 1984. Eventually, he too won the Nobel Prize.


. . .


Perhaps it's at least worth guessing which of today's heretics will eventually win a Nobel Prize. How about the Dane Henrik Svensmark? In 1997, he suggested that the sun's magnetic field affects the earth's climate--by shielding the atmosphere against cosmic rays, which would otherwise create or thicken clouds and thereby cool the surface. So, he reasoned, a large part of the natural fluctuations in the climate over recent millennia might reflect variation in solar activity.

Dr. Svensmark is treated as a heretic mainly because his theory is thought to hinder the effort to convince people that recent climatic variation is largely manmade, not natural, so there is a bias toward resisting his idea. That does not make it right, but some promising recent experiments at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) raise the probability that Dr. Svensmark might yet prove to be a Shechtman.



For the full commentary, see:

MATT RIDLEY. "MIND & MATTER; Is That Scientific Heretic a Genius--or a Loon?" The Wall Street Journal (Sat., November 12, 2011): C4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)






August 1, 2012

Take U.S.D.A. and C.D.C. Advice with a Grain of Salt



(p. 8) When I spent the better part of a year researching the state of the salt science back in 1998 -- already a quarter century into the eat-less-salt recommendations -- journal editors and public health administrators were still remarkably candid in their assessment of how flimsy the evidence was implicating salt as the cause of hypertension.

"You can say without any shadow of a doubt," as I was told then by Drummond Rennie, an editor for The Journal of the American Medical Association, that the authorities pushing the eat-less-salt message had "made a commitment to salt education that goes way beyond the scientific facts."

While, back then, the evidence merely failed to demonstrate that salt was harmful, the evidence from studies published over the past two years actually suggests that restricting how much salt we eat can increase our likelihood of dying prematurely. Put simply, the possibility has been raised that if we were to eat as little salt as the U.S.D.A. and the C.D.C. recommend, we'd be harming rather than helping ourselves.


. . .


When researchers have looked at all the relevant trials and tried to make sense of them, they've continued to support Dr. Stamler's "inconsistent and contradictory" assessment. Last year, two such "meta-analyses" were published by the Cochrane Collaboration, an international nonprofit organization founded to conduct unbiased reviews of medical evidence. The first of the two reviews concluded that cutting back "the amount of salt eaten reduces blood pressure, but there is insufficient evidence to confirm the predicted reductions in people dying prematurely or suffering cardiovascular disease." The second concluded that "we do not know if low salt diets improve or worsen health outcomes."


. . .


(p. 9) A 1972 paper in The New England Journal of Medicine reported that the less salt people ate, the higher their levels of a substance secreted by the kidneys, called renin, which set off a physiological cascade of events that seemed to end with an increased risk of heart disease. In this scenario: eat less salt, secrete more renin, get heart disease, die prematurely.

With nearly everyone focused on the supposed benefits of salt restriction, little research was done to look at the potential dangers. But four years ago, Italian researchers began publishing the results from a series of clinical trials, all of which reported that, among patients with heart failure, reducing salt consumption increased the risk of death.

Those trials have been followed by a slew of studies suggesting that reducing sodium to anything like what government policy refers to as a "safe upper limit" is likely to do more harm than good. These covered some 100,000 people in more than 30 countries and showed that salt consumption is remarkably stable among populations over time.


. . .


One could still argue that all these people should reduce their salt intake to prevent hypertension, except for the fact that four of these studies -- involving Type 1 diabetics, Type 2 diabetics, healthy Europeans and patients with chronic heart failure -- reported that the people eating salt at the lower limit of normal were more likely to have heart disease than those eating smack in the middle of the normal range. Effectively what the 1972 paper would have predicted.


. . .


Maybe now the prevailing beliefs should be changed. The British scientist and educator Thomas Huxley, known as Darwin's bulldog for his advocacy of evolution, may have put it best back in 1860. "My business," he wrote, "is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonize with my aspirations."



For the full commentary, see:

GARY TAUBES. "OPINION; Salt, We Misjudged You." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., June 3, 2012): 8-9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date June 2, 2012.)







July 18, 2012

Neglecting Valid Stereotypes Has Costs



(p. 169) The social norm against stereotyping, including the opposition to profiling, has been highly beneficial in creating a more civilized and more equal society. It is useful to remember, however, that neglecting valid stereotypes inevitably results in suboptimal judgments. Resistance to stereotyping is a laudable moral position, but the simplistic idea that the resistance is costless is wrong. The costs are worth paying to achieve a better society, but denying that the costs exist, while satisfying to the soul and politically correct, is not scientifically defensible.


Source:

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.





June 25, 2012

Coal Mines Help Paleontologists Learn about Environmental Change



DiMicheleWilliamSpringfieldCoal2012-06-12.jpg "SUBTERRANEAN; William A. DiMichele in the Springfield Coal. The dark mass is a coal seam; the lighter shale above is interrupted by a fossil tree stump." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. D3) In the clammy depths of a southern Illinois coal mine lies the largest fossil forest ever discovered, at least 50 times as extensive as the previous contender.


. . .


"Effectively you've got a lost world," said Howard Falcon-Lang, a paleontologist at Royal Holloway, University of London, who has explored the site. "It's the closest thing you'll find to time travel," he added.


. . .


The reach of the Springfield forest should allow scientists to undertake ecosystem-wide analyses in a way never before possible in landscapes so ancient, and such studies may help them predict the effects of global warming today.

"With our own CO2 rises and changes in climate," said Scott D. Elrick, a team member from the Illinois State Geological Survey, "we can look at the past here and say, 'It's happened before.' "

Today, we burn the scale trees of the Carboniferous by the billions: they have all turned to coal. Newly discovered, the Springfield forest is already crumbling to bits, as coal-mine ceilings quickly do after exposure. But with continued mining, more ceilings are being revealed every day.

"You have to dig to find fossils, going inside the anatomy of the planet," Dr. Johnson said. "Bill DiMichele realizes he has an entire industry digging for him, creating a tunnel into an ancient world."



For the full story, see:

W. BARKSDALE MAYNARD. "An Underground Fossil Forest Offers Clues on Climate Change." The New York Times (Tues., May 1, 2012): D3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date April 30, 2012.)




AncientRiverbedMap2012-06-12.jpgSource of map graphic: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.






May 19, 2012

Observed Climate "Not in Good Agreement with Model Predictions"



The author of the following commentary is a Princeton physics professor:


(p. A13) What is happening to global temperatures in reality? The answer is: almost nothing for more than 10 years. Monthly values of the global temperature anomaly of the lower atmosphere, compiled at the University of Alabama from NASA satellite data, can be found at the website http://www.drroyspencer.com/latest-global-temperatures/. The latest (February 2012) monthly global temperature anomaly for the lower atmosphere was minus 0.12 degrees Celsius, slightly less than the average since the satellite record of temperatures began in 1979.

The lack of any statistically significant warming for over a decade has made it more difficult for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its supporters to demonize the atmospheric gas CO2 which is released when fossil fuels are burned.


. . .


Frustrated by the lack of computer-predicted warming over the past decade, some IPCC supporters have been claiming that "extreme weather" has become more common because of more CO2. But there is no hard evidence this is true.


. . .


Large fluctuations from warm to cold winters have been the rule for the U.S., as one can see from records kept by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA. For example, the winters of 1932 and 1934 were as warm as or warmer than the 2011-2012 one and the winter of 1936 was much colder.


. . .


It is easy to be confused about climate, because we are constantly being warned about the horrible things that will happen or are already happening as a result of mankind's use of fossil fuels. But these ominous predictions are based on computer models. It is important to distinguish between what the climate is actually doing and what computer models predict. The observed response of the climate to more CO2 is not in good agreement with model predictions.


. . .


. . . we should . . . remember the description of how science works by the late, great physicist, Richard Feynman:

"In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it. Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guessed is right. Then we compare the result of the computation to nature, with experiment or experience; compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong."



For the full commentary, see:

WILLIAM HAPPER. "Global Warming Models Are Wrong Again; The observed response of the climate to more CO2 is not in good agreement with predictions." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., March 27, 2012): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)





May 18, 2012

Asteroid-Mining Start-Up Hopes to Launch First Spacecraft within Two Years



AsteroidMining2012-05-07.jpg

"A computer image shows a rendering of a spacecraft preparing to capture a water-rich, near-Earth asteroid." Source of caption: print version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below. Source of photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. B3) SEATTLE--A start-up with high-profile backers on Tuesday unveiled its plan to send robotic spacecraft to remotely mine asteroids, a highly ambitious effort aimed at opening up a new frontier in space exploration.

At an event at the Seattle Museum of Flight, a group that included former National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials unveiled Planetary Resources Inc. and said it is developing a "low-cost" series of spacecraft to prospect and mine "near-Earth" asteroids for water and metals, and thus bring "the natural resources of space within humanity's economic sphere of influence."

The solar system is "full of resources, and we can bring that back to humanity," said Planetary Resources co-founder Peter Diamandis, who helped start the X-Prize competition to spur nongovernmental space flight.

The company said it expects to launch its first spacecraft to low-Earth orbit--between 100 and 1,000 miles above the Earth's surface--within two years, in what would be a prelude to sending spacecraft to prospect and mine asteroids.

The company, which was founded three years ago but remained secret until last week, said it could take a decade to finish prospecting, or identifying the best candidates for mining.



For the full story, see:

AMIR EFRATI. "Asteroid-Mining Strategy Is Outlined by a Start-Up." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., April 25, 2012): B3.

(Note: the online version of the story is dated April 24, 2012, and has the title "Start-Up Outlines Asteroid-Mining Strategy.")







May 14, 2012

Warming Planet May Cause Fewer High Clouds in Tropics, Allowing Heat to Escape into Space



CloudWeatherBalloon2012-05-03.jpg "A technician at a Department of Energy site in Oklahoma launching a weather balloon to help scientists analyze clouds." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A1) Richard S. Lindzen, a professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the leading proponent of the view that clouds will save the day. His stature in the field -- he has been making seminal contributions to climate science since the 1960s -- has amplified his influence.

Dr. Lindzen says the earth is not especially sensitive to greenhouse gases because clouds will react to counter them, and he believes he has identified a specific mechanism. On a warming planet, he says, less coverage by high clouds in the tropics will allow more heat to escape to space, (p. A14) countering the temperature increase.


. . .


Dr. Lindzen accepts the elementary tenets of climate science. He agrees that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, calling people who dispute that point "nutty." He agrees that the level of it is rising because of human activity and that this should warm the climate.

But for more than a decade, Dr. Lindzen has said that when surface temperature increases, the columns of moist air rising in the tropics will rain out more of their moisture, leaving less available to be thrown off as ice, which forms the thin, high clouds known as cirrus. Just like greenhouse gases, these cirrus clouds act to reduce the cooling of the earth, and a decrease of them would counteract the increase of greenhouse gases.

Dr. Lindzen calls his mechanism the iris effect, after the iris of the eye, which opens at night to let in more light. In this case, the earth's "iris" of high clouds would be opening to let more heat escape.


. . .


"If I'm right, we'll have saved money" by avoiding measures to limit emissions, Dr. Lindzen said in the interview. "If I'm wrong, we'll know it in 50 years and can do something."


. . .


"You have politicians who are being told if they question this, they are anti-science," Dr. Lindzen said. "We are trying to tell them, no, questioning is never anti-science."



For the full story, see:

JUSTIN GILLIS. "TEMPERATURE RISING; Clouds' Effect on Climate Change Is Last Bastion for Dissenters." The New York Times (Tues., May 1, 2012): A1 & A14.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated April 30, 2012.)






April 30, 2012

Physicist Says "Financial Models Are Only Mediocre Metaphors"



ModelsBehavingBadlyBK2012-04-08.jpg











Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.








(p. A19) Trained as a physicist, Emanuel Derman once served as the head of quantitative analysis at Goldman Sachs and is currently a professor of industrial engineering and operations research at Columbia University. With "Models Behaving Badly" he offers a readable, even eloquent combination of personal history, philosophical musing and honest confession concerning the dangers of relying on numerical models not only on Wall Street but also in life.

Mr. Derman's particular thesis can be stated simply: Although financial models employ the mathematics and style of physics, they are fundamentally different from the models that science produces. Physical models can provide an accurate description of reality. Financial models, despite their mathematical sophistication, can at best provide a vast oversimplification of reality. In the universe of finance, the behavior of individuals determines value--and, as he says, "people change their minds."

In short, beware of physics envy. When we make models involving human beings, Mr. Derman notes, "we are trying to force the ugly stepsister's foot into Cinderella's pretty glass slipper. It doesn't fit without cutting off some of the essential parts." As the collapse of the subprime collateralized debt market in 2008 made clear, it is a terrible mistake to put too much faith in models purporting to value financial instruments. "In crises," Mr. Derman writes, "the behavior of people changes and normal models fail. While quantum electrodynamics is a genuine theory of all reality, financial models are only mediocre metaphors for a part of it."



For the full review, see:

BURTON G. MALKIEL. "BOOKSHELF; Physics Envy; Creating financial models involving human behavior is like forcing 'the ugly stepsister's foot into Cinderella's pretty glass slipper.'" The Wall Street Journal (Weds., December 14, 2011): A19.


The book under review is:

Derman, Emanuel. Models.Behaving.Badly: Why Confusing Illusion with Reality Can Lead to Disaster, on Wall Street and in Life. New York: Free Press, 2011.





April 27, 2012

Climate Scientists "Conspiring to Bully and Silence Opponents"



(p. A15) [In November 2011], 5,000 files of private email correspondence among several of the world's top climate scientists were anonymously leaked onto the Internet. Like the first "climategate" leak of 2009, the latest release shows top scientists in the field fudging data, conspiring to bully and silence opponents, and displaying far less certainty about the reliability of anthropogenic global warming theory in private than they ever admit in public.

The scientists include men like Michael Mann of Penn State University and Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia, both of whose reports inform what President Obama has called "the gold standard" of international climate science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).


. . .


Consider an email written by Mr. Mann in August 2007. "I have been talking w/ folks in the states about finding an investigative journalist to investigate and expose McIntyre, and his thus far unexplored connections with fossil fuel interests. Perhaps the same needs to be done w/ this Keenan guy." Doug Keenan is a skeptic and gadfly of the climate-change establishment. Steve McIntyre is the tenacious Canadian ex-mining engineer whose dogged research helped expose flaws in Mr. Mann's "hockey stick" graph of global temperatures.



For the full commentary, see:

JAMES DELINGPOLE. "OPINION; Climategate 2.0; A new batch of leaked emails again shows some leading scientists trying to smear opponents." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., November 28, 2011): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





April 24, 2012

Campion Plant Sprouts from 32,000 Year-Old Seed



PlantGeneratedFromOldSeed2012-04-04.jpg

















"OLD DNA; A plant has been generated from the fruit of the narrow-leafed campion. It is the oldest plant by far to be grown from ancient tissue." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.




(p. D1) Living plants have been generated from the fruit of a little arctic flower, the narrow-leafed campion, that died 32,000 years ago, a team of Russian scientists reports. The fruit was stored by an arctic ground squirrel in its burrow on the tundra of northeastern Siberia and lay permanently frozen until excavated by scientists a few years ago.

This would be the oldest plant by far that has ever been grown from ancient tissue. The present record is held by a date palm grown from a seed some 2,000 years old that was recovered from the ancient fortress of Masada in Israel.

Seeds and certain cells can last a long term under the right conditions, but many claims of extreme longevity have failed on closer examination, and biologists are likely to greet this claim, too, with reserve until it can be independently confirmed. Tales of wheat grown from seeds in the tombs of the pharaohs have long been discredited. Lupines were germinated from seeds in a 10,000-year-old lemming burrow found by a gold miner in the Yukon. But the seeds, later dated by the radiocarbon method, turned out to be modern contaminants.


. . .


The new report is by a team led by Svetlana Yashina and David Gilichinsky of the Russian Academy of Sciences research center at Pushchino, near Moscow, and appears in Tuesday's issue of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

"This is an amazing breakthrough," said Grant Zazula of the Yukon Paleontology Program at Whitehorse in Yukon Territory, Canada. "I have no (p. D4) doubt in my mind that this is a legitimate claim." It was Dr. Zazula who showed that the apparently ancient lupine seeds found by the Yukon gold miner were in fact modern.



For the full story, see:

NICHOLAS WADE. "Dead for 32,000 Years, an Arctic Plant Is Revived." The New York Times (Tues., February 21, 2012): D1 & D4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review is dated February 20, 2012.)





April 13, 2012

Mhyrvold Left Work with Hawking for the Excitement of Entrepreneurship



(p. 139) Microsoft was represented ¡n the discussion by its senior vice president for advanced technology, a thirty-five-year-old Nathan Myhrvold. After finishing his Ph.D. at Princeton at age twenty-three, Myhrvold had worked for a year as a postdoctoral fellow with the physicist Stephen Hawking at Cambridge, tackling theories of (p. 140) gravitation and curved space-time, before taking a three-month leave of absence to help some friends in the Bay Area with a software project. He became caught up in the excitement of personal computer software and entrepreneurship and never went back. In Berkeley, he co-founded a company called Dynamical Systems to develop operating system for personal computers, which struggled for two years until Microsoft bought it in 1986. At Microsoft, he persuaded Bill Gates to let him establish a corporate research center, Microsoft Research, with Myhrvold himself in charge.


Source:

Price, David A. The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

(Note: italics in original.)

(Note: my strong impression is that the pagination is the same for the 2008 hardback and the 2009 paperback editions, except for part of the epilogue, which is revised and expanded in the paperback. I believe the passage above has the same page number in both editions.)





April 7, 2012

Most Articles in Top Two Economics Journals Receive Zero Citations in First Five Years




Journal quality is often used, or suggested, as a proxy for the quality of articles. It is a very poor proxy.

Economist Robert H. Frank writes that:


(p. 3) The economist Philip Cook and I found, . . . , that in the first five years after publication, many fewer than half of all papers in the two most selective economics journals had ever been cited by other scholars.


For the full commentary, see:

ROBERT H. FRANK. "ECONOMIC VIEW; The Prestige Chase Is Raising College Costs." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., March 11, 2012): 3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary is dated March 10, 2012.)


I assume, but have not verified, that the above finding is reported in:

Frank, Robert, and Philip J. Cook. The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us. New York: The Free Press, 1995.






March 23, 2012

Faraday and Einstein Were Visual and Physical Thinkers, Not Mathematicians



Faraday_Chemical_History-of-a-CandleBK2012-03-08.jpg













Source of book image: http://www.rsc.org/images/Faraday_Chemical_History-of-a-Candle_180_tcm18-210390.jpg





(p. C6) Michael Faraday is one of the most beguiling and lovable figures in the history of science. Though he could not understand a single equation, he deduced the essential structure of the laws of electromagnetism through visualization and physical intuition. (James Clerk Maxwell would later give them mathematical form.) Albert Einstein kept a picture of Faraday over his desk, for Einstein also thought of himself primarily as a visual and physical thinker, not an abstract mathematician.


. . .


Faraday's text is still charming and rich, a judgment that few popular works on science could sustain after so many years. Though he addresses himself to an "auditory of juveniles," he calls for his audience to follow a close chain of reasoning presented through a series of experiments and deductions.


. . .


. . . : "In every one of us there is a living process of combustion going on very similar to that of a candle," as Faraday illustrates in his experiments.

In his closing, he turns from our metabolic resemblance to a candle to his deeper wish that "you may, like it, shine as lights to those about you."



For the full review, see:

PETER PESIC. "BOOKSHELF; Keeper of the Flame." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., January 7, 2012): C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)


Book under review:

Faraday, Michael. The Chemical History of a Candle. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press 2011.






March 21, 2012

In History, Documenting Your Sources Matters More than Your Credentials



DysonGeorge2012-03-09.jpg









George Dyson. Source of photo: online version of the NYT interview quoted and cited below.





(p. D11) BELLINGHAM, Wash. -- More than most of us, the science historian George Dyson spends his days thinking about technologies, old and very new.


. . .


Though this 58-year-old author's works are centered on technology, they often have an autobiographical subtext. Freeman Dyson, the physicist and mathematician who was a protagonist of Project Orion, is his father. Esther Dyson, the Internet philosopher and high-tech investor, is his sister. We spoke for three hours at his cottage here, and later by telephone. A condensed and edited version of the conversations follows.


. . .


. . . today you make your living as a historian of science and technology. How does a high school dropout get to do that?

Hey, this is America. You can do what you want! I love this idea that someone who didn't finish high school can write books that get taken seriously. History is one of the only fields where contributions by amateurs are taken seriously, providing you follow the rules and document your sources. In history, it's what you write, not what your credentials are.



For the full interview, see:

CLAUDIA DREIFUS, interviewer. "Looking Backward to Put New Technologies in Focus." The New York Times (Tues., December 6, 2011): D11.

(Note: question bolded in original; ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the interview is dated December 5, 2011.)


Dyson's most recent book is:

Dyson, George. Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.






March 14, 2012

Majority of Marine Creatures Thrive in Greater Acidity



(p. C4) The effect of acidification, according to J.E.N. Veron, an Australian coral scientist, will be "nothing less than catastrophic.... What were once thriving coral gardens that supported the greatest biodiversity of the marine realm will become red-black bacterial slime, and they will stay that way."

This is a common view. The Natural Resources Defense Council has called ocean acidification "the scariest environmental problem you've never heard of." Sigourney Weaver, who narrated a film about the issue, said that "the scientists are freaked out." The head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls it global warming's "equally evil twin."


. . .


If the average pH of the ocean drops to 7.8 from 8.1 by 2100 as predicted, it will still be well above seven, the neutral point where alkalinity becomes acidity.


. . .


In a recent experiment in the Mediterranean, reported in Nature Climate Change, corals and mollusks were transplanted to lower pH sites, where they proved "able to calcify and grow at even faster than normal rates when exposed to the high [carbon-dioxide] levels projected for the next 300 years." In any case, freshwater mussels thrive in Scottish rivers, where the pH is as low as five.

Laboratory experiments find that more marine creatures thrive than suffer when carbon dioxide lowers the pH level to 7.8. This is because the carbon dioxide dissolves mainly as bicarbonate, which many calcifiers use as raw material for carbonate.



For the full commentary, see:

MATT RIDLEY. "MIND & MATTER; Taking Fears of Acid Oceans With a Grain of Salt." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., January 7, 2012): C4.

(Note: ellipsis in first paragraph in original; ellipses between paragraphs added.)






March 2, 2012

Amateurs Can Advance Science



(p. C4) The more specialized and sophisticated scientific research becomes, the farther it recedes from everyday experience. The clergymen-amateurs who made 19th-century scientific breakthroughs are a distant memory. Or are they? Paradoxically, in an increasing variety of fields, computers are coming to the rescue of the amateur, through crowd-sourced science.

Last month, computer gamers working from home redesigned an enzyme. Last year, a gene-testing company used its customers to find mutations that increase or decrease the risk of Parkinson's disease. Astronomers are drawing amateurs into searching for galaxies and signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. The modern equivalent of the Victorian scientific vicar is an ordinary person who volunteers his or her time to solving a small piece of a big scientific puzzle.

Crowd-sourced science is not a recent invention. In the U.S., tens of thousands of people record the number and species of birds that they see during the Christmas season, a practice that dates back more than a century. What's new is having amateurs contribute in highly technical areas.



For the full commentary, see:

MATT RIDLEY. "MIND & MATTER; Following the Crowd to Citizen Science." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., FEBRUARY 11, 2012): C4.





February 27, 2012

Big Data Opportunity for Economics and Business



(p. 7) Data is not only becoming more available but also more understandable to computers. Most of the Big Data surge is data in the wild -- unruly stuff like words, images and video on the Web and those streams of sensor data. It is called unstructured data and is not typically grist for traditional databases.

But the computer tools for gleaning knowledge and insights from the Internet era's vast trove of unstructured data are fast gaining ground. At the forefront are the rapidly advancing techniques of artificial intelligence like natural-language processing, pattern recognition and machine learning.

Those artificial-intelligence technologies can be applied in many fields. For example, Google's search and ad business and its experimental robot cars, which have navigated thousands of miles of California roads, both use a bundle of artificial-intelligence tricks. Both are daunting Big Data challenges, parsing vast quantities of data and making decisions instantaneously.


. . .


To grasp the potential impact of Big Data, look to the microscope, says Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management. The microscope, invented four centuries ago, allowed people to see and measure things as never before -- at the cellular level. It was a revolution in measurement.

Data measurement, Professor Brynjolfsson explains, is the modern equivalent of the microscope. Google searches, Facebook posts and Twitter messages, for example, make it possible to measure behavior and sentiment in fine detail and as it happens.

In business, economics and other fields, Professor Brynjolfsson says, decisions will increasingly be based on data and analysis rather than on experience and intuition. "We can start being a lot more scientific," he observes.


. . .


Research by Professor Brynjolfsson and two other colleagues, published last year, suggests that data-guided management is spreading across corporate America and starting to pay off. They studied 179 large companies and found that those adopting "data-driven decision making" achieved productivity gains that were 5 percent to 6 percent higher than other factors could explain.

The predictive power of Big Data is being explored -- and shows promise -- in fields like public health, economic development and economic forecasting. Researchers have found a spike in Google search requests for terms like "flu symptoms" and "flu treatments" a couple of weeks before there is an increase in flu patients coming to hospital emergency rooms in a region (and emergency room reports usually lag behind visits by two weeks or so).


. . .


In economic forecasting, research has shown that trends in increasing or decreasing volumes of housing-related search queries in Google are a more accurate predictor of house sales in the next quarter than the forecasts of real estate economists. The Federal Reserve, among others, has taken notice. In July, the National Bureau of Economic Research is holding a workshop on "Opportunities in Big Data" and its implications for the economics profession.



For the full story, see:


STEVE LOHR. "NEWS ANALYSIS; The Age of Big Data." The New York Times, SundayReview (Sun., February 12, 2012): 1 & 7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated February 11, 2012.)





February 8, 2012

Stem Cell Therapy for Dry Macular Degeneration



SchwartzStevenRetinaSpecialist2012-01-30.jpg

"Dr. Steven Schwartz, a retina specialist at the University of California, Los Angeles, conducted the trial with two patients." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. B7) LOS ANGELES -- A treatment for eye diseases that is derived from human embryonic stem cells might have improved the vision of two patients, bolstering the beleaguered field, researchers reported Monday.

The report, published online in the medical journal The Lancet, is the first to describe the effect on patients of a therapy involving human embryonic stem cells.


. . ..


Both patients, who were legally blind, said in interviews that they had gains in eyesight that were meaningful for them. One said she could see colors better and was able to thread a needle and sew on a button for the first time in years. The other said she was able to navigate a shopping mall by herself.


. . .


. . . , researchers at Advanced Cell Technology turned embryonic stem cells into retinal pigment epithelial cells. Deterioration of these retinal cells can lead to damage to the macula, the central part of the retina, and to loss of the straight-ahead vision necessary to recognize faces, watch television or read.

Some 50,000 of the cells were implanted last July under the retinas in one eye of each woman in operations that took about 30 minutes.

One woman, Sue Freeman, who is in her 70s, suffered from the dry form of age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of severe vision loss in the elderly.




For the full story, see:

ANDREW POLLACK. "Stem Cell Treatment for Eye Diseases Shows Promise." The New York Times (Thurs., January 26, 2012): B7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated January 25, 2012.)



FreemanSueVisionImproved2012-01-30.jpg

"Sue Freeman said her vision improved in a meaningful way after the treatment, which used embryonic stem cells." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.








January 21, 2012

"Just What Ailments Are Pylos Tablets Supposed to Alleviate?"



LinearBscript2012-01-14.jpg










"Professor Bennett's work opened a window to deciphering tablets written in Linear B, a Bronze Age Aegean script." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT obituary quoted and cited below.



(p. 22) Deciphering an ancient script is like cracking a secret code from the past, and the unraveling of Linear B is widely considered one of the most challenging archaeological decipherments of all time, if not the most challenging.


. . .


Linear B recorded the administrative workings of Mycenaean palatial centers on Crete and the Greek mainland 3,000 years ago: accounts of crops harvested, flocks tended, goods manufactured (including furniture, chariots and perfume), preparations for religious feasts and preparations for war.

It was deciphered at last in 1952, not by a scholar but by an obsessed amateur, a young English architect named Michael Ventris. The decipherment made him world famous before his death in an automobile accident in 1956.

As Mr. Ventris had acknowledged, he was deeply guided by Professor Bennett's work, which helped impose much-needed order on the roiling mass of strange, ancient symbols.

In his seminal monograph "The Pylos Tablets" (1951), Professor Bennett published the first definitive list of the signs of Linear B. Compiling such a list is the essential first step in deciphering any unknown script, and it is no mean feat.


. . .


"We know how much Ventris admired Bennett, because he immediately adopted Bennett's sign list of Linear B for his own work before the decipherment," said Mr. Robinson, whose book "The Man Who Deciphered Linear B" (2002) is a biography of Mr. Ventris. "He openly said, 'This is a wonderful piece of work.' "


. . .


As meticulous as Professor Bennett's work was, it once engendered great confusion. In 1951, after he sent Mr. Ventris a copy of his monograph, a grateful Ventris went to the post office to pick it up. As Mr. Robinson's biography recounts, a suspicious official, eyeing the package, asked him: "I see the contents are listed as Pylos Tablets. Now, just what ailments are pylos tablets supposed to alleviate?"



For the full obituary, see:

MARGALIT FOX. "Emmett L. Bennett Jr., Ancient Script Expert, Dies at 93." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., January 1, 2012,): 22.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary is dated December 31, 2011, and has the title: "Emmett L. Bennett Jr., Expert on Ancient Script, Dies at 93.")


The book on the amateur, uncredentialed Ventris is:

Robinson, Andrew. The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris. London, UK: Thames & Hudson, 2002.



BennettEmmettJr2012-01-14.jpg













"Emmett L. Bennett Jr." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT obituary quoted and cited above.







December 23, 2011

When a Graph Is a Matter of Life and Death



(p. 72) In her authoritative book The Challenger Launch Decision, sociologist Diane Vaughan demolishes the myth that NASA managers ignored unassailable data and launched a mission absolutely known to be unsafe. In fact, the conversations on the evening before launch reflected the confusion and shifting views of the participants. At one point, a NASA manager blurted, "My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch, next April?" But at another point on the same evening, NASA managers expressed reservations about the launch; a lead NASA engineer pleaded with his people not to let him make a mistake and stated, "I will not agree to launch against the contractor's recommendation." The deliberations lasted for nearly three hours. If the data had been clear, would they have needed a three-hour discussion? Data analyst extraordinaire Edward Tufte shows in his book Visual Explanations that if the engineers had plotted the data points in a compelling graphic, they might have seen a clear trend line: every launch below 66 degrees showed evidence of (p. 73) O-ring damage. But no one laid out the data in a clear and convincing visual manner, and the trend toward increased danger in colder temperatures remained obscured throughout the late-night teleconference debate. Summing up, the O-Ring Task Force chair noted, "We just didn't have enough conclusive data to convince anyone."


Source:

Collins, Jim. How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2009.

(Note: italics in original.)






December 9, 2011

Science Not Accurate at Predicting Storm Intensity



(p. D1) For scientists who specialize in hurricanes, Irene, which roared up the Eastern Seaboard over the weekend, has shone an uncomfortable light on their profession. They acknowledge that while they have become adept at gauging the track a hurricane will take, their predictions of a storm's intensity leave much to be desired.

Officials with NOAA's National Hurricane Center had accurately forecast that Irene would hit North Carolina, and then churn up the mid-Atlantic coast into New York. But they thought the storm would be more powerful, its winds increasing in intensity after it passed through the Bahamas on Thursday.

Instead, the storm lost strength. By the time it made landfall in North Carolina two days later, its winds were about 10 percent lighter than predicted.

It's not a new problem. "With intensity, we just haven't moved off square zero," Dr. Marks said. Forecasting a storm's strength requires knowing the fine details of its structure -- the internal organization and movement that can affect whether it gains energy or loses it -- and then plugging those details into an accurate computer model.

Scientists have struggled to do that. They often overestimate strength, which can lead to griping about overpreparedness, as it has with Irene. But they have sometimes underestimated a storm's power, too, as with (p. D3) Hurricane Charley in 2004. And it is far worse to be underprepared for a major storm.



For the full story, see:

HENRY FOUNTAIN. "Intensity of Hurricanes Still Bedevils Scientists." The New York Times (Tues., August 30, 2011): D1 & D3.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated August 29, 2011.)





December 2, 2011

Global Temperatures May Have Flattened, Justifying Global Warming Scepticism



TucumcariWeatherStation2011-11-10.jpgTucsonParkingLotWeatherStation2011-11-10.jpg"Well-sited weather stations, like the one at top in Tucumcari, N.M., are more reliable than others, such as one in a Tuscon, Ariz., parking lot." Source of caption: print version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below. Source of photos: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.



(p. A2) "Before us, there was a huge barrier to entry" in the field of analyzing temperature numbers, says Richard Muller, scientific director of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature team and a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Many scientists are giving the Berkeley Earth team kudos for creating the unified database.


. . .


"I'm inclined to give [satellite] data more weight than reconstructions from surface-station data," says Stephen McIntyre, a Canadian mathematician who writes about climate, often critically of studies that find warming, at his website Climate Audit. Satellites show about half the amount of warming as that of land-based readings in the past three decades, when the relevant data were collected from space, he says.

Such disputes demonstrate the statistical and uncertain nature of tracking global temperature. Even with tens of thousands of weather stations, most of the Earth's surface isn't monitored. Some stations are more reliable than others. Calculating a global average temperature requires extrapolating from these readings to the whole globe, adjusting for data lapses and suspect stations. And no two groups do this identically.


. . .


Calculating a global temperature is necessary to track climate trends because, as your TV meteorologist might warn, local conditions can differ. Much of the U.S. and Northern Europe has cooled in the last 70 years, Berkeley Earth found. So did one-third of all weather stations world-wide, while two-thirds warmed. The project cites this as evidence of overall warming; skeptics aren't convinced because it depends how concentrated those warming sites are. If they happen to be bunched up while the cooling sites are in sparsely measured areas, then more places could be cooling.


