Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

The human body as the Ship of Theseus

July 9, 2016

Hat tip to kottke.org.

The Ship of Theseus was an ancient Greek paradox.  Over time, every plank and mast in the ship was replaced, yet it remained the same ship.  That is almost true of the human body.

Only one part of your body is as old as you are.  Watch the video to learn what it is.

Looking for meaning in all the wrong places

June 24, 2016

I recently finished reading MIND & COSMOS: Why the Neo-Darwinist Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly Wrong by Thomas Nagel.   If I only read or thought about politics, I’d go crazy.

The book reminds me of a saying of the late, great H.L. Mencken, who once wrote that when you try to combine science and religion, you wind up with something that isn’t really scientific and isn’t really religious.

Nagel9780199919758(RGB)While Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection explains the origin of species, including the human species, Thomas Nagel pointed out that it does not explain the origin of life, consciousness, human reason or morality.

He hopes for a new theory that will not only explain all these things, but give them meaning.  He is not a religious believer, and he looking for things in science that are to be found in art, literature and religious and spiritual practice.

His basic argument is the improbability and implausibility that human life as we know it could ever arise from the blind working of physical and chemical laws.

The problem with the argument from improbability is that in an infinite, or near-infinite, universe, anything that is possible, however improbable, will happen not once, but many times.

And the problem with the argument from implausibility is that most modern people already accept scientific conclusions that are highly implausible in terms of common sense—for example, I would find it hard to believe the earth goes around the sun, let alone the Big Bang and expanding universe, if I had not been taught so in school.

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The blind astronomer of Nova Scotia

June 11, 2016

Via kottke.org and Great Big Story.

How high is up?

June 4, 2016

Source: xkcd: Height

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Most of the universe is off-limits to us

May 14, 2016

Hat tip to kottke.org.

Based on our current knowledge of physics, humanity is limited to a tiny corner of the universe.   Almost all of the known universe is not only out of reach of humanity, but will someday be out of sight.

Then again, it’s not clear whether humanity will be able to maintain industrial civilization long enough to explore our own solar system, let alone reach planets of nearby stars, let alone the billions of stars in our own galaxy and milky way.

High technology depends on availability of energy, which so far depends on fuels that are in limited supply.  We don’t know whether this point in human history is the beginning of a Star Trek-type future or the high point before we revert to a primitive existence.

Or whether there will be changes and breakthroughs that send humanity on a path we can’t now imagine.

Do we need to believe in fairies?

April 10, 2016

fairies653

Source: Calamities of Nature.

Our eight-legged friends

March 19, 2016

humey-toons-toon-16-spiders-540

I set out ant and roach traps, but I never interfere with spiders, except maybe to brush away an overly conspicuous cobweb.  Spiders catch and eat bugs I want to get rid of, so why should I treat them as nuisances.  It would be as foolish the United States government picking fights with countries that are  fighting ISIS and Al Qaeda.

So I enjoyed reading An Open Letter From a Spider to All Humans Everywhere and maybe you will, too.  (Hat tip for the link to Mike the Mad Biologist)

The hierarchies of knowledge

February 21, 2016

fieldsbypurityXKCD435-650x270

xkcd-purity2-by-sansscience-creativecommons-attribution

I lifted these two cartoons from the Biology vs. Theoretical Physics post on the Sans Science web log, which is now private.

The top cartoon is, of course, from Randall Munroe’s xkcd series.

The problem with reductionism

February 21, 2016

nontrivial_subfieldSource: Abstruse Goose.

How should you tell the temperature?

February 16, 2016

xkcd.degrees

Source: xkcd

Something I never knew about Cuba

January 5, 2016

Cuba has 2 percent of Latin America’s population but 11 percent of its scientists

Source: New Republic

The tale of Science and his pal, Spirituality

December 6, 2015

I pulled this off the Wait But Why web log.  Exact links are below.
Religion-CartoonHow Religion Got in the Way by Tim Urban for Wait But Why.

