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  • Archive for the 'Science' Category

    Summer Rerun: Lewis vs Haldane

    Posted by David Foster on 15th September 2018 (All posts by )

    J B S Haldane was an eminent British scientist (population genetics) and a Marxist. C S Lewis was…well, you probably already know who C S Lewis was.  In 1946, Haldane published an article critiquing a series of novels by Lewis known as the Ransom Trilogy, and particularly the last book of the series, That Hideous Strength. Lewis responded in a letter which remained unpublished for many of years. All this may sound ancient and estoteric, but I believe the Lewis/Haldane controversy is very relevant to our current political and philosophical landscape.

    In That Hideous Strength–my review is here–Mark, a young sociologist, is hired by a government agency called NICE–the National Institute for Coordinated Experimentation–having as its stated mission the application of science to social problems.  In the novel, NICE turns out to be a conspiracy devoted to very diabolical purposes, as Mark gradually discovers.   See the review for more detail

    Here are some of the highlights of the Lewis/Haldane controversy:

    1)Money and Power. In his article, Haldane attacks Lewis for the latter’s refusal to absolutely condemn usury, and celebrates the fact that “Mammon has been cleared off a sixth of our planet’s surface”…clearly referring to the Soviet Union. Here’s part of Lewis’s response:

    The difference between us is that the Professor sees the ‘World’ purely in terms of those threats and those allurements which depend on money. I do not. The most ‘worldly’ society I have ever lived in is that of schoolboys: most worldly in the cruelty and arrogance of the strong, the toadyism and mutual treachery of the weak, and the unqualified snobbery of both. Nothing was so base that most members of the school proletariat would not do it, or suffer it, to win the favour of the school aristocracy: hardly any injustice too bad for the aristocracy to practise. But the class system did not in the least depend on the amount of pocket money. Who needs to care about money if most of the things he wants will be offered by cringing servility and the remainder can be taken by force? 

    This lesson has remained with me all my life. That is one of the reasons why I cannot share Professor Haldanes exaltation at the banishment of Mammon from ‘a sixth of our planet’s surface’. I have already lived in a world from which Mammon was banished: it was the most wicked and miserable I have yet known. If Mammon were the only devil, it would be another matter. But where Mammon vacates the throne, how if Moloch takes his place? As Aristotle said, ‘Men do not become tyrants in order to keep warm’. All men, of course, desire pleasure and safety. But all men also desire power and all men desire the mere sense of being ‘in the know’ or the ‘inner ring’, of not being ‘outsiders’: a passion insufficiently studied and the chief theme of my story. When the state of society is such that money is the passport to all these prizes, then of course money will be the prime temptation. But when the passport changes, the desires will remain.

    2)Centralized scientific planning. Haldane: “Mr. Lewis’s idea is clear enough. The application of science to human affairs can only lead to hell.” While denying that this is a correct statement of his views, Lewis goes on to say:

    Every tyrant must begin by claiming to have what his victims respect and to give what they want. The majority in most modern countries respect science and want to be planned. And, therefore, almost by definition, if any man or group wishes to enslave us it will of course describe itself as ‘scientific planned democracy.

    and

    My fears of such a tyranny will seem to the Professor either insincere or pusillanimous. For him the danger is all in the opposite direction, in the chaotic selfishness of individualism.  I must try to explain why I fear more the disciplined cruelty of some ideological oligarchy. The Professor has his own explanation of this; he thinks I am unconsciously motivated by the fact  that I ‘stand to lose by social change’. And indeed it would be hard for me to welcome a change which might well consign me to a concentration camp. I might add that it would be likewise easy for the Professor to welcome a change which might place him in the highest rank of an omnicompetent oligarchy. That is why the motive game is so uninteresting. Each side can go on playing—ad nauseam, but when all the mud has been flung every man’s views still remain to be considered on their merits.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Conservatism, Leftism, Philosophy, Religion, Science, Society | 16 Comments »

    Rickover

    Posted by David Foster on 26th July 2018 (All posts by )

    Recently watched an excellent documentary on Admiral Hyman Rickover, creator of the nuclear Navy. There’s quite a lot in the documentary that is relevant to today’s issues and concerns, for example:  circa 1972, the CIA had assured the Navy that the top speed of Russian attack subs was about 22 knots.  Rickover suspected that they were wrong, and he directed a carrier which was being shadowed by a Russian sub to gradually increase speed.  When it reached 30 knots, the shadowing sub was still there.