. . .


Any statistical model produces results with some level of uncertainty. The Berkeley Earth project is no different. That uncertainty is large enough to dwarf some trends in temperature. For instance, fluctuations in the land temperature for the past 13 years make it extremely difficult to say whether the Earth has been continuing to warm during that time.

This possible halting of the temperature rise led to a dispute between members of the Berkeley Earth team. Judith Curry, Mr. Muller's co-author and a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told a reporter for the Daily Mail she questioned Mr. Muller's claim, which he published in an opinion column in The Wall Street Journal, that "you should not be a skeptic, at least not any longer." She said that if the global temperature has flattened out, that would raise new questions, and scientific skepticism would remain warranted.



For the full story, see:

CARL BIALIK. "THE NUMBERS GUY; Global Temperatures: All Over the Map." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., November 5, 2011): A2.

(Note: ellipses added.)






November 26, 2011

Crows Use Tools Too



NewCaledonianCrowStickTool2011-11-09.jpg










"A captive New Caledonian crow forages for food using a stick tool." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.




(p. D3) New Caledonian crows, found in the South Pacific, are among nature's most robust nonhuman tool users. They are well known for using twigs to dislodge beetle larvae from tree trunks.

And there's a good reason. By foraging for just a few larvae, a crow can satisfy its daily nutritional needs, which explains the evolutionary advantage of learning how to use tools, researchers report in the journal Science.



For the full story, see:

SINDYA N. BHANOO. "OBSERVATORY; Crows Put Tools to Use to Access a Nutritious Diet." The New York Times (Tues., September 21, 2010): D3.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated September 20, 2010.)






November 17, 2011

Huge Variance in Estimates of Number of Species



(p. D3) Scientists have named and cataloged 1.3 million species. How many more species there are left to discover is a question that has hovered like a cloud over the heads of taxonomists for two centuries.

"It's astounding that we don't know the most basic thing about life," said Boris Worm, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

On Tuesday, Dr. Worm, Dr. Mora and their colleagues presented the latest estimate of how many species there are, based on a new method they have developed. They estimate there are 8.7 million species on the planet, plus or minus 1.3 million.


. . .


In recent decades, scientists have looked for better ways to determine how many species are left to find. In 1988, Robert May, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford, observed that the diversity of land animals increases as they get smaller. He reasoned that we probably have found most of the species of big animals, like mammals and birds, so he used their diversity to calculate the diversity of smaller animals. He ended up with an estimate 10 to 50 million species of land animals.

Other estimates have ranged from as few as 3 million to as many as 100 million. Dr. Mora and his colleagues believed that all of these estimates were flawed in one way or another. Most seriously, there was no way to validate the methods used, to be sure they were reliable.



For the full story, see:

CARL ZIMMER. "How Many Species? A Study Says 8.7 Million, but It's Tricky." The New York Times (Tues., August 30, 2011): D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated August 23 (sic), 2011.)





November 16, 2011

Fossil Shows Placental Mammals 35 Million Years Earlier



PlacentalMammalFossilEarliest2011-11-07.jpg
















"The earliest known eutherian from the Jurassic of China." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.






(p. D3) The split between placental mammals and marsupials may have occurred 35 million years earlier than previously thought, according to a new study.


. . .


The newly identified mammal was small, weighing less than a chipmunk. Based on its claws, it appears to have been an active climber. "This was a skinny little animal, eating insects," said Dr. Luo. "We imagine it was active in the night and capable of going up and down trees."

Its discovery helps reconcile fossil evidence and molecular analysis. Modern molecular studies, which use DNA to estimate dates of evolution, also put the emergence of placentals at about 160 million years ago.



For the full story, see:

SINDYA N. BHANOO. "OBSERVATORY; A Small Mammal Fossil Tells a Jurassic Tale." The New York Times (Tues., August 30, 2011): D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated August 24 (sic), 2011.)





October 30, 2011

Innovative Entrepreneurs Finance Basic Research in Mariana Trench



OceanDepthGraphic2011-08-10.jpgSource of graphic: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. D1) A new generation of daredevils is seeking to plunge through nearly seven miles of seawater to the bottom of a rocky chasm in the western Pacific that is veiled in perpetual darkness. It is the ocean's deepest spot. The forbidding place, known as the Challenger Deep, is so far removed from the warming rays of the sun that its temperature hovers near freezing.

"When I was a kid, I loved not only amazing ocean exploration but space, too," James Cameron, the director of "Avatar," "Titanic" and "The Abyss," said in an interview. "I can think of no greater fantasy than to be an explorer and see what no human eye has seen before."

The would-be explorers can afford to live their dreams because of their extraordinarily deep pockets. Significantly, their ambitions far exceed those of the world's seafaring nations, which have no plans to send people so deep.

The billionaires and millionaires include Mr. Cameron, the airline mogul Richard Branson and the Internet guru Eric E. Schmidt. Each is building, planning to build or financing the construction of minisubmarines meant to transport them, their friends and scientists into the depths. Entrepreneurs talk of taking tourists down as well.

The vehicles, meant to hold one to three people, are estimated to cost anywhere from $7 million to $40 million.



For the full story, see:

WILLIAM J. BROAD. "Ambitions as Deep as Their Pockets." The New York Times (Tues., August 2, 2011): D1 & D4.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated August 1, 2011.)






October 28, 2011

"A Landmark Achievement for Regenerative Medicine"



TracheaMadeInLab2011-08-09.jpg "A lab-made windpipe was implanted June 9 into a 36-year-old patient whose own windpipe was obstructed by a tumor." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. A3) Doctors have replaced the cancer-stricken windpipe of a patient with an organ made in a lab, a landmark achievement for regenerative medicine. The patient no longer has cancer and is expected to have a normal life expectancy, doctors said.

"He was condemned to die," said Paolo Macchiarini, a professor of regenerative surgery who carried out the procedure at Sweden's Karolinska University Hospital. "We now plan to discharge him [Friday]."

The transplantation of an entirely synthetic and permanent windpipe had never been successfully done before the June 9 procedure. The researchers haven't yet published the details in a scientific journal.



For the full story, see:

GAUTAM NAIK. "Lab-Made Trachea Saves Man; Tumor-Blocked Windpipe Replaced Using Synthetic Materials, Patient's Own Cells." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., July 8, 2011): C8.





October 25, 2011

The Huge Value of Exposing Ourselves to Unexpected Evidence




Bill Bryson tells how much we learned from the remains of a man from the neolithic age, who has been called Ötzi:


(p. 377) His equipment employed eighteen different types of wood - a remarkable variety. The most surprising of all his tools was the axe. It was copper-bladed and of a type known as a Remedello axe, after a site in Italy where they were first found. But Ötzi's axe was hundreds of years older than the oldest Remedello axe. 'It was,' in the words of one observer, 'as if the tomb of a medieval warrior had yielded a modern rifle.' The axe changed the timeframe for the copper age in Europe by no less than a thousand years.

But the real revelation and excitement were the clothes. Before Ötzi we had no idea - or, to be more precise, nothing but ideas - of how stone age people dressed. Such materials as survived existed only as fragments. Here was a complete outfit and it was full of surprises. His clothes were made from the skins and furs of an impressive range of animals - red deer, bear, chamois, goat and cattle. He also had with him a woven grass rectangle that was three feet long. This might have been a kind of rain cape, but it might equally have been a sleeping mat. Again, nothing like it had ever been seen or imagined.

Ötzi wore fur leggings held up with leather strips attached to a waist strap that made them look uncannily - almost comically - like the kind of nylon stockings and garter sets that Hollywood pin-ups wore in the Second World War. Nobody had remotely foreseen such a get-up. He wore a loincloth of goatskin and a hat made from the fur of a brown bear - probably a kind of hunting trophy. It would have been very warm and covetably stylish. The rest of his outfit was mostly made from the skin and fur of red deer. Hardly any came from domesticated animals, the opposite of what was expected.



Source:

Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.





October 17, 2011

The Lancet Accused Snow of Being "in the Pocket of Business Interests"




(p. 365) It is hard now to appreciate just how radical and unwelcome Snow's views were. Many authorities actively detested him for them. The Lancet concluded that he was in the pocket of business interests which wished to continue to fill the air with 'pestilent vapours, miasms and loathsome abominations of every kind' and make themselves rich by poisoning their neighbours. 'After careful enquiry,' the parliamentary inquiry concluded, 'we see no reason to adopt this belief.'


Source:

Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

(Note: italics in original.)





October 13, 2011

Only John Snow Saw Flaw in Miasma Theory




(p. 362) The miasma theory had just one serious flaw: it was entirely without foundation. Unfortunately only one man saw this, and he couldn't get others to see it with him. His name was John Snow.


Source:

Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.





September 28, 2011

We Tend to Ignore Information that Contradicts Our Beliefs



BelievingBrainBK2011-08-09.jpg












Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.






We learn the most when our priors are contradicted. But the dissonance between evidence and beliefs is painful. So we often do not see, or soon forget, evidence that does not fit with our beliefs.

The innovative entrepreneur is often a person who sees and forces herself to remember, the dissonant fact, storing it away to make sense of, or make use of, later. At the start, she may be alone in what she sees and what she remembers. So if we are to benefit from her ability and willingness to bear the pain of dissonance, she must have the freedom to differ, and she must have the financial wherewith-all to support herself until her vision is more widely shared, better understood, and more fruitfully applied.


(p. A13) Beliefs come first; reasons second. That's the insightful message of "The Believing Brain," by Michael Shermer, the founder of Skeptic magazine. In the book, he brilliantly lays out what modern cognitive research has to tell us about his subject--namely, that our brains are "belief engines" that naturally "look for and find patterns" and then infuse them with meaning. These meaningful patterns form beliefs that shape our understanding of reality. Our brains tend to seek out information that confirms our beliefs, ignoring information that contradicts them. Mr. Shermer calls this "belief-dependent reality." The well-worn phrase "seeing is believing" has it backward: Our believing dictates what we're seeing.


. . .


One of the book's most enjoyable discussions concerns the politics of belief. Mr. Shermer takes an entertaining look at academic research claiming to prove that conservative beliefs largely result from psychopathologies. He drolly cites survey results showing that 80% of professors in the humanities and social sciences describe themselves as liberals. Could these findings about psychopathological conservative political beliefs possibly be the result of the researchers' confirmation bias?

As for his own political bias, Mr. Shermer says that he's "a fiscally conservative civil libertarian." He is a fan of old-style liberalism, as in liberality of outlook, and cites "The Science of Liberty" author Timothy Ferris's splendid formulation: "Liberalism and science are methods, not ideologies." The "scientific solution to the political problem of oppressive governments," Mr. Shermer says, "is the tried-and-true method of spreading liberal democracy and market capitalism through the open exchange of information, products, and services across porous economic borders."

But it is science itself that Mr. Shermer most heartily embraces. "The Believing Brain" ends with an engaging history of astronomy that illustrates how the scientific method developed as the only reliable way for us to discover true patterns and true agents at work. Seeing through a telescope, it seems, is believing of the best kind.



For the full review, see:

RONALD BAILEY. "A Trick Of the Mind; Looking for patterns in life and then infusing them with meaning, from alien intervention to federal conspiracy." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., July 27, 2011): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


Book reviewed:

Shermer, Michael. The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. New York: Times Books, 2011.





September 25, 2011

Lunar Entrepreneurs



(p. A1) Now that the last space shuttle has landed back on Earth, a new generation of space entrepreneurs would like to whip up excitement about the prospect of returning to the Moon.


. . .


(p. A3) "It's probably the biggest wealth creation opportunity in modern history," said Barney Pell, a former NASA computer scientist turned entrepreneur and now a co-founder of Moon Express. While Moon Express might initially make money by sending small payloads, the big fortune would come from bringing back platinum and other rare metals, Dr. Pell said.

"Long term, the market is massive, no doubt," he said. "This is not a question of if. It's a question of who and when. We hope it's us and soon."

Like the aviation prizes that jump-started airplane technology a century ago, the Google Lunar X Prize is meant to rally technologists and entrepreneurs. It is administered by the X Prize Foundation, which handed out $10 million in 2004 to the first private team to build a spacecraft that could carry people 60 miles above the Earth's surface. (The winner, SpaceShipOne, was built by the aerospace designer Burt Rutan with backing from Paul Allen, the software magnate.)



For the full story, see:

KENNETH CHANG. "In a Private Race to the Moon, Flights of Fancy Are in the Air." The New York Times (Fri., July 22, 2011): A1 & A3.

(Note: the online version of the story is dated July 21, 2011 and has the title "Race to the Moon Heats Up for Private Firms.")





September 19, 2011

John Crandon Proved Scurvy Caused by Lack of Vitamin C




(p. 167) . . . , in 1939 a Harvard Medical School surgeon named John Crandon decided to settle matters once and for all by the age-old method of withholding Vitamin C from his diet for as long as it took to make himself really ill. It took a surprisingly long time. For the first eighteen weeks, his only symptom was extreme fatigue. (Remarkably, he continued to operate on patients throughout this period.) But in the nineteenth week he took an abrupt turn for the worse - so much so that he would almost certainly have died had he not been under close medical supervision. He was injected with 1,000 milligrams of Vitamin C and was restored to life (p. 168) almost at once. Interestingly, he had never acquired the one set of symptoms that everyone associates with scurvy: the falling out of teeth and bleeding of gums.


Source:

Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





September 15, 2011

Obstacles to Curing Scurvy: A Deadly Experiment and Putting Theory Before Evidence




(p. 165) What was needed was some kind of distilled essence - an antiscorbutic, as the medical men termed it - that would be effective against scurvy but portable too. In the 1760s, a Scottish doctor named William Stark, evidently encouraged by Benjamin Franklin, conducted a series of patently foolhardy experiments in which he tried (p. 166) to identify the active agent by, somewhat bizarrely, depriving himself of it. For weeks he lived on only the most basic of foods - bread and water chiefly - to see what would happen. What happened was that in just over six months he killed himself, from scurvy, without coming to any helpful conclusions at all.

In roughly the same period, James Lind, a naval surgeon, conducted a more scientifically rigorous (and personally less risky) experiment by finding twelve sailors who had scurvy already, dividing them into pairs, and giving each pair a different putative elixir - vinegar to one, garlic and mustard to another, oranges and lemons to a third, and so on. Five of the groups showed no improvement, but the pair given oranges and lemons made a swift and total recovery. Amazingly, Lind decided to ignore the significance of the result and doggedly stuck with his personal belief that scurvy was caused by incompletely digested food building up toxins within the body.



Source:

Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.





August 25, 2011

Drug from David Sinclair's Sirtris Start-Up Lengthens Life of Obese Mice



MiceLiveLonger2011-08-19.jpg"An obese mouse given the drug SRT-1720, center, and one not given the drug, right." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



(p. A1) Sustaining the flickering hope that human aging might somehow be decelerated, researchers have found they can substantially extend the average life span of obese mice with a specially designed drug.

The drug, SRT-1720, protects the mice from the usual diseases of obesity by reducing the amount of fat in the liver and increasing sensitivity to insulin. These and other positive health effects enable the obese mice to live 44 percent longer, on average, than obese mice that did not receive the drug, according to a team of researchers led by Rafael de Cabo, a gerontologist at the National Institute on Aging.

Drugs closely related to SRT-1720 are now undergoing clinical trials in humans.

The findings "demonstrate for the first time the feasibility of designing novel molecules that are safe and effective in promoting longevity and preventing multiple age-related diseases in mammals," Dr. de Cabo and colleagues write in Thursday's issue of the new journal Scientific Reports. Their conclusion supports claims that had been thrown in doubt by an earlier study that was critical of SRT-1720.

A drug that makes it cost-free to be obese may seem more a moral hazard than an incentive to good health. But the rationale behind the research is somewhat different: the researchers are trying to capture the benefits that allow mice on very low-calorie diets to live longer. It just so happens that such benefits are much easier to demonstrate in mice under physiological stress like obesity than in normal mice.


. . .


. . . , a small pharmaceutical concern in Cambridge, Mass., designed SRT-1720 and a set of similar drugs to mimic resveratrol -- the trace ingredient of red wine that is thought to activate protective proteins called sirtuins.

The sirtuins help bring about the 30 percent extension of life span enjoyed by mice and rats that are kept on very low-calorie diets.



For the full story, see:

NICHOLAS WADE. "Longer Lives for Obese Mice, With Hope for Humans of All Sizes." The New York Times (Fri., August 19, 2011): A1 & A3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was dated August 18, 2011.)







August 19, 2011

"A Brilliant and Exhilarating and Profoundly Eccentric Book"



DeutschDavid2011-08-14.jpg







"David Deutsch." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT review quoted and cited below.




(p. 16) David Deutsch's "Beginning of Infinity" is a brilliant and exhilarating and profoundly eccentric book. It's about everything: art, science, philosophy, history, politics, evil, death, the future, infinity, bugs, thumbs, what have you. And the business of giving it anything like the attention it deserves, in the small space allotted here, is out of the question. But I will do what I can.


. . .


The thought to which Deutsch's conversation most often returns is that the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, or something like it, may turn out to have been the pivotal event not merely of the history of the West, or of human beings, or of the earth, but (literally, physically) of the universe as a whole.


. . .


(p. 17) Deutsch's enthusiasm for the scientific and technological transformation of the totality of existence naturally brings with it a radical impatience with the pieties of environmentalism, and cultural relativism, and even procedural democracy -- and this is sometimes exhilarating and sometimes creepy. He attacks these pieties, with spectacular clarity and intelligence, as small-­minded and cowardly and boring. The metaphor of the earth as a spaceship or life-­support system, he writes, "is quite perverse. . . . To the extent that we are on a 'spaceship,' we have never merely been its passengers, nor (as is often said) its stewards, nor even its maintenance crew: we are its designers and builders. Before the designs created by humans, it was not a vehicle, but only a heap of dangerous raw materials." But it's hard to get to the end of this book without feeling that Deutsch is too little moved by actual contemporary human suffering. What moves him is the grand Darwinian competition among ideas. What he adores, what he is convinced contains the salvation of the world, is, in every sense of the word, The Market.



For the full review, see:

DAVID ALBERT. "Explaining it All: David Deutsch Offers Views on Everything from Subatomic Particles to the Shaping of the Universe Itself." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., August 14, 2011): 16-17.

(Note: ellipses between paragraphs added; ellipsis in Deutsch quote in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review is dated August 12, 2011 and has the title "Explaining it All: How We Became the Center of the Universe.")


Book under review:

Deutsch, David. The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World. New York: Viking Adult, 2011.





August 17, 2011

A Case for Epistemic and Technological Optimism



BeginningOfInfinityBK2011-08-07.jpg
















Source of book image: http://us.penguingroup.com/static/covers/all/5/5/9780670022755H.jpg



Horgan is well-known for writing a pessimistic book about the future of science. For him to write such a positive review of a book that reaches the opposite conclusion, is impressive (both about him and the book he is reviewing).

From Horgan's review and the reviews on Amazon as of 8/7/11, I view the Deutsch book as potentially important and profound. (I will write more when I have read it.)




(p. 17) . . . Mr. Deutsch knocks my 1996 book, "The End of Science," for proposing that the glory days of science--especially pure science, the effort to map out and understand reality--may be over. Mr. Deutsch equates my thesis with "dogmatism, stagnation and tyranny," all of which, for the record, I oppose. But he makes the case for infinite progress with such passion, imagination and quirky brilliance that I couldn't help enjoying his argument. More often than not I found myself agreeing with him--or at least hoping that he is right.


. . .


If we acknowledge our imperfections, Mr. Deutsch observes, then, paradoxically, there is no problem that we cannot tackle. Death, for instance. Or the apparent incompatibility between the two pillars of modern physics, quantum theory and general relativity. Or global warming, which Mr. Deutsch believes we can overcome through innovation rather than drastic cutbacks in consumption. He gores the sacred cow of "sustainability": Societies are healthiest, he declares, not when they achieve equilibrium but when they are rapidly evolving.



For the full review, see:

JOHN HORGAN. "BOOKSHELF; To Err Is Progress; How to foster the growth of scientific knowledge: accept that it is limited no matter how definitive it may seem." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., JULY 20, 2011): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)


Source information on book under review:

Deutsch, David. The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World. New York: Viking Adult, 2011.






July 27, 2011

Cow Burps and Farts Cause 28% of Methane Release "Due to Human Activity"



(p. 6A) LOS ANGELES -- Scientists have isolated a bacterium from the gut of Australian Tam­mar wallabies that allows the animals to consume and digest grasses, leaves and other plant material without producing co­pious amounts of methane, as cattle do.

The microbe was discovered through a process described in a report published online recently by the journal Science.

Ultimately, the microbe might be put to use to reduce the car­bon footprint of cows and other ruminants, said report co-author Mark Morrison, a microbial bi­ologist in St. Lucia, Queensland.


. . .


The methane-rich burps and flatulence of cattle have been blamed for 28 percent of that greenhouse gas's global emis­sions due to human activity. Like other cud-chewing mammals, they produce methane as their systems work to break down and ferment the plant matter they eat.



For the full story, see:

THE LOS ANGELES TIMES. "Wallaby microbe may one day help cut cows' methane footprint." Omaha World-Herald (Monday, July 4, 2011): 6A.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





June 9, 2011

"Progress Depended on the Empirical Habit of Thought"



In the passage below from 1984 Orwell presents an underground rebel's account of why the authoritarian socialist dystopia cannot advance in science and technology.


(p. 155) The world of today is a bare, hungry, dilapidated place compared with the world that existed before 1914, and still more so if compared with the imaginary future to which the people of that period looked forward. In the early twentieth century, the vision of a future society unbelievably rich, leisured, orderly, and efficient--a glittering (p. 156) antiseptic world of glass and steel and snow-white concrete--was part of the consciousness of nearly every literate person. Science and technology were developing at a prodigious speed, and it seemed natural to assume that they would go on developing. This failed to happen, partly because of the impoverishment caused by a long series of wars and revolutions, partly because scientific and technical progress depended on the empirical habit of thought, which could not survive in a strictly regimented society.



Source:

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. New York: The New American Library, 1961 [1949].

By Canadian law, 1984 is no longer under copyright. The text has been posted on the following Canadian web site: http://wikilivres.info/wiki/Nineteen_Eighty-Four





June 2, 2011

"When There Is a Massive Release of Methane, the Ocean Can Compensate"



KesslerJohnBiologist2011-05-19.jpg "Dr. John Kessler, lead author of the study, examining a water sample." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. A3) Bacteria made quick work of the tons of methane that billowed into the Gulf of Mexico along with oil from the Deepwater Horizon blowout, clearing the natural gas from the waterway within months of its release, researchers reported Friday.

The federally funded field study, published online in the journal Science, offers peer-reviewed evidence that naturally occurring microbes in the Gulf devoured significant amounts of toxic chemicals in natural gas and oil spewing from the seafloor, which researchers had thought would persist in the region's water chemistry for years.

"Within a matter of months, the bacteria completely removed that methane,"said microbiologist David Valentine at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "The bacteria kicked on more effectively than we expected," he said.


. . .


"We were shocked," said chemical oceanographer John Kessler at Texas A&M, who was the lead author of the Science study. "We thought the methane would be around for years."


. . .


"They showed that, even when there is a massive release of methane, the ocean can compensate," said federal microbiologist Terry Hazen at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who has long championed the use of methane-oxidizing microbes to biodegrade oil spills.



For the full story, see:

ROBERT LEE HOTZ. "Microbes Mopped Up After Spill; Bacteria Swiftly Devoured Methane Unleashed Into the Gulf of Mexico, Study Says." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., January 7, 2011): A3.

(Note: ellipses added.)


The Science article mentioned above, is:

Kessler, John D., David L. Valentine, Molly C. Redmond, Mengran Du, Eric W. Chan, Stephanie D. Mendes, Erik W. Quiroz, Christie J. Villanueva, Stephani S. Shusta, Lindsay M. Werra, Shari A. Yvon-Lewis, and Thomas C. Weber. "A Persistent Oxygen Anomaly Reveals the Fate of Spilled Methane in the Deep Gulf of Mexico." Science (Jan. 6, 2011).


MethaneConsumedGraph2011-05-19.jpg














Source of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.







March 26, 2011

Kilimanjaro Snow Has "Come and Gone Over Centuries"



KilimanjaroSnow2011-03-09.jpg "Mount Kilimanjaro's top, shown in June, has lost 26 percent of its ice since 2000, a study says." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A6) The ice atop Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania has continued to retreat rapidly, declining 26 percent since 2000, scientists say in a new report.

Yet the authors of the study, to be published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reached no consensus on whether the melting could be attributed mainly to humanity's role in warming the global climate.

Eighty-five percent of the ice cover that was present in 1912 has vanished, the scientists said.

To measure the recent pace of the retreat, researchers relied on data from aerial photographs taken of Kilimanjaro over time and from stakes and instruments installed on the mountaintop in 2000, said Douglas R. Hardy, a geologist at the University of Massachusetts and one of the study's authors.


. . .


. . . Georg Kaser, a glaciologist at the Institute for Geography of the University of Innsbruck in Austria, said that the ice measured was only a few hundred years old and that it had come and gone over centuries.

What is more, he suggested that the recent melting had more to do with a decline in moisture levels than with a warming atmosphere.

"Our understanding is that it is due to the slow drying out of ice," Dr. Kaser said. "It's about moisture fluctuation."



For the full story, see:

SINDYA N. BHANOO. "Mt. Kilimanjaro's Ice Cap Continues Its Rapid Retreat, but the Cause Is Debated." The New York Times (Tues., November 3, 2009): A6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated November 2, 2009 and has the title "Mt. Kilimanjaro Ice Cap Continues Rapid Retreat.")





March 14, 2011

"The Information in a Message Is Inversely Proportional to Its Probability"



TheInformationBKd.jpg
















Source of book image: http://www.umcs.maine.edu/~chaitin/



(p. A13) What, exactly, is information? Prior to Shannon, Mr. Gleick notes, the term seemed as hopelessly subjective as "beauty" or "truth." But in 1948 Shannon, then working for Bell Laboratories, gave information an almost magically precise, quantitative definition: The information in a message is inversely proportional to its probability. Random "noise" is quite uniform; the more surprising a message, the more information it contains. Shannon reduced information to a basic unit called a "bit," short for binary digit. A bit is a message that represents one of two choices: yes or no, heads or tails, one or zero.


For the full review, see:

JOHN HORGAN. "Little Bits Go a Long Way; The more surprising a message, the more information it contains." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., March 1, 2011): A13.



Book being reviewed:

Gleick, James. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. New York: Pantheon Books, 2011.





March 12, 2011

The Dangers from Disease Are Much Greater than the Dangers from Vaccines



Offit-Deadly-ChoicesBK.jpg














Source of book image:
http://blogs.plos.org/takeasdirected/files/2011/02/Offit-Deadly-Choices1.jpg




Sometime during the weekend of Feb. 26-27, 2011, I saw several minutes of a C-Span book TV presentation by Paul Offit on his Deadly Choices book. He made a strong case that based on casual and unsound evidence, many parents are putting their children at risk by delaying or even foregoing having their children vaccinated.

As a result children are dying from diseases that they easily could have been protected against.


Book discussed:

Offit, Paul A. Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All. New York: Basic Books, 2011.






February 12, 2011

"Powerful Pressure for Scientists to Conform"



HypingHealthRisksBK2011-02-05.jpg













Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.



(p. A13) In "Hyping Health Risks," Geoffrey Kabat, an epidemiologist himself, shows how activists, regulators and scientists distort or magnify minuscule environmental risks. He duly notes the accomplishments of epidemiology, such as uncovering the risks of tobacco smoking and the dangers of exposure to vinyl chloride and asbestos. And he acknowledges that industry has attempted to manipulate science. But he is concerned about a less reported problem: "The highly charged climate surrounding environmental health risks can create powerful pressure for scientists to conform and to fall into line with a particular position."

Mr. Kabat looks at four claims -- those trying to link cancer to man-made chemicals, electromagnetic fields and radon and to link cancer and heart disease to passive smoking. In each, he finds more bias than biology -- until further research, years later, corrects exaggeration or error.


. . .


I know whereof Mr. Kabat speaks. In 1992, as the producer of a PBS program, I interviewed an epidemiologist who was on the EPA's passive-smoking scientific advisory board. He admitted to me that the EPA had put its thumb on the evidentiary scales to come to its conclusion. He had lent his name to this process because, he said, he wanted "to remain relevant to the policy process." Naturally, he didn't want to appear on TV contradicting the EPA.



For the full review, see:

RONALD BAILEY. "Bookshelf; Scared Senseless." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., AUGUST 11, 2008): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the first paragraph quoted above has slightly different wording in the online version than the print version; the second paragraph quoted is the same in both.)


The book under review is:

Kabat, Geoffrey C. Hyping Health Risks: Environmental Hazards in Daily Life and the Science of Epidemiology. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.





December 28, 2010

Environmentalist Antiglobalization "Vandals" Destroy Giorgio's Corn



FidenatoGiorgioItalianFarmer2010-12-21.jpg "Last week, Giorgio Fidenato, who had planted genetically modified corn, stood amid stalks that had been trampled by antiglobalization activists." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A4) VIVARO, Italy -- Giorgio Fidenato declared war on the Italian government and environmental groups in April with a news conference and a YouTube video, which showed him poking six genetically modified corn seeds into Italian soil.

In fact, said Mr. Fidenato, 49, an agronomist, he planted two fields of genetically modified corn. But since "corn looks like corn," as he put it, it took his opponents weeks to find his crop.

The seeds, known as MON810, are modified so that the corn produces a chemical that kills the larvae of the corn borer, a devastating pest. Yet while European Union rules allow this particular seed to be planted, Italy requires farmers to get special permission for any genetically modified, or G.M., crop -- and the Agriculture Ministry never said yes.

"We had no choice but to engage in civil disobedience -- these seeds are legal in Europe," said Mr. Fidenato, who has repeatedly applied for permission, adding that he drew more inspiration from Ron Paul than Gandhi.


. . .


After Mr. Fidenato's provocation, investigators did genetic testing to identify the locations of the offending stalks in the sea of cornfields that surround this tiny town. Officials seized two suspect fields -- about 12 acres -- and declared the plantings illegal. Greenpeace activists surreptitiously snipped off the stalks' tassels in the hope of preventing pollen from being disseminated.

On Aug. 9, 100 machete-wielding environmental activists from an antiglobalization group called Ya Basta descended on Vivaro and trampled the field before local police officers could intervene. They left behind placards with a skull and crossbones reading: "Danger -- Contaminated -- G.M.O."

Giancarlo Galan, who became agriculture minister in April, called the protesters "vandals," although he did not say he would allow genetically modified crops. But Luca Zaia, the previous agriculture minister and president of the nearby Veneto region, applauded the rampage, saying: "There is a need to show multinationals that they can't introduce Frankenstein crops into our country without authorization."

Over the past decade, genetically modified crops have been a major (p. A8) source of trade friction between Europe and the United States.

Both the United States Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Agency say that there is no scientific evidence that eating MON810 corn is dangerous.


. . .


. . . it is not clear that the battle of Vivaro will have a quick victor. Jail time or at least fines are expected for Mr. Fidenato (illegal planting) and Mr. Tornatore (trespassing and destroying private property).



For the full story, see:

ELISABETH ROSENTHAL. "In the Fields of Italy, a Conflict Over Corn." The New York Times (Tues., August 24, 2010): A4 & A8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date August 23, 2010.)



CornBorer2010-12-21.jpg"An ear of corn infested with corn borers. A modified variety is meant to counteract the pest." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.





December 26, 2010

Alex Was No Birdbrain: "Wanna Go Back"



AlexAndPepperberg2010-12-20.jpgAlex on left, Irene Pepperberg on right. Source of photo: online version of the NYT review quoted and cited below.


(p. 8) "Alex & Me," Irene Pepperberg's memoir of her 30-year scientific collaboration with an African gray parrot, was written for the legions of Alex's fans, the (probably) millions whose lives he and she touched with their groundbreaking work on nonhuman communication.


. . .


Alex, . . . , is a delight -- a one-pound, three-dimensional force of nature. Mischievous and cocky, he also gets bored and frustrated. (And who wouldn't, when asked to repeat tasks 60 times to ensure statistical significance?) He shouts out correct answers when his colleagues (other birds) fail to produce them. If Pepperberg inadvertently greets another bird first in the morning, Alex sulks all day and refuses to cooperate. He demands food, toys, showers, a transfer to his gym.

This ornery reviewer tried to resist Alex's charms on principle (the principle that says any author who keeps telling us how remarkable her subject is cannot possibly be right). But his achievements got the better of me. During one training session, Alex repeatedly asked for a nut, a request that Pepperberg refused (work comes first). Finally, Alex looked at her and said, slowly, "Want a nut. Nnn . . . uh . . . tuh."

"I was stunned," Pepperberg writes. "It was as if he were saying, 'Hey, stupid, do I have to spell it out for you?' " Alex had leaped from phonemes to sound out a complete word -- a major leap in cognitive processing. Perching near a harried accountant, Alex asks over and over if she wants a nut, wants corn, wants water. Frustrated by the noes, he asks, "Well, what do you want?" Mimicry? Maybe. Still, it made me laugh.

After performing major surgery on Alex, a doctor hands him, wrapped in a towel, to an overwrought Pepperberg. Alex "opened an eye, blinked, and said in a tremulous voice, 'Wanna go back.' " It's a phrase Alex routinely used to mean "I'm done with this, take me back to my cage." The scene is both wrenching -- Alex had been near death -- and creepy, evoking the talking bundle in "Eraserhead."

Pepperberg frames her story with Alex's death: the sudden shock of it, and the emotional abyss into which she fell. Ever the scientist, she wonders why she felt so strongly. The answer she comes up with is both simple -- her friend was dead -- and complex. At long last, and buoyed by the outpouring of support from people around the world, she could express the emotions she'd kept in check for 30 years, the better to convince the scientific establishment that she was a serious researcher generating valid and groundbreaking data (some had called her claims about animal minds "vacuous"). When Alex died, that weight lifted.



