Posts Tagged ‘Science’

A big hole in the ground

August 28, 2009
Pot of gold at at Grand Canyon

Pot of gold at at Grand Canyon

It was sort of a last minute thing, but we just spent a few days in the Grand Canyon from which we’re now back. A magnificent site. Besides the size, of course, one gets the impression of age. This is an ancient place. The Colorado river has worn away rock over millions of years to open up this expanse. The exposed rocks and formations are themselves ancient. We have near the bottom a group of layers called the Tonto group which consists of Tapeats sandstone (beach sand deposited around 550 million years ago), Bright Angel shale (calm water sediment from 540 million years ago), and Mauv limestone (sea sediment from 530 million years ago). Fossils from these layers include jellyfish, trilobites (some of which we saw in some of the exhibits, unfortunately the memory card on the camera was full), and others. Near the top is the Kaibab formation, which are old sea sediments from around 250 million years ago. Fossils here include trilobites, sponges, brachiopods, etc. In between there are deposits from swamps, flood plains, ancient rivers, etc. A snapshot of earth’s ancient history.

The corroborative techniques of radiometric dating, fossil layers, and other techniques all point to the same answers for the ancient ages. What about the canyon itself? How old is it?

As late as last year, a report pointed to a strong possibility that the canyon may have formed, or at least started forming, 55 million years ago. From the article:

The team believes an ancestral Grand Canyon developed in its eastern section about 55 million years ago, later linking with other segments that had evolved separately. “It’s a complicated picture because different segments of the canyon appear to have evolved at different times and subsequently were integrated,” Flowers said.

The ancient sandstone in the canyon walls contains grains of a phosphate mineral known as apatite — hosting trace amounts of the radioactive elements uranium and thorium — which expel helium atoms as they decay, she said. An abundance of the three elements, paired with temperature information from Earth’s interior, provided the team a clock of sorts to calculate when the apatite grains were embedded in rock a mile deep — the approximate depth of the canyon today — and when they cooled as they neared Earth’s surface as a result of erosion.

Apatite samples from the bottom of the Upper Granite Gorge region of the Grand Canyon yield similar dates as samples collected on the nearby plateau, said Caltech’s Wernicke. “Because both canyon and plateau samples resided at nearly the same depth beneath the Earth’s surface 55 million years ago, a canyon of about the same dimensions of today may have existed at least that far back, and possibly as far back as the time of dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago.”

Of course, some literal fundamentalist Creationists would like people to accept their hypothesis, if it could be called that, that the canyon was formed during Noah’s flood where it rained 40 days and more water that exists on our entire planet covered it for a period of time. So that instead of 55 million years towards which the evidence points, they would like to advance the idea that the canyon was formed in about a year, I guess. So here’s what I suggest to Creationists to test their ideas. Since the time scale suggested is so short, this should be easy. Scale model. Get some limestone (We’ll only deal with the top Kaibab layer here, to give a starting point) of some thickness, and perhaps combined with shale as well. Put on top of it the appropriately scaled volume of water. Allow it to drain for an appropriately scaled amount of time. This will probably 2 weeks to a month, depending on how much limestone you have and I’m too lazy to work out the numbers. It will be up to you to convince scientists that the appropriate amounts of rock, water, and time were chosen. See if you make a small canyon. I eagerly await your results.

Of course, I suppose also for literal fundamentalists, the well known optical laws of refraction and reflection (see here or here) did not exist before Noah’s flood.

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Unscientific America, a nonreview Part 1

July 19, 2009
Stepping out

Stepping out

Lately there’s been a lot of talk about Chris Mooney’s and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s latest book, Unscientific America. I have not yet read this book. I would like to, but burdened already underneath a huge reading list and too many projects, it is not likely I will have a chance to do so. So this, unlike other reviews of the book out there, will be a non-review. I think it is good that they have sparked some discussion, although much of the discussion seems to have been focused on the wrong things. From the review I linked to above, much of their discussion seems to not have been backed up with sufficient evidence and they don’t seem to have really addressed the root causes of the problem, if in fact, there is a problem.