Religion for the Nonreligious by Tim Urban for Wait But Why

The new super-coyotes of eastern North America

November 25, 2015

coywolves20151031_STP001_0

Eastern North America is home to millions of a new breed of coyote, or maybe new species — the coy wolf, which typically has 25 percent wolf DNA and 10 percent dog DNA.

The eastern coyote, or coy wolf, has the cunning of a coyote and the ferocity of a wolf.  Like the western coyote and unlike the eastern timber wolf, it is at home on the open prairie.  Like the timber wolf and unlike the western coyote, it is at home in the deep woods.  Unlike both, it is at home in cities.

An estimated 20 coy wolves inhabit New York City, living on garbage, rodents and small pets.  They have been seen in Boston and Washington, D.C.  Evolution never stops.

LINK

Greater than the sum of its parts from The Economist.

The passing scene: Links & comments 10/24/2015

October 24, 2015

Anxious Hours in Pivotland: Where’s My Sailthrough? by Peter Lee for China Matters.

Neither South Korea nor Australia support the U.S.-Japanese opposition to Chinese efforts to claim islands in the South China Sea.  The Chinese Navy meanwhile made a point about freedom of the seas by sailing through Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.

Trey Gowdy Just Elected Hillary Clinton President by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone.

Or at least greatly strengthened her bid for the Democratic nomination.  The Benghazi hearings made Republicans look like fools and showed Clinton as someone who is a match for them.

Are Canadian progressives showing Americans the way? by Miles Corak for Economics for public policy (via Economist’s View)

America’s Civilian Killings Are No Accident by Peter Van Buren for We Meant Well.

The bombing of the hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, had many precedents.

What Is life? by Matthew Francis for Mosaic.  (via Barry Ritholtz)

If humans encountered extraterrestrial life, would we know it when we saw it?

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The passing scene – October 7, 2015

October 7, 2015

Why Free Markets Make Fools of Us by Cass R. Sunstein for The New York Review of Books.  (Hat tip to my expatriate e-mail pen pal Jack)

The TPP has a provision that many will love to hate: ISDS.  What is it, and why does it matter? by Todd Tucker for the Washington Post.  (Hat tip to naked capitalism)

Hillary Clinton says she does not support Trans Pacific Partnership by the PBS Newshour.

Q: Is the Obama Administration Complicit With Slavery? A: Yes by Eric Loomis for Lawyers, Guns and Money.  Slavery in Malaysia is overlooked for the sake of the TPP.

Houston is a lot more tolerant of immigrants than Copenhagen is on Science Codex.  (Hat tip to Jack)

Science Saves: The Young Iraqis Promoting Evolutionary Theory and Rational Thought to Save Iraq by Marwan Jabbar for Niqash: briefings from inside and across Iraq.  (Hat tip to Informed Comment)

The Amazing Inner Lives of Animals by Tim Flannery for The New York Review of Books.  (Hat tip to Jack)

Is the chilli pepper friend or foe? by William Kremer for BBC World Service.  (Hat tip to Jack)

What would a space alien see on Earth?

September 13, 2015

alienHat tip to my expatriate e-mail pen pal Jack and his friend Marty.

It’s a big strange universe out there

August 20, 2015

Hat tip to kottke.org

What it means to be truly pro-life

August 16, 2015

In 2010, a woman named Sarah Gray gave birth to identical twin boys.  One of them had birth defects and died after a few days.  She and her husband Ross donated the Thomas’s eyes and liver, along with cord blood from Thomas and his twin brother Callum, for scientific research.

A few years later Sarah and Ross Gray learned what use had been made of their child’s remains.

The Schlepens Eye Research Institute in Boston used Ross’s eyes in a study that one day might contribute to a cure for corneal blindness.

Sarah Gray looks at RNA sample from donated retinas

Sarah Gray looks at RNA sample from donated retinas.  Source: Philadelphia Inquirer

Thomas’s retinas were given to the University of Pennsylvania, where they were used in a study that one day might contribute to a cure for retinoblastoma, the most common form of eye cancer in children.   The retina tissue is so valuable that some of it is being saved for future research.