For the full review, see:

ELIZABETH ROYTE. "The Caged Bird Speaks." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., November 9, 2008): 8.

(Note: first two ellipses added; last two in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 7, 2010.)




(p. A21) Even up through last week, Alex was working with Dr. Pepperberg on compound words and hard-to-pronounce words. As she put him into his cage for the night last Thursday, she recalled, Alex looked at her and said: "You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you."

He was found dead in his cage the next morning, Dr. Pepperberg said.



For the full obituary, see:

BENEDICT CAREY. "The Caged Bird Speaks." The New York Times (Tues., September 11, 2007): A21.




A reporter questions Oxford professor Alex Kacelnik:

I asked him why more researchers weren't working with African grays, trying to replicate Pepperberg's achievements with Alex. "The problem with these animals is that they are the opposite of fruit flies," he said, meaning that parrots live a long time--often, fifty to sixty years in captivity. "Alex was still learning when he died, and he was thirty." He later elaborated: "Irene's work could not really have been planned ahead, as nobody knew what was possible. . . . Alex's development as a unique animal accompanied Irene's as a unique scientist. Hers is not a career trajectory one would advise to young scientists--it's too risky."


For the full story, see:

Margaret Talbot. "Birdbrain." The New Yorker (May 12, 2008).

(Note: ellipsis in original.)





December 9, 2010

Science Can Contribute "Diligent Experimental Habits" to Technology



(p. 101) Nothing is more common in the history of science than independent discovery of the same phenomenon, unless it is a fight over priority. To this day, historians debate how much prior awareness of the theory of latent heat was in Watt's possession, but they miss Black's real contribution, which anyone can see by examining the columns of neat script that attest to Watt's careful recording of experimental results. Watt didn't discover the existence of latent heat from Black, at least not directly; but he rediscovered it entirely through exposure to the diligent experimental habits of professors such as Black, John Robison, and Robert Dick.


Source:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.





December 8, 2010

After Being "Nasty and Unruly for Decades" Henry Becomes a Father at Age 111



TuataraLivingFossil2010-12-06.jpg












"TUATARA. The tuatara, scientists have learned, is in some ways a so-called living fossil." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.




(p. D1) . . . the animal that may well be New Zealand's most bizarrely instructive species at first glance looks surprisingly humdrum: the tuatara. A reptile about 16 inches long with bumpy, khaki-colored skin and a lizardly profile, the tuatara could easily be mistaken for an iguana. Appearances in this case are wildly deceptive. The tuatara -- whose name comes from the Maori language and means "peaks on the back" -- is not an iguana, is not a lizard, is not like any other reptile alive today.

In fact, as a series of recent studies suggest, it is not like any other vertebrate alive today. The tuatara, scientists have learned, is in some ways a so-called living fossil, its basic skeletal layout and skull shape almost identical to that of tuatara fossils dating back hundreds of millions of years, to before the rise of the dinosaurs. Cer-(p. D2)tain tuatara organs and traits also display the hallmarks of being, if not quite primitive, at least closer to evolutionary baseline than comparable structures in other animals.


. . .


Tuataras are living fossils in more than one sense of the term. Through long-term capture, tag and recapture studies that were begun right after World War II, researchers have found that tuataras match and possibly exceed in attainable life span that other Methuselah of the animal kingdom, the giant tortoise. "Tuataras routinely live to 100, and I couldn't tell you they don't live to 150, 200 years or even more," said Dr. Daugherty.

They live, and live it up. "We know there are females that are still reproducing in their 80s," said Dr. Daugherty. At the Southland Museum and Art Gallery in Invercargill, New Zealand, a captive male tuatara named Henry, a local celebrity that had been nasty and unruly for decades until a malignancy was removed from his genitals, mated with an 80-year-old female named Mildred, and last year became a first-time father -- at the age of 111.



For the full story, see:

NATALIE ANGIER. "Basics; Reptile's Pet-Store Looks Belie Its Triassic Appeal." The New York Times (Tues., November 23, 2010): D1 & D2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated November 22, 2010.)





December 6, 2010

Telomerase Can Reverse Aging Ills in Mice



MiceInTelomeraseExperiment2010-12-05.jpg"Two mice involved in an experiment on age-related degeneration. Mice whose telomerase gene was activated, left, showed notable improvements." Source of caption: print version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below. Source of photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. A3) Scientists have partially reversed age-related degeneration in mice, an achievement that suggests a new approach for tackling similar disorders in people.

By tweaking a gene, the researchers reversed brain disease and restored the sense of smell and fertility in prematurely aged mice. Previous experiments with calorie restriction and other methods have shown that aspects of aging can be slowed. This appears to be the first time that some age-related problems in animals have actually been reversed.

The study was published online Sunday in the peer-reviewed journal Nature.

"These mice were equivalent to 80-year-old humans and were about to pass away," says Ronald DePinho, co-author of the paper and a scientist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. After the experiment, "they were the physiological equivalent of young adults."



For the full story, see:

GAUTAM NAIK. "Aging Ills Reversed in Mice; Scientists Tweak a Gene and Rejuvenate Cells, Raising Hopes for Uses in Humans." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., NOVEMBER 29, 2010): A3.

(Note: online version of the article is dated NOVEMBER 28, 2010.)



TelomeraseGraphic2010-12-05.gif







Source of graphic: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.






December 5, 2010

A Key to Scientific Truth: Nullius in Verba ("On No One's Word")



(p. 68) . . . scientific understanding didn't progress by looking for truth; it did so by looking for mistakes.

This was new. In the cartoon version of the Scientific Revolution, science made its great advances in opposition to a heavy-handed Roman Catholic Church; but an even larger obstacle to progress in the understanding and manipulation of nature was the belief that Aristotle had already figured out all of physics and had observed all that biology had to offer, or that Galen was the last word in medicine. By this standard, the real revolutionary manifesto of the day was written not by Descartes, or Galileo, but by the seventeenth-century Italian poet and physician Francesco Redi, in his Experiments on the Generation of Insects, who wrote (as one of a hundred examples), "Aristotle asserts that cabbages produce caterpillars daily, but I have not been able to witness this remarkable reproduction, though I have seen many eggs laid by butterflies on the cabbage-stalks. . . ." Not for nothing was the motto of the Royal Society nullius in verba: "on no one's word."



Source:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: first ellipsis added; italics and second ellipsis, in original.)





December 4, 2010

"A Really Nice Story about Adaptability of Our Life Form"



WolfeSimonFelisaArsenicBacterium2010-12-03.jpg"Felisa Wolfe-Simon takes samples from a sediment core she pulled up from the remote shores of 10 Mile Beach at Mono Lake in California." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A1) Scientists said Thursday that they had trained a bacterium to eat and grow on a diet of arsenic, in place of phosphorus -- one of six elements considered essential for life -- opening up the possibility that organisms could exist elsewhere in the universe or even here on Earth using biochemical powers we have not yet dared to dream about.

The bacterium, scraped from the bottom of Mono Lake in California and grown for months in a lab mixture containing arsenic, gradually swapped out atoms of phosphorus in its little body for atoms of arsenic.

Scientists said the results, if confirmed, would expand the notion of what life could be and where it could be. "There is basic mystery, when you look at life," said Dimitar Sasselov, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and director of an institute on the origins of life there, who was not involved in the work. "Nature only uses a restrictive set of molecules and chemical reactions out of many thousands available. This is our first glimmer that maybe there are other options."

Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a NASA astrobiology fellow at the United States Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., who led the experiment, said, "This is a microbe that has solved the problem of how to live in a different way."

This story is not about Mono Lake or arsenic, she said, but about "cracking open the door and finding that what we think are fixed constants of life are not."


. . .


(p. A4) Caleb Scharf, an astrobiologist at Columbia University who was not part of the research, said he was amazed. "It's like if you or I morphed into fully functioning cyborgs after being thrown into a room of electronic scrap with nothing to eat," he said.

Gerald Joyce, a chemist and molecular biologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., said the work "shows in principle that you could have a different form of life," but noted that even these bacteria are affixed to the same tree of life as the rest of us, like the extremophiles that exist in ocean vents.

"It's a really nice story about adaptability of our life form," he said. "It gives food for thought about what might be possible in another world."



For the full story, see:

DENNIS OVERBYE. "Microbe Finds Arsenic Tasty; Redefines Life." The New York Times (Fri., December 3, 2010): A1 & A4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated December 2, 2010.)





December 1, 2010

"The Steam Engine Has Done Much More for Science than Science Has Done for the Steam Engine"



(p. 67) The great scientist and engineer William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, made his reputation on discoveries in basic physics. electricity, and thermodynamics, but he may be remembered just as well for his talent for aphorism. Among the best known of Kelvin's quotations is the assertion that "all science is either physics or stamp collecting (while one probably best forgotten is the confident "heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible"). But the most relevant for a history of the Industrial Revolution is this: "the steam engine has done much more for science than science has done for the steam engine."


Source:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.





November 24, 2010

"It Can Be Hard to Tell a Crank from an Unfamiliar Gear"



VanValenLeigh2010-11-13.jpg














"Leigh Van Valen." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



(p. 33) His beard, it was said, was longer than God's but not as long as Charles Darwin's. Thousands of books teetered perilously in his office, and a motion-sensitive door startled visitors with cricket chirps. He took notes on his own thoughts while conversing with others.

The evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen's eccentricities were legend far beyond the University of Chicago, where brilliant and idiosyncratic professors rule. He named 20 fossil mammals he had discovered after characters in J. R. R. Tolkien's fiction, and his most famous hypothesis -- among the most cited in the literature of evolution -- was named for the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass."

That hypothesis helped explain why organisms, competing for survival, developed two sexes. It did not explain why Professor Van Valen gave better grades to students who disagreed with him -- provoking an instant evolutionary adaptation in the tone of student essays -- much less why he wrote songs about the sex lives of dinosaurs and paramecia.


. . .


After his Red Queen paper was initially, and repeatedly, rejected, Dr. Van Valen started his own journal, Evolutionary Theory, to publish it. As its longtime editor, he treated all submissions seriously. "It can be hard to tell a crank from an unfamiliar gear," he wrote.



For the full obituary, see:

DOUGLAS MARTIN. "Leigh Van Valen, a Revolutionary in the Study of Evolution, Dies at 76." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., October 31, 2010): 33.

(Note: ellipsIs added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 30, 2010 and has the title "Leigh Van Valen, Evolution Revolutionary, Dies at 76.")





November 15, 2010

If the Uncredentialed Succeed, It Must Be Luck



(p. 33) Newcomen and Calley had, in broad strokes, the design for a working engine. They had enjoyed some luck, though it was anything but dumb luck. This didn't seem to convince the self-named (p. 34) experimental philosopher J. T. Desaguliers, a Huguenot refugee Like Papin, who became one of Isaac Newton's assistants and (later) a priest in the Church of England. Desaguliers wrote, just before his death in 1744, that the two men had made their engine work, but "not being either philosophers to understand the reason, or mathematicians enough to calculate the powers and to proportion the parts, very luckily by accident found what they sought for."

The notion of' Newcomen's scientific ignorance persists to this day. One of its expressions is the legend that the original engine was made to cycle automatically by the insight of a boy named Humphrey Potter, who built a mazelike network of catches and strings from the plug rod to open the valves and close them. It is almost as if a Dartmouth ironmonger simply had to have an inordinate amount of luck to succeed where so many had failed.

The discovery of the power of injected water was luck; understanding and exploiting it was anything but. Newcomen and CalIey replaced the accidental hole in the cylinder with an injection valve, and, ingeniously, attached it to the piston itself. When the piston reached the bottom of the cylinder, it automatically closed the injection valve and opened another valve, permitting the water to flow out.



Source:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: italics in original.)





November 11, 2010

Toricelli Experiment Dispoved Aristotlelian Theory that a Vacuum Was Impossible



(p. 8) Florence, in the year 1641, had been essentially the private fief of the Medici family for two centuries. The city, ground zero for both the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, was also where Galileo Galilei had chosen to live out the sentence imposed by the Inquisition for his heretical writings that argued that the earth revolved around the sun. Galileo was seventy years old and living in a villa in Arcetri, in the hills above the city, (p. 9) when he read a book on the physics of movement titled De motu (sometimes Trattato del Moto) and summoned its author, Evangelista Torricelli, a mathematician then living in Rome. Torricelli, whose admiration for Galileo was practically without limit, decamped in time not only to spend the last three months of the great man's life at his side, but to succeed him as professor of mathematics at the Florentine Academy.


. . .


(p. 9) . . . , Torricelli used a tool even more powerful than his well--cultivated talent for mathematical logic: He did experiments. At the behest of one of his patrons, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, whose engineers were unable to build a sufficiently powerful pump, Torricelli designed a series of apparatuses to test the limits of the action of contemporary water pumps. In spring of 1644, Torricelli filled a narrow, four-foot-long glass tube with mercury--a far heavier fluid than water--inverted it in a basin of mercury, sealing the tube's top. and documented that while the mercury did not pour out, it did leave a space at the closed top of the tube. He reasoned that since nothing could have slipped past the mercury in the tube, what occupied the top of the tube must, therefore, be nothing: a vacuum.


. . .


(p. 10) Torricelli was not, even by the standards of his day, a terribly ambitious inventor. When faced with hostility from religious authorities and other traditionalists who believed, correctly, that his discovery was a direct shot at the Aristotelian world, he happily returned to his beloved cycloids, the latest traveler to find himself on the wrong side of the boundary line between science and technology

But by then it no longer mattered if Torricelli was willing to leave the messiness of physics for the perfection of mathematics: vacuum would keep mercury in the bottle, hut the genie was already out. Nature might have found vacuum repugnant for two thousand years, but Europe was about to embrace it.



Source:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: italics in original; ellipses added.)





November 7, 2010

How Scientific Progress Was Slowed By Too Much Respect for Aristotelian Theory



William Rosen has a wonderful early example of how too much respect for theory can keep us from making the observations that would eventually prove the theory to be wrong:


(p. 7) Aristotle argued against the existence of a vacuum with unerring, though curiously inelegant, logic. His primary argument ran something like this:

1. If empty space can be measured, then it must have dimension.
2. If it has dimension, then it must be a body (this is something of a tautology: by Aristotelian definition, bodies are things that have dimension).
3. Therefore, anything moving into such a previously empty space would he occupying the same space simultaneously, and two bodies cannot do so.

More persuasive was the argument that a void is unnecessary, that since the fundamental character of an object consists of those measurable dimensions, then a void with the same dimensions as the cup, or horse, or ship occupying it is no different from the object. One, therefore, is redundant, and since the object cannot be superfluous, the void must be.

It takes millennia to recover from that sort of unassailable logic, temptingly similar to that used in Monty Python and the Holy GraiI to demonstrate that if a woman weighs as much as a duck, she is a witch. Aristotle's blind spot regarding the existence of a void would be inherited by a hundred generations of his adherents. Those who read the work of Heron did so through an Aristotelian scrim on which was printed, in metaphorical letters twenty feet high: NATURE ABHORS A VACUUM.



Source:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: italics in original.)





November 2, 2010

William Rosen's "The Most Powerful Idea in the World"



Most-Powerful-Idea-in-the-WorldBK2010-10-24.jpg














Source of book image: http://ffbsccn.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/the-most-powerful-idea-in-the-world.jpg




The range of William Rosen's fascinating and useful book is very broad indeed. He is interested in THE question: why did the singular improvement in living standards known as the industrial revolution happen where and when it did?

The question is not just of historical interest---if we can figure out what caused the improvement then and there, we have a better shot at continuing to improve in the here and now.

I especially enjoyed and learned from William Rosen's discussion, examples and quotations on the difficult issue of whether patents are on balance a good or bad institution.

Deirdre McCloskey taught me that the most important part of a sentence is the last word, and the most important part of a paragraph is the last sentence, and the most important part of a chapter is the last paragraph.

Here are the last couple of sentences of Rosen's book:


(p. 324) Incised in the stone over the Herbert C. Hoover Building's north entrance is the legend that, with Lincoln's characteristic brevity, sums up the single most important idea in the world:

THE PATENT SYSTEM ADDED

THE FUEL OF INTEREST

TO THE FIRE OF GENIUS



In the next few weeks I will occasionally quote a few of the more illuminating passages from Rosen's well-written account.


Book discussed:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.





September 25, 2010

"A Very Clear-Thinking Heretic" Doubted Big Bang Theory



BurbidgeGeoffrey2010-09-02.jpg "Geoffrey Burbidge's work in astronomy changed the field." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT obituary quoted and cited below.


(p. 26) Geoffrey Burbidge, an English physicist who became a towering figure in astronomy by helping to explain how people and everything else are made of stardust, died on Jan. 26 in San Diego. He was 84.


. . .


Dr. Burbidge's skepticism extended to cosmology. In 1990, he and four other astronomers, including Drs. Arp and Hoyle, published a broadside in the journal Nature listing arguments against the Big Bang.

Dr. Burbidge preferred instead a version of Dr. Hoyle's Steady State theory of an eternal universe. In the new version, small, local big bangs originating in the nuclei of galaxies every 20 billion years or so kept the universe boiling. To his annoyance, most other astronomers ignored this view.

In a memoir in 2007, Dr. Burbidge wrote that this quasi-steady state theory was probably closer to the truth than the Big Bang. But he added that "there is such a heavy bias against any minority point of view in cosmology that it may take a very long time for this to occur."

Despite his contrarian ways, Dr. Burbidge maintained his credibility in the astronomical establishment, serving as director of Kitt Peak from 1978 to 1984 and editing the prestigious Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics for more than 30 years. He was "a very clear-thinking heretic," Dr. Strittmatter said.



For the full obituary, see:

DENNIS OVERBYE. "Geoffrey Burbidge, Who Traced Life to Stardust, Is Dead at 84 " The New York Times, First Section (Sun., February 7, 2010 ): A7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary is dated February 6, 2010.)





September 12, 2010

More than a Quarter of Weathercasters Believe "Global Warming is a Scam"



(p. A1) Joe Bastardi, . . . , a senior forecaster and meteorologist with AccuWeather, maintains that it is more likely that the planet is cooling, and he distrusts the data put forward by climate scientists as evidence for rising global temperatures.

"There is a great deal of consternation among a lot of us over the readjustment of data that is going on and some of the portrayals that we are seeing," Mr. Bastardi said in a video segment posted recently on AccuWeather's Web site.

Such skepticism appears to be widespread among TV forecasters, about half of whom have a degree in meteorology. A study released on Monday by researchers at George Mason University and the University of Texas at Austin found that only about half of the 571 television weathercasters surveyed believed that global warming was occurring and fewer than a third believed that climate change was "caused mostly by human activities."

More than a quarter of the weathercasters in the survey agreed with the statement "Global warming is a scam," the researchers found.



For the full story, see:

LESLIE KAUFMAN. "Scientists and Weathercasters at Odds over Climate Change." The New York Times (Tues., March 30, 2010): A1 & A16.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated March 29, 2010 and had the title "Among Weathercasters, Doubt on Warming.")





September 11, 2010

Vatican Made Bellarmine a Saint in 1930, but Still Says Galileo Erred



GalileoBust2010-09-01.jpg "A bust of Galileo at the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy. The museum is displaying recovered parts of his body." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A9) As a heretic he could not be given a proper church burial. But for years after his death, his followers in the circle of the grand dukes of Tuscany pushed to give him an honorable resting place.

Nearly a century later, in 1737, members of Florence's cultural and scientific elite unearthed the scientist's remains in a peculiar Masonic rite. Freemasonry was growing as a counterweight to church power in those years and even today looms large in the Italian popular imagination as an anticlerical force.

According to a notary who recorded the strange proceedings, the historian and naturalist Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti used a knife to slice off several fingers, a tooth and a vertebra from Galileo's body as souvenirs but refrained, it appears, from taking his brain. The scientist was then reburied in a ceremony, "symmetrical to a beatification," said Mr. Galluzzi.

After taking their macabre souvenirs, the group placed Galileo's remains in an elegant marble tomb in Florence's Santa Croce church, a pointed statement from Tuscany's powers that they were outside the Vatican's control. The church has long been a shrine to humanism as much as to religion, and Galileo's permanent neighbors include Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Rossini.


. . .


Even today, centuries after Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, the pope's theological watchdog, had Galileo arrested for preaching Copernicanism, the church has never quite managed to acknowledge that his heliocentric theory is correct. (For his part, Cardinal Bellarmine was made a saint in 1930.)

Pope John Paul II reopened the Galileo case in 1981, and in 1992 issued his committee's findings: that the judges who condemned Galileo had erred but that the scientist had also erred in his arrogance in thinking that his theory would be accepted with no physical evidence.


. . .


. . . as recently as last fall, at a news conference introducing an exhibition of historic telescopic instruments at the Vatican Museums, the director of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Culture, Monsignor Gianfranco Ravasi, referred without blinking to "the errors committed by both sides" -- indicating both the church and Galileo.




For the full story, see:

RACHEL DONADIO. "Florence Journal; A Museum Display of Galileo Has a Saintly Feel." The New York Times (Fri., July 23, 2010): A1 & A9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated July 22, 2010.)





August 18, 2010

Carbon Dioxide Increased After the Globe Warmed, Not Before



The passages quoted below are from an opinion piece by retired physicist Jack Kasher who was a colleague of mine at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.


I was pleased to see that the Millard school district pulled Laurie David's book, "The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming," due to "a major factual error" in a chart that shows rising temperatures and carbon dioxide levels dating back 650,000 years. The chart claims to show that global warming is caused by increases in carbon dioxide levels, but the facts show that this is not the case.

In May, I attended an international conference on global warming in Chicago, with 73 speakers from 23 countries. The book and its erroneous chart were discussed there. (Go online to http://www.heartland.org/events/2010Chicago/index.html and click on "proceedings" to see most of the talks and PowerPoint presentations.)

When the error is corrected, the chart will show that in every single case over this time span the Earth warmed up first, followed by a later increase in carbon dioxide. This is clear proof that in the past global warming was not caused by an increase in CO2. If anything, it is the other way around. In each instance, something other than CO2 caused the temperature increase, which then might have made the CO2 rise. This chart shows that past history actually contradicts David's main assumption in her book -- namely that man-made carbon dioxide is causing global warming.



For the full commentary, see:


Dr. Jack Kasher. "Midlands Voices: Let's include uncertainties in global-warming lessons." Omaha World-Herald (Wednesday June 30, 2010): ??.






August 9, 2010

Scientific Opinion Shifts to Galambos Who Was Fired for His Theory



GalambosRobertNerveScientist2010-08-04.jpg













"Robert Galambos, . . . , studied the inaudible sounds that allow bats to fly in the dark." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



(p. 20) Dr. Robert Galambos, a neuroscientist whose work included helping to prove how bats navigate in total darkness and deciphering the codes by which nerves transmit sounds to the brain, died June 18 at his home in the La Jolla section of San Diego. He was 96.


. . .


In 1960, while on an airplane, Dr. Galambos wrote that he had an inspiring thought: that the tiny cells that make up 40 percent of the brain, called glia, are as crucial to mental functioning as neurons.

"I know how the brain works!" he exclaimed to his companion.

But his superiors at Walter Reed found the theory so radical that he was soon job-hunting. The view at the time was that glia existed mainly to support neurons, considered the structural and functional unit of the nervous system. But Dr. Galambos clung to his belief, despite the failure of three experiments he performed in the 1960s.

Since then, scientific opinion has been shifting in his direction. In 2008, Ben A. Barres of the Stanford University School of Medicine wrote glowingly in the journal Neuron about the powerful role glia are now seen to play. He concluded, "Quite possibly the most important roles of glia have yet to be imagined."




For the full obituary, see:

DOUGLAS MARTIN. "Robert Galambos, 96, Dies; Studied Nerves and Sound." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., July 18, 2010): 20.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated July 15, 2010 and has the title "Robert Galambos, Neuroscientist Who Showed How Bats Navigate, Dies at 96.")

(Note: ellipses added.)





August 1, 2010

Jefferson "Was Experimental and Had a Lot of Failures"



JeffersonianGardeningA2010-07-12.jpg"In the vegetable garden at Monticello, his home in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson sowed seeds from around the world and shared them with farmers. He was not afraid of failure, which happened often." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


Steven Johnson has written an intriguing argument that the intellectual foundation of the founding fathers was based as much on experimental science as on religion. The article quoted below provides a small bit of additional evidence in support of Johnson's argument.


(p. D1) NEW gardeners smitten with the experience of growing their own food -- amazed at the miracle of harvesting figs on a Brooklyn rooftop, horrified by the flea beetles devouring the eggplants -- might be both inspired and comforted by the highs and lows recorded by Thomas Jefferson from the sun-baked terraces of his two-acre kitchen garden 200 years ago.

And they could learn a thing or two from the 19th-century techniques still being used at Monticello today.

"He was experimental and had a lot of failures," Peter Hatch, the director of gardens and grounds, said on a recent afternoon, as we stood under a scorching sun in the terraced garden that took seven slaves three years to cut into the hill. "But Jefferson always believed that 'the failure of one thing is repaired by the success of another.' "

After he left the White House in 1809 and moved to Monticello, his Palladian estate here, Jefferson grew 170 varieties of fruits and 330 varieties of vegetables and herbs, until his death in 1826.

As we walked along the geometric beds -- many of them planted in an ancient Roman quincunx pattern -- I made notes on the beautiful crops I had never grown. Sea kale, with its great, ruffled blue-green leaves, now full of little round seed pods. Egyptian onions, whose tall green stalks bore quirky hats of tiny seeds and wavy green sprouts. A pre-Columbian tomato called Purple Calabash, whose energetic vines would soon be trained up a cedar trellis made of posts cut from the woods.

"Purple Calabash is one of my favorites," Mr. Hatch said. "It's an acidic, al-(p. D7)most black tomato, with a convoluted, heavily lobed shape."

Mr. Hatch, who has directed the restoration of the gardens here since 1979, has pored over Jefferson's garden notes and correspondence. He has distilled that knowledge in "Thomas Jefferson's Revolutionary Garden," to be published by Yale University Press.



For the full story, see:

ANNE RAVER. "A Revolutionary With Seeds, Too." The New York Times (Thurs., July 1, 2010): D1 & D7.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated June 30, 2010 and has the title "In the Garden; At Monticello, Jefferson's Methods Endure.")





June 19, 2010

Economics Is More Like Biology than Physics



(p. A13) If economics is a science, it is more like biology than physics. Biologists try to understand the relationships in a complex system. That's hard enough. But they can't tell you what will happen with any precision to the population of a particular species of frog if rainfall goes up this year in a particular rain forest. They might not even be able to count the number of frogs right now with any exactness.

We have the same problems in economics. The economy is a complex system, our data are imperfect and our models inevitably fail to account for all the interactions.

The bottom line is that we should expect less of economists. Economics is a powerful tool, a lens for organizing one's thinking about the complexity of the world around us. That should be enough. We should be honest about what we know, what we don't know and what we may never know. Admitting that publicly is the first step toward respectability.



For the full commentary, see:

RUSS ROBERTS. "Is the Dismal Science Really a Science? Some macroeconomists say if we just study the numbers long enough we'll be able to design better policy. That's like the sign in the bar: Free Beer Tomorrow." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., FEBRUARY 26, 2010): A13.







June 12, 2010

Finding the Neanderthal in Us



VindijaCaveCroatiaNeanderthalBones2010-05-19.jpg"The Vindija cave in Croatia where three small Neanderthal bones were found." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article cited below.


(p. A3) The burly Ice Age hunters known as Neanderthals, a long-extinct species, survive today in the genes of almost everyone outside Africa, according to an international research team who offer the first molecular evidence that early humans mated and produced children in liaisons with Neanderthals.

In a significant advance, the researchers mapped most of the Neanderthal genome--the first time that the heredity of such an ancient human species has been reliably reconstructed. The researchers, able for the first time to compare the relatively complete genetic coding of modern and prehistoric human species, found the Neanderthal legacy accounts for up to 4% of the human genome among people in much of the world today.

By comparing the Neanderthal genetic information to the modern human genome, the scientists were able to home in on hints of subtle differences between the ancient and modern DNA affecting skin, stature, fertility and brain power that may have given Homo sapiens an edge over their predecessors.

"It is tantalizing to think that the Neanderthal is not totally extinct," said geneticist Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who pioneered the $3.8 million research project. "A bit of them lives on in us today."


. . .


For their analysis, Dr. Pääbo and his colleagues extracted DNA mostly from the fossil remains of three Neanderthal women who lived and died in Croatia between 38,000 and 45,000 years ago. From thimblefuls of powdered bone, the researchers pieced together about three billion base pairs of DNA, covering about two-thirds of the Neanderthal genome. The researchers checked those samples against fragments of genetic code extracted from three other Neanderthal specimens.

"It is a tour de force to get a genome's worth," said genetic database expert Ewan Birney at the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, England.

In research published Thursday in Science, the researchers compared the Neanderthal DNA to the genomes drawn from five people from around the world: a San tribesman from South Africa; a Yoruba from West Africa; a Han Chinese; a West European; and a Pacific islander from Papua, New Guinea. They also checked it against the recently published genome of bio-entrepreneur Craig Venter. Traces of Neanderthal heredity turned up in all but the two African representatives.



For the full story, see:

ROBERT LEE HOTZ. "Most People Carry Neanderthal Genes; Team Finds up to 4% of Human Genome Comes From Extinct Species, the First Evidence It Mated With Homo Sapiens." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., MAY 7, 2010): A3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review is dated MAY 6, 2010.)



A related article, the online version of which is the source for the caption and photo above, is:

NICHOLAS WADE. "Analysis of Neanderthal Genome Points to Interbreeding with Modern Humans." The New York Times (Fri., May 7, 2010): A9.

(Note: the online version of the review is dated May 6, 2010 and has the title "Signs of Neanderthals Mating With Humans.")


VindijaCaveBone2010-05-19.jpg"A close-up of the bone Vindija 33.16 from Vindija cave, Croatia." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.





April 21, 2010

Genetically Modified Crops Provide Benefits, Scientists Say



GeneticallyModifiedCornSeed2010-04-19.jpg"A Missouri corn and soybean farmer with a sample of BioTech seed corn." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. B3) The report is described as the first comprehensive assessment of the impact of genetically modified crops on American farmers, who have rapidly adopted them since their introduction in 1996. The study was issued by the National Research Council, which is affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences and provides advice to the nation under a Congressional charter.

The report found that the crops allowed farmers to either reduce chemical spraying or to use less harmful chemicals. The crops also had lower production costs, higher output or extra convenience, benefits that generally outweighed the higher costs of the engineered seeds.

"That's a long and impressive list of benefits these crops can provide, and have provided to adopting farmers," David E. Ervin, the chairman of the committee that wrote the report, said on Tuesday during a webcast news conference from Washington.




For the full story, see:

ANDREW POLLACK. "Study Finds Benefits of Genetically Modified Crops But Warns of Overuse." The New York Times (Thurs., April 14, 2010): B3.

(Note: the online version of the article was dated April 13, 2010 and has the very different title "Study Says Overuse Threatens Gains From Modified Crops.")





April 14, 2010

Highly Reputed Academic Science Journal Found Similar Error Rates in Britannica and Wikipedia



(p. 208) Wikipedia was already highly regarded, anecdotally, but it got a glowing evaluation from the prestigious Nature magazine in December 2005, when it concluded that Wikipedia "comes close" to Britannica in the quality of its science articles. "Our reviewers identified an average of four errors in each Wikipedia article, and three in each Britannica article."

The news came as a bit of a surprise. Many folks felt Wikipedia did better than they'd have thought, and Britannica did, well, worse than they expected. The result of the study was hotly debated between Nature and Britannica, but to most Wikipedians it was a vindication. They knew that Wikipedia was a minefield of errors, but to be in such close proximity in quality to a traditionally edited encyclopedia, while using such a grassroots process, was the external validation they had been waiting for.

Britannica wasn't pleased with the methodology, and posted a rebuttal with this criticism: "Almost everything about the journal's investigation, from the criteria for identifying inaccuracies to the discrepancy between the article text and its headline, was wrong and misleading." Nature and Britannica exchanged barbs and rebuttals, but in the end, the overall result seemed clear.

"The Nature (sic) article showed that we are on the right track with our current methods. We just need better ways to prevent the display of obvious vandalism at any time," wrote longtime Wikipedian Daniel Mayer on the mailing list.



Source:

Lih, Andrew. The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World's Greatest Encyclopedia. New York: Hyperion, 2009.

(Note: italics in original.)





April 2, 2010

"Expert Scholarship" Versus "People of Dubious Background"



(p. 71) The acknowledgment, by name, of volunteers in the preface sections of the OED is akin to Wikipedia's edit history, where one can inspect who contributed to each article. Some Oxford contributors were professors, some royalty, but most were ordinary folks who answered the call. Winchester, in The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, tells the story of the "madman" William Chester Minor, a U.S. Civil War survivor whose "strange and erratic behavior" resulted in him shooting an "innocent working man" to death in the street in Lambeth. He was sent to Broadmoor asylum for criminal lunatics. He discovered the OED as a project around 1881, when he saw the "Appeal for Readers" in the library, and worked for the next twenty-one years contributing to the project, receiving notoriety as a contributor "second only to the contributions of Dr. Fitzedward Hall in enhancing our illustration of the literary history of individual words, phrases and constructions." Minor did something unusual in not just sending submissions, but having his own cataloging system such that the dictionary editors could send a postcard and "out the details flowed, in abundance and always with unerring accuracy." Until Minor and Murray met in January 1891, no one working with (p. 72) the OED knew their prolific contributor was a madman and murderer housed at Broadmoor.

As we will see in later chapters, a common question of the wiki method is whether one can trust information created by strangers and people of dubious background. But the example of the OED shows that using contributors rather than original expert scholarship is not a new phenomenon, and that projects built as a compendium of primary sources are well suited for harnessing the power of distributed volunteers.



Source:

Lih, Andrew. The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World's Greatest Encyclopedia. New York: Hyperion, 2009.

(Note: italics in original.)