    Which provides one more interesting data point at a time when we are being lectured about the need to treat the conclusions of the “intelligence community” with reverence.

    In a 1974 speech, Rickover told of an ancient people called the Locrians:

    These people gave freedom of speech to all citizens. At public meetings anyone could stand up and argue for changes in law or custom, on one condition. A rope was placed around his neck before he began to speak and, if what he said did not meet with public approval, he was forthwith hanged. That, no doubt, prevented disturbing the even tenor of familiar customs and ways of life.

    I have encountered some in the Navy who look with nostalgia on this ancient custom.  But we must face the stark fact that an uncriticized society cannot long endure.

    Quite a few organizations in America today are following in the footsteps of the Locrians–the universities, especially, but also certain Silicon Valley companies.  And not only them.

    I learned of this documentary about the same time I read about a professor who was disturbed that Hispanic students that she interviewed credited their success to their own hard work and self-reliance rather than to affirmative action.

    Rickover was Jewish, and he entered the Navy at a time when Jews were not common in that service…and the negative attitudes toward Jews which were prevalent in the society at large were also quite common in the Navy, perhaps even stronger there than outside.  (The Academy yearbook pages for both Rickover and the only other Jewish midshipman in his class were conveniently perforated for easy removal.)

    And I wondered:  If Rickover had been influenced by professors and others endlessly and excessively beating the Victimhood drum, would he have been able to achieve the success and the great accomplishments that he did?  Or would he have just folded up and concluded that it was hopeless, that Jews had no chance in the Navy?

    Well, probably not Rickover–he was an extraordinarily tough and resilient man.  But there probably are a lot of people who have high potential, though maybe not on the Rickover level, and who are being inhibited and will be inhibited in achieving that potential due in substantial part to such preaching.

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    Posted in Human Behavior, Immigration, Judaism, Military Affairs, Science, Tech, USA, War and Peace | 10 Comments »

    Are Professors Undercutting Women in STEM?

    Posted by David Foster on 15th July 2018 (All posts by )

    …and, if so, which professors?

    It has often been asserted that (male) professors in engineering, math, computer science, etc are causing a shortage of women in STEM by projecting the attitude that women are unwelcome in their fields.  I’ve always thought this seemed rather unlikely as a common thing–though no doubt it happens in some  cases–if the assertion is meant to apply to the events of the last 20 years or so.

    Comes now Barbara Oakley, herself a professor of engineering:

    Professors have profound influence over students’ career choices. I’m sometimes flabbergasted at the level of bias and antagonism toward STEM from professors outside scientific fields. I’ve heard it all: STEM is only for those who enjoy “rote” work. Engineering is not creative. There’s only one right answer. You’ll live your life in a cubicle. It’s dehumanizing. You’ll never talk to anyone. And, of course, it’s sexist. All this from professors whose only substantive experience with STEM is a forced march through a single statistics course in college, if that.

    My colleagues in the humanities unthinkingly malign STEM in front of me. Their bias has become so deeply ingrained that they don’t think twice. My students tell me it’s worse when I’m not around.

    She also argues that the differing patterns of math vs verbal skills in men and women tends to make women more susceptible to the anti-STEM shots taken by the professors of which she is speaking:

    Many studies, including a critical review by Elizabeth Spelke in American Psychologist, have shown that on average men and women have the same abilities in math and science. But as Mr. Reges notes, women tend to do better than men verbally—a consequence of early developmental advantages…Consider a student who gets an A in every subject. Let’s call her Nadine. She’s the type of student who could excel in whatever she chooses. Her engineering professors might be telling her that an electrical engineering degree is a great career choice that will open doors and pay well. But her non-STEM professors may be telling her something completely different: “You won’t use your fantastic writing skills. And besides, you’ll just sit in a cubicle crunching numbers.” Nadine can begin to feel she’s untrue to her full set of talents if she picks engineering. So Nadine jumps the STEM ship.

    Only anecdotal evidence is presented; still, given the level of bitterness that seems to pervade today’s academia, the STEM-slamming behavior that Oakley describes doesn’t seem all that unlikely.

    Thoughts?