They seem to lay part of the scientific illiteracy problem at the feet of the so-called new atheists. Apparently spending a couple of chapters to do so. The thinking seems to be that outspoken atheists alienate people and drive them away from science. They single out P.Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins as the poster children for this so-called bad behavior. There is a strong anti-science component in the U.S. There are people determined to undermine science education and public policy choices informed by good science. In strong part, this component is fueled by religious fervor and thinking. People like P.Z. Myers are addressing this, and rightly so. The muddle headed anti-critical thinking that is often inspired by religious thinking needs to be pointed out, and when necessary, mocked. One of the factors, according to their blog, Moony and Kirshenbaum, decided to leave science blogs was the “Crackergate” affair (Google it, if you haven’t heard about it. I’m too lazy to go digging around for that at the moment.). This just borders on the bizarre. It was not directed at them. In fact, the whole thing should have been merely a barely noticed minor blip on the “blog-dar”. The fact that it got so much attention speaks far more about the disproportionate reactions religious thinking inspires than anything Myers did. This fact seems to have been lost on Mooney and Kirshenbaum.

Nevertheless, Mooney and Kirshenbaum do a service on at least helping to spark some discussion on addressing scientific illiteracy. I don’t think a case is clearly made that it is a growing problem, but I think we are probably safe in assuming that we, as a nation, are not as literate in science as we could be. I think there is some discussion to be had on just how literate is enough. Not everyone is going to be needing to figure out how to do lattice gauge calculations, or what have you. Certainly, as a representative democracy, we need to be able to carry on a public discussion about climate change, recognize the need for vaccines, alternative energies, and so forth. There are several contributing factors to anti-science thinking in the U.S. Religion is one of them. The other is that same democratic spirit that made helps to define our national character. “I don’t need no ivory tower scientist to tell me how things work!”. Yankee ingenuity, all of us are equally capable, no elites necessary. I personally know several people where these traits combine to make the perfect storm. “Creationism is just another viewpoint! It should be taught in the schools on at least equal footing!”. These are factors about which very long discussions can be had and perhaps we’ll explore these further in future posts (I’ve already hit on these a few times myself), though feel free to tackle them in comments.

The suggestion that Mooney and Kirshenbaum make is to pave the way for an increased number of literate science communicators, modeled after Carl Sagan. Get scientific ideas out to the public and help them understand what we’re doing, and how things work. Chad Orzel, over at Uncertain Principles is running with this ball. I certainly agree that it is important to get ideas out there. To enable people to see a little better how the world works, and how it effects daily lives and public policy. It is an important mission. Of course, in fact, there are plenty of good science communicators out there already. There is Chad Orzel, of course. We also have Phil Plait, Sean Carroll, et al, P.Z. Myers (linked to earlier), Jennifer Oulette, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ken Miller, and many more. My first thought is not that there is a lack of good science communicators, but many are lost in the white noise of everything available on all the different available media. With a few exceptions (Phil Plait on Coast to Coast radio, for example), one has to seek these guys out. There is a preaching to the choir effect where those who are interested and motivated by science will find these good communicators. We have to nurture the interest, and I think this starts with a good education, along with something that will engage imagination and curiosity.

So to start with examining such matters, and to throw in a few thoughts, I’ll look to myself as an example. What motivated me to go into science? What were the initial seeds? One of course, was museums. Visiting air and space museums and natural history. Another was the movie 2001, A Space Odessy”. I had no idea what this movie was about as a kid, but the awesomeness of space exploration was firmly transfixed in my mind and inspired me to learn all I could. Another factor that contributed to my motivation was the lunar landing of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969. Getting humans to the moon, and then back, was a stunning achievement, not only for America (after all, it was a competition with the Soviets), but for all humanity. This motivated many young minds at the time into studying science and engineering.