March 10, 2010

Briffa's Tree Ring Evidence Undermines "Hockey Stick" Global Warming Graph



(p. A12) The problem: Using Mr. Briffa's tree-ring techniques, researchers in the '90s built charts suggesting temperatures in the late 20th century were the highest in a millennium. The charts were dubbed "hockey sticks" because they showed temperatures relatively flat for centuries, then angling higher recently.

But Mr. Briffa fretted about a potential issue. Thermometers show temperatures have risen since the '60s, but tree-ring data don't move in tandem, and sometimes show the opposite. (Average annual temperatures reached the highest on record in 2005, according to U.S. government data. They fell the next three years, and rose in 2009. All those years remain among the warmest on record.)

In his same 1999 email, Mr. Briffa said tree-ring data overall did show "unusually warm" conditions in recent decades. But, he added, "I believe that the recent warmth was probably matched about 1,000 years ago."

In other words, maybe the chart shouldn't resemble a hockey stick.

The data were the subject of heated back-and-forth before the IPCC's 2001 report. John Christy, one of the section's lead authors, said at the time that he tried in vain to make sure the report reflected the uncertainty.

Mr. Christy said in an interview that some of the pressure to downplay the uncertainty came from Michael Mann, a fellow lead author of that chapter, a scientist at Pennsylvania State University, and a developer of the original hockey-stick chart.

The "very prominent" use of the hockey-stick chart "overrules what tentativeness some of us actually intended," Mr. Christy wrote to the National Research Council in the U.S. a month after the report was published. Mr. Christy, a climate scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, provided that email.

"I was suspicious of the hockey stick," Mr. Christy said in an interview. Had Mr. Briffa's concerns been more widely known, "The story coming out of the [report] may have been different in tone and confidence."




For the full story, see:

JEFFREY BALL And KEITH JOHNSON. "Push to Oversimplify at Climate Panel." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., February 26, 2010): A1 & A12.




GlobalWarmingOversimplifiedGraph2010-02-28.gif
























Hockey stick graph is on top; more accurate, but much less publicized graph, is on bottom. Source of graphs: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.
















March 4, 2010

Doubts on Sainthood for U.N.'s Global Warming Nobel Prize Winning Pachauri



GorePachauriNobelPrizes2010-02-28.jpg "Rajendra K. Pachauri, right, the United Nations climate panel's leader, at a Nobel Peace Prize ceremony with Al Gore in 2007." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A1) Just over two years ago, Rajendra K. Pachauri seemed destined for a scientist's version of sainthood: A vegetarian economist-engineer who leads the United Nations' climate change panel, he accepted the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the panel, sharing the honor with former Vice President Al Gore.

Critics, writing in Britain's Sunday Telegraph and elsewhere, have accused Dr. Pachauri of profiting from his work as an adviser to businesses, including Deutsche Bank and Pegasus Capital Advisors, a New York investment firm -- a claim he denies.

They have also unearthed and publicized problems with the intergovernmental panel's landmark 2007 report on climate change, which concluded that the planet was warming and that humans were likely to blame.

The report, they contend, misrepresents the state of scientific knowledge about diverse topics -- including the rate of melting of Himalayan glaciers and the rise in severe storms -- in a way that exaggerates the evidence for climate change.

But Dr. Pachauri and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are now under intense scrutiny, facing accusations of scientific sloppiness and potential financial conflicts of interest from climate skeptics, right-leaning politicians and even some mainstream scientists. Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, called for Dr. Pachauri's resignation last week.

Critics, writing in Britain's Sunday Telegraph and elsewhere, have accused Dr. Pachauri of profiting from his work as an adviser to businesses, including Deutsche Bank and Pegasus Capital Advisors, a New York investment firm -- a claim he denies.

They have also unearthed and publicized problems with the intergovernmental panel's landmark 2007 report on climate change, which concluded that the planet was warming and that humans were likely to blame.

The report, they contend, misrepresents the state of scientific knowledge about diverse topics -- including the rate of melting of Himalayan glaciers and the rise in severe storms -- in a way that exaggerates the evidence for climate change.




For the full story, see:

ELISABETH ROSENTHAL. "U.N. Climate Panel and Its Chief Face a Siege on Their Credibility." The New York Times (Tues., February 9, 2010): A1 & A9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: The online version of the article is dated February 8, 2010, and has the title "Skeptics Find Fault With U.N. Climate Panel.")





February 15, 2010

Scientist Helped Kroc Learn Secret of McDonald's French Fries



One recurring puzzle is the role, if any, for science in innovative entrepreneurship. The episode chronicled below provides one piece of evidence:


(p. 71) I had explained to Ed MacLuckie with great (p. 72) pride the McDonald's secret for making french fries. I showed him how to peel the potatoes, leaving just a bit of the skin to add flavor. Then I cut them into shoestring strips and dumped them into a sink of cold water. The ritual captivated me. I rolled my sleeves to the elbows and, after scrubbing down in proper hospital fashion, I immersed my arms and gently stirred the potatoes until the water went white with starch. Then I rinsed them thoroughly and put them into a basket for deep frying in fresh oil. The result was a perfectly fine looking, golden brown potato that snuggled up against the palate with a taste like . . . well, like mush. I was aghast. What the hell could I have done wrong? I went back over the steps in my mind, trying to determine whether I had left something out. I hadn't. I had memorized the procedure when I watched the McDonald's operation in San Bernardino, and I had done it exactly the same way. I went through the whole thing once more. The result was the same--bland, mushy french fries. They were as good, actually, as the french fries you could buy at other places. But that was not what I wanted. They were not the wonderful french fries I had discovered in California. I got on the telephone and talked it over with the McDonald brothers. They couldn't figure it out either.

This was a tremendously frustrating situation. My whole idea depended on carrying out the McDonald's standard of taste and quality in hundreds of stores, and here I couldn't even do it in the first one!

I contacted the experts at the Potato & Onion Association and explained my problem to them. They were baffled too, at first, but then one of their laboratory men asked me to describe the McDonald's San Bernardino procedure step-by-step from the time they bought the potatoes from the grower up in Idaho. I detailed it all, and when I got to the point where they stored them in the shaded chicken-wire bins, he said, "That's it!" He went on to explain that when potatoes are dug, they are mostly water. They improve in taste as they dry out and the sugars change to starch. The McDonald brothers had, without knowing it, a natural curing process in their open bins, which allowed the desert breeze to blow over the potatoes.

With the help of the potato people, I devised a curing system of my own.




Source:

Kroc, Ray. Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald's. Chicago: Henry Regnary Company, 1977.

(Note: ellipsis in original.)





January 20, 2010

Global Warming "Consensus" Achieved by Suppressing Skeptical Research



(p. A25) When scientists make putative compendia of that literature, such as is done by the U.N. climate change panel every six years, the writers assume that the peer-reviewed literature is a true and unbiased sample of the state of climate science.

That can no longer be the case. The alliance of scientists at East Anglia, Penn State and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (in Boulder, Colo.) has done its best to bias it.

A refereed journal, Climate Research, published two particular papers that offended Michael Mann of Penn State and Tom Wigley of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. One of the papers, published in 2003 by Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas (of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), was a meta-analysis of dozens of "paleoclimate" studies that extended back 1,000 years. They concluded that 20th-century temperatures could not confidently be considered to be warmer than those indicated at the beginning of the last millennium.

In fact, that period, known as the "Medieval Warm Period" (MWP), was generally considered warmer than the 20th century in climate textbooks and climate compendia, including those in the 1990s from the IPCC.

Then, in 1999, Mr. Mann published his famous "hockey stick" article in Geophysical Research Letters (GRL), which, through the magic of multivariate statistics and questionable data weighting, wiped out both the Medieval Warm Period and the subsequent "Little Ice Age" (a cold period from the late 16th century to the mid-19th century), leaving only the 20th-century warming as an anomaly of note.

Messrs. Mann and Wigley also didn't like a paper I published in Climate Research in 2002. It said human activity was warming surface temperatures, and that this was consistent with the mathematical form (but not the size) of projections from computer models. Why? The magnitude of the warming in CRU's own data was not as great as in the models, so therefore the models merely were a bit enthusiastic about the effects of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Mr. Mann called upon his colleagues to try and put Climate Research out of business. "Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal," he wrote in one of the emails. "We would also need to consider what we tell or request of our more reasonable colleagues who currently sit on the editorial board."

After Messrs. Jones and Mann threatened a boycott of publications and reviews, half the editorial board of Climate Research resigned. People who didn't toe Messrs. Wigley, Mann and Jones's line began to experience increasing difficulty in publishing their results.




For the full commentary, see:

PATRICK J. MICHAELS. "OPINION; How to Manufacture a Climate Consensus; The East Anglia emails are just the tip of the iceberg." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., DECEMBER 18, 2009): A25.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated DECEMBER 17, 2009.)





January 18, 2010

Establishments Assume New Methods Are Unsound Methods



(p. 188) For the next two years, Conway coordinated her efforts under Sutherland at PARC with Mead's ongoing work at Caltech. But she was frustrated with the pace of progress. There was no shortage of innovative design ideas; computerized design tools had advanced dramatically since Mead's first efforts several years before. Yet the industry as a whole continued in the old rut. As Conway put it later, the problem was "How can you take methods that are new, methods that are not in common use and therefore perhaps considered unsound methods, and turn them into sound methods?" [Conway's italics].

She saw the challenge in the terms described in Thomas Kuhn's popular book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. it was the problem that took Boltzmann to his grave. It was the problem of innovation depicted by economist Joseph Schumpeter in his essays on entrepreneurship: new systems lay waste to the systems of the past. Creativity is a solution for the creator and the new ventures he launches. But it wreaks dissolution--"creative destruction," in Schumpeter's words-- for the defenders of old methods. In fact, no matter how persuasive the advocates of change, it is very rare that an entrenched establishment will reform its ways. Establishments die or retire or fall in revolution; they only rarely transform themselves.




Source:

Gilder, George. Microcosm: The Quantum Revolution in Economics and Technology. Paperback ed. New York: Touchstone, 1990.

(Note: italics in original.)





January 14, 2010

For 30 Years "Poincaré's Elegant Math Prevailed Over Boltzmann's Practical Findings"



(p. 182) . . . , Poincaré's elegant math prevailed over Boltzrnann's practical findings. For some thirty years, Boltzmann struggled to get his ideas across. But he failed. He had the word, but he could not find a way to gain its acceptance in the world. For long decades, the establishment held firm.

So in the year 1906, Poincaré became president of the French (p. 183) Académie des Sciences and Boltzmann committed suicide. As Mead debatably puts it, "Boltzmann died because of Poincaré." At least, as Boltzmann's friends attest, this pioneer of the modem era killed himself in an apparent fit of despair, deepened by the widespread official resistance to his views.

He died, however, at the very historic moment when all over Europe physicists were preparing to vindicate the Boltzmann vision. He died just before the findings of Max Planck, largely derived from Boltzmann's probability concepts, finally gained widespread acceptance. He died several months after an obscure twenty-one-year-old student in Geneva named Albert Einstein used his theories in proving the existence of the atom and demonstrating the particle nature of light. In retrospect, Boltzmann can be seen as a near-tragic protagonist in the greatest intellectual drama of the twentieth century: the overthrow of matter.



Source:

Gilder, George. Microcosm: The Quantum Revolution in Economics and Technology. Paperback ed. New York: Touchstone, 1990.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





January 11, 2010

NSF Study Shows Many Himalayan Glaciers Growing Larger



HimalayasWesternIce2010-01-07.jpg"This photo taken from the International Space Station in 2004 shows the abundance of ice in the Himalayas, upon which much of the continent of Asia relies for water." Source of caption and photo: online version of the Omaha World-Herald article quoted and cited below.


(p. 1A) Two UNO professors have discovered that some glaciers in Pakistan are growing in size -- a discovery that could toss them into the center of a climate-change controversy.


. . .


(p. 2A) News of the research is beginning to leak into science publications. "Science" magazine, for instance, mentioned the as-yet unpublished University of Nebraska at Omaha research in a November story about the debate over Himalayan glaciers.

The UNO research team will attract more attention Friday, when Shroder and Bishop give their presentation at the American Geophysical Union's annual conference.

What they'll present is decades in the making: Shroder first received federal funding to study Afghanistan's geography and geology in 1977, and he has taken 20 research trips to Pakistan since then.

Using a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation, Shroder and Bishop and a team of graduate students trekked to a group of glaciers clustered around K2, the second-highest mountain in the world, in 2005.

What they found was startling: Their on-the-ground research and satellite images show that many of the glaciers are growing in the rugged, mostly uninhabited region on the Pakistani-Chinese border.


. . .


Shroder achieved brief fame in intelligence circles when he snuck from Kabul to the Salang Pass in northern Afghanistan in the 1980s. There, he took photos of North Korean troops who had crossed the border to support the Red Army -- knowledge that American intelligence agencies didn't have until Shroder handed over the photos.

Now the veteran professor is bracing himself for a potential backlash when the UNO team's research paper comes out in the next few weeks.




For the full story, see:

Matthew Hansen. "UNO Scientists Pinpoint Global Warming Oddity in Himalayas." Omaha World-Herald (Thurs., December 17, 2009): 1A-2A.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article had the title "These glaciers are growing.")



ShroderJack2010-01-07.jpg












Regents Professor Jack Shroder. Source of photo: http://www.unomaha.edu/glims/img/Portraits/Jack%20shroder-visa.jpg






January 6, 2010

Replication Easier than "Sweat and Anguish" of First Discovery



(p. 137) No one will deny that Japan's triumph in semiconductors depended on American inventions. But many analysts rush on to a further theory that the Japanese remained far behind the United States until the mid- 1970s and caught up only through a massive government program of industrial targeting of American inventions by MITI.

Perhaps the leading expert on the subject is Makoto Kikuchi, a twenty-six-year veteran of MITI laboratories, now director of the Sony Research Center. The creator of the first transistor made in Japan, he readily acknowledges the key role of American successes in fueling the advances in his own country: "Replicating someone else's experiment, no matter how much painful effort it might take, is nothing compared with the sweat and anguish of the men who first made the discovery."

Kikuchi explains: "No matter how many failures I had, I knew that somewhere in the world people had already succeeded in making a transistor. The first discoverers . . . had to continue their work, their long succession of failures, face-to-face with the despairing possibility that in the end they might never succeed. . . . As I fought my own battle with the transistor, I felt this lesson in my very bones." Working at MITI's labs, Kikuchi was deeply grateful for the technological targets offered by American inventors.




Source:

Gilder, George. Microcosm: The Quantum Revolution in Economics and Technology. Paperback ed. New York: Touchstone, 1990.

(Note: ellipses in original.)





January 4, 2010

"Claims that Climate Change Is Accelerating Are Bizarre"



The author quoted below on global warming is a Professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


(p. A19) Is there a reason to be alarmed by the prospect of global warming? Consider that the measurement used, the globally averaged temperature anomaly (GATA), is always changing. Sometimes it goes up, sometimes down, and occasionally--such as for the last dozen years or so--it does little that can be discerned.

Claims that climate change is accelerating are bizarre. There is general support for the assertion that GATA has increased about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the middle of the 19th century. The quality of the data is poor, though, and because the changes are small, it is easy to nudge such data a few tenths of a degree in any direction. Several of the emails from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit (CRU) that have caused such a public ruckus dealt with how to do this so as to maximize apparent changes.

The general support for warming is based not so much on the quality of the data, but rather on the fact that there was a little ice age from about the 15th to the 19th century. Thus it is not surprising that temperatures should increase as we emerged from this episode.




For the full commentary, see:

RICHARD S. LINDZEN. "The Climate Science Isn't Settled; Confident predictions of catastrophe are unwarranted." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., December 1, 2009): A19.

(Note: the online version of the commentary is dated NOVEMBER 30, 2009.)





December 31, 2009

Global Warming Climatologist Leaves Post Due to His "Efforts to Keep the Work of Skeptical Scientists Out of Major Journals"



(p. A6) The head of the British research unit at the center of a controversy over the disclosure of thousands of e-mail messages among climate-change scientists has stepped down pending the outcome of an investigation.

Phil Jones, the director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in England, said that he would leave his post while the university conducted a review of the release of the e-mail messages. The university has called the release and publication of the messages a "criminal breach" of the school's computer systems.

The e-mail exchanges among several prominent American and British climate-change scientists appear to reveal efforts to keep the work of skeptical scientists out of major journals and the possible hoarding and manipulation of data to overstate the case for human-caused climate change.

In a related announcement, Pennsylvania State University said it would review the work of a faculty member who is cited prominently in the e-mail messages, Michael Mann, to assure that it meets proper academic standards.



For the full story, see:

JOHN M. BRODER. "Climatologist Leaves Post in Inquiry Over Leaks." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., December 2, 2009): A6.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated December 1, 2009 and has the slightly different title "Climatologist Leaves Post in Inquiry Over E-Mail Leaks.")





December 27, 2009

Emails Vindicate Skeptics Who Questioned Scientific Basis of Global Warming



(p. A1) Just two years ago, a United Nations panel that synthesizes the work of hundreds of climatologists around the world called the evidence for global warming "unequivocal."

But as representatives of about 200 nations converge in Copenhagen on Monday to begin talks on a new international climate accord, they do so against a background of renewed attacks on the basic science of climate change.

The debate, set off by the circulation of several thousand files and e-mail messages stolen from one of the world's foremost climate research institutes, has led some who oppose limits on greenhouse gas emissions, and at least one influential country, Saudi Arabia, to question the scientific basis for the Copenhagen talks.

The uproar has threatened to complicate a multiyear diplomatic effort already ensnared in difficult political, technical and financial disputes that have caused leaders to abandon hopes of hammering out a binding international climate treaty this year.


. . .


(p. A8) On dozens of Web sites and blogs, skeptics and foes of greenhouse gas restrictions take daily aim at the scientific arguments for human-driven climate change. The stolen material was quickly seized upon for the questions it raised about the accessibility of raw data to outsiders and whether some data had been manipulated.

An investigation into the stolen files is being conducted by the University of East Anglia, in England, where the computer breach occurred. Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has also said he will look into the matter. At the same time, polls in the United States and Britain suggest that the number of people who doubt that global warming is dangerous or caused by humans has grown in recent years.


. . .


Science is about probability, not certainty. And the persisting uncertainties in climate science leave room for argument. What is a realistic estimate of how much temperatures will rise? How severe will the effects be? Are there tipping points beyond which the changes are uncontrollable?

Even climate scientists disagree on many of these questions. But skeptics have been critical of the data assembled to show that warming is occurring and the analytic methods that climate scientists use, including mathematical models used to demonstrate a human cause for warming and project future trends.

Both sides also have at times been criticized for overstatement in characterizing the scientific evidence. The contents of the stolen e-mail messages and documents have given fresh ammunition to the skeptics' camp.

The Climatic Research Unit's role as a central aggregator of temperature and other climate data has also made it a target. One widely discussed file extracted from the unit's computers, presumed to be the log of a researcher named Ian Harris, recorded his years of frustration in trying to make sense of disparate data and described procedures -- or "fudge factors," as he called them -- used by scientists to eliminate known sources of error.




For the full story, see:

ANDREW C. REVKIN and JOHN M. BRODER. "Facing Skeptics, Climate Experts Sure of Peril." The New York Times (Mon., December 7, 2009): A1 & A8.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated Sun., December 6, 2009 and has the title "In Face of Skeptics, Experts Affirm Climate Peril.")

(Note: ellipses added.)


Note: the online version of the article includes the following, very interesting, correction of the print version:

Correction: December 15, 2009
Because of an editing error, an article on Dec. 7 about the scientific evidence supporting global warming overstated the level of certainty expressed in a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a network of scientists, that human-caused warming was under way and, if unabated, would pose rising risks. The panel said that most warming since 1950 was "very likely" caused by humans, not that there was "no doubt." The article also misidentified the temperature data cited by a scientist at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit who had expressed frustration in a log about trying to make sense of disparate data. The data was direct measurements of temperature, not indirect indicators like the study of tree rings.

(Note: italics and bold in original.)





December 26, 2009

Emails Reveal Global Warming Scientists Exclude Contrary Views



ClimateGateEmails.gifSource of photo and email images: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.



One can imagine Michael Crichton looking down on us with a sad smile:


(p. A3) The scientific community is buzzing over thousands of emails and documents -- posted on the Internet last week after being hacked from a prominent climate-change research center -- that some say raise ethical questions about a group of scientists who contend humans are responsible for global warming.

The correspondence between dozens of climate-change researchers, including many in the U.S., illustrates bitter feelings among those who believe human activities cause global warming toward rivals who argue that the link between humans and climate change remains uncertain.

Some emails also refer to efforts by scientists who believe man is causing global warming to exclude contrary views from important scientific publications.

"This is horrible," said Pat Michaels, a climate scientist at the Cato Institute in Washington who is mentioned negatively in the emails. "This is what everyone feared. Over the years, it has become increasingly difficult for anyone who does not view global warming as an end-of-the-world issue to publish papers. This isn't questionable practice, this is unethical."

John Christy, a scientist at the University of Alabama at Huntsville attacked in the emails for asking that an IPCC report include dissenting viewpoints, said, "It's disconcerting to realize that legislative actions this nation is preparing to take, and which will cost trillions of dollars, are based upon a view of climate that has not been completely scientifically tested--but rather orchestrated."

In all, more than 1,000 emails and more than 2,000 other documents were stolen Thursday from the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia University in the U.K. The identity of the hackers isn't certain, but the files were posted on a Russian file-sharing server late Thursday, and university officials confirmed over the weekend that their computer had been attacked and said the documents appeared to be genuine.


. . .


In one email, Benjamin Santer from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., wrote to the director of the climate-study center that he was "tempted to beat" up Mr. Michaels. Mr. Santer couldn't be reached for comment Sunday.

In another, Phil Jones, the director of the East Anglia climate center, suggested to climate scientist Michael Mann of Penn State University that skeptics' research was unwelcome: We "will keep them out somehow -- even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!" Neither man could be reached for comment Sunday.




For the full story, see:

KEITH JOHNSON. "Climate Strife Comes to Light; Emails Illustrate Anger of Scientists Who Believe Humans Are Root of Global Warming." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., NOVEMBER 23, 2009): A3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the printed version of the article is mostly the same as the online version, but has some differences in order and content. The part quoted above is consistent with the printed version. The passages quoted are the same in both versions, except that the paragraph on the views of John Christy appears later in the online version, and the online version omits his phrase "but rather orchestrated." [I skimmed for differences, but am not absolutely sure that I caught them all.])

(Note: the title of the online version of the article is: "Climate Emails Stoke Debate; Scientists' Leaked Correspondence Illustrates Bitter Feud over Global Warming.")





December 24, 2009

Heretics to the Religion of Global Warming



SuperFreakonomicsBK.jpg















Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.



(p. A19) Suppose for a minute--. . . --that global warming poses an imminent threat to the survival of our species. Suppose, too, that the best solution involves a helium balloon, several miles of garden hose and a harmless stream of sulfur dioxide being pumped into the upper atmosphere, all at a cost of a single F-22 fighter jet.


. . .


The hose-in-the-sky approach to global warming is the brainchild of Intellectual Ventures, a Bellevue, Wash.-based firm founded by former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold. The basic idea is to engineer effects similar to those of the 1991 mega-eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines, which spewed so much sulfuric ash into the stratosphere that it cooled the earth by about one degree Fahrenheit for a couple of years.

Could it work? Mr. Myhrvold and his associates think it might, and they're a smart bunch. Also smart are University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and writer Stephen Dubner, whose delightful "SuperFreakonomics"--the sequel to their runaway 2005 bestseller "Freakonomics"--gives Myhrvold and Co. pride of place in their lengthy chapter on global warming. Not surprisingly, global warming fanatics are experiencing a Pinatubo-like eruption of their own.


. . .


. . . , Messrs. Levitt and Dubner show every sign of being careful researchers, going so far as to send chapter drafts to their interviewees for comment prior to publication. Nor are they global warming "deniers," insofar as they acknowledge that temperatures have risen by 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century.

But when it comes to the religion of global warming--the First Commandment of which is Thou Shalt Not Call It A Religion--Messrs. Levitt and Dubner are grievous sinners. They point out that belching, flatulent cows are adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than all SUVs combined. They note that sea levels will probably not rise much more than 18 inches by 2100, "less than the twice-daily tidal variation in most coastal locations." They observe that "not only is carbon plainly not poisonous, but changes in carbon-dioxide levels don't necessarily mirror human activity." They quote Mr. Myhrvold as saying that Mr. Gore's doomsday scenarios "don't have any basis in physical reality in any reasonable time frame."

More subversively, they suggest that climatologists, like everyone else, respond to incentives in a way that shapes their conclusions. "The economic reality of research funding, rather than a disinterested and uncoordinated scientific consensus, leads the [climate] models to approximately match one another." In other words, the herd-of-independent-minds phenomenon happens to scientists too and isn't the sole province of painters, politicians and news anchors

.


For the full commentary, see:

BRET STEPHENS. "Freaked Out Over SuperFreakonomics; Global warming might be solved with a helium balloon and a few miles of garden hose." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., OCTOBER 27, 2009): A19.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





December 17, 2009

"Every Physicist Wants Two Things: Glory and Money"



(p. 54) . . . in 1950, Shockley published his book Electrons and Holes in Semiconductors, which stood for many years as the definitive work in the field and confirmed his credentials for the Nobel Prize that he shared with Brattain and Bardeen in 1956. The fact was that for his theory of the field effect transistor that later dominated the industry and for the junction transistor that was dominating it at the time, Shockley deserved the prize alone. He had at last made his point.

Yet Shockley was not satisfied. "Every physicist," he said at the time, "wants two things: glory and money. I have won the glory. Now I want the money."





Source:

Gilder, George. Microcosm: The Quantum Revolution in Economics and Technology. Paperback ed. New York: Touchstone, 1990.

(Note: ellipsis added.)






November 23, 2009

Global Warming Did Not Cause Southeast Drought



(p. A13) The drought that gripped the Southeast from 2005 to 2007 was not unprecedented and resulted from random weather events, not global warming, Columbia University researchers have concluded. They say its severe water shortages resulted from population growth more than rainfall patterns.

The researchers, who report their findings in an article in Thursday's issue of The Journal of Climate, cite census figures showing that in Georgia alone the population rose to 9.54 million in 2007 from 6.48 million in 1990.

"At the root of the water supply problem in the Southeast is a growing population," they wrote.

Richard Seager, a climate expert at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who led the study, said in an interview that when the drought struck, "people were wondering" whether climate change linked to a global increase in heat-trapping gases could be a cause.

But after studying data from weather instruments, computer models and measurements of tree rings, which reflect yearly rainfall, "our conclusion was this drought was pretty normal and pretty typical by standards of what has happened in the region over the century," Mr. Seager said.

Similar droughts unfolded over the last thousand years, the researchers wrote. Regardless of climate change, they added, similar weather patterns can be expected regularly in the future, with similar results.




For the full story, see:

CORNELIA DEAN. "Study Links Water Shortages in Southeast to Population, Not Global Warming." The New York Times (Fri., October 2, 2009): A13.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated Oct. 1st and has the title "Southeast Drought Study Ties Water Shortage to Population, Not Global Warming.")


The research summarized in the passages above can be read in its full and original form, at:

Seager, Richard, Alexandrina Tzanova, and Jennifer Nakamura. "Drought in the Southeastern United States: Causes, Variability over the Last Millennium, and the Potential for Future Hydroclimate Change." Journal of Climate 22, no. 19 (Oct. 1, 2009): 5021-45.





November 16, 2009

Third Generation Nuclear Reactors Are Simpler and Even Safer



WestinghouseAP1000Reactor2009-10-28.gif Source of graphic: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.



(p. R1) Researchers are working on reactors that they claim are simpler, cheaper in certain respects, and more efficient than the last generation of plants.

Some designs try to reduce the chance of accidents by automating safety features and minimizing the amount of hardware needed to shut down the reactor in an emergency. Others cut costs by using standardized parts that can be built in big chunks and then shipped to the site. Some squeeze more power out of uranium, reducing the amount of waste produced, while others wring even more energy out of spent fuel.

"Times are exciting for nuclear," says Ronaldo Szilard, director of nuclear science and engineering at the Idaho National Lab, a part of the U.S. Energy Department. "There are lots of options being explored."


. . .


(p. R3) As a whole, . . . , the U.S. nuclear industry has a solid safety record, and the productivity of plants has grown dramatically in the past decade. The next generation of reactors so-called Generation III units is intended to take everything that's been learned about safe operations and do it even better. Generation III units are the reactors of choice for most of the 34 nations that already have nuclear plants in operation. (China still is building a few Gen II units.)

"A common theme of future reactors is to make them simpler so there are fewer systems to monitor and fewer systems that could fail," says Revis James, director of the Energy Technology Assessment Center at the Electric Power Research Institute, an independent power-industry research organization.

The current generation of nuclear plants requires a complex maze of redundant motors, pumps, valves and control systems to deal with emergency conditions. Generation III plants cut down on some of that infrastructure and rely more heavily on passive systems that don't need human intervention to keep the reactor in a safe condition reducing the chance of an accident caused by operator error or equipment failure.

For example, the Westinghouse AP1000 boasts half as many safety-related valves, one-third fewer pumps and only one-fifth as much safety-related piping as earlier plants from Westinghouse, majority owned by Toshiba Corp. In an emergency, the reactor, which has been selected for use at Southern Co.'s Vogtle site in Georgia and at six other U.S. locations, is designed to shut down automatically and stay within a safe temperature range.



For the full story, see:

REBECCA SMITH. "The New Nukes; The next generation of nuclear reactors is on its way, and supporters say they will be safer, cheaper and more efficient than current plants. Here's a look at what's coming -- and when." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., SEPTEMBER 8, 2009): R1 & R3.

(Note: ellipses added.)





November 1, 2009

Picking Up Surface Nuggets Versus Digging a Deep Hole in One Place



(p. 423) The work was extraordinarily difficult, pushing the limits of the technically possible. Disappointment is my daily bread, he had said. I thrive on it. But he did not thrive. Often he thought of abandoning the work, abandoning all of it. Yet every day he continued to fill nearly every waking hour with thinking about it. Between 1934 and 1941 he published nothing. Nothing. For a scientist to go through such a dry period is more than depressing. It is a refutation of one's abilities, of one's life. But in the midst of that dry spell, Avery told a young researcher there were two types of investigators: most "go around picking up surface nuggets, and whenever they can spot a surface nugget of gold they pick it up and add it to their collection. . . . [The other type] is not really interested in the surface nugget. He is much more interested in digging a deep hole in one place, hoping to hit a vein. And of course if he strikes a vein of gold he makes a tremendous advance."



Source:

Barry, John M. The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. Revised ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

(Note: italics, ellipsis, and brackets, all in original.)





October 28, 2009

"A Man of Science Past Sixty Does More Harm than Good" (Unless His Name is "Avery")



(p. 421) . . . , in 1928, Fred Griffith in Britain published a striking and puzzling finding. Earlier Griffith had discovered that all known types of pneumococci could exist with or without capsules. Virulent pneumococci had capsules; pneumococci without capsules could be easily destroyed by the immune system. Now he found something much stranger. He killed virulent pneumococci, ones surrounded by capsules, and injected them into mice. Since the bacteria were dead, all the mice survived. He also injected living pneumococci that had no capsules, that were not virulent. Again the mice lived. Their immune systems devoured the unencapsulated pneumococci. But then he injected dead pneumococci surrounded by capsules and living pneumococci without capsules.

The mice died. Somehow the living pneumococci had acquired cap-(p. 422)sules. Somehow they had changed. And, when isolated from the mice, they continued to grow with the capsule--as if they had inherited it.

Griffith's report seemed to make meaningless years of Avery's work-- and life. The immune system was based on specificity. Avery believed that the capsule was key to that specificity. But if the pneumococcus could change, that seemed to undermine everything Avery believed and thought he had proved. For months he dismissed Griffith's work as unsound. But Avery's despair seemed overwhelming. He left the laboratory for six months, suffering from Graves' disease, a disease likely related to stress. By the time he returned, Michael Dawson, a junior colleague he had asked to check Griffith's results, had confirmed them. Avery had to accept them.


His work now turned in a different direction. He had to understand how one kind of pneumococcus was transformed into another. He was now almost sixty years old. Thomas Huxley said, "A man of science past sixty does more harm than good." But now, more than ever, Avery focused on his task.




Source:

Barry, John M. The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. Revised ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: italics in original.)





October 27, 2009

Fossil Found of Much Earlier Human Ancestor



HominidGraphic2009-10-04.jpgSource of graphic: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A1) Ardi, short for Ardipithecus ramidus, is the newest fossil skeleton out of Africa to take its place in the gallery of human origins. At an age of 4.4 million years, it lived well before and was much more primitive than the famous 3.2-million-year-old Lucy, of the species Australopithecus afarensis.

Since finding fragments of the older hominid in 1992, an international team of scientists has been searching for more specimens and on Thursday presented a fairly complete skeleton and their first full analysis. By replacing Lucy as the earliest known skeleton from the human branch of the primate family tree, the scientists said, Ardi opened a window to "the early evolutionary steps that our ancestors took after we diverged from our common ancestor with chimpanzees."


. . .


(p. A6) Scientists not involved in the new research hailed its importance, placing the Ardi skeleton on a pedestal alongside notable figures of hominid evolution like Lucy and the 1.6-million-year-old Turkana Boy from Kenya, an almost complete specimen of Homo erectus with anatomy remarkably similar to modern Homo sapiens.

David Pilbeam, a professor of human evolution at Harvard University who had no role in the discovery, said in an e-mail message that the Ardi skeleton represented "a genus plausibly ancestral to Australopithecus" and began "to fill in the temporal and structural 'space' between the apelike common ancestor and Australopithecus."

Andrew Hill, a paleoanthropologist at Yale University who was also not involved in the research, noted that Dr. White had kept "this skeleton in his closet for the last 15 years or so, but I think it has been worth the wait." In some ways the specimen's features are surprising, Dr. Hill added, "but it makes a very satisfactory animal for understanding the changes that have taken place along the human lineage."