Researchers at the Duke University Center for Human Genetics found subtle genetic differences in the cord blood that might help explain anencephaly, the genetic defect that killed Thomas.  The liver went to a biotech company named Cytonet, which used it to study the best way to freeze liver tissue.

Sarah Gray, who already had worked in public relations for non-profit organizations, became director of marketing for the American Association of Tissue Banks.

The Grays’ decision to donate their baby’s remains for scientific research shows what it means to be truly pro-life.

LINKS

Thomas Gray lived six days, but his life has lasting impact by Michael Vitez for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Gray’s Donation, a Radiolab broadcast.

The passing scene – August 9, 2015

August 9, 2015

These are links to interesting articles I’ve come across in the past day or so.  I may add links during the day.  Please feel free to make general or off-topic comments.

Coyotes in New York and Chicago by Lance Richardson for Slate.

150731_WILD_CoyoteLIC.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2Coyotes now inhabit New York, Chicago and other big American cities.  Lance Richardson thinks they may well fit the urban and suburban environment better than the rural environment.

Coyotes eat rats and mice.  They eat feral cats, which prey on songbirds.  In suburbs, where hunters are forbidden to discharge firearms, they keep the deer population down.

Farmers and ranchers kill coyotes because coyotes destroy poultry and livestock.  But in cities and suburbs, most pets and other domestic animals are locked up, and coyotes survive by eating vermin.

Meet the electric life forms that live on pure energy by Catherine Brahic for New Scientist.

Scientists have discovered bacteria that eat and breathe electrons, and they can be found nearly everywhere.  All life and all chemical reactions are based on a flow of electrons, but these bacteria survive on electricity in its purest form.

Kropotkin on the Hudson by Polly Howells for In These Times.

Members of the Long Spoon Collective in Saugerties, New York, try to live by the anarchist values of voluntary sharing.   I highly approve of what they’re attempting and wish them well.  I’m not sure such communities can work without extra-ordinary dedication, but I’d be happy to be proved wrong.  I don’t have it in me to live as they do myself.

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Scientists under siege by climate change deniers

July 12, 2015

Climate scientists have spent the past several decades warning humanity about a dire threat to civilization—a threat they think is much worse than the public realizes.  But their reward for this warning has been to be villified and harassed.  Some of them suffer burnout under the stress of being relentlessly attacked.

As John H. Richardson pointed out in Esquire, the scientists have been right so far—

The physical evidence becomes more dramatic every year: forests retreating, animals moving north, glaciers melting, wildfire seasons getting longer, higher rates of droughts, floods, and storms—five times as many in the 2000s as in the 1970s.

hottestyearIn the blunt words of the 2014 National Climate Assessment, conducted by three hundred of America’s most distinguished experts at the request of the U. S. government, human-induced climate change is real—U. S. temperatures have gone up between 1.3 and 1.9 degrees, mostly since 1970—and the change is already affecting “agriculture, water, human health, energy, transportation, forests, and ecosystems.”

But that’s not the worst of it. Arctic air temperatures are increasing at twice the rate of the rest of the world—a study by the U. S. Navy says that the Arctic could lose its summer sea ice by next year, eighty-four years ahead of the models—and evidence little more than a year old suggests the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is doomed, which will add between twenty and twenty-five feet to ocean levels.

The one hundred million people in Bangladesh will need another place to live and coastal cities globally will be forced to relocate, a task complicated by economic crisis and famine—with continental interiors drying out, the chief scientist at the U. S. State Department in 2009 predicted a billion people will suffer famine within twenty or thirty years.

And what has been the scientists’ reward for alerting us to this peril?

The scientists … … have been the targets of an unrelenting and well-organized attack that includes death threats, summonses from a hostile Congress, attempts to get them fired, legal harassment, and intrusive discovery demands so severe they had to start their own legal-defense fund, all amplified by a relentless propaganda campaign nakedly financed by the fossil-fuel companies.  [snip]

which-makes-more-sense-smlNo one has experienced that hostility more vividly than Michael Mann, who was a young Ph.D. researcher when he helped come up with the historical data that came to be known as the hockey stick—the most incendiary display graph in human history, with its temperature and emissions lines going straight up at the end like the blade of a hockey stick.