    Posted in Academia, Arts & Letters, Human Behavior, Science, Tech | 10 Comments »

    Don’t Trust Numbers Without Understanding What They Actually Mean

    Posted by David Foster on 9th May 2018 (All posts by )

    It seems that the German railroad Deutsche Bahn excludes those trains that break down en-route (or that never even start) when calculating arrival statistics…and there are a lot of such trains.  (via Cold Spring Shops)

    So it would be pretty inappropriate to compare DB’s schedule performance, calculated in this way, with the schedule performance of a railroad that did include broken-down or never started trains in the late-arrival category.

    There are a lot of cases in which statistics may not be actually comparable in the way that they are assumed to be…for example, it seems that the US calculates infant mortality in a different way from most other countries, owing to the different treatment of premature births.

    Journalists, in general, fail completely in explaining what the numbers that they are citing actually mean…probably because in most cases, they don’t understand themselves.

    Posted in Media, Science | 16 Comments »

    A Disturbingly-Declining Rate of Return in Pharma R&D?

    Posted by David Foster on 5th May 2018 (All posts by )

    Here’s an interesting analysis

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    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Science | 8 Comments »

    Ancient DNA, Genetics and Race

    Posted by Michael Kennedy on 6th April 2018 (All posts by )

    UPDATE: Greg Cochrane is doing chapter by chapter discussion of the Reich book so I will just link to his discussion. This week it is the chapter on India.

    On the whole, people from North India have more ANI ancestry, while people in southern Indian have more ASI ancestry. The proportions generally range from 80% ANI to 80% ASI. There are actually a few populations that are close to unmixed ANI (Kalash) or unmixed ASI (tribal populations in South India such as Palliyar, Ulladan, Malayan, and Adiyan). Groups that speak Indo-European languages typically have more ANI, while those speaking Dravidian have more ASI. Populations (including castes) with higher social status generally have more ANI ancestry. The Y-chromosome and mtDNA patterns show that ANI contributed a disproportionate fraction of male ancestry, while ASI accounts for the great majority of female ancestry – again, much like Latin America.

    The Y chromosome suggests male ancestry in a situation where the male conquerer mates with female conquered tribes.

    The Brahmins have the highest proportion of ANI or Indo European genetic material.

    I don’t know how many here are interested in this but the new book by David Reich may prove to be as revolutionary as Murray’s “The Bell Curve”.

    I’m reading the new book, “Who We Are and How We Got Here”.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Science, Tech | 30 Comments »

    So, Really Want to Talk About Foreign Intervention?

    Posted by David Foster on 3rd April 2018 (All posts by )

    Much ink and many photons have been spent discussing Russia’s attempts to influence (or at least disrupt) the American 2016 Presidential campaign.  Meanwhile…

    Here’s an appalling story about how anger from the Chinese government led Marriott Corporation to fire an employee who had ‘liked’ a tweet which congratulated the company for listing Tibet as a country, along with Hong Kong and Taiwan….of course, the Chinese regime considers Tibet to be a part of China, not a separate country.

    China forced Marriott to suspend all online booking for a week at its nearly 300 Chinese hotels. A Chinese leader also demanded the company publicly apologize and “seriously deal with the people responsible,” the Journal reported.

    And boy, did Marriott ever apologize. Craig Smith, president of the hotel chain’s Asian division, told the China Daily that Marriott had committed two significant mistakes — presumably the survey listing Tibet and the liked tweet — that “appeared to undermine Marriott’s long-held respect for China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

    He announced an “eight-point rectification plan” that included education for hotel employees across the globe and stricter supervision.

    And the Marriott executive said this to China’s most-read English-language newspaper: “This is a huge mistake, probably one of the biggest in my career.”

    (More here…according to this article, the Chinese suppression of Marriott bookings was in response to the initial listing of Tibet as a country rather than to the tweet approving of this listing)

    The Chinese economy is, shall we say, a little more dynamic than that of Russia, so the government of China has much more ability to strong-arm American corporations (in general) than does the Putin regime.

    Turning now from the hotel industry to the movie industry, Richard Gere says that Chinese pressure due to his stand on Tibetan independence has led to his being dropped from big Hollywood movies.  Also:

    Gere’s activities have not just made Hollywood apparently reluctant to cast him in big films, he says they once resulted in him being banished from an independently financed, non-studio film which was not even intended for a Chinese release.