The first comprehensive reports describing the skeleton and related findings, the result of 17 years of study, are being published Friday in the journal Science. Eleven papers by 47 authors from 10 countries describe the analysis of more than 110 Ardipithecus specimens from a minimum of 36 different individuals, including Ardi.

The paleoanthropologists wrote in one of the articles that Ardipithecus was "so rife with anatomical surprises that no one could have imagined it without direct fossil evidence."

A bounty of animal and plant material -- "every seed, every piece of fossil wood, every scrap of bone," Dr. White said -- was gathered to set the scene of the cooler, more humid woodland habitat in which these hominids had lived.

This was one of the first surprises, said Giday WoldeGabriel, a geologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, because it upset the hypothesis that upright walking had evolved as an adaptation to life on grassy savanna.



For the full story, see:

JOHN NOBLE WILFORD. "Fossil Skeleton From Africa Predates Lucy." The New York Times (Fri., October 1, 2009): A1 & A6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


ArdiFossil2009-10-04.jpg



















"A fairly complete skeleton of Ardipithecus ramidus, which replaced Lucy as the earliest known skeleton from the human branch of the primate family tree." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.






October 25, 2009

Harvard Medical School Conference on the Quest for Eternal Life



SinclairWestphalStiris2009-10-04.jpg"AGE WELL. David Sinclair, left, and Christoph Westphal, co-founders of Sitris Pharmaceuticals, in Dr. Sinclair's laboratory in Cambrdge, Mass. The company develops drugs that mimic resveratrol, a chemical found in some red wines." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. D4) BOSTON -- Who would have thought it? The quest for eternal life, or at least prolonged youthfulness, has now migrated from the outer fringes of alternative medicine to the halls of Harvard Medical School.

At a conference on aging held here last week, the medical school's dean, Jeffrey Flier, was to be seen greeting participants who ranged from members of the 120 club (they intend to live at least that long) to devotees of very low calorie diets.


. . .

Dr. Gallagher said that unpublished tests in mice showed that another chemical mimic, SRT-1720, increased both health and lifespan; after two years, twice as many mice taking the drug were alive compared with the undosed animals. Resveratrol itself has not been shown to increase lifespan in normal mice, although it does so in obese mice, laboratory roundworms and flies.

Sirtris has so far been doubly fortunate. No severe side effects have yet emerged from the clinical trials. The company has also been lucky in having apparently picked the right horse, or at least a good one, in a fast-developing field.

Besides the sirtuins, several other proteins are now known to influence longevity, energy use and the response to caloric restriction. These include the receptors for insulin and for another hormone called IGF-1, and a protein of increasing interest called TOR ("target of rapamycin"). Rapamycin is an antimicrobial that was recently found to extend lifespan significantly, even when given to mice at an advanced age. Since TOR is involved in the response to caloric restriction, rapamycin may extend life through this pathway.


. . .

"In five or six or seven years," said Christoph Westphal, Sirtris's other co-founder, "there will be drugs that prolong longevity."

But neither Dr. Sinclair nor Dr. Westphal was the most optimistic person at the conference. That status belonged to the English gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, who sports a beard so luxuriant that it is hard to see if he is wearing a tie. His goal is "negligible senescence."


. . .

Sirtris's quest for longevity drugs is founded on solid and promising research. But most drugs fail at some stage during trials. So there is no guarantee that any of Sirtris's candidate compounds will work in people. The first result from a Phase 2 clinical trial is not expected until the end of next year at the earliest.

Meanwhile, it is a pleasant and not wholly unfounded thought that, just possibly, a single drug might combat every degenerative disease of Western civilization.



For the full story, see:

NICHOLAS WADE. "Quest for a Long Life Gains Scientific Respect." The New York Times (Tues., September 28, 2009): D4.

(Note: ellipses added.)





October 24, 2009

Rapid Mutation of RNA-Based Flu Virus Allows Rapid Adaptation to Immune System Response



I found the passage quoted below to be especially illuminating on how rapid mutation helps explain why the flu virus is so successful and dangerous. (An additional important factor is that the virus can survive in birds, without killing them.)

It occurs to me that something akin to rapid mutation (e.g., rapid experimentation) has also been advocated as a way to quickly advance science (Karl Popper), or enterprise (George Gilder).


(p. 105) Whenever an organism reproduces, its genes try to make exact copies of themselves. But sometimes mistakes--mutations--occur in this process.

This is true whether the genes belong to people, plants, or viruses. The more advanced the organism, however, the more mechanisms exist to prevent mutations. A person mutates at a much slower rate than bacteria, bacteria mutates at a much slower rate than a virus--and a DNA virus mutates at a much slower rate than an RNA virus.

DNA has a kind of built-in proofreading mechanism to cut down on copying mistakes. RNA has no proofreading mechanism whatsoever, no way to protect against mutation. So viruses that use RNA to carry their genetic information mutate much faster--from 10,000 to 1 million times faster--than any DNA virus.

Different RNA viruses mutate at different rates as well. A few mutate so rapidly that virologists consider them not so much a population of copies of the same virus as what they call a "quasi species" or a "mutant swarm."

These mutant swarms contain trillions and trillions of closely related but different viruses. Even the viruses produced from a single cell will include many different versions of themselves, and the swarm as a whole will routinely contain almost every possible permutation of its genetic code.

Most of these mutations interfere with the functioning of the virus and will either destroy the virus outright or destroy its ability to infect. But other mutations, sometimes in a single base, a single letter, in its genetic code will allow the virus to adapt rapidly to a new situation. It is this adaptability that explains why these quasi species, these mutant swarms, can move rapidly back and forth between different environments and also develop extraordinarily rapid drug resistance. As one investigator has observed, the rapid mutation "confers a certain randomness to the disease processes that accompany RNA [viral] infections."

Influenza is an RNA virus. So is HIV and the coronavirus. And of all RNA viruses, influenza and HIV are among those that mutate the fastest. The influenza virus mutates so fast that 99 percent of the 100,000 to 1 million new viruses that burst out of a cell in the reproduction process (p. 106) are too defective to infect another cell and reproduce again. But that still leaves between 1,000 and 10,000 viruses that can infect another cell.

Both influenza and HIV fit the concept of a quasi species, of a mutant swarm. In both, a drug-resistant mutation can emerge within days. And the influenza virus reproduces rapidly--far faster than HIV. Therefore it adapts rapidly as well, often too rapidly for the immune system to respond.




Source:

Barry, John M. The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. Revised ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

(Note: italics in original.)





October 21, 2009

Small Evidence Kills Big Theory



Raptorex_Trex2009-09-27.jpg














Big Tyrannosaurus rex and much smaller Raptorex kriegsteini. Source of image: http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/upload/2009/09/raptorex_tiny_king_of_thieves_shows_how_tyrannosaurus_body_p/Raptorex_Trex.jpg



(p. A5) Paleontologists said Thursday that they had discovered what amounted to a miniature prototype of Tyrannosaurus rex, complete with the oversize head, powerful jaws, long legs -- and, as every schoolchild knows, puny arms -- that were hallmarks of the king of the dinosaurs.

But this scaled-down version, which was about nine feet long and weighed only 150 pounds, lived 125 million years ago, about 35 million years before giant Tyrannosaurs roamed the earth. So the discovery calls into question theories about the evolution of T. rex, which was about five times longer and almost 100 times heavier.

"The thought was these signature Tyrannosaur features evolved as a consequence of large body size," Stephen L. Brusatte of the American Museum of National History, an author of a paper describing the dinosaur published online by the journal Science, said at a news conference. "They needed to modify their entire skeleton so they could function as a predator at such colossal size."

The new dinosaur, named Raptorex kriegsteini, "really throws a wrench into this observed pattern," Mr. Brusatte said.



For the full story, see:

HENRY FOUNTAIN. "Fossil Discovery Challenges Theories on T. Rex Evolution." The New York Times (Fri., September 18, 2009): A5.

(Note: the online version is dated Sept. 17th and has the slightly different title: "Fossil Find Challenges Theories on T. Rex" but the body of the article seems the same as the print version.)





October 20, 2009

Scientist Huxley: "The Great End of Life is Not Knowledge But Action"



John Barry calls our attention to the views of Thomas Huxley who gave the keynote address at the founding of the Johns Hopkins University:


(p. 13) A brilliant scientist, later president of the Royal Society, he advised investigators, "Sit down before a fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion. Follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing." He also believed that learning had purpose, stating, "The great end of life is not knowledge but action."



Source:

Barry, John M. The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. Revised ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

(Note: from the context in Barry, I am not certain whether the Huxley quotes are from the keynote address, or from elsewhere in Huxley's writings.)





October 19, 2009

"Recent Temperature Plateau" May Undermine Case for Global Warming



GlobalWarmingPlateauGraph2009-09-27.jpgSource of graph: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A10) The world leaders who met at the United Nations to discuss climate change on Tuesday are faced with an intricate challenge: building momentum for an international climate treaty at a time when global temperatures have been relatively stable for a decade and may even drop in the next few years.

The plateau in temperatures has been seized upon by skeptics as evidence that the threat of global warming is overblown. And some climate experts worry that it could hamper treaty negotiations and slow the progress of legislation to curb carbon dioxide emissions in the United States.


. . .

Underscoring just how little clarity there is on short-term temperature fluctuations, researchers from Britain's climate change office, in a paper published in August, projected "an end to this period of relative stability," with half the years between now and 2015 exceeding the record-setting global temperatures of 1998.

Whatever the next decade may hold, critics of global warming have lost no time in using the current temperature plateau to build their case.

"I think it supports the arguments of those who've said, 'What's the rush for policy on this issue?' " said Patrick J. Michaels, a climatologist affiliated with George Mason University and the Cato Institute, a group opposing most regulatory solutions to environmental problems.


. . .

A clearer view of whether the recent temperature plateau undermines arguments for dangerous climate change in the long run should come in a few years, as the predictions made by the British climate researchers are tested. Their paper appeared in a supplement to an August issue of The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

While the authors concluded that there was a 1 in 8 chance of having a decade-long pause in warming like the current plateau, even with rising concentrations of greenhouse gases, the odds of a 15-year pause, they wrote, are only 5 in 100. As a result, the next few years of observations could tip the balance toward further concern or greater optimism.

Meanwhile, social scientists who study the way people understand and respond to environmental problems say it is not surprising that the current temperature stability has created confusion and apathy.



For the full story, see:

ANDREW C. REVKIN. "Plateau in Temperatures Adds Difficulty to Task of Reaching a Solution." The New York Times (Weds., Sept. 23, 2009): A10.

(Note: the online version lists a date of September 21 and has the title as "Momentum on Climate Pact Is Elusive", but the body of the article seems to be the same as the print version.)

(Note: ellipses added.)





September 23, 2009

Scientists Believe Life Emerged from a Process of "Creative Destruction" and Global Warming



CosmicCrashSite2009-09-07.jpgSource of graphic: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. A9) In a paradox of creation, new evidence suggests that devastating avalanches of cosmic debris may have fostered life on Earth, not annihilated it. If so, life on our planet may be older than scientists previously thought -- and more persistent.

Astronomers world-wide have been transfixed by a roiling gash the size of Earth in the atmosphere of Jupiter, caused by an errant comet or asteroid that smashed into the gas giant last month. The lingering turbulence is an echo of a cataclysmic bombardment that shaped the origin of life here 3.9 billion years ago, when millions of asteroids, comets and meteors pummeled our planet.


. . .


But in their super-heated plunge through the atmosphere, these asteroids and meteors may have helped create conditions ideal for emerging life. "Everyone focuses on the meteor that hits the ground," says geochemist Richard Court at London's Imperial College. "No one thinks about the products of its journey that get pumped into the atmosphere."

As they vented, they collectively could have imported billions of tons of life-sustaining water into the air every year, Dr. Court and his colleague Mark Sephton recently determined. They calculated that these showers of volatile rocks delivered 10 times the daily outflow of the Mississippi River every year for 20 million years. By analyzing the fumes emitted under such extreme heat, they discovered these rocks also could have injected billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year.

Combined with so much water vapor, the carbon dioxide could have induced a global greenhouse effect. That could have kept any life emerging on Earth safely in a planetary incubator at a time when the planet might easily have frozen because the Sun radiated 25% less energy than today. "The amount of CO2 that was produced is about the same we produce today through fossil fuel use and we know that is a climate-changing volume," says Dr. Court.


. . .


"It is literally a revolution in our ideas about how our solar system evolved," says asteroid expert William Bottke at the Southwest Research Institute. "It could be that our form of life today -- every living thing that we see today -- is due to this bombardment that happened 3.9 billion years ago."



For the full commentary, see:

ROBERT LEE HOTZ. "SCIENCE JOURNAL; Some Creative Destruction on a Cosmic Scale; Scientists Say Asteroid Blasts, Once Thought Apocalyptic, Fostered Life on Earth by Carrying Water and Protective Greenhouse Gas." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., AUGUST 14, 2009): A9.

(Note: ellipses added.)





September 15, 2009

Global Warming Allows Humans to "Skip" Next Ice Age



SundayLakeAlaska2009-09-06.jpg "Researchers use a floating platform to take sediment cores from Sunday Lake in southwestern Alaska." Source of photo and caption: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A17) The human-driven buildup of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere appears to have ended a slide, many millenniums in the making, toward cooler summer temperatures in the Arctic, the authors of a new study report.

Scientists familiar with the work, to be published Friday in the journal Science, said it provided fresh evidence that human activity is not only warming the globe, particularly the Arctic, but could also even fend off what had been presumed to be an inevitable descent into a new ice age over the next few dozen millenniums.


. . .


In the very long term, the ability to artificially warm the climate, particularly the Arctic, could be seen as a boon as the planet's shifting orientation to the Sun enters a phase that could initiate the next ice age.

As a result of such periodic shifts, 17 ice ages are thought to have come and gone in two million years. The last ice age ended 11,000 years ago and the next one, according to recent research, could be 20,000 or 30,000 years off discounting any influence by humans. The last ice age buried much of the Northern Hemisphere under a mile or more of ice.

With humans' clear and growing ability to alter the climate, Dr. Overpeck said, "we could easily skip the next opportunity altogether."



For the full story, see:

ANDREW C. REVKIN. "Global Warming Is Delaying Ice Age, Study Finds." The New York Times (Fri., September 4, 2009): A17.

(Note: the online version of the article has the title "Global Warming Could Forestall Ice Age.")

(Note: ellipsis added.)


The reference to the full scientific presentation of the research is:

Kaufman, Darrell S., David P. Schneider, Nicholas P. McKay, Caspar M. Ammann, Raymond S. Bradley, Keith R. Briffa, Gifford H. Miller, Bette L. Otto-Bliesner, Jonathan T. Overpeck, Bo M. Vinther, and Members Arctic Lakes 2k Project. "Recent Warming Reverses Long-Term Arctic Cooling." Science 325, no. 5945 (2009): 1236-39.





August 22, 2009

"The Evidence of His Eyes Overturned 2,000 Years of Accepted Wisdom"




GalileoShowsVenetianSenators.jpg". . ., the Italian astronomer shows the satellites of Jupiter to Venetian senators in this 1882 illustration." Source of illustration and caption: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. A9) A mathematician and experimental physicist, Galileo, however, immediately recognized that what he could see of Venus, Jupiter and the moon through his telescope offered crucial evidence that the sun, not Earth, was the center of our solar system. The evidence of his eyes overturned 2,000 years of accepted wisdom about cosmology in which philosophers had conceived the night sky as a system of crystalline spheres.

Moreover, Galileo quickly shared his observations with scientists throughout Europe by openly publishing his data.

"He wrought a change so fundamental for science and for humanity," says Munich astronomer Pedro Russo, who is global coordinator of the International Year of Astronomy. "For the first time, we realized we were not the center of the universe."

But his insistence on contradicting traditional cosmology led to his arrest and trial by the Roman Catholic Church. He was forced to recant his views and imprisoned for life. The Vatican did not formally admit that Galileo was correct until 1992. Now Vatican authorities are planning a statue in his honor.

During his life, Galileo is known to have built at least 100 telescopes, mostly as ornate presentation gifts for his patrons -- the powerful Medici family of Florence. Only one is known to survive with its optics intact -- the humble device now on show at the Franklin Institute.

"We assume it was personally used by Galileo," says Paolo Galluzzi, director of the science museum in Florence, which loaned the telescope for the exhibit. "Only this one was found among his property at his death. We believe that this is one of the major tools of his work."


. . .


"Science is fundamentally about establishing truth for yourself," says Dr. Pompea in Arizona. "People can make observations, take data and establish for themselves the nature of the universe. They don't have to take it from someone else or read it in a book."

Like Galileo, "they can see it."



For the full story, see:

ROBERT LEE HOTZ. "Galileo's Discoveries, 400 Years Later, Still Open Eyes
Astronomer's Telescope, on View Outside Italy for the First Time, Helped Expand Perceptions of the Universe." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., APRIL 10, 2009): A9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


GalileoGalilei2009-08-12.gif










"Galileo Galilei." Source of image and caption: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.






August 19, 2009

"Established Experts Flee in Horror to All Available Caves and Cages"



(p. 96) While science and enterprise open vast new panoramas of opportunity, our established experts flee in horror to all available caves and cages, like so many primitives, terrified by freedom and change.


Source:

Gilder, George. Recapturing the Spirit of Enterprise: Updated for the 1990s. updated ed. New York: ICS Press, 1992.





July 22, 2009

The Conflict Between Science and Faith



Professor Krauss is a physicist at Arizona State University.

(p. A15) My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.

-- J.B.S. Haldane


J.B.S. Haldane, an evolutionary biologist and a founder of population genetics, understood that science is by necessity an atheistic discipline. As Haldane so aptly described it, one cannot proceed with the process of scientific discovery if one assumes a "god, angel, or devil" will interfere with one's experiments. God is, of necessity, irrelevant in science.

Faced with the remarkable success of science to explain the workings of the physical world, many, indeed probably most, scientists understandably react as Haldane did. Namely, they extrapolate the atheism of science to a more general atheism.

While such a leap may not be unimpeachable it is certainly rational, as Mr. McGinn pointed out at the World Science Festival. Though the scientific process may be compatible with the vague idea of some relaxed deity who merely established the universe and let it proceed from there, it is in fact rationally incompatible with the detailed tenets of most of the world's organized religions. As Sam Harris recently wrote in a letter responding to the Nature editorial that called him an "atheist absolutist," a "reconciliation between science and Christianity would mean squaring physics, chemistry, biology, and a basic understanding of probabilistic reasoning with a raft of patently ridiculous, Iron Age convictions."



For the full commentary, see:

LAWRENCE M. KRAUSS. "OPINION: God and Science Don't Mix; A scientist can be a believer. But professionally, at least, he can't act like one." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., JUNE 26, 2009): A15.

(Note: italics in original.)





July 19, 2009

Individual Independent "Biohackers" Hope to Advance Science



ClosetLaboratory2009-06-20.jpg














"Katherine's Aull's closet laboratory in her apartment." Source of photo and caption: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.



The individual independent scientist used to play an important role in the advance of science, but over time mainly disappeared as the academic scientist, supported by large institutions, became dominant. The dominance of funding from incumbent institutions may constrain major innovations, and so I have speculated that it might be beneficial to find ways for it again to be possible for independent individual scholars to play important roles in science.

Astronomy is one area in which this still happens. The article quoted below points to another domain in which individual scholars might be able to make contributions.


(p. A1) In Massachusetts, a young woman makes genetically modified E. coli in a closet she converted into a home lab. A part-time DJ in Berkeley, Calif., works in his attic to cultivate viruses extracted from sewage. In Seattle, a grad-school dropout wants to breed algae in a personal biology lab.

These hobbyists represent a growing strain of geekdom known as biohacking, in which do-it-yourselfers tinker with the building blocks of life in the comfort of their own homes. Some of them buy DNA online, then fiddle with it in hopes of curing diseases or finding new biofuels.


. . .


Ms. Aull, 23 years old, is designing a customized E. coli in the closet of her Cambridge, Mass., apartment, hoping to help with cancer research.

She's got a DNA "thermocycler" bought on eBay for $59, and an incubator made by combining a styrofoam box with a heating device meant for an iguana cage. A few months ago, she talked about her hobby on DIY Bio, a Web site frequented by biohackers, and her work was noted in New Scientist magazine.


. . .


(p. A14) Phil Holtzman, a college student and part-time DJ at dance parties in Berkeley, Calif., is growing viruses in his attic that he thinks could be useful in medicine someday. Using pipettes and other equipment borrowed from his community college, he extracts viruses called bacteriophage from sewage and grows them in petri dishes. Mr. Holtzman's goal: Breed them to survive the high temperatures of the human body, where he thinks they might be useful in killing bad bacteria.

He collects partly treated sewage water from a network of underground tunnels in the Berkeley area, jumping a chain-link fence to get to the source. But Mr. Holtzman says his roommates are "really uncomfortable" with him working with sewage water, so he's trying to find another source of bacteriophage.



For the full story, see:

JEANNE WHALEN. "In Attics and Closets, 'Biohackers' Discover Their Inner Frankenstein; Using Mail-Order DNA and Iguana Heaters, Hobbyists Brew New Life Forms; Is It Risky?" Wall Street Journal (Tues., May 12, 2009): A1 & A14.

(Note: ellipses added.)





July 6, 2009

Our "Patently Absurd" Patent System



(p. A15) The Founders might have used quill pens, but they would roll their eyes at how, in this supposedly technology-minded era, we're undermining their intention to encourage innovation. The U.S. is stumbling in the transition from their Industrial Age to our Information Age, despite the charge in the Constitution that Congress "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."


. . .

Both sides may be right. New empirical research by Boston University law professors James Bessen and Michael Meurer, reported in their book, "Patent Failure," found that the value of pharmaceutical patents outweighed the costs of pharmaceutical-patent litigation. But for all other industries combined, they estimate that since the mid-1990s, the cost of U.S. patent litigation to alleged infringers ($12 billion in legal and business costs in 1999) is greater than the global profits that companies earn from patents (less than $4 billion in 1999). Since the 1980s, patent litigation has tripled and the probability that a particular patent is litigated within four years has more than doubled. Small inventors feel the brunt of the uncertainty costs, since bigger companies only pay for rights they think the system will protect.

These are shocking findings, but they point to the solution. New drugs require great specificity to earn a patent, whereas patents are often granted to broad, thus vague, innovations in software, communications and other technologies. Ironically, the aggregate value of these technology patents is then wiped out through litigation costs.

Our patent system for most innovations has become patently absurd. It's a disincentive at a time when we expect software and other technology companies to be the growth engine of the economy. Imagine how much more productive our information-driven economy would be if the patent system lived up to the intention of the Founders, by encouraging progress instead of suppressing it.



For the full commentary, see:

L. GORDON CROVITZ. "OPINION: INFORMATION AGE; Patent Gridlock Suppresses Innovation." Wall Street Journal (Mon., JULY 14, 2008): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





July 2, 2009

If the Medici Had Not Intervened, Galileo "Would Have Been Killed"



(p. D7) The Franklin Institute and its aspiring blockbuster, "Galileo, the Medici & the Age of Astronomy," are something of an odd couple -- a circumstance explained, like so much else, by history.


. . .

Meanwhile, the exhibition leaves provocative questions -- about the nexus of church and state, as well as science and faith -- unanswered. If Galileo was still a court favorite, and science was so revered in Florence, why weren't the powerful dukes able to prevent his 1633 trial, heresy conviction, and sentence of house arrest?

Galileo's patrons did, in fact, intervene on his behalf, Filippo Camerota, vice director of the Institute and Museum for the History of Science and one of the exhibition curators, said in an interview. "If the Medici were not there," Mr. Camerota said, "he would have been killed." Good to know.



For the full commentary, see:

JULIA M. KLEIN. "Exhibition; What Galileo Saw." Wall Street Journal (Tues., APRIL 28, 2009): D7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





July 1, 2009

RIP Marjorie Grene, Who Helped Polanyi with Personal Knowledge



GreneMarjorie2009-06-10.jpg











"Marjorie Grene in 2003." Source of photo and caption: online version of the NYT obituary quoted and cited below.



The NYT reported, in the obituary quoted below, that philosopher Marjorie Grene died on March 16, 2009, at the age of 93.

Although I studied philosophy at the University of Chicago, my time there did not overlap with Marjorie Grene's and I don't believe that I ever met her, or ever even heard her speak (though I did occasionally walk past her former husband David Grene, on my way to talk to Stephen Toulmin).

I am increasingly appreciating Michael Polanyi's book Personal Knowledge in which he introduced his view of what he called "tacit knowledge." In particular, I am coming to believe that tacit knowledge is very important in understanding the role and importance of the entrepreneur.

So if Marjorie Grene was crucial to Personal Knowledge, as is indicated in the obituary quoted below, then she is deserving of serious consideration, and high regard.


(p. 23) In Chicago, she had met Michael Polanyi, a distinguished physical chemist turned philosopher; she ended up helping him research and develop his important book "Personal Knowledge" (1958). The book proposed a far more nuanced, personal idea of knowledge, and directly addressed approaches to science.

"There is hardly a page that has not benefited from her criticism," Dr. Polanyi wrote in his acknowledgments. "She has a share in anything I may have achieved here."


. . .


Her sense of humor sparkled when she was asked about being the first woman to have an edition of the Library of Living Philosophers devoted to her -- Volume 29 in 2002. Previous honorees included Bertrand Russell and Einstein. "I thought they must be looking desperately for a woman," Dr. Grene said.



For the full obituary, see:

DOUGLAS MARTIN. "Marjorie Grene, a Leading Philosopher of Biology, Is Dead at 98." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., March 29, 2009): 23.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


The reference for the Polanyi book, is:

Polanyi, Michael. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1958.





June 29, 2009

To Cure Fatal Diseases We Need More Financial Incentives and Fewer F.D.A. Restrictions



ThompsonJoshuaAndSons.jpg








"JOSHUA THOMPSON with his sons, Wyatt and Jordan, after his diagnosis, top, and before, with his wife, Joy, and Wyatt." Source of the photos and caption: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.












(p. 1) VIRGINIA BEACH -- As Lou Gehrig's disease sapped Joshua Thompson of his ability to move and speak last fall, he consistently summoned one question from within the prison of his own body. "Iplex," he asked, in a whisper that pierced his mother's heart. "When?"

Iplex had never been tested in people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the formal name for the fatal disease that had struck Joshua, 34, in late 2006. Developed for a different condition and banished from the market by a patent dispute, it was not for sale to the public anywhere in the world.

But Kathy Thompson had vowed to get it for her son. On the Internet, she had found enthusiastic reviews from A.L.S. patients who had finagled a prescription for Iplex when it was available, along with speculation by leading researchers as to why it might slow the progressive paralysis that marks the disease. And for months, as she begged and bullied biotechnology companies, members of Congress, Italian doctors and federal drug regulators, she answered Joshua the same way:

"Soon," she said. "Soon."

At a time when terminally ill patients have more access to medical research than ever before, and perhaps a deeper conviction in its ability to cure them, many are campaigning for the chance to be treated with drugs whose safety and effectiveness is not yet known.


. . .


(p. 19) "Josh's sadness is unbearable," his mother wrote one night in her journal, nearly a year after her son's diagnosis.

Unexpected encouragement came in a Mother's Day note from her ex-husband. "You have given me some peace of mind that all potential options for Josh are being researched and acted upon," Bruce wrote. "Thank you."

Kathy's boyfriend accompanied her to Insmed's headquarters in Richmond, Va., offering to raise several million dollars to underwrite a compassionate use program for Iplex in the United States with A.L.S. patients. But the couple came away with a new understanding: F.D.A. regulations, they were told, prohibit any company from profiting on compassionate use. Even if Insmed could wriggle free of restrictions in the patent agreement, there was little financial incentive for it to invest in making the drug solely for compassionate use by A.L.S. patients.


. . .


On Jan. 16, when Dr. Werwath called to tell her the application had been rejected, she stood up in disbelief.

"How could that be?" she asked, dazed.

Kathy's friend Mrs. Reimers had received a call with the same news.

"He said they had safety concerns," Mrs. Reimers said. "This for a drug that was approved for children!"

"Safety," Kathy repeated. "And what, exactly, is safe about A.L.S.?"

Appealing an F.D.A. Denial

Before the F.D.A.'s decision, Kathy had spared little thought for any broader meaning of her quest for Joshua. But when she met with Richard A. Samp, a lawyer with the Washington Legal Foundation a week later, her outrage went beyond her son, and beyond Iplex.

"The F.D.A. is supposed to protect American citizens," Kathy fumed over an iced tea in Williamsburg, Va. "How does denying dying patients access to this drug serve the common good?"

Mr. Samp had handled a lawsuit by a patient advocacy group, the Abigail Alliance, that had sought to establish a constitutional right for terminally ill patients to use experimental drugs. In the case, which the group had lost on appeal in 2007, the F.D.A. claimed that it granted "nearly all" requests for compassionate use.

They would first make an administrative appeal, Mr. Samp told Kathy, asserting that the F.D.A. had violated its own guidelines. If that failed, they could pursue litigation that might allow them to raise the constitutional question again in a federal court in Virginia.


. . .


Kathy was pouring milk for her cereal on the morning of March 10 when Dr. Werwath's number flashed on her phone. The F.D.A. had just reversed itself, he said.

Before she could take a breath, Senator Mark Warner's office called. E-mail bleeped in as the news seeped out.

In the weeks after the appeal, Kathy learned, the F.D.A. had reached out to Insmed. The agency had persuaded the company to run a clinical trial for Iplex with several dozen A.L.S. patients, and permitted it to recoup the hefty costs directly from participants. In the trial, some of the participants would get a placebo. That way, the F.D.A. wrote on its Web site, the next wave of A.L.S. patients would learn whether the drug was in fact beneficial or harmful.

But for now, the agency had ruled, Joshua and 12 other patients would be given Iplex outside of the trial, on a compassionate use basis, if they agreed to read all the data about the risks.



For the full version of a very long story, see:

AMY HARMON. "Months to Live; Fighting for a Last Chance at Life; One Family's Tenacious Campaign for Access to an Unproven Drug." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., May 17, 2009): 1, 18-19.

(Note: ellipses added.)




ThompsonJoshuaIplexInjection2009-06-10.jpg"IN MARCH, Joshua Thompson received his first Iplex injection, from Dr. David L. Werwath. Thereafter Joshua's wife, Joy, left, and mother, Kathy, took over the daily duties." Source of the photo and caption: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.





June 6, 2009

The Ascent of Science Led to Belief that the World Could Improve



I believe the following paragraph expresses the central message of Steven Johnson's book The Invention of Air:

(p. 211) In the popular folklore of American History, there is a sense in which the founders' various achievements in natural philosophy---Franklin's electrical experiments, Jefferson's botany---serve as a (p. 212) kind of sanctified extracurricular activity. They were statesmen and political visionaries who just happened to be hobbyists in science, albeit amazingly successful ones. Their great passions were liberty and freedom and democracy; the experiments were a side project. But the Priestley view suggests that the story has it backward. Yes, they were hobbyists and amateurs at natural philosophy, but so were all the great minds of Enlightenment-era science. What they shared was a fundamental belief that the world could change---that it could improve--- if the light of reason was allowed to shine upon it. And that believe emanated from the great ascent of science over the past century, the upward trajectory that Priestley had s powerfully conveyed in his History and Present State of Electricity. The political possibilities for change were modeled after the change they had all experience through the advancements in natural philosophy. With Priestley, they grasped the political power of the air pump and the electrical machine.


Source:

Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.

(Note: italics in original.)





June 2, 2009

Adams, as a Point of Honor, Defended the Innovations of Science



(p. 211) It is no accident that, despite the long litany of injuries Adams felt had been dealt him in Jefferson's letters to Priestley, he chose to begin his counterassault by denying, as a point of honor, that he had ever publicly taken a position as president that was resistant to the innovations of science. Remember that Jefferson had also insinuated that Adams had betrayed the Constitution with his "libel on legislation." But Adams lashed out first at the accusation that he was anti-science. That alone tells us something about the gap that separates the current political climate from that of the founders.


Source:

Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.





June 1, 2009

"Infinitely Smart" Physicist and Futurist Expresses Global Warming Doubts



DysonFreeman2009-05-30a.jpg Dyson says that the "climate-studies people" have ". . . come to believe models are real and forget they are only models." Source of photo and caption: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below. (The caption used here is adapted from the body of the article, and is not the caption used under the photo in the article.)



The cover story of the March 29, 2009 Sunday New York Times Magazine section was a breath of fresh air on an old hot topic. Here is a small sample of a large article:


(p. 32) FOR MORE THAN HALF A CENTURY the eminent physicist Freeman Dyson has quietly resided in Prince­ton, N.J., on the wooded former farmland that is home to his employer, the Institute for Advanced Study, this country's most rarefied community of scholars. Lately, however, since coming "out of the closet as far as global warming is concerned," as Dyson sometimes puts it, there has been noise all around him. Chat rooms, Web threads, editors' letter boxes and Dyson's own e-mail queue resonate with a thermal current of invective in which Dyson has discovered himself variously described as "a pompous twit," "a blowhard," "a cesspool of misinformation," "an old coot riding into the sunset" and, perhaps inevitably, "a mad scientist." Dyson had proposed that whatever inflammations the climate was experiencing might be a (p. 34 sic) good thing because carbon dioxide helps plants of all kinds grow. Then he added the caveat that if CO2 levels soared too high, they could be soothed by the mass cultivation of specially bred "carbon-eating trees," whereupon the University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner looked through the thick grove of honorary degrees Dyson has been awarded -- there are 21 from universities like Georgetown, Princeton and Oxford -- and suggested that "perhaps trees can also be designed so that they can give directions to lost hikers." Dyson's son, George, a technology historian, says his father's views have cooled friendships, while many others have concluded that time has cost Dyson something else. There is the suspicion that, at age 85, a great scientist of the 20th century is no longer just far out, he is far gone -- out of his beautiful mind.