He was investigated, was denounced in Congress, got death threats, was accused of fraud, received white powder in the mail, and got thousands of e-mails with suggestions like, You should be “shot, quartered, and fed to the pigs along with your whole damn families.”  Conservative legal foundations pressured his university, a British journalist suggested the electric chair.

In 2003, Senator James Inhofe’s committee called him to testify, flanking him with two professional climate-change deniers, and in 2011 the committee threatened him with federal prosecution, along with sixteen other scientists.

via How Climate Scientists Feel About Climate Change Deniers by John H. Richardson for Esquire.

Technology primarily benefits those who own it

June 29, 2015

jobs.5x650I can remember 50 and 60 years ago when people worried about what Americans would do with all the affluence and leisure time that would result from automation.   Today that seems like a cruel joke.

Technology primarily benefits those who own it.  Applied science primarily benefits those who fund it, or at least reflects what the funders are interested in.  There can be spillover effects that benefit everyone, but these don’t necessarily happen of their own accord.

I came across a good article on this topic in Technology Review.  The lesson I draw from it is (1) technology is not a substitute for social and economic reform and (2) there is a need for scientific and technological research outside the domains of for-profit corporations and the military.

LINK

Who Will Own the Robots? in Technology Review.  (Hat tip to naked capitalism}

The economic argument against the paranormal

June 16, 2015

Source: xkcd.

Anatomy of a tornado

June 6, 2015

Hat tip to Avedon’s Sideshow.

Whom do you believe about climate change?

June 3, 2015

global-warming-planetPaul Craig Roberts, who was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury during the Reagan administration, has this to say about climate change.

Climate change is a controversy.  What appear to be independent scientists say that the climate is warming due to greenhouse gases produced by human activity. This warming, apparently measurable, has many impacts on sea levels, and on plant, animal, sea, and bird life, as well as food supply for a heavily populated earth.  [snip]

As far as I can tell the polluting corporations have sufficient think tanks and research institutes to neutralize the independent scientists.  If one is not a climate expert, which I am not, one doesn’t really know.  However, I have learned in my many years that an independent voice is far more reliable than a paid voice. 

Possibly climate change is occurring because of solar activity or because of activity inside the earth itself.  The attention should not be on the cause but on the fact.  First establish the fact, then look for the cause.

My view of this is that life depends on climate, and it doesn’t take a lot of change in one direction or the other to create problems for life.  This fact makes climate change an important issue, and corporations should stop paying people to lie about it.  [snip]

Climate change, if real, is clearly a much greater threat than Muslim terrorists or alleged Chinese and Russian hegemonic aspirations.  Therefore, Washington should spend some of the one trillion dollars Washington blows on the military/security complex on arriving at the best conclusion about climate change and its remedies, if any.

The United States is a strange country.  The population accepts the destruction of privacy and civil liberty out of fear of essentially non-existent terrorists created by propaganda, but ignores the threat of climate change presented by independent scientists, a threat amplified by the ongoing multi-year drought in California and the western US.

via Climate Change – The Unz Review.

Those who accept the reality of human-caused climate change are the U.S. Department of Defense, Pope Francis and Saudi Arabia’s oil minister, Ali al-Naimi, who has announced his country’s intention convert to solar energy for its needs by 2040-2050.

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Pro-science religion and anti-science religion

May 27, 2015

evo_env-relig3_0

What this chart indicates is that the big religious split in the United States is not between Protestants and Catholics, or among Christians, Jews and Muslims, but between pro-science religion and anti-science religion.

This chart is based on a 2007 survey by Pew Research.  It will be interesting to see if the 2014 survey is significantly different.

LINKS

Evolution, Science and Religion by Josh Rosenau for the Science League of America.

Our new pro-science pontiff: Pope Francis on climate change, evolution and the Big Bang by Chris Mooney for the Washington Post.


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