    “There was something I was going to do with a Chinese director, and two weeks before we were going to shoot, he called saying, ‘Sorry, I can’t do it,’” Gere recalled. “We had a secret phone call on a protected line. If I had worked with this director, he, his family would never have been allowed to leave the country ever again, and he would never work.”

    See also How China’s Censors Influence Hollywood.  Because the Chinese market is so large…(Fast and Furious 7 pulled in $388 million in China, more than it made in the US)…the influence of the Chinese regime on US film production and distribution has become immense.

    In recent years, foreign filmmakers have also gone out of their way not to provoke the Communist Party. For instance, the 2012 remake of the Cold War action movie, Red Dawn, originally featured Chinese soldiers invading an American town. After filming was complete, though, the moviemakers went back and turned the attacking army into North Koreans, which seemed a safer target, at least until last year’s hack of Sony Pictures.

    and

    Ying Zhu, a professor of media culture at the College of Staten Island at the City University of New York, worries China’s growing market power is giving the Communist Party too much leverage over Hollywood.

    “The Chinese censors can act as world film police on how China can be depicted, how China’s government can be depicted, in Hollywood films,” she says. “Therefore, films critical of the Chinese government will be absolutely taboo.”

    In the late 1990s, when China’s box office was still small, Hollywood did make movies that angered the Communist Party, such as Seven Years In Tibet, about the life of the Dalai Lama, and Red Corner, a Richard Gere thriller that criticized China’s legal system. Given the importance of the China market now, Zhu says those movies wouldn’t get financing today.

    Plus, Chinese companies have snapped up Hollywood studios, theaters and production companies.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Business, China, Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Environment, Film, Media, Russia, Science, Tech, USA | 34 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading & Viewing

    Posted by David Foster on 4th March 2018 (All posts by )

    Bioluminescence at American Digest

    Some thoughts on storytelling

    Peer influence among adolescents as a driver of transgenderism

    Sarah Hoyt: “Have most institutions, stores and corporations, most large human organizations, gone stone stupid?”

    3-D printing in the manufacture of GE’s new turboprop engine

    Jim Grant, the well-known observer and analyst of interest rates, asks “what will futurity make of the (so-called) PhD standard that runs our world?” and suggests that, after a major market crash, explanations will include “My generation gave former tenured economics professors discretionary authority to fabricate money and fix interest rates.”

    Reminds me:  Danielle DiMartino Booth, who took a job at the Fed following a successful career on Wall Street, remarked that she did not experience discrimination on account of her sex…but she did face serious prejudice against her on account of not having a PhD.

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    Posted in Economics & Finance, Human Behavior, Management, Organizational Analysis, Science, USA | 22 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading & Viewing

    Posted by David Foster on 28th September 2017 (All posts by )

    Things that were once common knowledge…and now are not

    Advice on leadership for Naval Academy cadets…applicable in other walks of life as well

    A time-lapse video of 30 days at sea

    Animated films:  a transition both in technologies and in implicit political messages

    Who murdered beauty?…an analysis of some trends in the world of art

    Cedar Sanderson asks What do Environmentalists, JRR Tolkein, Luddites, and Progressives all have in common?

    Company towns, then and now

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Business, Deep Thoughts, Film, Science, Society, Tech, Transportation | 8 Comments »

    Summer Rerun: Stories of Solar Stress

    Posted by David Foster on 23rd August 2017 (All posts by )

    (rerun inspired by the Eclipse)

    In my post A Perfect Enemy, I mentioned Poul Anderson’s 1972 story A Chapter of Revelation. God–intending to demonstrate His existence to the world and thereby encourage people to prevent the global nuclear war which is about to occur–stops the movement of the sun across the sky. (Technically, He does this by slowing earth’s rotation period to a value identical with Earth’s year.) The reaction to this event is confirmation bias on an immense scale: just about everyone draws the conclusion that the miracle proves that whatever beliefs they already held were the correct ones…for example, a Russian scientist (remember, this was written in 1972) suggests that  “The requirement of minimum hypothesis practically forces us to assume that what happened resulted from the application of a technology centuries beyond ours. I find it easy to believe that an advanced civilization, capable of interstellar travel, sent a team to save mankind from the carnage threatened by an imperialism which that society outgrew long ago.”   Moralists, militarists, extreme right-wing evangelists, Black Power advocates…all find in the miracle only proof of their own rightness, and the world slides into further chaos, with riots, coups d’etat, and cross-border military attacks.