But in the considered opinion of the neurologist Oliver Sacks, Dyson's friend and fellow English expatriate, this is far from the case. "His mind is still so open and flexible," Sacks says. Which makes Dyson something far more formidable than just the latest peevish right-wing climate-change denier. Dyson is a scientist whose intelligence is revered by other scientists -- William Press, former deputy director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and now a professor of computer science at the University of Texas, calls him "infinitely smart." Dyson -- a mathematics prodigy who came to this country at 23 and right away contributed seminal work to physics by unifying quantum and electrodynamic theory -- not only did path-breaking science of his own; he also witnessed the development of modern physics, thinking alongside most of the luminous figures of the age, including Einstein, Richard Feynman, Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Witten, the "high priest of string theory" whose office at the institute is just across the hall from Dyson's. Yet instead of hewing to that fundamental field, Dyson chose to pursue broader and more unusual pursuits than most physicists -- and has lived a more original life.

. . .

(p. 36) Not long ago Dyson sat in his institute office, a chamber so neat it reminds Dyson's friend, the writer John McPhee, of a Japanese living room. On shelves beside Dyson were books about stellar evolution, viruses, thermodynamics and terrorism. "The climate-studies people who work with models always tend to overestimate their models," Dyson was saying. "They come to believe models are real and forget they are only models." Dyson speaks in calm, clear tones that carry simultaneous evidence of his English childhood, the move to the United States after completing his university studies at Cambridge and more than 50 years of marriage to the German-born Imme, but his opinions can be barbed, especially when a conversation turns to climate change. Climate models, he says, take into account atmospheric motion and water levels but have no feeling for the chemistry and biology of sky, soil and trees. "The biologists have essentially been pushed aside," he continues. "Al Gore's just an opportunist. The person who is really responsible for this overestimate of global warming is Jim Hansen. He consistently exaggerates all the dangers."

Dyson agrees with the prevailing view that there are rapidly rising carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere caused by human activity. To the planet, he suggests, the rising carbon may well be a MacGuffin, a striking yet ultimately benign occurrence in what Dyson says is still "a relatively cool period in the earth's history." The warming, he says, is not global but local, "making cold places warmer rather than making hot places hotter." Far from expecting any drastic harmful consequences from these increased temperatures, he says the carbon may well be salubrious -- a sign that "the climate is actually improving rather than getting worse," because carbon acts as an ideal fertilizer promoting forest growth and crop yields. "Most of the evolution of life occurred on a planet substantially warmer than it is now," he contends, "and substantially richer in carbon dioxide." Dyson calls ocean acidification, which many scientists say is destroying the saltwater food chain, a genuine but probably exaggerated problem. Sea levels, he says, are rising steadily, but why this is and what dangers it might portend "cannot be predicted until we know much more about its causes."



For the full article, see:

NICHOLAS DAWIDOFF. "The Civil Heretic." The New York Times Magazine (Sun., March 29, 2009): 32-39, 54, 57-59.

(Note: ellipses in top photo caption, and in article quotes, are added.)


DysonFreeman2009-0530b.jpg
















"Freeman Dyson." Source of photo and caption: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.






May 29, 2009

"The American Experiment Was, Literally, an Experiment"



(p. 199) This is politics seen through the eyes of an Enlightened rationalist. The American experiment was, literally, an experiment, like one of Priestley's elaborate concoctions in the Fair Hill lab: a system of causes and effects, checks and balances, that could only be truly tested by running the experiment with live subjects. The political order was to be celebrated not because it had the force of law, or divine right, or a standing army behind it. Its strength came from its internal balance, or homeostasis, its ability to rein in and subdue efforts to destabilize it.


Source:

Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.





May 25, 2009

In the United States "Innovation" Became a Positive Word



(p. 198) "All advances in science were proscribed as innovations." Jefferson is using the older, negative sense of the word "innovation" here: a new development that threatened the existing order in a detrimental way. (The change in the valence of the word over the next century is one measure of society's shifting relationship to progress.) But that regressive age was now over, and Priestley--the most forward-thinking mind of his generation--could now consider himself fully at home:

Our countrymen have recovered from the alarm into which art and industry had thrown them: science and honesty are replaced on their high ground, and you, my dear Sir, as their great apostle, are on its pinnacle. It is with heartfelt satisfaction that in the first moments of my public action, I can hail you with welcome to our land, tender to you the homage of its respect and esteem, cover you under the protection of those laws which were made for the wise and good like you, and disdain the legitimacy of that libel on legislation which under the form of a law was for some time placed among them.


Perhaps inspired by the legendary optimism of Priestley himself, Jefferson then added some of the most stirringly hopeful words that he ever put to paper:

(p. 199) As the storm is now subsiding, and the horizon becoming serene, it is pleasant to consider the phenomenon with attention. We can no longer say there is nothing new under the sun. For this whole chapter in the history of man is new. The great extent of our Republic is new. Its sparse habitation is new. The mighty wave of public opinion which has rolled over it is new. But the most pleasing novelty is, it's so quietly subsiding over such an extent of surface to its true level again. The order and good sense displayed in this recovery from delusion, and in the momentous crisis which lately arose, really bespeak a strength of character in our nation which augurs well for the duration of our Republic; and I am much better satisfied now of it's stability than I was before it was tried.


Source:

Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.





May 19, 2009

Bacon Died Experimenting and Hegel Died Contradicting Himself



(p. C32) The philosopher Francis Bacon, that great champion of the empirical method, died of his own philosophy: in an effort to observe the effects of refrigeration, on a freezing cold day he stuffed a chicken with snow and caught pneumonia.

As a philosopher dies, so he has lived and believed. And from the manner of his dying we can understand his thinking, or so the philosopher Simon Critchley seems to be saying in his cheekily titled "Book of Dead Philosophers."

. . .

Mr. Critchley recounts that Voltaire, after decades of denouncing the Roman Catholic Church, announced on his deathbed that he wanted to die a Catholic. But the shocked parish priest kept asking him, "Do you believe in the divinity of Christ?" Voltaire begged, "In the name of God, Monsieur, don't speak to me any more of that man and let me die in peace."

Hegel, who, as much as any philosopher, Mr. Critchley says, saw philosophy as an abstraction, while he was dying of cholera, moaned, "Only one man ever understood me ... and he didn't understand me."




For the full review, see:

DINITIA SMITH. "Books of The Times - Dying and Death: When You Sort It Out, What's It All About, Diogenes?" The New York Times (Fri., January 30, 2009): C32.

(Note: ellipsis between paragraphs was added; ellipsis in Hegel quote was in original.)


The reference to Critchley's book, is:

Critchley, Simon. The Book of Dead Philosophers. New York: Vintage Books, 2009.





May 15, 2009

An Environment Where Long-Term Hunches Could Thrive



An environment in which long-term hunches can be pursued, is important not just to science and invention. I speculate that it is also important to entrepreneurship.


(p. 74) If great ideas usually arrive in fragments, a partial cluster of neurons, then part of the secret to having great ideas lies in creating a working environment where those fragments are nurtured and sustained over time. This obviously poses some difficulty in modern work environments, with deadlines and quarterly reports and annual job reviews. (The typical middle manager doesn't respond favorably to news that an employee has a hunch about something that probably won't see results for twenty years.) But Priestley had created an environment for himself where those long-term hunches could thrive with almost no pressure, and his habit of simultaneously writing multiple documents (on multiple topics) kept the fragments alive in his mind over the decades. In the final pages of his memoirs, he mentions a lifelong habit of writing down "as soon as possible, every thing I wish not to forget."


Source:

Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.





May 11, 2009

More Accurate Measurements Reveal Previously Undetected Anomalies



(p. 69) This is a standard pattern in the history of science: when tools for measuring increase their precision by orders of magnitude, new paradigms often emerge, because the newfound accuracy reveals anomalies that had gone undetected. One of the crucial benefits of increasing the accuracy of scales is that it suddenly became possible to measure things that had almost no weight. Black's discovery of fixed air, and its perplexing mixture with common air, would have been impossible without the state-of-the-art scales he employed in his experiments. The whole inquiry had begun when Black heated a quantity of white magnesia, and discovered that it lost a minuscule amount of weight in the process--a difference that would have been imperceptible using older scales. The shift in weight suggested that something was escaping from the magnesia into the air. By then running comparable experiments, heating a wide array of substances, Black was able to accurately determine the weight of carbon dioxide, and consequently prove the existence of the gas. It weighs, therefore it is.


Source:

Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.





May 7, 2009

Magdeburg Sphere Let Scientists "See" the Vacuum



(p. 68) When we think of technological advances powering scientific discovery, the image that conventionally comes to mind is a specifically visual one: tools that expand the range of our vision, that let us literally see the object of study with new clarity, or peer into new levels of the very distant, the very small. Think of the impact that the telescope had on early physics, or the microscope on bacteriology. But new ways of seeing are not always crucial to discovery. The air pump didn't allow you to see the vacuum, because of course there was nothing to see: but it did allow you to see it indirectly, in the force that held the Magdeburg Sphere together despite all that horsepower.


Source:

Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.





April 29, 2009

World Astonished that an American Tradesman Tamed Lightning



(p. 24) Within five years of his speculative note to Collinson, lightning rods had become a common sight on church steeples throughout Europe and America. Franklin's biographer Carl Van Doren aptly describes the astonishment that greeted these events around the world: "A man in Philadelphia in America, bred a tradesman, remote from the learned world, had hit upon a secret which enabled him, and other men, to catch and tame the lightning, so dread that it was still mythological."


Source:

Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.





April 22, 2009

Environmentalists Abandon Science



In honor of "Earth Day," some thoughtful comments by a co-founder of Greenpeace:

(p. A23) In 1971 an environmental and antiwar ethic was taking root in Canada, and I chose to participate. As I completed a Ph.D. in ecology, I combined my science background with the strong media skills of my colleagues. In keeping with our pacifist views, we started Greenpeace.

But I later learned that the environmental movement is not always guided by science. As we celebrate Earth Day today, this is a good lesson to keep in mind.

At first, many of the causes we championed, such as opposition to nuclear testing and protection of whales, stemmed from our scientific knowledge of nuclear physics and marine biology. But after six years as one of five directors of Greenpeace International, I observed that none of my fellow directors had any formal science education. They were either political activists or environmental entrepreneurs. Ultimately, a trend toward abandoning scientific objectivity in favor of political agendas forced me to leave Greenpeace in 1986.

The breaking point was a Greenpeace decision to support a world-wide ban on chlorine. Science shows that adding chlorine to drinking water was the biggest advance in the history of public health, virtually eradicating water-borne diseases such as cholera. And the majority of our pharmaceuticals are based on chlorine chemistry. Simply put, chlorine is essential for our health.

My former colleagues ignored science and supported the ban, forcing my departure. Despite science concluding no known health risks - and ample benefits - from chlorine in drinking water, Greenpeace and other environmental groups have opposed its use for more than 20 years.



For the full commentary, see:

PATRICK MOORE. "Why I Left Greenpeace." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., April 22, 2008): A23.






April 21, 2009

An Intellectual Collaboration Beyond the Grave



There is something touchingly noble in this:

(p. 11) There is no direct evidence in the historical record, but it is entirely probable that it was the waterspout sighting that sent Priestley off on his quest to measure the temperature of the sea, trying to marshal supporting evidence for a passing conjecture his friend had made a decade before. Franklin had been dead for nearly four years, but their intellectual collaboration continued, undeterred by war, distance, even death.


Source:

Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.





April 14, 2009

Steven Johnson's The Invention of Air



InventionOfAirBK.jpg














Source of book image: http://stevenberlinjohnson.typepad.com/photos/uncategorized/2008/09/10/invention_final_81908.jpg


Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map, about the determined entrepreneurial detective work that uncovered the cause of cholera, is one of my all-time favorite books, so I am now in the mode of reading everything else that Steven Johnson has written, or will write.

The most recent book, The Invention of Air, is not as spectacular as The Ghost Map, but is well-written on a thought-provoking topic. It focuses on Joseph Priestley's role in the American Revolution. Priestley is best known as an early chemist, but Johnson paints him as a poly-math whose science was of a piece with his philosophy, politics and his religion.

Johnson's broader point is that for many of the founding fathers, science was not a compartment of their lives, but part of the whole cloth (hey, it's my blog, so I can mix as many metaphors as I want to).

And the neat bottom line is that Priestley's method of science (and polity) is the same broadly empirical/experimental/entrepreneurial method that usually leads to truth and progress.

Along the way, Johnson makes many amusing and thought-provoking observations, such as the paragraphs devoted to his coffee-house theory of the enlightenment. (You see, coffee makes for clearer thinking than beer.)


The book:

Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.






February 19, 2009

Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide that is Probably Not Caused by Human Activity


JupiterLikePLanetDrawing.jpg "This artist's concept shows a cloudy Jupiter-like planet that orbits very close to its fiery hot star." Source of caption and image: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A31) Astronomers testing techniques to search for extraterrestrial life have detected carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a planet 63 light-years away.

This carbon dioxide, though, is certainly not coming from plants or automobiles. The planet, HD 189733b, is far too large (about the mass of the Jupiter) and too hot (1,700 degrees Fahrenheit) for any possibility of life.



For the full story, see:

KENNETH CHANG. "Carbon Dioxide (No S.U.V.'s) Detected on Distant Planet." The New York Times (Thurs., December 11, 2008): A31.




February 15, 2009

"Little Risk the Ice Sheet Will Collapse"


JakobshavnIsbraeGlacierFissure.jpg "To probe the underside of Greenland's glaciers, NASA researcher Alberto Behar released 90 specially tagged rubber ducks into a fissure of the Jakobshavn Isbrae glacier in Greenland, tracking their progress along underground melt-water streams." Source of caption: typed from print version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below. Source of photo: edited screen capture from the online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A13) As researchers learn more about the mechanics of Greenland's glaciers, they are becoming convinced that, by itself, the sub-surface water slide created by so much melting ice may be a short-lived seasonal effect, says University of Washington polar scientist Ian Joughin. The glaciers speed up in the summer but slow down in the fall. If that's true, there may be little risk the ice sheet will collapse as some scientists recently feared -- at least not for the foreseeable future.


For the full story, see:

ROBERT LEE HOTZ. "The Sober Science of Migrating Rubber Duckies; An Armada of Tub Toys Sets Sail in New Research Discipline, 'Flotsam Science,' and Helps Unravel Enduring Planetary Mysteries." Wall Street Journal (Mon., November 14, 2008): A13.




February 12, 2009

"A Splendid Birthday Present" for Charles Darwin


WhyEvolutionIsTrueBK.jpg












Source of the book image: http://images.barnesandnoble.com/images/34510000/34519930.jpg


(p. A13) . . ., on Feb. 12, biologists the world over will celebrate Charles Darwin's 200th birthday. Throughout the year, at festivals galore marking his bicentennial, "On the Origin of Species," a mere 150 years old, will be hailed as one of the greatest works in the history of the sciences.

. . .

Mr. Coyne begins with a succinct account of what is at stake. "Life on earth evolved gradually beginning with one primitive species -- perhaps a self-replicating molecule -- that lived more than 3.5 billion years ago; it then branched out over time, throwing off many and diverse species; and the mechanism for most (but not all) of evolutionary change is natural selection."

Darwinism is thus a claim with several basic components, and the book is structured by carefully exhibiting the evidence for each. Making that structure explicit allows readers to recognize just where they are in the argument. As they follow Mr. Coyne's parade of evidence -- his discussions of the fossil record, of vestigial traits, of the ways in which living things constantly make novel use of the bits and pieces they have inherited, of the distribution of plants and animals -- the components of Darwin's thesis are sequentially supported. We have a list of things to be shown, they are shown and the truth of evolution is established.

. . .

Yet will any defense of Darwin, however painstaking and lucid, succeed in substantially modifying the public-opinion survey results? Mr. Coyne has seen the opposition first-hand, recounting his experience of talking to a group of businessmen about evolution and eliciting the reaction: "Very convincing -- but I don't believe it." This sort of skepticism is often rooted in a sense that Darwinism somehow discredits morality -- a perception that Mr. Coyne argues against, cogently, in a brief final chapter. But he does not seem to appreciate the depth of popular hostility toward Darwin.

. . .

Whether or not he succeeds in bringing Americans en masse to learn to love evolution, he has offered Darwin a splendid birthday present.



For the full review, see:

PHILIP KITCHER. "Bookshelf; Following the Evidence." Wall Street Journal (Thurs., JANUARY 29, 2009): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

The reviewed book is:

Coyne, Jerry A. Why Evolution Is True. New York: Viking, 2009.


A classic paper on whether the speed of a scientist's acceptance of evolution was related to the scientist's age, is:

David L. Hull, Peter D. Tessner and Arthur M. Diamond. "Planck's Principle: Do Younger Scientists Accept New Scientific Ideas with Greater Alacrity than Older Scientists?" Science 202 (November 17, 1978): 717-723.




February 10, 2009

Leeuwenhoek's Great Discovery Was at First Rejected by the "Experts"


In the passage quoted below, Hager discusses the reception that Leeuwenhoeck received to his first report of the "animalcules" seen under his microscope:

(p. 42) He hired a local artist to draw what he saw and sent his findings to the greatest scientific body of the day, the Royal Society of London.

(p. 43) Van Leeuwenhoek's raising of the curtain on a new world was greeted with what might kindly be called a degree of skepticism. Three centuries later a twentieth-century wit wrote a lampoon of what the Royal Society's secretary might well have responded:

Dear Mr. Anthony van Leeuwenhoek,

Your letter of October 10th has been received here with amusement. Your account of myriad "little animals" seen swimming in rainwater, with the aid of your so-called "microscope," caused the members of the society considerable merriment when read at our most recent meeting. Your novel descriptions of the sundry anatomies and occupations of these invisible creatures led one member to imagine that your "rainwater" might have contained an ample portion of distilled spirits---imbibed by the investigator. Another member raised a glass of clear water and exclaimed, "Behold, the Africk of Leeuwenhoek." For myself, I withhold judgement as to the sobriety of your observations and the veracity of your instrument. However, a vote having been taken among the members---accompanied, I regret to inform you, by considerable giggling---it has been decided not to publish your communication in the Proceedings of this esteemed society. However, all here wish your "little animals" health, prodigality and good husbandry by their ingenious "discoverer."



The satire was not far from the truth. Although very interested in the Dutchman's discoveries, so many English scientists were doubtful about his reports that van Leeuwenhoek had to enlist an English vicar and several jurists to attest to his findings. Then Hooke himself confirmed them. All doubt was dispelled.



Source:

Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.





January 21, 2009

"In Spite of the Economic Crisis and Unemployment . . . Civilization's Progress is Going Faster and Faster"


The Palace of Discovery mentioned in the passage below was a part of the 1937 Paris Exposition.

(p. 206) The mastermind behind the Palace of Discovery, French Nobel Prize laureate Jean Perrin, wrote, "In spite of the wars and the revolutions, in spite of the economic crisis and unemployment, through our worries and anxieties, but also through our hopes, civilization's progress is going faster and faster, thanks to ever-more flexible and efficient techniques, to farther- and farther-reaching lengths. . . . Almost all of them have appeared in less than a century, and have developed or applied inventions now known by all, which seem to have fulfilled or even passed the desires expressed in our old fairy tales."


Source:

Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

(Note: ellipsis in the title is added; ellipsis in the quoted passage is in the original.)




January 16, 2009

The Palace of Discovery: "They Came for Wonder and Hope"


PalaceOfDiscoveryParis.jpg
The Palace of Discovery (aka Palais de la Decouverte) in Paris. Source of photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/paris2e/2524827592/


Near the beginning of World War II, the 1937 Palace of Discovery in Paris, was a popular source of hope for the future:

(p. 206) An unexpectedly popular draw at the exposition was a relatively small hall hidden away behind the Grand Palais. The Palace of Discovery, as it was called, attracted more than 2 million visitors, five times the number that visited the modern art exhibit. They came for wonder and hope. The wonder was provided by exhibits including a huge electrostatic generator, like something from Dr. Frankenstein's lab, two enormous metal spheres thirteen feet apart, across which a 5-million-volt current threw a hissing, crackling bolt of electricity. The hope came from the very nature of science itself. Designed by a group of liberal French researchers, the Palace of Discovery was intended to be more a "people's university" than a stuffy museum, a place to hear inspiring lectures on the latest wonders of science, messages abut technological confidence and progress for the peoples of the world.


Source:

Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.




January 1, 2009

Industrialist Duisberg Made Domagk's Sulfa Discovery Possible



(p. 65) . . . Domagk's future would be determined not only by his desire to stop disease but also by his own ambition, his family needs, and the plans of a small group of businessmen he had never met. He probably had heard of their leader, however, one of the preeminent figures in German business, a man the London Times would later eulogize as "the greatest industrialist the world has yet had." His name was Carl Duisberg.

Duisberg was a German version of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and John D. Rockefeller rolled into one. He had built an empire of science in Germany, leveraging the discoveries of dozens of chemists he employed into one of the most profitable businesses on earth. He knew how industrial science worked: He was himself a chemist. At least he had been long ago. Now, in the mid-1920s, in the twilight of his years, his fortunes made, his reputation assured, he often walked in his private park alone---still solidly built, with his shaved head and a bristling white mustache, still a commanding presence in his top hat and black overcoat---through acres of forest, fountains, classical statuary, around the pond in his full-scale Japanese garden by the lacquered teahouse, over his steams, and across his lawns.



Source:

Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





December 28, 2008

"Four G's Needed for Success: Geduld, Geschick, Glück, Geld"


One of Domagk's predecessors, in goal and method, was Paul Ehrlich, who was a leader in the search for the Zuberkugeln (magic bullet) against disease causing organisms. He systematized the trial and error method, and pursued dyes as promising chemicals that might be modified to attach themselves to the intruders. But he never quite found a magic bullet:

(p. 82) Ehrlich announced to the world that he had found a cure for sleeping sickness. But he spoke too soon. Number 418, also, proved too toxic for general use. He and his chemists resumed the search.

Ehrlich said his method consisted basically of "examining and sweating"---and his coworkers joked that Ehrlich examined while they sweated. There was another motto attributed to Ehrlich's lab, the list of "Four Gs" needed for success: Geduld, Geschick, Glück, Geld---patience, skill, luck, and money.



Source:

Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

(Note: do not confuse the "Paul Ehrlich" discussed above, with the modern environmentalist "Paul Ehrlich" who is best known for losing his bet with Julian Simon.)




December 24, 2008

Most Scientists' Lives Are "Like Those of Anxious Middle Managers"


(p. 64) The truth is that scientists come in all types, just like everyone else. They are people, not pop paradigms. They worry about how they are going to pay their bills, and they get envious of the researchers who got the credit they should have gotten. They compete for grants and complain when those grants are awarded to someone else. They focus on prestige and work for advancement and usually do what their bosses (or, less directly, granting agencies) say. Most scientists, as the great British molecular biologist J. D. Bernal noted back in the 1930s, live lives more like those of anxious middle managers than great visionaries.


Source:

Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.




December 16, 2008

Doctors Rejected Pasteur's Work


Whether in science, or in entrepreneurship, at the initial stages of an important new idea, the majority of experts will reject the idea. So a key for the advance of science, or for innovation in the economy, is to allow scientists and entrepreneurs to accumulate sufficient resources so that they can make informed bets based on their conjectures, and on their tacit knowledge.

A few entries ago, Hager recounted how Leeuwenhoek faced initial skepticism from the experts. In the passage below, Hager recounts how Pasteur also faced initial skepticism from the experts:

(p. 44) If bacteria could rot meat, Pasteur reasoned, they could cause diseases, and he spent years proving the point. Two major problems hindered the acceptance of his work within the medical community: First, Pasteur, regardless of his ingenuity, was a brewing chemist, not a physician, so what could he possibly know about disease? And second, his work was both incomplete and imprecise. He had inferred that bacteria caused disease, but it was impossible for him to definitively prove the point. In order to prove that a type of bacterium could cause a specific disease, precisely and to the satisfaction of the scientific world, it would be necessary to isolate that one type of bacterium for study, to create a pure culture, and then test the disease-causing abilities of this pure culture.


Source:

Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.




December 4, 2008

The Benefits from the Discovery of Sulfa, the First Antibiotic


I quoted a review of The Demon Under the Microscope in an entry from October 12, 2006. I finally managed to read the book, last month.

I don't always agree with Hager's interpretation of events, and his policy advice, but he writes well, and he has much to say of interest about how the first anti-bacterial antibiotic, sulfa, was developed.

In the coming weeks, I'll be highlighting a few key passages of special interest. In today's entry, below, Hager nicely summarizes the importance of the discovery of antibiotics for his (and my) baby boom generation.

(p. 3) I am part of that great demographic bulge, the World War II "Baby Boom" generation, which was the first in history to benefit from birth from the discovery of antibiotics. The impact of this discovery is difficult to overstate. If my parents came down with an ear infection as babies, they were treated with bed rest, painkillers, and sympathy. If I came down with an ear infection as a baby, I got antibiotics. If a cold turned into bronchitis, my parents got more bed rest and anxious vigilance; I got antibiotics. People in my parents' generation, as children, could and all too often did die from strep throats, infected cuts, scarlet fever, meningitis, pneumonia, or any number of infectious diseases. I and my classmates survived because of antibiotics. My parents as children, and their parents before them, lost friends and relatives, often at very early ages, to bacterial epidemics that swept through American cities every fall and winter, killing tens of thousands. The suddenness and inevitability of these epidemic deaths, facts of life before the 1930s, were for me historical curiosities, artifacts of another age. Antibiotics virtually eliminated them. In many cases, much-feared diseases of my grandparents' day---erysipelas, childbed fever, cellulitis---had become so rare they were nearly extinct. I never heard the names.


Source:

Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.




December 1, 2008

Age and Inventiveness


AgeProductivityGraph.gif Source of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. B5) A particularly stark view of age-related constraints on researchers' work comes from Benjamin Jones, an associate professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. He examined biographical data over the past century for more than 700 Nobel laureates and renowned inventors.

His conclusion: "Innovators are productive over a narrowing span of their life cycle." In the early 20th century, he found, researchers at the times of their greatest contributions averaged slightly more than 36 years old. In recent decades, innovation before the age of 30 became increasing rare, with the peak age of contribution rising toward age 40. Meanwhile, the frequency of key contributions has consistently diminished by researchers in their early or mid-50s.

Occasionally, Mr. Jones says, booming new fields "permit easier access to the frontier, allowing people to make contributions at younger ages." That could account for the relative youth of Internet innovators, such as Netscape Communications Corp. founder Marc Andreessen and Messrs. Page and Brin. But "when the revolution is over," Mr. Jones finds, "ages rise."

Unwilling to see researchers at peak productivity for only a small part of their careers, tech companies are fighting back in a variety of ways. At microchip maker Texas Instruments Inc., in Dallas, executives are pairing up recent college graduates and other fresh research hires with experienced mentors, called "craftsmen," for intensive training and coaching.

This system means that new design engineers can become fully effective in three or four years, instead of five to seven, says Taylor Efland, chief technologist for TI's analog chip business. Analog chips are used in power management, data conversion and amplification.

At Sun Microsystems Inc., teams of younger and older researchers are common. That can help everyone's productivity, says Greg Papadopoulos, chief technology officer for the Santa Clara, Calif., computer maker. Younger team members provide energy and optimism; veterans provide a savvier sense of what problems to tackle.



For the full story, see:

GEORGE ANDERS. "THEORY & PRACTICE; Companies Try to Extend Researchers' Productivity; Teams of Various Ages, Newer Hires Combat Short Spans of Inventing." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., AUGUST 18, 2008): B5.


A large literature exists on the relationship between age and scientific productivity. I am particularly fond of the following examples:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "Age and the Acceptance of Cliometrics." The Journal of Economic History 40, no. 4 (December 1980): 838-841.

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "An Economic Model of the Life-Cycle Research Productivity of Scientists." Scientometrics 6, no. 3 (1984): 189-196.

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "The Life-Cycle Research Productivity of Mathematicians and Scientists." The Journal of Gerontology 41, no. 4 (July 1986): 520-525.

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "An Optimal Control Model of the Life-Cycle Research Productivity of Scientists." Scientometrics 11, nos. 3-4 (1987): 247-249.

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "The Polywater Episode and the Appraisal of Theories." In A. Donovan, L. Laudan and R. Laudan, eds., Scrutinizing Science: Empirical Studies of Scientific Change. Dordrecht, Holland: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1988, 181-198.

Hull, David L., Peter D. Tessner and Arthur M. Diamond, Jr. "Planck's Principle: Do Younger Scientists Accept New Scientific Ideas with Greater Alacrity than Older Scientists?" Science 202 (November 17, 1978): 717-723.




November 26, 2008

Science Fiction Writers Provide More Accurate Forecasts Than Economists


Robert Fogel, quoted below, is a Nobel-Prize-winning professor of economics at the University of Chicago:

(p. 13) I think I've largely covered how things looked after World War II, highlighting both what now seems to have been an unjustified pessimism and also the difficulties in forecasting the future. I close with an anecdote from Simon Kuznets. He used to give a one-year course in growth economics, both at Johns Hopkins and Harvard. One of the points he made was that if you wanted to find accurate forecasts of what happened in the past, don't look at what the economists said. The economists in 1850 wrote that the progress of the last decade had been so great that it could not possibly continue. And economists at the end of the nineteenth century wrote that the progress of the last half century had been so great that it could not possibly continue during the twentieth century. Kuznets said you would come closest to an accurate forecast if you read the writers of science fiction. But even the writers of science fiction were too pessimistic. Jules Verne recognized that we might eventually get to the moon, but he couldn't conceive of the technology that actually made the journey possible.

I was at a 2003 conference at Rockefeller University that brought together about 30 people from different disciplines (economics, biology, chemistry, and physics, as well as some industrial leaders) who put forward their views of what was likely to happen in the new millennium. And I must say that the noneconomists were far more bullish than most of the economists I know. So I suspect if we have another MussaFest in 2024, we'll all look back at how pessimistic we were in 2004.



Source:

Fogel, Robert W. "Reconsidering Expectations of Economic Growth after World War Ii from the Perspective of 2004." IMF Staff Papers 52 (Special Issue 2005): 6-14.





November 24, 2008

Founder of Experimental Science Received Prison as His Reward


(p. 53) Where men had once said, 'Credo ut intelligam' (understanding can come only through belief), they now said, 'Intelligo ut credam' (belief can come only through understanding). In 1277, Roger Bacon was imprisoned for an indefinite period for holding these opinions. Free and rational investigation of nature was to come hard in the clash between reason and faith which would echo down to our own time.


Source:

Burke, James. The Day the Universe Changed: How Galileo's Telescope Changed the Truth and Other Events in History That Dramatically Altered Our Understanding of the World. Back Bay Books, 1995.





November 7, 2008

Michael Crichton's Scariest Story


CrichtonMichael2003.jpg






Michael Crichton speaking on environmentalism at the Fairmont Hotel on September 15, 2003. Source of photo: Bill Adams' posting at http://www.pbase.com/bill_adams/image/21439440


The papers announced yesterday (11/6/08) that Michael Crichton had died of cancer a couple of days earlier (11/4/08).

I had mixed feelings about his stories. On the one hand, they seemed mainly to stir up unrealistic fears about technology, which I see as mainly a benefit to humanity. On the other hand, they often involved intelligent heroes who struggled against danger, and won (or at least partly won).

Crichton's best story may have been one of his last, State of Fear. In that book, he took on the environmental movement, and showed in a powerful appendix, how some scientists and scientific institutions have failed us, by creating fear that is not grounded in the free exchange of ideas and evidence.

Crichton did not have to take on this issue---it earned him vituperative enemies, and probably lost him some readers. But in the end, he too was an intelligent hero who struggled against danger---the danger of politically correct closed minds.

Michael Crichton, Rest in Peace.

P.S.: Crichton had some scientific credentials. Here are a couple of interesting facts about his life:

(p. A27) At Harvard, after a professor criticized his writing style, the younger Mr. Crichton changed his major from English to anthropology and graduated summa cum laude in 1964. He then spent a year teaching anthropology on a fellowship at Cambridge University. In 1966 he entered Harvard Medical School and began writing on the side to help pay tuition.

. . .

In 1969, after earning his medical degree, Mr. Crichton moved to the La Jolla section of San Diego and spent a year as a postdoctoral fellow at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Already inclining toward a writing career, he tilted decisively with "The Andromeda Strain," a medical thriller about a group of scientists racing against time to stop the spread of a lethal organism from outer space code-named Andromeda.



For the full obituary, see:

WILLIAM GRIMES. "Michael Crichton, Author of Thrillers, Dies at 66." The New York Times (Thurs., November 5, 2008): A27.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

CrichtonMichaelHarvard2002.jpg Michael Crichton during an April 11, 2002 lecture at the Harvard Medical School (from which he graduated). Source of photo: http://www.hno.harvard.edu/gazette/2002/04.18/11-crichton.html




August 4, 2008

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Hero of Freedom, RIP


I heard last night that Aleksander Solzhenitsyn had died late that on that day, August 3, 2008.

Like all of us, he had his flaws. But he had strong moral courage in standing up against the enslavement of the masses by the communist tyranny of the USSR. For that he paid a huge price, partly in the form of the years of forced labor in the prison camps that he carefully documented in his massive The Gulag Archipelago. (I must admit that I never read The Gulag, although I believe my father, to his credit, read every page.)

I remember my mentor Ben Rogge reading The First Circle and highly recommending it to us. The book's title is based on Dante's Inferno which describes the nine circles of hell, where each successive circle assigns increasingly horrendous eternal punishments, for those guilty of increasingly terrible sins. In the first circle, good people born before Jesus, are allowed to pursue their interests much as they had on earth. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, for instance, engage in eternal dialogue.

In Solzhenitsyn's version, Stalin allows a group of scientists to have better living conditions, and somewhat more freedom than ordinary Soviet citizens, so long as the scientists make progress on projects that enable Stalin to extend his power.

One of the revelations in the book is that those who imposed the tyranny, had motives that were not always evil. One bureaucratic candidate for villainy, for instance, did bad things, in order to protect his family. At the top there is Stalin, but he is portrayed as insane.

