Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Haldane vs. Russell on science and the future

September 12, 2014

DAEDALUS & ICARUS
by Phil Ebersole

These are notes for my talk to the Rochester Russell Forum on Sept. 11, 2014.

My presentation tonight is based on two essays, Daedalus: Science and the Future, written in 1923, in which the mathematical biologist, J.B.S. Haldane said that science held the seeds of a possible utopian future, and Icarus: the Future of Science, written by 1924 by Bertrand Russell in rebuttal, warning of the dangers in the development of scientific technique.

These conflicting claims about science are still with us, and I think these older essays shed light on the question precisely because they are old.  Both Haldane and Russell made predictions about the future which we are in a position to judge.

I think most of us know something about Bertrand Russell, but maybe not so much about John Burton Sanderson Haldane.

J.B.S. Haldane

J.B.S. Haldane

He was born in 1892 to an aristocratic and secular Scottish family.  He made important contributions to science.

He helped lay the groundwork for combining Mendelian genetics with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which is the current basis of evolutionary theory, and for the idea of kin selection, popularized by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene.  He developed a theory of the origin of primitive life from complex non-living molecules, and constructed a human gene map for color blindness and hemophilia.

Like Richard Dawkins, he was both a successful popularizer of science and a militant atheist.  He was a staunch socialist and Marxist, and edited the London Daily Worker from 1940 to 1949.

In 1956, he emigrated to India in order, he said, to enjoy the freedom “not to wear socks”.  He became a naturalized citizen of India and worked at the Indian Statistical Institute until his death in 1964.

It is interesting that he entitled his essay “Daedalus,” who was, according to the legend, a morally ambiguous figure.  Daedalus was a technological genius who supposedly fled his native city of Athens to Crete after murdering his nephew, whom he feared would surpass him in achievement.  He constructed a wooden cow for the Cretan Queen Pasiphae (pas-if-eye) to hide in while she had sex with a white bull sent by Poseidon.  She became pregnant with the Minotaur, half bull and half man, so Daedalus, as Haldane pointed out, was the first genetic engineer.  He designed the Labyrinth to contain the Minotaur, which fed on youths and maidens, and he gave Ariadne, daughter of Pasiphae and King Minos, a thread by which her lover Theseus could find his way out after killing the beast.

King Minos shut Daedalus and his son Icarus in the Labyrinth, but Daedalus made feathered wings for himself and his son so they could escape by flying to Sicily.  But Icarus flew too close to the sun and the wax attaching the feathers to his body melted, and he drowned.  There’s more, but I’m going to turn to Haldane’s essay.

Haldane said the science is —
(1) the free activity of humanity’s divine faculty of reason and imagination
(2) the answer of a few to the demands of the many for wealth, comfort and victory, and
(3) humanity’s gradual conquest of
(a) space and time,
(b) matter as such
(c) the bodies of living things, including the human body, and
(d) the human soul

(more…)

What are the worst threats to the human race?

September 4, 2014

British scientists at Cambridge University have formed a Centre for Existential Risk, headed by the famous astronomer Martin Rees, to assess the top threats to the human race.

Let me challenge you, before you read on, to consider what you yourself think are the top threats to humanity—if you think there are any.

Below are are the four top threats as assessed by the Centre.  I quote from an article by Andrew Martin in The Guardian in bold face with my comments in regular type.

(more…)

Our emerging, evolving new wildlife

August 19, 2014
Coy Wolf

Coy Wolf

For years I’ve been hearing reports of “coy wolves” in upstate New York—crossbreeds with the cunning of a coyote and the ferocity of a timber wolf.

The other day my friend Anne Tanner e-mailed me a link to a New York Times article that reports not only on coy wolves, but other kinds of new hybrid wildlife—for example, hybrids of polar bears and grizzly bears, known as grolar or pizzly bears.

And the coy wolves come in many different varieties, based on combinations not only of coyote and wolf genes, but also dog genes.

The writer gives many other examples of animal hybrids (the Canadian lynx with the American bobcat) but none so remarkable as the pizzly bear or coy wolf.

They are the result of changes in the natural environment caused by human action, driving or pulling animals out of their long-established territories and bringing previously separated species together.

Biologists once regarded hybridization as an evolutionary dead end.  Now they see it as one more way that living things adapt to a changing environment.