    Several weeks ago, I picked up Karen Thompson Walker’s novel The Age of Miracles, in which strange solar behavior also plays a leading part. Eleven-year-old Julia, focused in the usual challenges of growing up, is not too concerned when scientists announce that–for some unknown reason–the earth’s rotation has slowed very slightly and the days and nights are both getting a little longer. But the process, whatever it is, continues…the days and the nights get longer..and longer..and longer.

    A very well-written book, IMO; especially impressive since it is the author’s first novel. Not everyone agrees: the Amazon reviews indicate that a lot of people liked it very much, and quite a few found it disappointing. But I thought it was very worthwhile; hard to put down, in fact.

    Another coming-of-age story involving solar phenomena is Connie Willis’s Daisy, in the Sun. Like the protagonist of the previous book, Daisy is dealing with the problems of adolescence–oh, and by the way, the sun (which Daisy has always loved) is going to go nova and kill everyone on earth. It’s a strange story, difficult to summarize…I’ll just quote from the author’s introduction:

    During the London Blitz, Edward R. Murrow was startled to see a fire engine racing past. It was the middle of the day, the sirens had not gone, and he hadn’t heard any bombers. He could not imagine where a fire engine would be going.

    It came to him, after much thought, that it was going to an ordinary house fire, and that that seemed somehow impossible, as if all ordinary disasters should be suspended for the duration of this great Disaster that was facing London and commanding everybody’s attention. But of course houses caught fire and burned down for reasons that had nothing to do with the Blitz, and even in the face of Armageddon, there are still private armageddons to be faced.

    The Poul Anderson story can be found in his short-story collection Dialogue With Darkness, and Daisy, in the Sun is in Fire Watch.

    8/22/17 update:  Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall would be a good addition to this collection.

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    Posted in Book Notes, Current Events, Science | 4 Comments »

    Poetry for the Eclipse

    Posted by David Foster on 21st August 2017 (All posts by )

    The impending eclipse reminded NeoNeocon of  a poem by Archibald Macleish:

    And here face down beneath the sun  
    And here upon earth’s noonward height  
    To feel the always coming on 
    The always rising of the night: 

     

    To feel creep up the curving east  
    The earthy chill of dusk and slow  
    Upon those under lands the vast  
    And ever climbing shadow grow 

     

    And strange at Ecbatan the trees  
    Take leaf by leaf the evening strange  
    The flooding dark about their knees  
    The mountains over Persia change 

     

    And now at Kermanshah the gate  
    Dark empty and the withered grass  
    And through the twilight now the late  
    Few travelers in the westward pass 

     

    And Baghdad darken and the bridge  
    Across the silent river gone 
    And through Arabia the edge 
    Of evening widen and steal on

     

    RTWT.  The poem reminded me of another poem, George Meredith’s Lucifer in Starlight:

     

    On a starred night Prince Lucifer uprose.
    Tired of his dark dominion swung the fiend
    Above the rolling ball in cloud part screened,
    Where sinners hugged their spectre of repose.
    Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those.
    And now upon his western wing he leaned,
    Now his huge bulk o’er Afric’s sands careened,
    Now the black planet shadowed Arctic snows.
    Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars
    With memory of the old revolt from Awe,
    He reached a middle height, and at the stars,
    Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank.
    Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,
    The army of unalterable law. 

    Posted in Current Events, Miscellaneous, Poetry, Science | Comments Off on Poetry for the Eclipse

    How to Get a Complex/Technical Bill Through a Legislature

    Posted by David Foster on 5th May 2017 (All posts by )

    In 1751, Lord Chesterfield decided that the time had come for England to switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.  In a letter to his son, he explained how he got this done:

    I consulted the best lawyers and the most skillful astronomers, and we cooked up a bill for that purpose. But then my difficulty began: I was to bring in this bill, which was necessarily composed of law jargon and astronomical calculations, to both which I am an utter stranger. However, it was absolutely necessary to make the House of Lords think that I knew something of the matter; and also to make them believe that they knew something of it themselves, which they do not. For my own part, I could just as soon have talked Celtic or Sclavonian to them as astronomy, and they would have understood me full as well: so I resolved to do better than speak to the purpose, and to please instead of informing them. I gave them, therefore, only an historical account of calendars, from the Egyptian down to the Gregorian, amusing them now and then with little episodes; but I was particularly attentive to the choice of my words, to the harmony and roundness of my periods, to my elocution, to my action. This succeeded, and ever will succeed; they thought I informed, because I pleased them; and many of them said that I had made the whole very clear to them; when, God knows, I had not even attempted it. Lord Macclesfield, who had the greatest share in forming the bill, and who is one of the greatest mathematicians and astronomers in Europe, spoke afterward with infinite knowledge, and all the clearness that so intricate a matter would admit of: but as his words, his periods, and his utterance, were not near so good as mine, the preference was most unanimously, though most unjustly, given to me.