The point is one that Rogge often made---people are pretty much the same everywhere. What mainly explains the differences in different societies are different institutions that provide differing incentives and constraints.

It is a fitting tribute to Solzhenitsyn that the first unabridged English translation of The First Circle will soon be published.

I salute Solzhenitsyn for his insights, and even more, for his courage at standing up against an evil system.




August 3, 2008

Sprouted "Methuselah" Seed Is 2,000 Years Old


MethuselahDatePalmSeedsAndPlant.jpg


"One of a handful of 2,000-year-old seeds (top) from the fortress of Masada in present-day Israel grew into a date palm plant (bottom) called Methuselah in 2005." Source of caption and photos: online article quoted and cited below.

The oldest-sprouted seed in the world is a 2,000-year-old plant from Jerusalem, a new study confirms.

"Methuselah," a 4-foot-tall (1.2-meter-tall) ancestor of the modern date palm, is being grown at a protected laboratory in the Israeli capital.

In 2005 the young plant was coaxed out of a seed recovered in 1963 from Masada, a fortress in present-day Israel where Jewish zealots killed themselves to avoid capture by the Romans in A.D. 70.



For the full story, see:


Anne Minard. ""Methuselah" Tree Grew From 2,000-Year-Old Seed." National Geographic News online (June 12, 2008), downloaded on 6/19/08 from: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/06/080612-oldest-tree.html





April 25, 2008

Active Volcano in Antarctica: Another Cause for Melting Ice


VolcanoActiveAntarctic.jpg Source of graphic: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A8) Here is another factor that might be contributing to the thinning of some of the Antarctica's glaciers: volcanoes.

In an article published Sunday on the Web site of the journal Nature Geoscience, Hugh F. J. Corr and David G. Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey report the identification of a layer of volcanic ash and glass shards frozen within an ice sheet in western Antarctica.

For Antarctica, "This is the first time we have seen a volcano beneath the ice sheet punch a hole through the ice sheet," Dr. Vaughan said.

Heat from a volcano could still be melting ice and contributing to the thinning and speeding up of the Pine Island Glacier, which passes nearby, but Dr. Vaughan doubted that it could be affecting other glaciers in West Antarctica, which have also thinned in recent years. Most glaciologists, including Dr. Vaughan, say that warmer ocean water is the primary cause.


For the full story, see:

KENNETH CHANG. "Scientists Find Active Volcano In Antarctica." The New York Times (Mon., January 21, 2008): A8.




March 25, 2008

Government Post-Doc Funding Creates "Glut" of Scientists


The quotes below from a WSJ summary of a Nov. 16, 2007 The Chronicle of Higher Education article, suggests that we do not need to worry about the sometimes-alleged "shortage" of scientists and engineers:


(p. B14) The federal dollars pumped into university science departments has created more scientists and engineers than the market wants, said Michael S. Teitelbaum, vice president of Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which sponsors research, at a hearing in Congress last week. Mr. Teitelbaum said the federal government should find a way to adjust how it funds university research so that university departments don't end up using the extra money to add graduate students and postdoctoral fellows

For the full summary, see:

"The Informed Reader; Science; U.S. Faces a Glut (Really) of Scientists, Engineers." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., November 13, 2007): B14.




March 21, 2008

"The Chronically Apalled Must Not Have the Last Word"


(p. A20) Unfortunately, the deniers of differences between the sexes are on the march with powerful allies. In the fall of 2006, the National Academy of Sciences released a recklessly one-sided study, now widely referred to as authoritative, titled "Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering." According to the report, differences in cognition between the sexes have no bearing on the dearth of women in academic math, physics and engineering. It is all due to bias. Case closed. The report calls on Congress to hold hearings on gender bias in the sciences and on federal agencies to "move immediately" (emphasis in original) to apply anti-discrimination laws such as Title IX to academic science (but not English) departments. "The time for action is now."

No it is not. Now is the time for scholars in our universities and in the National Academy of Sciences to defend and support principles of free and objective inquiry. The chronically appalled must not have the last word.


For the full commentary, see:

Christina Hoff Sommers. "Academic Inquisitors." Wall Street Journal (Tues., Oct. 16, 2007): A.20.




February 22, 2008

"Sometimes It Pays to Read the Old Literature"


(p. A1) Researchers in New York believe they have solved one of the great mysteries of the flu: Why does the infection spread primarily in the winter months?

The answer, they say, has to do with the virus itself. It is more stable and stays in the air longer when air is cold and dry, the exact conditions for much of the flu season.

. . .

(p. A22) To his surprise, Dr. Palese stumbled upon a solution that appeared to be a good second best.

Reading a paper published in 1919 in the Journal of the American Medical Association on the flu epidemic at Camp Cody in New Mexico, he came upon a key passage: "It is interesting to note that very soon after the epidemic of influenza reached this camp, our laboratory guinea pigs began to die." At first, the study's authors wrote, they thought the animals had died from food poisoning. But, they continued, "a necropsy on a dead pig revealed unmistakable signs of pneumonia."

Dr. Palese bought some guinea pigs and exposed them to the flu virus. Just as the paper suggested, they got the flu and spread it among themselves. So Dr. Palese and his colleagues began their experiments.

. . .

As for Dr. Palese, he was glad he spotted the journal article that mentioned guinea pigs.

"Sometimes it pays to read the old literature," he said.

 

For the full story, see:

GINA KOLATA. "Study Shows Why the Flu Likes Winter." The New York Times (Weds., December 5, 2007): A1 & A22.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 




February 20, 2008

Government Biologists Spend Big Bucks Protecting Wrong Fish


CutthroatTrout.jpg

"Without DNA tests, the rare greenback cutthroat trout, left, and the Colorado River cutthroat fish are difficult to tell apart." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

 

(p. 26) DENVER, Oct. 13 (AP) -- State and federal biologists, who are smarting from research showing that they may have been protecting the wrong fish the past 20 years, are regrouping in their efforts to restore the rare greenback cutthroat trout to Colorado waters.

Tom Nesler, the state biologist, had hoped to see the fish removed from the endangered species list during his career. He concedes that might not happen if it turns out some of the greenback populations biologists thought they were saving are actually the similar but more common Colorado River cutthroat trout.

A three-year study led by University of Colorado researchers and published in August found that out of nine fish populations believed to be descendants of original greenbacks, five were actually Colorado River cutthroat trout.

The recovery effort was thought to be near its goal of establishing 20 self-sustaining greenback populations.

"Hey, science happens," said Mr. Nesler with a shrug as he discussed the findings.

. . .

The Colorado Division of Wildlife has spent an average of $320,000 annually for the past five years to restore the greenback. Most of the money has come from state lottery revenue; no state tax dollars have been used.

. . .

"Science is not about proof and certainty," he said, "it's about testable hypotheses."

 

For the full story, see:

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. "After Possible 'Oops,' a Trout Rescue Project Regroups." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., October 14, 2007): 26.

(Note: ellipses added.)

 




February 15, 2008

Private Money Supports Quest for Dinosaur DNA

 

   Source of graphic: the online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

 

(p. A1)  JORDAN, Mont. -- Prospecting in Montana's badlands, rock ax in hand, paleontologist Jack Horner picks up a piece of the jawbone of a dinosaur. He examines the splinter, then puts it back and moves on. It isn't the kind of bone he is looking for.

Prof. Horner is searching for something that many scientists believe no longer exists: dinosaur bones that harbor blood cells, protein and, perhaps, even DNA.

"Most people looking for dinosaurs are looking for beautiful skeletons," he says. "We are looking for information."

. . .  

Prof. Horner, a curator at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, is among the world's most influential and offbeat paleontologists. He pioneered studies of dinosaur parent-(p. A12)ing behavior, species variation and bone cells. He is dyslexic, a former Special Forces operative of the Vietnam War era, a MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellow, and a chaired professor of Montana State University who never finished a formal college degree.

"The lenses that people normally use to look at stuff are broken in Jack," says Mary Schweitzer, an assistant professor of paleontology at North Carolina State University, who has worked with him for years. "That's what makes Jack such a good scientist. Every now and then, every field should get a renegade weirdo in it who challenges assumptions."

. . .  

"The chances of finding any [dinosaur] DNA are pretty low," Prof. Horner acknowledges. "I am still hopeful."

In a field mostly outside the mainstream of federal research funding, Prof. Horner has a knack for attracting private grants. Star Wars producer George Lucas, Qualcomm co-founder Klein Gilhousen and Wade Dokken, a developer of Montana real estate, have contributed toward his research, the university says. Nathan Myhrvold, formerly chief technology officer at Microsoft Corp. and co-founder of Intellectual Ventures LLC, is helping to underwrite this season's fieldwork.

This summer, in Montana's Hell Creek Formation, Prof. Horner is searching the last landscape inhabited by dinosaurs. More than 65 million years ago, this plain was a wetland where herds of horned Triceratops watered. Today, it is an arid outwash of boulders, cactus and sage. The red and gray soil is littered with white shards of petrified wood that ring like bone china when tapped together and countless crumbs of dinosaur bone.

. . .

"As long as you are not bound by preconceived ideas of what you can find," Prof. Horner says, "there are an awful lot of things you can discover."

 

For the full story, see:

ROBERT LEE HOTZ. "Dinosaur Hunter Seeks More Than Just Bare Bones; Prof. Horner Searches For Traces of Blood, DNA; Lucky Break From T. Rex."  The Wall Street Journal  (Fri., August 24, 2007):  A1 & A12.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

  

     At top, Prof. Horner; at bottom: "Sarah Keenan, 21, an undergraduate at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland who is working this summer for Prof. Horner, covers the fossilized triceratops frill in a protective jacket of plaster."  Source of caption and photos: the online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.

 




January 29, 2008

Marconi Matters

 

    Source of book image:  http://palmaddict.typepad.com/photos/uncategorized/big_larsonthunderstruckdrm_1.jpg

 

Larson's book plays off a murder mystery against Marconi as the innovator who brought us communication through the air. 

I'm most enthused about hte Marconi part.  It shows how he proceeded against the theorists of the day, whose theories told them that what he was trying to do was impossible.  He was more entrepreneur, than scientist.  And it turned out that it was a good thing that the theoretical scientists did not rule, as they might if all decisions about technology were made by the government.

What happened here is an example of what Taleb would call a Black Swan.

 

Source:

Larson, Erik. Thunderstruck. New York: Crown, 2006.

 




Marconi Matters

 

    Source of book image:  http://palmaddict.typepad.com/photos/uncategorized/big_larsonthunderstruckdrm_1.jpg

 

Larson's book plays off a murder mystery against Marconi as the innovator who brought us communication through the air. 

I'm most enthused about hte Marconi part.  It shows how he proceeded against the theorists of the day, whose theories told them that what he was trying to do was impossible.  He was more entrepreneur, than scientist.  And it turned out that it was a good thing that the theoretical scientists did not rule, as they might if all decisions about technology were made by the government.

What happened here is an example of what Taleb would call a Black Swan.

 

Source:

Larson, Erik. Thunderstruck. New York: Crown, 2006.

 




November 7, 2007

Entrepreneur Venter Advances Toward Useful Control of Cells

 

   Source of graphic:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

 

Scientists at the institute directed by J. Craig Venter, a pioneer in sequencing the human genome, are reporting that they have successfully transplanted the genome of one species of bacteria into another, an achievement they see as a major step toward creating synthetic forms of life.

Other scientists who did not participate in the research praised the achievement, published yesterday on the Web site of the journal Science. But some expressed skepticism that it was as significant as Dr. Venter said.

His goal is to make cells that might take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and produce methane, used as a feedstock for other fuels. Such an achievement might reduce dependency on fossil fuels and strike a blow at global warming.

“We look forward to having the first fuels from synthetic biology certainly within the decade and possibly in half that time,” he said.

Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, said the transplantation technique, which leads to the transferred genome’s taking over the host cell, was “a landmark accomplishment.”

“It represents the complete reprogramming of an organism using only a chemical entity,” Dr. Ebright said.

Leroy Hood, a pioneer of the closely related field of systems biology, said Dr. Venter’s report was “a really marvelous kind of technical feat” but just one of a long series of steps required before synthetic chromosomes could be put to use in living cells.

 

For the full story, see: 

NICHOLAS WADE. "Pursuing Synthetic Life, Scientists Transplant Genome of Bacteria."  The New York Times   (Fri., June 29, 2007):  A1 & A18.

 

VenterCraig.jpg   J. Craig Venter.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

 




September 4, 2007

Astronauts (and the Rest of Us) Would Benefit from More Unscripted Time

 

Noctilucent clouds.  Source of photo:  http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/image/9907/noctilucent_pp.jpg

 

The excerpt below is from a WSJ summary of an article from the  June 2007 issue of Seed.

 

Many other scientific discoveries have come from astronauts puzzling over strange sights around them. Most of what is known about so-called noctilucent clouds -- thin, beautiful wisps that hover at the edge of the Earth's atmosphere -- comes from 30 years of astronauts sketching and trying to photograph them in their spare time. The strength of a certain type of cosmic ray was first recognized in 1969 when Buzz Aldrin asked fellow astronauts if they, like him, were seeing occasional streaks of light when their eyes were closed.

Such discoveries off the beaten path of the National Aeronautic and Space Administration's research agenda prompt the question attributed to an Apollo program geologist: "If human beings can do much better science than robots, why does NASA make its astronauts do science like robots?"

 

For the full summary, see: 

"Informed Reader; SCIENCE; Why Astronauts Need Down Time in Space."  The Wall Street Journal (Weds., May 9, 2007):  B15.

 




August 11, 2007

Easily Available Capital and Technology Lower Barriers to Entry in Oil Industry

 

CobaltOilDataAnalysis.jpg   "Cobalt scientists analyze data to help pinpoint oil deposits."  Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

(p. 1)  HOUSTON.  JOSEPH H. BRYANT, still boyish-looking at 51, jostles with glee among tens of thousands of people here at the Offshore Technology Conference, one of the energy industry’s biggest trade fairs. He is surrounded by newfangled technologies occupying more than half a million square feet of display space: drills stuffed with electronic sensors, underwater wells shaped like Christmas trees, mini-submarines and pipes, pumps, tubes, gauges, valves and gadgets galore.

“There is every little gizmo you need to make this business work,” Mr. Bryant says, joyously. He stops at a plastic model of an offshore oil rig, an exact replica of a huge platform he commissioned while running BP’s business in Angola a few years ago. “I love this stuff.”

Like the pieces of a giant puzzle, the parts showcased here could fit together and build an oil company — and that’s exactly what Mr. Bryant set out to do two years ago after a 30-year career directing energy projects for the likes of Amoco, Unocal and BP. With a team composed largely of retired energy executives, he wants to hunt for oil in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico or offshore West Africa, challenging Big Oil in its own backyard.

The American oil patch, once left to languish during an extended period of low oil prices, is on the rebound. Wildcatters like Mr. Bryant are ready to pounce. With oil prices now hovering around $60 a barrel — three times higher than they were throughout the 1990s — the industry is expanding at a pace last seen decades ago.

“The oil industry has changed dramatically in the last 20 years,” Mr. Bryant says. “Barriers to entry have dropped significantly. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in the business 100 years or 100 days.”

Easily available capital and technology, once the preserve of traditional oil companies, are reordering the business. Investors are lining up to finance energy projects while leaps in computing power, imaging tech-(p. 7)nology and collaborative online networks now allow the smallest entities to compete on an equal footing with the biggest players.

“There’s a lot of money out there looking for opportunities,” said John Schaeffer, the head of the oil and gas unit at GE Energy Financial Services. “It seems like everyone wants to own an oil well now.”

Still, oil exploration remains a costly business fraught with peril. While the odds have improved, success is elusive; three-quarters of all exploration wells come up dry, either because there is no oil or because geologists miss its exact location. All of which means that Mr. Bryant’s start-up, Cobalt International Energy, which plans to begin drilling next year, faces formidable hurdles.

“There’s no sugar-coating this — at the end of the day, it’s a high risk venture,” Mr. Bryant says. “Financially, we’re definitely wildcatting. It’s either all or nothing.”

 

For the full story, see: 

JAD MOUAWADA.  "Wildcatter Pounces; Oil Riches Lure the Entrepreneurs."  The New York Times, Section 3  (Sun., May 20, 2007):  1 & 7.

 

 BryantJosephOilWildcatter.jpg   Wildcatter entrepreneur "Joseph H. Bryant started Cobalt."  Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article cited above.

 




August 3, 2007

Beebe's "Colleagues Reacted Coolly"

 

    Photos of strange deep sea creatures.  Source of photos:  online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

When, more than 70 years ago, William Beebe became the first scientist to descend into the abyss, he described a world of twinkling lights, silvery eels, throbbing jellyfish, living strings as “lovely as the finest lace” and lanky monsters with needlelike teeth.

“It was stranger than any imagination could have conceived,” he wrote in “Half Mile Down” (Harcourt Brace, 1934). “I would focus on some one creature and just as its outlines began to be distinct on my retina, some brilliant, animated comet or constellation would rush across the small arc of my submarine heaven and every sense would be distracted, and my eyes would involuntarily shift to this new wonder.”

Beebe sketched some of the creatures, because no camera of the day was able to withstand the rigors of the deep and record the nuances of this cornucopia of astonishments.

Colleagues reacted coolly. Some accused Beebe of exaggeration. One reviewer suggested that his heavy breathing had fogged the window of the submarine vessel, distorting the undersea views.

Today, the revolution in lights, cameras, electronics and digital photography is revealing a world that is even stranger than the one that Beebe struggled to describe.

The images arrayed here come from “The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss” (University of Chicago Press, 2007), by Claire Nouvian, a French journalist and film director.

. . .

Beebe, who ran the tropical research department at the New York Zoological Society, surely had intimations of what lay beyond the oceanic door he had opened. “The Deep” brings much of that dark landscape to light, even while noting that a vast majority of the planet’s largest habitat remains unexamined, awaiting a new generation of explorers. 

 

For the full story, see: 

WILLIAM J. BROAD.  "Mysteries to Behold in the Dark Down Deep: Seadevils and Species Unknown."  The New York Times  (Tues.,  May 22, 2007):  D3.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

 

    "A Ping-Pong tree sponge."  Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article cited above.

 




July 29, 2007

A Public Choice Theory of "Taxonomic Inflation"

 

The excerpt below is from a WSJ summary of an article that appeared in The Economist on May 19, 2007.

 

Scientists have taken to upgrading animals once thought to be subspecies into full-fledged species, in what the Economist says is an overzealous attempt to boost conservation of seemingly rare animals.

Sometimes, the reclassification of animals into their own species category is warranted, as new research reveals once-obscured markers that differentiate certain beasts. But lately, the weekly says, primatologists have been suffering from "taxonomic inflation."

. . .

. . .   One reason is that by fragmenting animal groups, the number of rare species increases, boosting animal-conservation claims.  At the same time, having a greater number of species boosts the chances that a habitat can pursue a legal designation as a protected area.

 

For the full summary, see: 

"Informed Reader; NATURE; Species Inflation May Infect Over-Eager Conservationists."  The Wall Street Journal  (Sat., May 19, 2007):  A6.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

 




July 17, 2007

Nonprofits Often Fund Risky, but Useful, Research that is Shunned by Government

 

The following excerpt from a summary of a May 17th Nature article, has a message that complements what I found in a paper published a couple of years ago (see the reference at the bottom of this entry).

 

Do charities like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation produce better medical research than institutions supported by the government?

. . .

. . . , some scientists believe philanthropies make better use of that $5 billion than corporations or governments, says Nature's Meredith Wadman. Many researchers have stories about nonprofits who rescued risky but useful projects that had been shunned by government-backed institutions. Charities can make decisions more quickly and can take bigger risks. Philanthropists also tend to closely monitor their investments and want the satisfaction of a mission accomplished.

 

For the full summary, see: 

"Informed Reader; PHILANTHROPY; Do Charities Outdo Research By Federal-Backed Agencies?"  The Wall Street Journal  (May 18, 2007):  B6. 

(Note:  ellipses added.)

The reference to the Nature article is: 

Meredith Wadman.  "Biomedical philanthropy: State of the donation."  Nature  447, (May 17, 2007):  248 - 250. 

 

My related paper is:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr.  "The Relative Success of Private Funders and Government Funders in Funding Important Science."  The European Journal of Law and Economics 21, no. 2 (April 2006): 149-61.

 




May 16, 2007

DNA Scientist-Entrepreneur Venter at Sea

VenterSeaMap.jpg   The projected path of Venter's Sorcerer II ship in collecting sea organisms.  Source of map:  http://scrippsnews.ucsd.edu/Releases/?releaseID=706

 

Craig Venter's private gene-sequencing effort beat the government's effort.  His new research is being funded by a $24.5 million private grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.  (For more information beyond the WSJ article excerpted below, see the Scripps Institution of Oceanography press release.)

 

(p. B1)  Marine microbes are among the most abundant life form on the planet and among the most mysterious. Now, results from the first phase of a global expedition are expected to provide a glimpse into this long-hidden world while potentially leading to new drugs and even fighting climate change.

Craig Venter, the brash biologist who helped crack the human genome seven years ago, says he and other scientists have used DNA-analysis techniques to discover millions of new genes and thousands of new proteins in ocean microbes. These microscopic life forms are mainly bacteria and organisms known as archaea.

"Everything we've seen is a surprise," Mr. Venter said in a phone interview from his marine research vessel, Sorcerer II, in the Sea of Cortez. The unexpected variety of microbial DNA he's found overturns earlier notions that the oceans are a homogenous soup of bacteria and other microscopic life. The details are being published today in the Public Library of Science Biology, an Internet-based scientific journal.

A diverse supply of microbial DNA from the oceans could be a rich lode for scientists. Drug companies are hunting for new compounds in sea creatures, especially to attack cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. The new data will also allow researchers to compare the DNA of oceanic bacteria to the genetic code of microorganisms that cause human disease.

"This is the largest DNA sequence ever obtained, and the magnitude of what's being done is entirely unparalleled," said Douglas Bartlett, professor of marine microbiology at the University of California, San Diego, who isn't involved in Dr. Venter's project. Marine microbes "have all kind of metabolic activity. It is expected that [Dr. Venter's team] will discover new pathways for making drugs and treating infectious disease."

 

For the full story, see: 

GAUTAM NAIK.  "Seafaring Scientist Sees Rich Promise In Tiny Organisms."  The Wall Street Journal  (Tues., March 13, 2007):  B1 & B5.

 

   Photo on left shows Venter (on left) on his Socerer II research ship.  Photo on right shows a slide of sea bacteria collected by Venter.  Source of photos:  http://scrippsnews.ucsd.edu/Releases/?releaseID=706

 




May 9, 2007

To the Ultimate Luddites: "Build Coffins, That's All You'll Need"

   Charlton Heston as Robert Neville, the last scientist on earth.  Source of photo:  http://datacore.sciflicks.com/the_omega_man/images/the_omega_man_large_09.jpg

 

In the 1970s, one of my favorite films was "The Omega Man" (1971) starring Charlton Heston as the doctor/scientist who was the last healthy man on earth.  A plague had killed most of humanity, leaving a few in a demented "tertiary" condition.  Heston as "Robert Neville" had developed a vaccine, but only had been able to test it on himself, as the world collapsed.  

Those in the "tertiary" state had been organized by a former broadcast commentator named "Matthias" into the "family" whose goal it was to burn books, and destroy all remnants of science and technology. 

At one point near the end, the family captures Neville, and as the family destroys Neville's paintings, and laboratory, Matthias rants that Neville is the last scientist, the last remnant of the old world, and that all will be well when they have destroyed him.  Then comes one of my favorite exchanges.

 

Matthias: Now we must build.

Robert Neville: Build coffins, that's all you'll need.

 

When I saw the movie again today (3/16/07) for the first time in decades, I was worried that I had built it up in my memory, and that the reality would be way disappointing. 

I was relieved to see that the movie, though not perfect, was still plenty good enough.

 




March 26, 2007

Bush Should Take Lab Coat Off

Decisions about which new technologies to develop should be left to the market, not the government.  One reason is that markets generally make the more efficient choice.  Another reason is that when technological risks are taken in the market, they are taken with voluntary private money; when risks are taken by the government, they are taken with your money that has been coerced from you through taxation.

With all due respect, President Bush should take the lab coat off. 

  

(p. A16) FRANKLINTON, N.C., Feb. 22 — President Bush put on a white coat and visited a laboratory here Thursday to promote his goals for making alternative fuels from switch grass, woodchips and other plant waste.

After touring the laboratory, which is developing enzymes to make cellulosic ethanol, fuel distilled from plant byproducts, Mr. Bush spoke buoyantly about new technologies that may reduce the nation’s thirst for foreign oil.

 

For the full story, see: 

EDMUND L. ANDREWS.  "Bush Makes a Pitch for Amber Waves of Homegrown Fuel."  The New York Times  (Fri., February 23, 2007):  A16. 

 




January 29, 2007

Empirical Science at Its Best


   Source of book image:  http://images.barnesandnoble.com/images/11460000/11468284.jpg

 

I have not yet read The Ghost Map, but from the review excerpted below, it sounds like a wonderful book.  One lesson from the book appears to be that much good can come from a careful collection of evidence, and that much harm can come from sticking to a theory in spite of the evidence.  It is also interesting that in this tale, the villain turns out to be the advocate of public works, whose good intentions resulted in much death and suffering. 

 

(p. P8) The sociology of error is a wonderful subject. Some university ought to endow a chair in it -- and then make Steven Johnson the first professor. Mr. Johnson last provoked the public with his counterintuitive polemic "Everything Bad Is Good For You," in which he argued that TV and videogames actually improve our cognitive skills. In "The Ghost Map" he tells the story of how for 30 years and more the medical establishment in Victorian London refused to accept what was staring them in the face, namely that cholera was a waterborne disease.

Thousands of Londoners died while doctors and public-health officials stubbornly clung to the view that the plague was an airborne miasma that hung in the foul atmosphere of the slums and was inhaled by the wretched creatures who lived there. Every kind of cure was proposed: opium, linseed oil and hot compresses, smoke, castor oil, brandy -- everything but the simple, obvious remedy of rehydration, which reduces the otherwise fatal disease to a bad case of diarrhea.

The fact that the cholera toxin tricks the cells in the lining of the colon into expelling water at a terrifying rate (victims have been known to lose 30% of their body weight in a matter of hours) should surely have alerted someone to the possibility that putting this Niagara back into the body might be worth trying. Only one doctor, Thomas Latta, hit upon the answer, in 1832, just a few months after the first outbreak ever in Britain. His mistake was not to inject enough salty water, and his lone initiative was soon overwhelmed by the brainless babble of the quacks.

Chief among the villains of Mr. Johnson's unputdownable tale was the man whom we were brought up to revere as the father of public sanitation, Edwin Chadwick. This dour, tactless, unpopular reformer laid the foundations for all the government interventions in public health that we now take for granted. Yet in this story he labored under not one but two illusions that proved catastrophic.

. . .

With the austere teetotaller and vegetarian Dr. Snow and his devoted helper in the Soho slums, the Rev. Henry Whitehead, "The Ghost Map" gains not one but two heroes. Patiently they mapped the patterns of victims and survivors and narrowed down the most likely source of the cholera plague to the Broad Street pump. But even after the pump handle was removed so that Londoners could no longer fill their buckets there and the illness subsided, the miasmatists were not convinced. Snow then tramped the streets of Battersea and Vauxhall to demonstrate that those who had their water from higher up the Thames, above the reach of the tide, remained unharmed, while those who took it from the foul tidewater perished in the hundreds. This was no easy task, since the pattern of water pipes under London's houses was as tangled as the pattern of Internet service providers are today.

Why did it take so long? Because mapping epidemics was only in its infancy, though Snow's famous map was not quite the first. Because the questions that Chadwick's public-health board researched were self-fulfilling, all having to do with the smells and personal habits of the poor and not with the water they drank. The researchers mistook correlation for causation: Nobody died on the high ground of Hampstead, where the air was purer, therefore higher was safer -- or so it seemed until a Mrs. Eley, who had retired thither, arranged to receive a jugful of water from her beloved Broad Street pump and got cholera.

But above all Chadwick and his crew were certain of themselves because the stench of the slums was so utterly disgusting and because smell acts so powerfully on our imaginations. Only the most careful and dispassionate investigators were free of the obsession with stench. Henry Mayhew, for example, noted in his "London Labour and the London Poor" (1851) that sewer-hunters, who scavenged deep underground knee-deep in muck, lived to a ripe old age. The Great Stink of 1858, which finally persuaded the government to commission Sir Joseph Bazalgette to lay down the magnificent network of sewers that have lasted to this day, did not kill a single Londoner -- yet still Chadwick did not believe.

 

For the full review, see: 

FERDINAND MOUNT.  "BOOKS; Lost in a Time of Cholera; How a doctor's search solved the mystery of an epidemic in Victorian London."  The Wall Street Journal   (Sat., October 21, 2006):  P8.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

 

The reference to the book is:

Johnson, Steven. The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. New York: Riverhead Books, 2006.  299 pages, $26.95

 

SnowJohn.jpg   Dr. John Snow.  Source of photo:  online version of the WSJ article cited above.

ChadwickEdwin.jpg   Edwin Chadwick.  Source of photo:  online version of the WSJ article cited above.

 




January 13, 2007

Feynman on Viking Evidence of No Life on Mars

 

Based on the Viking tests, astronomers concluded that there probably was no life on Mars.  Begley (2006) documents the recent research showing that applying the Viking tests to earth, results in the conclusion that there is no life on earth, either.  Once again, Feynman was way ahead of his time:

  

(p. 204)  We like to sit down and talk about how different things could be from what we expected; take the Viking landers on Mars, for example, we were trying to think how many ways there could be life that they couldn't find with that equipment. 

 

Source: 

Feynman, Richard P. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman. New York: Perseus Books, 1999.

(Note:  italics in original.)

 

The reference on the Begley article:

Begley, Sharon. "Science Journal; Scientists Revisit Data on Mars with Minds More Open to 'Life'." The Wall Street Journal  (Fri., October 27, 2006):  B1.

 




January 8, 2007

"Drawing the Best Minds into a Whirlpool of Mathematical Solipsism"

TroubleWithPhysicsBK.gif   Source of book image:  http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/catalog/titledetail.cfm?titleNumber=689539

 

Physicists rightly feel uneasy about descriptions of the physical world that divide it into discrete clusters of equations and axioms, each cluster explaining one part of existence but not another.  Better would be finding a Theory of Everything capable of conjoining, in a few equations, planet-pulling gravitation and the microcosmic weirdness that goes on in the quantum world of atoms and particles.  Physicists would like to stitch time and space together as well.

Einstein tried and failed.  In recent years, "string theory" has been the favored means of attempting to tie everything together, but it has unraveled into mathematical frippery, positing ever more intricate elaborations extending into anywhere from 10 to 26 dimensions, some arising from themselves, some hidden in ways so baroquely scrolled that you can get a migraine just thinking about thinking about them.  Little wonder that, as an experimental science, string theory seems to have nowhere to go.

That is the problem that Lee Smolin identifies in "The Trouble With Physics."  He laments a kind of sociological imperative drawing the best minds into a whirlpool of mathematical solipsism.

 

For the full review, see:

RUSSELL SEITZ.  "BOOKS; Untangling the Knots in String Theory."  The Wall Street Journal  (Sat., December 2, 2006):  P9.

 

The reference to the book under review, is: 

Lee Smolin.  The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next.  Houghton Mifflin, 2006.  (392 pages, $26)

 




December 30, 2006

Feynman: Nothing in Biology Requires Us to Die

   Source of book image: http://stochastix.wordpress.com/files/2006/08/the-pleasure-of-finding-things-out.gif

 

(p. 100)  It is one of the most remarkable things that in all of the biological sciences there is no clue as to the necessity of death.  If you say we want to make perpetual motion, we have discovered enough laws as we studied physics to see that it is either absolutely impossible or else the laws are wrong.  But there is nothing in biology yet found that indicates the inevitability of death.  This suggests to me that it is not at all inevitable, and that it is only a matter of time before the biologists discover what it is that is causing us the trouble and that that terrible universal disease or temporariness of the human's body will be cured.   

 

Source: 

Feynman, Richard P.  The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman.  New York:  Perseus Books, 1999.

 




December 24, 2006

Publishing Pretty Papers Full of Clever Mathematical Tricks

  Source of book image:  http://images.amazon.com/images/P/0738203491.01.LZZZZZZZ.jpg

 

In his elegant and thoughtful foreward, physicist, futurist, and guru Freeman Dyson writes:

(p. viii)  Before I met Feynman, I had published a number of mathematical papers, full of clever tricks but totally lacking in im-(p. ix)portance.  When I met Feynman, I knew at once that I had entered another world.  He was not interested in publishing pretty papers.  He was struggling, more intensely than I had ever seen anyone struggle, to understand the workings of nature by rebuilding physics from the bottom up.   

 

The reference to the book, is:

Feynman, Richard P. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman. New York: Perseus Books, 1999.




December 19, 2006

Feynman: What Biology Needs is Not More Math, But to See Better at the Atomic Level

A very bright, and very mathematically competent, fellow, grants that math is not the source of all knowledge.  So is economics more like physics, or more like biology? 

 

(p. 124)  We have friends in other fields--in biology, for instance.  We physicists often look at them and say, "You know the reason you fellows are making so little progress?"  (Actually I don't know any field where they are making more rapid progress than they are in biology today.)  "You should use more mathematics, like we do."  They could answer us--but they're so polite, so I'll answer for them:  "What you should do in order for us to make more rapid progress is to make the electron microscope 100 times better."

What are the most central and fundamental problems of biology today?  They are questions like:  What is the sequence of bases in the DNA?  What happens when you have a mutation?  How is the base order in the DNA connected to the order of amino acids in the protein?  What is the structure of the RNA:  is it a single-chain or double-chain, and how is it related in its order of bases to the DNA?  What is (p. 125) the organization of the microsomes?  How are proteins synthesized?  Where does the RNA go?  How does it sit?  Where do the proteins sit?  Where do the amino acids go in?  In photosynthesis, where is the chlorophyll; how is it arranged; where are the carotenoids involved in this thing?  What is the system of the conversion of light into chemical energy?