It is now 40 years after this stunning achievement. Friday night, I saw nothing on T.V. celebrating this. Aside from a few obligatory film footage shots on CNN this morning and a good article in the LA Times, the media have been relatively quiet. Is this part of the problem? What can be done now to make the type of inspiration stemming from Apollo 11 part of our national fabric?

Science, religion, and accomodations

June 27, 2009

Right. Let’s see if I can get back on track blogging instead of letting those pesky little details like work and life get in the way. One needs a sense of priority after all.

So, lately, the buzz around the blogosphere has been about whether or not science and religion are compatible. The spark was apparently a new blog from Jerry Coyne. In one posting, referenced is Lawrence Krauss, who quoted Sam Harris arguing that reconciling modern science with Iron age convictions was “ridiculous”. Of course, PZ Myers had several observations on this discussion, the latest of which can be found here. Another salvo was fired from Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance. Since this is a topic close to my interests, I would be remiss if I were not to throw in my 2 cents.

Are science and religion compatible? Well, if you want to define your religion as a belief in a supernatural being transcendent to the universe and who is undetectable and never interacts with anything in the universe, then sure, why not? I’m in a generous mood, and such a god and science really have nothing to say about each other. Completely useless as a religion, and in reality, this is not the type of entity most religions posit anyway. The big 3 Abrahamic faiths declare a supernatural entity who has (and in many cases continues to) interacted with the universe and humanity in particular. This means we can bring scientific methodology and logical reasoning to bear. In particular, the scriptural texts that are supposedly the best evidence for this god are full of scientific errors, misunderstandings, and contradictions. Metaphorizing stories away aside, we know there the world was not created in 6 days 6000 years ago. We were not made separate from the animals from dust. The evidence is clear that there was no global flood. The world is not supported on pillars. Historical and literary analysis shows it highly likely that Jesus never existed..

The claims about the state of the world reached via religious means have almost always been contradicted when careful scientific scrutiny has been applied. Indeed, claims about human nature reached via religious means stand in contrast to what we have learned through the painstaking rigor of science. Think about how the linkage between the physical construct of the brain and our personality stands in stark contrast to the idea of an invisible and immortal soul, for example. Each time, those who wish to hold on to religious faith must dance around the problems, squeeze their god into tinier gaps, and/or build elaborate baroque smoke, mirror metaphors to make it look like the religious stories don’t really conflict with reality, or try to dismantle science education by trying to get mythology taught as science. Now one of the ways these religions claim that a god interacts with the universe is via miracles. Making the sun stand still for a day. Resurrecting a corpse. Helping people getting better from various ailments by proper usage of various drugs under the care of a doctor. Oh wait, that latter was actually science and the hard work of doctors.

I have seen one argument made by a few of my fellow atheists (and I’m not sure where I read this) on the compatibility issue that I don’t think is quite correct. The argument is that the miracles did not happen, because they are incompatible with reality. Well, yes. That’s pretty much the point. A god above the laws of physics can do whatever he or she wants. That would count as pretty good evidence that such a being exists (assuming appropriate verification can be made, of course). The correct question is whether or not such events took place. It seems all the major miracles occurred long ago. The further back, the more miraculous. The scriptural stories including miracles have been handed down over the centuries copied down from sources which were second hand at best. We know how easily fooled our brains are, even first hand. Given the major problems inherent in the Bible, we simply have no reason to think that these stories are in any way reliable. We have no reliable evidence these events took place.

Now some do argue that science and religion are compatible in the sense that some scientists do hold religious beliefs. This does not mean that the religious beliefs they hold are compatible with scientific knowledge. As Sam Harris points in The End of Faith, our imperfect finite brains are perfectly capable of holding a contradictory set of beliefs. The scientific work is approached via honest and rigorous inquiry without mixing religion. Religious beliefs are dealt with by varying combinations of subjective feelings and authoritative dogma. As long as they are kept out of direct internal conflict, the cognitive dissonance is not recognized as such. Or the cognitive dissonance is skirted around by unjustifiable rationalizations for the religious views. Perhaps in some sense, the religious belief system is seen as a beautiful and fragile crystal. Too delicate for the full brunt of critical scientific and logical inquiry. However, long ago I and many others have seen that this beautiful crystal is nothing but cheap glass. It’s not doing anything useful and gets in the way of our understanding of how things work. Its beauty is simply an illusion that disappears on closer and honest scrutiny.