    Posted in Britain, History, Politics, Rhetoric, Science | 3 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading

    Posted by David Foster on 4th March 2017 (All posts by )

    Simulating a microprocessor with techniques similar to those used in neuroscience raises some cautionary thoughts about conclusions being drawn in the later work.

    Don Sensing links his 2014 post:  America is adopting the Middle East model, and he’s not talking about Islam but rather about the   fact that “At an increasing pace, politics in the West, especially in America, is the surest way to wealth, a 180-out from the West’s history”…but consistent with the way things have worked for millennia in the Middle East.

    Anthony Esolen:  We are a people now illiterate in a way that is unprecedented for the human race. We can decipher linguistic signs on a page, but we have no songs and immemorial stories in our hearts.

    Wendy McElroy on “social justice warriors” and the persecution of heretics.

    Despite about all the automation innovations and the concerns about robots taking all the jobs, manufacturing productivity may really not be showing much in the way of an upward trend.

    Management and meaningful work, studied via Legos

    Posted in Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Economics & Finance, Human Behavior, Leftism, Management, Medicine, Middle East, Science, Tech | 1 Comment »

    Judith Curry Resigns Her Faculty Position.

    Posted by Michael Kennedy on 5th January 2017 (All posts by )

    The world of Climate research lost a great academic figure as Judith Curry resigns her tenured faculty position at Georgia Tech.

    She has figured largely in the climate debate as a skeptic in global warming.

    I have retired from Georgia Tech, and I have no intention of seeking another academic or administrative position in a university or government agency. However, I most certainly am not retiring from professional life.

    Why did I resign my tenured faculty position?

    I’m ‘cashing out’ with 186 published journal articles and two books. The superficial reason is that I want to do other things, and no longer need my university salary. This opens up an opportunity for Georgia Tech to make a new hire (see advert).

    The deeper reasons have to do with my growing disenchantment with universities, the academic field of climate science and scientists.

    She has endured considerable abuse from the alarmist side. She is called a “heretic” in the alarmist circles.

    over the past year or so she has become better known for something that annoys, even infuriates, many of her scientific colleagues. Curry has been engaging actively with the climate change skeptic community, largely by participating on outsider blogs such as Climate Audit, the Air Vent and the Black¬board. Along the way, she has come to question how climatologists react to those who question the science, no matter how well established it is. Although many of the skeptics recycle critiques that have long since been disproved, others, she believes, bring up valid points

    So, she might have a point. However:

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Education, Environment, Politics, Science | 6 Comments »

    “Scientists Say”

    Posted by David Foster on 28th September 2016 (All posts by )

    Almost every day, I see a headline that starts with the words “scientists say”…everything from “Scientists say pizza is better than money for motivating employees” to “scientists say men who are good listeners are better at sex.”  Sometimes the headlines go even further and assert that “science says.”

    If you try to track down the actual headlines behinds these assertions, you will often find a study done on 40 or so undergraduates, sometimes using questionable methodologies, on which the journalists base their imprimatur of ‘science says.’  And very often, you can’t ever read the study unless you’re willing to pay $30 or more for the privilege, because it’s in an access-controlled journal.  This doesn’t stop the university PR departments from issuing breathless press releases about the study conclusions, though.

    It’s sort of sad–scientific publishing was once a way of disseminating information; now it functions largely as a means for limiting access to information.  I have a hard time understanding why publicly-funded research shouldn’t be required to be publicly available on the Internet at no or minimal cost.

    I think the ‘scientists say’ and ‘science says’ memes would not work in a society where most of the population had some degree of scientific education.  Science is not shamanism, and scientists are not oracles.