It is very easy to answer many of these fundamental biological questions; you just look at the thing!  You will see the order of bases in the chain; you will see the structure of the microsome.  Unfortunately, the present microscope sees at a scale which is just a bit too crude.  Make the microscope one hundred times more powerful, and many problems of biology would be made very much easier.  I exaggerate, of course, but the biologists would surely be very thankful to you--and they would prefer that to the criticism that they should use more mathematics.

 

Source:

Feynman, Richard P.  The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman.  New York:  Perseus Books, 1999.

 




September 27, 2006

"Crystal Fire" Gives Insights on Birth of the Transistor

  Source of book image:  http://www.etedeschi.ndirect.co.uk/homecompbiblio.htm

 

Crystal Fire is a well-written book which highlights many important aspects of the birth of computers.  Not a perfect book---I could have done with a few less details about personal information, like who liked to play bridge and poker, and whose mother was a frustrated artist, and the like.

On the good side, they note how transistors were originally designed to replace vacuum tubes.  The eventual main applications, as memory and processor chips in computers, only came later.  (Another application of Fubini's Law.)

They have a nice discussion of how American science was applied, versus the pure theory of the Germans.  (E.g., to the Germans, some key phenomena leading to transistors, were dismissed as "dirt effects" (pp. 74 & 78).)  The whole episode is a good example of the claim (see Terence Kealey) that very good science can come out of 'industrial' labs. 

They also have a good example of serendipity, in the discussion of the strange chunk of silicon with unusual conductivity properties (circa p. 95).  Reading this episode, it occurred to me that one key enabler of serendipitous discoveries is a scientist or engineer who is carrying around a problem, to which the serendipitous discovery is a solution.  Buddhists need not apply---to carry around problems, you need to be dissatisfied--a milder version of what Tom Peters describes as 'innovation coming from pissed-off people'  (see his Re-Imagine!)

 

Citation to the book:

Riordan, Michael, and Lillian Hoddeson.  Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age, Sloan Technology Series: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.

 




September 3, 2006

"If Ethanol Made Economic Sense, It Wouldn't Need a Subsidy"

 

  Source of graphics:  online version of the World-Herald article cited below.

 

(p. 1D)  LINCOLN - David Pimentel, a Cornell University researcher, has been criticized repeatedly since he questioned the energy value of ethanol in 1980.

In a government-funded report, he suggested that ethanol provides less energy than is used to produce it.  Even though that report has been disputed and rejected by other analysts, Pimentel has not backed down.

He said last week that rural developers, farmers and investors will rue the day they put their money, hopes and dreams into the corn-based alternative fuel.

"It is too bad," he said in an interview, "because it would be a tremendous asset to agriculture if this were a true winner."

Pimentel is among the public critics who raise red flags as momentum gathers for dramatic increases in production, especially in the nation's top two ethanol-producing states:  Iowa and Nebraska.

While Pimentel is perhaps the expert most often quoted - in part because he presented his analysis more than 25 years ago - others also raise questions about the energy value of ethanol and its economic benefits and environmental effects.

Ethanol backers defend the fuel as a viable way to help stabilize the nation's fuel supply.  But they haven't convinced Jerry Taylor, an energy policy specialist for the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.

"If ethanol made economic sense, it wouldn't need a subsidy," Taylor said.

 

For the full story, see:

BILL HORD.  "High-octane Clash."  Omaha World-Herald  (Sunday, August 6, 2006):  1D-2D.

 

  Source of graphics:  online version of the World-Herald article cited above.

 




August 24, 2006

"Financial Incentives Can Change the Way Medicine is Practiced"


        An angioplasty being performed in Eyria, Ohio.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

Medicare patients in Elyria receive angioplasties at a rate nearly four times the national average . . .

. . .

. . . some outside experts say they are concerned that Elyria is an example, albeit an extreme one, of how medical decisions in this country can be influenced by financial incentives and professional training more than by solid evidence of what works best for a particular patient.

“People are rewarded for erring on the side of an aggressive, highly expensive intervention,” said Dr. Elliott S. Fisher, a researcher at Dartmouth Medical School, which analyzed Medicare data and found Elyria to be an outlier.

Medicare pays Elyria’s community hospital, EMH Regional Medical Center, about $11,000 for an angioplasty involving use of a drug-coated stent.

The cardiologist might be paid an additional $800 for the work.  That is well above the fees for seeing patients in the office.  And with the North Ohio doctors performing thousands of angioplasties a year — about 3,400 in 2004, for example — the dollars can quickly add up.

Some medical experts say Elyria’s high rate of angioplasties — three times the rate of Cleveland, just 30 miles away — raises the question of whether some patients may be getting procedures they do not need or whether some could have been treated just as effectively and at lower cost and less risk through heart drugs that may cost only several hundred dollars a year.

. . .

Experts know that changing the financial incentives can change the way medicine is practiced.

For example, Kaiser Permanente, the big health system that employs its own doctors, says its patients in Ohio, including some in Elyria, are slightly less likely than the national average to undergo the type of cardiac procedures the North Ohio Heart Center doctors perform so prolifically.

Kaiser’s cardiologists, who work on salary instead of being paid by the procedure, typically treat patients in that region at the Cleveland Clinic, where they have hospital privileges.  And they follow established protocols about when a patient should undergo an angioplasty, when drugs might suffice and when bypass surgery might be the best resort.

“It’s not just individual doctors making up their minds,” explained Dr. Ronald L. Copeland, the executive medical director for Kaiser’s medical group in Ohio.  With no financial reason to perform expensive procedures, the Kaiser doctors frequently choose to manage the patients’ heart disease with drugs only.  “Our doctors have no disincentive to do that,” Dr. Copeland said.

. . .

For many cardiologists, the natural tendency when they see a patient with heart disease is to perform a procedure to try to clear arterial blockages.  And patients, cardiologists say, tend to rely on their doctors’ judgment.

“It’s sort of like, you go to a barber and ask if you need a haircut,” said Dr. David D. Waters, chief of cardiology at San Francisco General Hospital, who is currently studying the effectiveness of different kinds of treatment for heart disease.  “He’s likely to say you do.”

. . .

Experts say it can be difficult to detect cases in which doctors cross a medical line and are clearly performing unnecessary treatments.

“A lot of decisions are discretionary,” said Dr. Harlan M. Krumholz, a cardiologist and professor at Yale.

“It’s about where the thermostat is set,” he said, arguing that doctors in a particular geographic area tend to be unaware if the way they are treating their patients is markedly different from the practices of their peers in other areas.

Traditional measures of medical quality are not set up to detect whether patients are being treated too much, he said, unlike the kinds of safeguards that prompt credit card companies to call their customers to discuss unusual spending activity.  “Right now there are no ‘smart’ systems in place,” Dr. Krumholz said.

In the absence of any real monitoring or oversight, doctors in most places, including Elyria, have few incentives not to favor the treatments that provide them the most reimbursement.  Dr. Waters, the San Francisco cardiologist, said that the way physicians are typically paid — more money for more procedures — results in too many decisions to give a patient a stent.

“You can’t be paying people large sums of money to do things without checks and balances,” he said.

 

For the full story, see:

REED ABELSON.  "In Ohio City, a Heart Procedure Is Off the Charts; SIDE EFFECTS; A Stent Epidemic."  The New York Times  (Fri., August 18, 2006):  A1 & C4.

 

Source of graphic:    online version of the NYT article cited above.




August 2, 2006

Life Has Improved; And Can Continue to Improve

 Source of graphic:  online version of the NYT article cited below. 

 

(p. 1)  New research from around the world has begun to reveal a picture of humans today that is so different from what it was in the past that scientists say they are startled.  Over the past 100 years, says one researcher, Robert W. Fogel of the University of Chicago, humans in the industrialized world have undergone “a form of evolution that is unique not only to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of humans who have ever inhabited the earth.”

. . .

(p. 19)  . . .  stressful occupations added to the burden on the body.

People would work until they died or were so disabled that they could not continue, Dr. Fogel said. “In 1890, nearly everyone died on the job, and if they lived long enough not to die on the job, the average age of retirement was 85,” he said. Now the average age is 62.

A century ago, most people were farmers, laborers or artisans who were exposed constantly to dust and fumes, Dr. Costa said. “I think there is just this long-term scarring.”

 

For the full story, see:

Health1860s1994.gif Source of graphic:  online version of the NYT article cited above. 

HealthCivilWarAndNow.gif EscapeFromHungerAndPrematureDeath1700-2100BK.jpg  Source of graphic:  online version of the NYT article cited above.  Source of book image:  http://www.cambridge.org/us/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=0521808782

 

Fogel's book is a primary academic source for much of what is interesting in the New York Times article.  Fogel predicts that if we don't screw things up, half of today's college students will live to be 100.  He shows that academics in the past have consistently and significantly underestimated the maximum lifespans that would be attainable in the future.

The full reference for the Fogel book is:

Fogel, Robert William. The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100, Cambridge Studies in Population, Economy and Society in Past Time. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

 




July 12, 2006

Test That Showed No Life on Mars, Now Also Shows No Life on Earth, Either

  One of the Viking landers on Mars.  Source of photo:  http://www.msss.com/mars/pictures/viking_lander/viking_lander.html

 

When scientists announced Monday that the search for life on Mars 30 years ago may not have been quite the bust it has long been portrayed, it didn't mean that the mission had missed any microorganisms, let alone advanced life forms.  But it did underline the growing sense that decades of assumptions about extraterrestrial life need serious re-examination.

In 1976, scientists studying data sent back by the Viking landers were quick to dismiss life on Mars.  . . .

. . .

Some three decades later, more-sophisticated instruments have shown that the Vikings couldn't have detected organic molecules even if any were present.  When scientists fed soil from the Atacama Desert of Chile and Peru, and the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, experiments like those the Vikings conducted came up empty.  Yet, new techniques show the samples contained 10 to 1,500 micrograms of carbon per gram.

"If we knew this 30 years ago, our interpretation of the Viking results would have been very different," says Rafael Navarro-González of Mexico's National Autonomous University, who led the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

 

For the full story, see: 

SHARON BEGLEY.  "SCIENCE JOURNAL; Scientists Revisit Data On Mars With Minds More Open to 'Life'."  The Wall Street Journal  (Fri., October 27, 2006):  B1.

 

 




June 19, 2006

"giving individual schools more autonomy"

(p. A1)  SAN DIEGO -- When San Diego's school district began overhauling its science-education curriculum five years ago, it wanted to raise the performance of minority, low-income and immigrant students.

But parents in middle- and upper-income areas, where many students were already doing well, rebelled against the new curriculum, and a course called Active Physics in particular.  They called it watered-down science, too skimpy on math.

A resistance movement took hold.  Some teachers refused to use the new textbooks, which are peppered with cartoons.  They gathered up phased-out texts to use on the sly.  As controversy over the issue escalated, it played a part in an election in which the majority of the school board was replaced.  Now, further curriculum changes are under consideration.

. . .

(p. A11)  Mitz Lee, a parent activist at Scripps Ranch High, also a high-achieving school, continued quietly organizing opposition and eventually made it a cornerstone of her 2004 campaign for a seat on the school board.

Opposition to the program remained sharp among some veteran science teachers.  Tom Deets, who teaches at Patrick Henry High, argued that freshman who hadn't passed eighth-grade algebra weren't ready for physics.  Rather than teach the new course, he switched to math until the district offered him an administrative job.

Aiming to keep their hands on alternative teaching materials, an active underground sprang up, with teachers squirreling away old physics textbooks to make sure the district couldn't collect them.  "At one time, I probably had 400 books," says Hal Cox, a retired submarine commander who teaches physics at Hoover High School.  "I put them in lockers, everywhere I could find."

The opposition came to a head with the school-board elections of 2004, when three critics of the district's overall curriculum changes, including those in math and reading, were elected to its five-member school board.  The winners included Ms. Lee, who had campaigned for an end to "fuzzy" science and was elected by the widest margin of the new board members.  She has lately been pushing for giving individual schools more autonomy on course choice.  "I don't want any more central mandates," Ms. Lee says.

  

For the full story, see:

ROBERT TOMSHO.  "Textbook Battle; Top High Schools Fight New Science As Overly Simple; San Diego's Physics Overhaul Makes Classes Accessible, Spurs Parental Backlash; Test Scores Barely Budge."  The Wall Street Journal  (Thurs., April 13, 2006):   A1 & A11.




June 10, 2006

"My Merit Is My Caste; What Is Yours?"

NEW DELHI, May 22 — The problem of caste prejudice here is as ancient as the Hindu texts. The efforts to redress it date from the formation of modern India nearly 59 years ago. Today — as India enjoys awesome rates of economic progress and confronts the challenge of spreading the benefits to its needy majority — the nation faces a polarizing totem of public policy: a government plan to extend college admission quotas to certain "backward" castes.

Affirmative action is in some ways an even more emotional issue in India than in the United States. In recent weeks, a proposal to extend quotas for admission to some of the country's flagship, federally financed universities has caused fresh turmoil.

Protests — particularly by medical students who say merit should be the only basis for admission to India's intensely competitive medical schools — have spread across the country and, here in the capital, hobbled public health services. Advocates and opponents of the measure have exchanged often ugly rants.

. . .

Medical students have been particularly outraged because the plan would further restrict the limited number of seats. Medical education in India begins with a five-year undergraduate program, and the proposal could affect students' chances of completing their training.

The central lawn of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, the pre-eminent public hospital, was occupied Friday by medical students on the fifth day of a strike that began last week and continued on Monday. "My merit is my caste. What is yours?" read one T-shirt.

. . .

The opponents say set-asides would diminish the quality of India's best universities and divide students along caste lines.

"Why after 55 years are we still thinking in terms of caste-based reservation?" demanded Poojan Aggarwal, a third-year student at Safdarjung Medical College here. "We should talk now of total meritocracy. We know on this issue none of the political parties will support us."

 

For the full story, see:

SOMINI SENGUPTA. "Quotas to Aid India's Poor vs. Push for Meritocracy."  The New York Times  (Tues., May 23, 2006):  A3.

(Note: ellipses added.)





May 30, 2006

Spontaneous Order in Cockroaches

Even cockroaches manage to make collective decisions that, seemingly by magic, produce an outcome that benefits everyone (except the people whose kitchens they are in).  When roaches decide where to move in, they must balance crowding against protection against predators.  The goal: pack enough roaches into a shelter to provide strength in numbers, but not so much that dangerous crowding results.

When scientists put roaches into a dish containing identical shelters, they thought the roaches would fill one shelter and then use others for spillover.  But the gregarious bugs defied expectations.

When more than half the bugs could fit into one shelter, they divided into two equal groups:  For instance, when 50 had a choice of three shelters, each with a capacity of 40, 25 cockroaches gathered in one, 25 in another, and none in the third, biologist José Halloy of the Free University of Brussels and colleagues reported last month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dividing up evenly, he says, "spreads benefits and risks among all individuals," rather than having 40 bugs safe and happy while the 10 for whom there was no room at the inn suffer.  But when each of three shelters could hold 70, all 50 cockroaches packed into one.  Each outcome was optimal, producing the greatest safety in numbers without crowding.

Yet no leader assigns lodging. Roaches just check out shelters, with later arrivals deciding that a crowd signifies "this is the place to be."  Overcrowding means "find somewhere else."  A group decision that perfectly balances protection and crowding emerges from dozens of such individual decisions.

For the full story, see: 

Begley, Sharon.  "Buffalo Seek Consensus and Other Tales of How Animals Decide Things."  The Wall Street Journal  (Fri., April 14, 2006):  A11.




May 14, 2006

Disruptive Innovation in Medicine

DoctorWaitingRoom.jpgSource of image:  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB114540135592529301.html?mod=home_personal_journal_middle

  

(p. D1) The dysfunctional doctor's office is getting a makeover.

A growing number of programs around the country are helping doctors redesign their offices to wring more profit out of their practices and fix problems that have long frustrated patients: weeks-long delays to get appointments, hours in the waiting room, too-brief visits with the doctor, and the near impossibility of getting the physician on the phone.  While the goal is to improve care, the programs also aim to avert a looming shortage of primary-care doctors who are frustrated with low pay, long hours and rising overhead costs.

The new programs borrow lessons from other industries to help doctors work more efficiently, especially those in solo and small group practices who account for the majority of outpatient office visits.  One approach employs calculations used by airlines, hotels and restaurants to predict demand:  The idea is that doctors can cut patient waits much the way restaurant chains seat diners and turn over tables efficiently.  Others involve relatively simple changes, such as leaving afternoon appointments open for urgent visits, or having patients fill out paperwork ahead of time online.

Managed-care giant Kaiser Permanente is launching a program to help 12,000 doctors that contract with its health plan increase their efficiency with a new electronic-medical-records system.  Portland, Ore., physician Chuck Kilo, whose GreenField Health Systems helps restructure medical practices, and is assisting with the program, says that too many doctors' appointments take up valuable office time with follow-up that could be accomplished with phone calls and email.

Other models involve more-radical change, such as one called "Ideal Micro Practice" that sharply reduces or even eliminates support staff.  With this blueprint, doctors rely on electronic health records and practice-management software to quickly dispense with administrative tasks.  And they may run their offices solo, greeting patients personally as they come in the door.

"The office practice hasn't changed much in 50 years," says John Wasson, a Dartmouth Medical School professor and practice redesign expert who is helping to launch a national program to expand the Micro Practice concept.  "This is a disruptive innovation that can lead to increased quality and reduced costs."

 

For the full story, see: 

LAURA LANDRO. "Cutting Waits at the Doctor's Office; New Programs Reorganize Practices to Be More Efficient; Applying 'Queuing Theory'." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., April 19, 2006): D1 & D3.

  

  Source of graphic:  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB114540135592529301.html?mod=home_personal_journal_middle

 

 




May 13, 2006

"life is too short"

Source of book image:  http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/0738204315/ref=cm_cr_dp_2_1/104-9985403-1047968?%5Fencoding=UTF8&customer-reviews.sort%5Fby=-SubmissionDate&n=283155

The Cluetrain Manifesto is a thought-provoking, entertaining, uneven, overly-mystical, somewhat dated classic on the impact of the internet on business and life.  Here is the book's startling start:

WE DIE.

You will never hear those words spoken in a television ad.  Yet this central fact of human existence colors our world and how we perceive ourselves within it.  "Life is too short," we say, and it is.  Too short for office politics, for busywork and pointless paper chases, for jumping through hoops and covering our asses, for trying to please, to not offend, for constantly struggling to achieve some ever-receding definition of success.  (p. 1)

Locke, Christopher, Rick Levine, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger. The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual. Cambridge, Mass.:  Perseus Books Group, 2001.

 

 




May 12, 2006

Radiologist Outsourcing Is Mainly a Myth

LeonhardtDavid.jpg David Leonhardt.  Source of image:  http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/19/business/19leonhardt.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

 

A few years ago, stories about a scary new kind of outsourcing began making the rounds.  Apparently, hospitals were starting to send their radiology work to India, where doctors who make far less than American radiologists do were reading X-rays, M.R.I.'s and CT scans.

It quickly became a signature example of how globalization was moving up the food chain, threatening not just factory and call center workers but the so-called knowledge workers who were supposed to be immune.  If radiologists and their $350,000 average salaries weren't safe from the jobs exodus, who was?

On ABC, George Will said the outsourcing of radiology could make health care affordable again, to which Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York retorted that thousands of American radiologists would lose their jobs.  On NPR, an economist said the pay of radiologists was already suffering. At the White House, an adviser to President Bush suggested that fewer medical students would enter the field in the future.

"We're losing radiologists," Representative Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, said on CNN while Lou Dobbs listened approvingly.  "We're losing all kinds of white-collar jobs, all kinds of jobs in addition to manufacturing jobs, which we're losing by the droves in my state."

But up in Boston, Frank Levy, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, realized that he still had not heard or read much about actual Indian radiologists.  Like the once elusive Snuffleupagus of Sesame Street, they were much discussed but rarely seen.  So Mr. Levy began looking.  He teamed up with two other M.I.T. researchers, Ari Goelman and Kyoung-Hee Yu, and they dug into the global radiology business.

In the end, they were able to find exactly one company in India that was reading images from American patients.  It employs three radiologists.  There may be other such radiologists scattered around India, but Mr. Levy says, "I think 20 is an overestimate."

Some exodus.

 

For the full story, see:

Leonhardt, David.  "Political Clout in the Age of Outsourcing."  The New York Times (Weds., April 19, 2006):  C1 & C4.




May 7, 2006

Endangered Fish Thrive on Oil Platforms

Large numbers of rockfish and other fish near the Gilda oil platform off the Ventura coast.  Source of image: http://www.lovelab.id.ucsb.edu/Check.html

 

SANTA BARBARA, Calif., March 11 - A marine biologist has found that 27 oil platforms off California's Central Coast may be havens for bocaccio, cowcod and other fish.  

 . . .

Since the 1950's, when heavy fishing began in the region, some species have been reduced to 6 percent of their previous numbers, Dr. Love said.  Overfishing has led to an economic disaster, leading some fisheries to close.

Dr. Love films fish around the platforms from a submarine and then counts them in his laboratory.

Among his findings are that large fish prefer crevices at the platforms' base, and smaller ones like the middle section above their predators.

At Platform Gail, which stands in 739 feet of water nine miles off the Ventura coast, Dr. Love found what he believes to be the highest density of two species of overfished rockfish in Southern California.

Dr. Love emphasizes that his research does not draw conclusions about whether the platforms should be removed.  He says his personal view is that the rigs should stay in place, cut below the waterline so that ships can pass safely over them.

Dr. Love gets about 80 percent of his research money from the government, and the rest from the California Artificial Reef Enhancement Program, a Sacramento nonprofit group financed almost entirely by oil companies.  The group has contributed about $100,000 a year to his research since 1999, said its executive director, George Steinbach.  Dr. Love said oil industry money could not sway his research.

 

For the full story, see:

"Citing Oil Rigs as Fish Havens, Companies Resist Removal."  The New York Times  (Mon., March 13, 2006):  A18.




May 2, 2006

Doctors Erect Barriers to Keep Out Competition

RadiologistBangalore.jpg A Bangalore radiologist.  One of three radiologists in India known to be reading U.S. scans.  Each of the three has a U.S. degree, as required by U.S. law.  Source of image:  http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/19/business/19leonhardt.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

 

(p. C1) Radiologists seem like just the sort of workers who should be scared.  Computer networks can now send an electronic image to India faster than a messenger can take it from one hospital floor to another.  Often, those images are taken during emergencies at night, when radiologists here are sleeping and radiologists in India are not.

There also happens to be a shortage of radiologists in the United States.  Sophisticated new M.R.I. and CT machines can detect tiny tumors that once would have gone unnoticed, and doctors are ordering a lot more scans as a result.

When I talked this week to E. Stephen Amis Jr., the head of the radiology department at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, he had just finished looking at some of the 700 images that had been produced by a single abdominal CT exam.  "We were just taking pictures of big, thick slabs of the body 20 years ago," Dr. Amis said.  "Now we're taking thinner and thinner slices."

Economically, in other words, ra-(p. C6)diology has a lot in common with industries that are outsourcing jobs.  It has high labor costs, it's growing rapidly and it's portable.

Politically, though, radiology could not be more different.  Unlike software engineers, textile workers or credit card customer service employees, doctors have enough political power to erect trade barriers, and they have built some very effective ones.

To practice medicine in this country, doctors are generally required to have done their training here.  Otherwise, it is extremely difficult to be certified by a board of other doctors or be licensed by a state government.  The three radiologists Mr. Levy found in Bangalore did their residencies at Baylor, Yale and the University of Massachusetts before returning home to India.

"No profession I know of has as much power to self-regulate as doctors do," Mr. Levy said.

So even if the world's most talented radiologist happened to have trained in India, there would be no test he could take to prove his mettle here.  It's as if the law required cars sold here to have been made by the graduates of an American high school.

Much as the United Automobile Workers might love such a law, Americans would never tolerate it, because it would drive up the price of cars and keep us from enjoying innovations that happened to come from overseas.  But isn't that precisely what health care protectionism does?  It keeps out competition.

 

For the full story, see:

Leonhardt, David.   "Political Clout in the Age of Outsourcing."  The New York Times  (Weds., April 19, 2006):  C1 & C4.




April 27, 2006

Chernobyl Accident Cannot Occur In U.S. Type Reactors


Twenty years ago (April 25, 1986), the Chernobyl nuclear accident sent a plume of radiation into the air above Ukraine.  The word "Chernobyl" remains the most emotionally charged argument used by the opponents of nuclear energy.  But if examined carefully, the main lesson from Chernobyl may be that what happened there cannot occur in the better designed light water reactors used in the United States, and most of the rest of the world.  William Sweet, the author of the commentary below, has also authored Kicking the Carbon Habit:  Global Warming and the Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy.

 

(p. A23) . . . , though it went unnoticed at the time and has been inadequately appreciated since, Chernobyl also cast into relief the positive features of the reactors used in the United States and most other advanced industrial countries.

The reactor at Chernobyl belonged to a class that was especially vulnerable to runaway reactions.  When operating at low power, if such reactors lost water, their reactivity could suddenly take off and very rapidly reach a threshold beyond which they could only explode.  Making matters worse, surprisingly little more pressure than normal in the machine's water channels would lift its lid, snapping the vital control rods and fuel channels that entered the reactor's core.

On the night of April 25, 1986, poorly trained and supervised plant operators conducted an ill-conceived experiment, putting the machine into the very state in which reactivity was most likely to spike.  Within a fraction of a second, the reactor went from being barely on to power levels many times higher than the maximum intended.

This kind of accident cannot happen in the so-called light water reactors used in the United States and most of Western Europe and Asia.  In these reactors, the water functions not only as a coolant but as a "moderator": self-sustaining nuclear chain reactions cannot take place in its absence.  This is a very useful passive safety feature.  If coolant runs low, there is still a danger of a core meltdown, because the fuel retains heat; but the reactor will have automatically and immediately turned itself off.

 

For the full commentary, see:

WILLIAM SWEET.  "The Nuclear Option."  The New York Times  (Weds., April 26, 2006):  A23.

 

The reference to Sweet's related book is:

Sweet, William.  Kicking the Carbon Habit:  Global Warming and the Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy.  Columbia University Press, 2006.


Source of book image:  http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0231137109/sr=8-1/qid=1146071688/ref=sr_1_1/104-5668094-9083929?%5Fencoding=UTF8






April 25, 2006

Hurricanes Not Caused by Human-Induced Climate Change: More on Why Crichton is Right


The Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT analyzes the case for human-induced global warming:

(p. A14) There have been repeated claims that this past year's hurricane activity was another sign of human-induced climate change. Everything from the heat wave in Paris to heavy snows in Buffalo has been blamed on people burning gasoline to fuel their cars, and coal and natural gas to heat, cool and electrify their homes. Yet how can a barely discernible, one-degree increase in the recorded global mean temperature since the late 19th century possibly gain public acceptance as the source of recent weather catastrophes? And how can it translate into unlikely claims about future catastrophes?

The answer has much to do with misunderstanding the science of climate, plus a willingness to debase climate science into a triangle of alarmism.

. . .

To understand the misconceptions perpetuated about climate science and the climate of intimidation, one needs to grasp some of the complex underlying scientific issues. First, let's start where there is agreement. The public, press and policy makers have been repeatedly told that three claims have widespread scientific support: Global temperature has risen about a degree since the late 19th century; levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have increased by about 30% over the same period; and CO2 should contribute to future warming. These claims are true. However, what the public fails to grasp is that the claims neither constitute support for alarm nor establish man's responsibility for the small amount of warming that has occurred. In fact, those who make the most outlandish claims of alarm are actually demonstrating skepticism of the very science they say supports them. It isn't just that the alarmists are trumpeting model results that we know must be wrong. It is that they are trumpeting catastrophes that couldn't happen even if the models were right as justifying costly policies to try to prevent global warming.

If the models are correct, global warming reduces the temperature differences between the poles and the equator. When you have less difference in temperature, you have less excitation of extratropical storms, not more. And, in fact, model runs support this conclusion. Alarmists have drawn some support for increased claims of tropical storminess from a casual claim by Sir John Houghton of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that a warmer world would have more evaporation, with latent heat providing more energy for disturbances. The problem with this is that the ability of evaporation to drive tropical storms relies not only on temperature but humidity as well, and calls for drier, less humid air. Claims for starkly higher temperatures are based upon there being more humidity, not less -- hardly a case for more storminess with global warming.

. . .

In Europe, Henk Tennekes was dismissed as research director of the Royal Dutch Meteorological Society after questioning the scientific underpinnings of global warming. Aksel Winn-Nielsen, former director of the U.N.'s World Meteorological Organization, was tarred by Bert Bolin, first head of the IPCC, as a tool of the coal industry for questioning climate alarmism. Respected Italian professors Alfonso Sutera and Antonio Speranza disappeared from the debate in 1991, apparently losing climate-research funding for raising questions.

And then there are the peculiar standards in place in scientific journals for articles submitted by those who raise questions about accepted climate wisdom. At Science and Nature, such papers are commonly refused without review as being without interest. However, even when such papers are published, standards shift. When I, with some colleagues at NASA, attempted to determine how clouds behave under varying temperatures, we discovered what we called an "Iris Effect," wherein upper-level cirrus clouds contracted with increased temperature, providing a very strong negative climate feedback sufficient to greatly reduce the response to increasing CO2. Normally, criticism of papers appears in the form of letters to the journal to which the original authors can respond immediately. However, in this case (and others) a flurry of hastily prepared papers appeared, claiming errors in our study, with our responses delayed months and longer. The delay permitted our paper to be commonly referred to as "discredited." Indeed, there is a strange reluctance to actually find out how climate really behaves. In 2003, when the draft of the U.S. National Climate Plan urged a high priority for improving our knowledge of climate sensitivity, the National Research Council instead urged support to look at the impacts of the warming -- not whether it would actually happen.

Alarm rather than genuine scientific curiosity, it appears, is essential to maintaining funding. And only the most senior scientists today can stand up against this alarmist gale, and defy the iron triangle of climate scientists, advocates and policymakers.


For the full commentary, see:

RICHARD LINDZEN. "Climate of Fear." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., April 12, 2006): A14.




April 5, 2006

United States Still Has Vitality in Research and Innovation

Has the United States lost its vitality? No. Americans remain the hardest working people on the face of the earth and the most productive. As William W. Lewis, the founding director of the McKinsey Global Institute, wrote, ''The United States is the productivity leader in virtually every industry.'' And productivity rates are surging faster now than they did even in the 1990's.

Has the United States stopped investing in the future? No. The U.S. accounts for roughly 40 percent of the world's R. & D. spending. More money was invested in research and development in this country than in the other G-7 nations combined.

Is the United States becoming a less important player in the world economy? Not yet. In 1971, the U.S. economy accounted for 30.52 percent of the world's G.D.P. Since then, we've seen the rise of Japan, China, India and the Asian tigers. The U.S. now accounts for 30.74 percent of world G.D.P., a slightly higher figure.

What about the shortage of scientists and engineers? Vastly overblown. According to Duke School of Engineering researchers, the U.S. produces more engineers per capita than China or India. According to The Wall Street Journal, firms with engineering openings find themselves flooded with résumés. Unemployment rates for scientists and engineers are no lower than for other professions, and in some specialties, such as electrical engineering, they are notably higher.

Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation told The Wall Street Journal last November, ''No one I know who has looked at the data with an open mind has been able to find any sign of a current shortage.'' The G.A.O., the RAND Corporation and many other researchers have picked apart the quickie studies that warn of a science and engineering gap. ''We did not find evidence that such shortages have existed at least since 1990, nor that they are on the horizon,'' the RAND report concluded.

. . .

. . . , the American workplace is so competitive, companies are compelled to promote lifelong learning. A U.N. report this year ranked the U.S. third in the world in ease of doing business, after New Zealand and Singapore. The U.S. has the second most competitive economy on earth, after Finland, according the latest Global Competitiveness Report. As Michael Porter of Harvard told The National Journal, ''The U.S. is second to none in terms of innovation and an innovative environment.''


For the full commentary, see:

DAVID BROOKS. "The Nation of the Future." The New York Times (Thursday, February 2, 2006): A23.




April 1, 2006

86% Agree that Government Should Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide

A junior high school student in Idaho, Nathan Zohner, demonstrated in a 1997 science fair project how easy it was to hoodwink a scientifically uninformed public. As described in "The Frankenfood Myth," 86 percent of the 50 students he surveyed thought dihydrogen monoxide should be banned after they were told that prolonged exposure to its solid form caused severe tissue damage, that exposure to its gaseous form caused severe burns and that it had been found in tumors from terminal cancer patients. Only one student recognized the substance as water, H2O.


For the full commentary, see:

JANE E. BRODY. " PERSONAL HEALTH; Facing Biotech Foods Without the Fear Factor." The New York Times (Tues., January 11, 2005): D7.




March 15, 2006

Indiana Almost Legislated Wrong Value of Pi

pi_day1.gif

Yesterday (3/14) was "Pi Day." Source of image: http://www.mathwithmrherte.com/pi_day.htm


After school yesterday, my daughter Jenny told me that in her sixth grade class with Barbara Jens, they had celebrated "Pi Day." I didn't get it until Jen pointed out that the date was 3/14 and the first three digits of pi are 3.14.

Being a hoosier by birth and upbringing, Pi Day reminded me that in 1897 the Indiana House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill legislating the wrong value of pi. It would make a better story if the House had taken this action based on a literal interpretation of the bible, which gives the value of pi as an even 3. But apparently the House action was based on a mistaken "proof" offered by physician Edwin J. Goodwin. Fortunately for the reputation of Indiana government, a mathematician visiting the state capitol for other reasons, convinced Senators of the mistake, and consideration of the bill was postponed indefinitely in the Senate, before it could become law.


For my source, and more details, see Petr Beckmann's wonderful book:

Beckmann, Petr. A History of Pi. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1971.


Source of image: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0312381859/ref=ed_oe_p/104-6209536-4473568?%5Fencoding=UTF8




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