That science and religion thing again

May 3, 2009

In a recent study coming out, a conclusion is being made that most scientists do not abandon their faith. Professor Ecklund, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Rice University surveyed 300 scientists over 3 years and found:

Less than 5% of scientists have no faith at all. 35% claim to be “spiritual atheists” which they define as having a belief in something larger than themselves. This group has rather eclectic views, using a bit of Eastern religious thought integrated with scientific thought as foundation for that belief. 68% of scientists on the whole have some sort of compatibility in their beliefs with science and religion. 50% of them are committed to their religious faith.

This contrasts with previous surveys of the National Academy of Science members, where:

The authors report “near universal rejection” of the transcendent by NAS natural scientists. Overall, 93 percent of NAS scientists do not profess a belief in God (72.2 percent disbelief, 20.8 agnostic), and 92.1 percent do not profess a belief in immortality (76.7 percent disbelief, 23.3 percent agnostic). Disbelief in God and immortality among NAS biological scientists was 65.2 percent and 69.0 percent respectively, and among NAS physical scientists it was 79 percent and 76.3 percent respectively.

(from Nature).

It is not said what type of scientists Ecklund interviewed, but I do not that a lot of social scientists are religious. I suppose if one were going to churches to find scientists to interview, you would find some bias towards religious belief. I suspect her sampling was better than that though, but I would be surprised if she interviewed very many natural scientists.

In any case, from my point of view it doesn’t matter very much. I have known a few religious scientists who were quite good, even excellent, in the scientific area of expertise. Ken Miller, of Brown University, is a good example. But when it comes to religion, the rigor that they bring to scientific investigations, they check at the door. Compartmentalization. The beliefs go without the thorough examination that characterizes their professional lives. Perhaps it is the sense of community and tradition that they don’t feel the need to probe too deeply. If these beliefs are not being used to justify controlling others or harmful behaviors (as is too often the case with the religious minded), than it is not really a problem. As the article states, many of the scientists recognize the validity of evolution and maintaining high science standards. I presume they (of the Christian persuasion anyway) see the creation myth as metaphor or something. This begs the question of when does one stop unraveling biblical metaphors before the whole thing becomes undone?

But if religious scientists were to apply the same exacting standards to religious beliefs that they do to their professional work, what would they find? That if a God did or occasionally does intervene in the workings of the universe, the scientific tools they have for their work are perfectly capable of investigating such. Scientific method and secular reasoning totally dismantle (well, to 99% certainty anyway, if I were given to throwing out numbers) any such supernatural notion. What about a noninterventionist Deistic God? Not only do we have no reason to guess such a being exists, what use would it be?

Catching up

April 28, 2009

Hit with a wacky schedule once again, so I’ve been unexpectedly offline for a bit. Still busy, but I figured I’d at least share a couple of interesting tidbits that have come across the ol’ desktop. I hope by the end of this week I’ll have some more time to do some “liquid thinking”. As everybody is no doubt aware, we are beset with all sorts of worrisome problems that can be readily read about everywhere. Such as the swine flu, continuing economic crisis, etc. So, let’s take a little break from that to check out something positive and interesting.

Twisters from Space!

Originating in the solar wind, the space tornadoes are rotating plasmas of hot, ionized gas flowing at speeds of more than one million km/h – far faster than the 300 km/h winds of terrestrial tornadoes, said Andreas Keiling, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Berkeley.

The tornadoes are actually vortices created by the release of energy on the dark side of the Earth in the trailing ‘magnetotail’ region of the planet’s magnetic field.

Yeah, but will they fling a space cow?

