Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

David Graeber on funding scientific research

September 22, 2014

Common sense suggests that if you want to maximize scientific creativity, you find some bright people, give them the resources they need to pursue whatever idea comes into their heads, and then leave them alone. Most will turn up nothing, but one or two may well discover something.

But if you want to minimize the possibility of unexpected breakthroughs, tell those same people they will receive no resources at all unless they spend the bulk of their time competing against each other to convince you they know in advance what they are going to discover.

via Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit – The Baffler.

Is the progress of science itself winding down?

September 17, 2014

Is progress in science itself winding down?  I don’t know, but I think it is possible.

I don’t know of any new scientific theories or discoveries in my adult lifetime that compare to Newton’s theory of gravitation, Darwin’s theory of natural selection or Einstein’s theory of relativity.  While I don’t have any basis for ruling out a new scientific revolution, I do have some thoughts about the possible limits of scientific discovery.

There have been two periods of scientific advance, one in ancient Greece and Roman and one in modern European times.

pic_7bwThe ancient Greek scientists did some remarkable things.  They figured out that the world was round, and made a good informed guess as to how large it was, based on nothing more than the science of geometry and observations that could be made with the naked eye.

What made the ancient Greeks different from other peoples is that they based their thinking on observation, reasoning from evidence and discussion among peers, rather than arguing from authority and hoarding knowledge.  And with Euclid’s geometry, they had a powerful new tool of thought.

What brought ancient Greek science to an end was partly that they made all the easy discoveries that could be made with geometric reasoning and naked-eye observation, but also, as Prof. Gilbert Murray wrote in Five Stages of Greek Religion, a failure of nerve.

Murray said the Greeks didn’t like where Greek science was taking them—the idea that the sun and moon were not gods, but that the sun was a ball of fire and the moon was a ball of rock.   They turned to the occult and to cults from Asia, much like the New Age philosophies today.

Science revived partly because of a revival of interest in Greek science during the Renaissance.  It also was aided by inventions that increased the power of observation.  The microscope and the telescope revealed worlds that no human being had seen before.   Arabic-Hindu algebra provided a powerful new tool of thought, to which was added the calculus and mathematical logic.  The process of testing theories by discussion of evidence became systematized.

It is possible that human powers of observation have, at least for now, reached their limits.  Scientists have discovered the structure of the atom, and of sub-atomic particles.   Aided by billions of dollars worth of equipment, they have confirmed the existence of sub-sub-atomic particles, such as the Higgs boson.  Maybe there are sub-sub-sub atomic particles, but it is hard to see how physicists could learn anything about them.

Astronomers seem to have reached the same limits in knowledge of the cosmos.

Physics is not the only science, of course.  Remarkable discoveries are being made in cognitive science and the study of the human brain, and this science is not so capital-intensive as astronomy or particle physics.

But that comes up against the other limitation—the failure of nerve.   Science reveals a strange world that is alien to human common sense, and in which human beings are not the center.

This has produced a backlash, reflected in the demand for teaching of creationism and its little brother, intelligent design, neither of which is based on discussion of evidence based on observation.

The backlash is covertly supported by vested interests who are threatened by scientific research—fossil fuel companies by climate research, tobacco companies by epidemiology.

Along with that, there has been a decline in support for curiosity-based science.  It does not have an economic benefit that is obvious beforehand.  There is an economic incentive to concentrate on research with a predictable payoff.

So even if scientific discovery has not reached its reality-based limits, the fear of scientific reasoning could bring about a cessation of scientific discovery.

I am not a scientist.  All this is speculation.  Maybe science has reached a natural limit, and all that remains is a filling in of detail.  Maybe science is an open-ended endless process.  Maybe someday there will be a Grand Theory of Everything.  The future progress of science may be represented by the straight line or the upward slope in the chart, and it may be represented by an S-shaped curve or even a bell curve.  This is unknowable, at least by me.

Why then do I write about it?  I think that whatever the future of scientific discovery, the moral values of science are important.  These values are objectivity, curiosity, free discussion and evidence-based reasoning, and they are worth defending against magic, mystery and authority.

§§§

Is there a creativity deficit in science? by Ben McNeil for ArsTechnica.  (Via Mike the Mad Biologist)

Science, Superstars and Stocks by Paul Kedrosky (2011)

 

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.


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