Hat tip to Jack Clontz and his friend Marty.
Archive for the ‘Science’ Category
There are more bacteria in the human body than there are human cells.
Hat tip to Jack Clontz and his friend Marty.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
- Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
- 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.
- Spin 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
- 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.
- 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.
- Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.
Click on Who Was Carl Sagan? for more about him.
Two separate groups of climate scientists have concluded that the West Antarctic ice sheet is in the process of collapsing, and that this process is inevitable. The result will be that the sea level will rise at least four feet, and maybe as much as 12 feet, putting Houston, New Orleans, Miami, New York City, Boston and other coastal cities under water.
But don’t worry! The scientists say this is a slow process that won’t end during the lifetime of anybody now alive.
So how much should we worry? How much should we worry about the whole question of climate change?  The world’s weather is changing, and long-term global temperatures are rising, but this is the result of things that were done or not done in previous generations. Nothing that we do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change will change this. It will only make things less bad for future generations.
How much do we owe future generations? The 18th century statesman Edmund Burke said we owe them a lot. He said society is a compact between past generations, the living and generations yet to come. We owe future generations at least as good a world as past generations passed on to us.
Some modern economists so we owe future generations little or nothing. They make economic calculations based on future benefits being less valuable than present benefits, based on a yearly discount equal to the prevailing rate of interest. Based on this method, the value of anything diminishes rapidly, and the value even of saving the world is very little after a century or so.
There’s a more sophisticated economic argument that says that future generations will be wealthier and more technologically advanced than we are, so why should we sacrifice to help people who will be better off than we are? And, after all, can we really know what the priorities of future generations will be?
When I first heard of global climate change, back in the 1970s, I had my doubts as to whether it was real. But I still thought it was a good idea to reduce automobile and smokestack emissions and develop solar and wind energy because these things are good in themselves and, if global warming was real, so much the better.
I no longer doubt the reality of global climate change, but I no longer think it is possible to seriously mitigate it without reducing the American material standard of living and setting limits on everybody else’s standard of living. I am not so noble that I would unilaterally give up the benefits of, say, airplane travel unless everybody else did, and I don’t think this will happen until there is no other choice.
Present-day Americans have little sense either of the past or of the future.  In addition, it would be hard to ask Americans to sign up for unshared sacrifice when, for the past 20 or 30 years, the majority of Americans have undergone unshared sacrifice. Nor is it reasonable to expert the people of China and India, who between them comprise nearly half the world’s people, to give up their future hopes unless North Americans and western Europeans reduce our material standard to meet theirs.
I respect my friends in the Sierra Club and other groups who are campaigning to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I think what they are doing makes sense, even though I also think what they are doing is unlikely to succeed. How about you? What do you think?
My friend Jack Belli once remarked that the history of science is a succession of visions of the universe, each a cosmic perspective greater and more awe-inspiring than the one that came before.
The late Carl Sagan was one who was able to communication the cosmic perspective. His 13-part TV series, “Cosmos: a Personal Journal”, was the most viewed show ever to appear on the Public Broadcasting Network.
Another is Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium. In the video above and in this interview, Tyson talks about the cosmic perspective and what it means. Starting March 9 at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific time, Tyson will begin a successor series, “Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey”, on Fox.
This is a rewording of the original post and a correction of the statement that Tyson’s “Cosmos” would air on the National Geographic Channel.
Click on Jen Sorensen for more of her cartoons.