Unrelated but digging deeper into the Earth now, a mechanism has been proposed to explain how the Earth’s magnetic field reverses. As many are no doubt aware, the north and south magnetic poles are the effect of a magnetic dipole, which can be thought of, in simple terms, as a current loop. François Pétrélis of Ecole Normale Supérieure has shown that one mechanism that may explain the flips of the magnetic field is the coupling of the dipole field with a magnetic quadrupole field, due presumably to various flows within the core. In this model, velocity fluctuations in the flow of the core cause the system to be pushed towards having a quadrupole mode which couples to the dipole moment to eventually flip it. More details at the link.

Wishing Stephen Hawking a speedy recovery

April 21, 2009

Apparently last night (as of this writing), Stephen Hawking was rushed to the hospital from Cambridge University after not being well for several weeks. He is said to be in a comfortable position.

Of course, many of you will recognize that he is the author of the 1988 best seller A Brief History of Time and the somewhat more layperson accessible The Universe in a Nutshell and A Briefer History of Time. All for which, if you haven’t read, I highly recommend you do so. I might pose some related quiz questions here later.

Along with having brilliant insight as to how the universe works, he is a great populizer of science. It is also well known that he is a long time sufferer of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gherig’s disease. This is a neurodegenerative disease that causes neural signals to weaken and/or no longer be sent to the muscles which gradually atrophy resulting in the patient no longer being able to initiate or control muscle movement. Stephen Hawking continues to beat the odds at surviving this. Doctors expect patients to live about 3 years after being diagnosed and Hawking has lived with after over 30 years.

Although there are some clues, it is not known for sure what causes ALS and there is no cure yet (read the afore referenced link). The ALS Association is fighting to raise awareness, to fund research, and to help families that are going through this. I would urge everyone to give. Every bit helps.

In the meantime, I’ll take this opportunity to wish Stephen Hawking a speedy recovery and a long stint as Professor Emeritus at Cambridge whenever he decides to retire as the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics (the traditional retirement age being his age of 67).

Learning compassion and human evolution

April 14, 2009

From NPR, I came across an interesting study from USC that looked at compassion linked to physical pain, contrasted with “learned compassion” related more to psychological pain. It is reasonable to expect that empathy (see one interesting detailed study here), linked to empathetic neural “mirror” circuits in the brain, was likely an adoptive survival trait. This is kind of a short circuit that could have helped to recognize when another in the social group is in pain and needing help, or for quickly learning things to avoid.

What the USC study showed is that empathy related to physical pain was much more quickly processed (hardwired) then nonphysical pain. Antonio Damasio, coauthor and David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience at USC and the director of USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, says:

… early humans were probably more likely to survive if they could tell when a friend needed help or a foe was in pain.

“It probably took longer in evolution to get to a stage in which human beings could look at another human being, not see anything externally wrong with them, but imagine that there was something quite wrong in terms of their feelings, in terms of their mental pain,” he says.

Damasio says people still aren’t born with this sort of compassion. They have to learn it.

What I found interesting was that many of the same brain systems were involved in processing both the physical and psychological types of empathetic pain. But processing physical pain empathy was nearly instantaneous whereas to process more complex emotional pain took about 6 seconds longer. It seems as if the appropriate brain systems were co-opted via appropriate learning to give the same effect as an originally evolved function. There are possible implications for raising children.

That raises questions about the effects of news programs and video games in which a traumatic psychological event may flash by in a just a second or two, Damasio says.

He says that might not be long enough for children who are still learning compassion.

Possibly, if children are not learning the full range of compassion, they may not acquire these skills. As empathy and compassion are the foundation of our morality, this could be detrimental to society.

This is also consistent with the argument against the theistic argument that a god or religious thinking is necessary for morality. Morality emerges from the empathy and compassion built into our naturally evolved brains. That does not mean that we don’t need some early foundational training, or brain mapping, to handle more complex social issues.