Maybe a thousand years from now, when World Wars One and Two are only remembered by specialists, historians will regard the emergence of new hybrid species as the signature event of the 20th century.

Two physicists go for a drive …

August 2, 2014

heisenberg&schrodinger_n (more…)

Denial won’t stop the world from getting hotter

July 28, 2014

hottestJune

If you want to understand how things are changing, you should not be content with comparing the current month or year with the previous month.  You should look at the data as far back in time as it goes.

The data on global warming and climate change shows ups and downs, but a long-range trend toward a hotter planet.  You could argue (although I don’t) that the change is due to a mysterious X factor rather than human-caused greenhouse gasses.   I don’t think any rational person can argue against the reality of the change.

That’s why it is important to prepare for the change, and that’s why it’s crazy for Republican congressman to try to forbid government agencies to take the long-range trend into account.

Here is one way the two political parties differ.  Most Democrats are willing to at least acknowledge that global climate change exists and will have consequences.  The dominant group in the Republican Party is unwilling to do even that much.

I think it was the SF writer Philip K. Dick who said that reality is that which exists whether you believe in it or not.  The global warming trend is real, whether you believe it or not.

(more…)

The human body and its invisible defenders

July 12, 2014

Hat tip to Jack Clontz and his friend Marty.

The human body and its invisible tenants

July 12, 2014

There are more bacteria in the human body than there are human cells.

Hat tip to Jack Clontz and his friend Marty.

The complete real estate of the Solar System

July 7, 2014

Randall Munroe shows the surface area of the planets and asteroids in the Solar System that are hard enough to walk on.   Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus don’t count because they don’t have solid surfaces.  If they did, their surfaces would be many times bigger than that whole map.

via xkcd.    Hat tip to kottke.org.

Brainwashing and mind control are possible

June 4, 2014

Elizabeth Loftus, the psychologist and memory researcher, has documented a disquieting success in implanting false memories by simply suggesting to a subject that he has experienced a fictitious event.

Such pseudo-events, invented by psychologists, may vary from mildly upsetting or comic incidents that, for example, as a child, one was lost in a mall to more serious incidents that one was the victim of a serious animal attack, or a serious assault by another child.

After initial skepticism “I was never lost in a shopping mall”, and then uncertainty, the subject may move to a conviction so profound that he will continue to insist on the truth of the implanted memory, even after the experimenter confesses that it never happened in the first place.

via Oliver Sacks | The New York Review of Books.

It is possible to remember things that never happened.   It is possible for a skilled psychiatric professional to implant false memories in people.

And now research with rats indicates that it is possible to work on the brain so as to delete—and restore—memories by physical means (but so far only in rats).

As an old guy who is starting to suffer from loss of memory, and whose greatest fear is dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, I think research on memory is a good thing, not a bad thing.

But a world in which memory deletion, memory activation and memory falsification were understood is a science-fiction dystopia.  It means that it is technically possible for a future government to exercise totalitarian control over the individual to an extent that Hitler, Stalin and Mao only dreamed of doing.

These far outweigh the possible benefits of these techniques, such as in treating post-traumatic stress syndrome.  And even there, I expect that, just as with psychiatric drugs, many therapists would use memory deletion techniques without fully understanding their limitations and wider effects.

LINKS

How to erase a memory—and restore it: Researchers activate memories in rats in Science Daily.  Hat tip to naked capitalism.

Speak, Memory by Oliver Sacks in the New York Review of Books.  A report on false memories.

How Memory Speaks by Jerome Groopman in the New York Review of Books.  A review of research on the neurological basis of memory.

Johnny Mnemonic by William Gibson.  Science fiction.

Carl Sagan’s baloney detection checklist

May 29, 2014
  1. Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
  2. Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  3. Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past.  They will do so again in the future.  Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
  4. Carl_Sagan_by_Takes2ToTricycleSpin more than one hypothesis.  If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained.  Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives.  What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
  5. Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.  It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge.  Ask yourself why you like the idea.  Compare it fairly with the alternatives.  See if you can find reasons for rejecting it.  If you don’t, others will.
  6. Quantify.  If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses.  What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations.  Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
  7. If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
  8. Occam’s Razor.  This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
  9. Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified.  Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much.  Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos.  But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof?   You must be able to check assertions out.
  10. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.

via Brain Pickings.   Hat tip to Barry Ritholtz.

Click on Who Was Carl Sagan? for more about him.


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