A galactic apology

April 2, 2009

As a final note for strange happenings on or around April 1, I should mention a paper recently uncovered on arxiv.org . Apparently, somebody has arranged a cluster of galaxies to spell out “We apologize for the inconvenience”. From the paper:

On the other hand, many would attribute a much deeper meaning
to the appearance of this cluster. Firstly, the occurrence of these
phenomena could potentially lend support to some of the more exotic
models for Dark Energy or modified gravity, if they are able to
predict such structures. More controversially, as most occurrences
of English sentences are considered to be the work of intelligent
beings, the existence of these messages might indicate intelligent
life beyond our own. The scale of the messages would require a
lifeform with abilities far beyond those currently possessed by humans,
and even beyond those which we could realistically expect
to acquire; implying the existence of an intelligent being with extraordinary
powers. Indeed, another appearance of exactly the same
message has been previously reported in the hotly debated work by
Adams (1985), where the text is interpreted as God’s final message
to His creation.

Would Somebody care to explain this?

Freaky galaxies

April 1, 2009
Sombrero galaxy

Sombrero galaxy

In recent galaxy evolution news, a 10 billion year old ultra compact dwarf galaxy was discovered using the 10-metre Keck II telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, and studied with x-ray detection from Chandra. For comparison, the universe is only about 13.7 billion years young, plus or minus 0.13 billion years (see also here for a discussion on age. Not quite the oldest galaxy. It is apparently part of the globular cluster system associated with the Sombrero galaxy.

There are apparently two possibilities. This was a full blown galaxy that got stripped down. Considering that this was formed during the relatively early stages of the universe, which was a fairly violent and energetic era, that seems to be a real possibility. What I think is more likely (and from the article, Duncan Forbes, from Swinburne University seems to agree from the evidence he’s seen) is that it is a massive star cluster that formed early on. The arxiv paper can be found here. The evidence discussed in the paper that suggests this is not a stripped galaxy seems to be a failure to find tidal extensions or tails that would have come about from interactions from other massive objects. There would have to have been time for these tell tail signs to be wiped out indicating that any stripping would have had to occur a very long time ago. That would seem to make it somewhat unlikely.

What is also interesting about this ultra compact dwarf is that its dynamics shows a lack of dark matter dominance. It would be interesting to explore this a bit further to see what this says about dark matter distribution and its role in galactic evolution.

All eyes on Texas

March 27, 2009

It looks like we have narrowly averted a major assault against science education in Texas, but that Champion of Ignorance, Dr. McLeroy continue the assault with what has been termed a death of a thousand cuts. One of his wedge arguments he tried to get in is to examine the sufficiency or insufficiency of a cell to have formed from natural selection. I touched on that a little bit here where I pointed out some plausible scenarios that could kicked off the whole shebang. Of course, to rigorously examine this far beyond the scope of high school biology. The only reason for wanting students to think natural selection may not be “sufficient” is to try to seed doubt. Normally, doubt is a good thing of course. Scientists doubt themselves all the time, and if not, they’ll get corrected later if need be. But the doubt McLeroy wants to sow is that evolution may not work, and this simply goes against everything we know in biology. Muddying the water with doubt about well established scientific principles is not appropriate in a science class.

Next, we had stuff on how the universe formed. Somebody named Cargill seems to have wanted standards with more “humility”, recognizing that there are “other theories out there”. It was laughable that she couldn’t actually name any other these relevant theories. I’m also not too sure that high school students are prepared to go into discussing anisotropies of the cosmic microwave background and relation to various inflationary models. Is this what Cargill had in mind? Somehow, I doubt it. And these are the people deciding the future of education for our country? I shudder in fear.

It is frustrating dealing with Creationists, but I almost wish that they just went ahead and said textbooks needed to discuss strengths and weaknesses of evolution. If I were to write a biology textbook (which I won’t; I’ll leave that to actual biologists who know much more about the material than I), I would do this in the first chapter:
We will now examine the strengths and weaknesses of evolution.
Strengths of evolution: See the rest of the book.
Weaknesses of evolution: None.
Done.