    Posted in Academia, Media, Science, USA | 25 Comments »

    Socio-Economic Modeling and Behavioral Simulations

    Posted by Michael Hiteshew on 2nd June 2016 (All posts by )

    SimulationsIn his Foundation series of books, Isaac Asimov imagined a science, which he termed psycho-history, that combined elements of psychology, history, economics, and statistics to predict the behaviors of large population over time under a given set of socio-economic conditions. It’s an intriguing idea. And I have no doubt much, much more difficult to do than it sounds, and it doesn’t sound particularly easy to begin with.

    Behavioral modeling is currently being used in many of the science and engineering disciplines. Finite element analysis (FEA), for example, is used to model electromagnetic effects, thermal effects and structural behaviors under varying conditions. The ‘elements’ in FEA are simply building blocks, maybe a tiny cube of aluminum, that are given properties like stiffness, coefficient of thermal expansion, thermal resistivity, electrical resistivity, flexural modulus, tensile strength, mass, etc. Then objects are constructed from these blocks and, under stimulus, they take on macro-scale behaviors as a function of their micro-scale properties. There are a couple of key ideas to keep in mind here, however. The first is that inanimate objects do not exercise free will. The second is that the equations used to derive effects are based on first principles, which is to say basic laws of physics, which are tested and well understood. A similar approach is used for computational fluid dynamics (CFD), which is used to model the atmosphere for weather prediction, the flow of water over a surface for dam design, or the flow of air over an aircraft model. The power of these models lies in the ability of the user to vary both the model and the input stimulus parameters and then observe the effects. That’s assuming you’ve built your model correctly. That’s the crux of it, isn’t it?

    I was listening to a lecture on the work of a Swiss team of astrophysicists the other day called the Quantum Origins of Space and Time. They made an interesting prediction based on the modeling they’ve done of the structure of spacetime. In a result sure to disappoint science fiction fans everywhere, they predict that wormholes do not exist. The reason for the prediction is simply that when they allow them to exist at the quantum level, they cannot get a large scale universe to form over time. When they are disallowed, the same models create De Sitter universes like the one we have.

    It occurred to me that it would be interesting to have the tools to run models with societies. Given the state of a society X, what is the economic effect of tax policy Y. More to the point, what is cumulative effect of birth rate A, distribution of education levels B, distribution of personal debt C, distribution of state tax rates D, federal debt D, total cost to small business types 1-100 in tax and regulations, etc.  This would allow us to test the effects of our current structure of tax, regulation, education and other policies. Setting up the model would be a gargantuan task. You would need to dedicate the resources of an institute level organization with expertise across a wide range of disciplines. Were we to succeed in building even a basic functioning model, its usefulness would be beyond estimation to the larger society.

    It’s axiomatic that anything powerful can and will be weaponized. It is also completely predictable that the politically powerful would see this as a tool for achieving their agenda. Simply imagine the software and data sets under the control of a partisan governing body. How might they bias the data to skew the output to a desired state? How might they bias the underlying code? Might an enemy state hack the system with the goal to have you adopt damaging policies, doing the work of social destruction at no expense or risk to them?

    Is this achievable? I think yes. All or most of the building blocks exist: computational tools, data, statistical mathematics and economic models. We are in the state we were in with regard to computers in the 1960s, before microprocessors. All the building blocks existed as separate entities, but they had not been integrated in a single working unit at the chip level. What’s needed is the vision, funding and expertise to put it all together. This might be a good project for DARPA.

    Posted in Book Notes, Deep Thoughts, Economics & Finance, Organizational Analysis, Science, Statistics, Systems Analysis | 46 Comments »

    The Navajo Sandstone

    Posted by Michael Hiteshew on 30th May 2016 (All posts by )

    Early Jurassic

    Early Jurassic

    200 million years ago North America sat about 20 degrees above the equator. The newly born Mid-Atlantic Ridge was breaking Pangea apart, separating Laurentia from Gondwana, and one arm of the rift feature was beginning to propagate through Gondwana, beginning the separation of South America as well.

    Western Laurentia was a sea of sand, the remnants of which are still found all across the western USA as massive cliffs of buff colored sandstone, often over 1,000 feet high. The defining features of the Navajo Sandstone, besides its color, are the the large-scale cross-bedding and its tendency to weather across its exposed top surface into domes and rounded forms. The Navajo was one the largest seas of sand dunes ever seen on the planet. The most spectacular exposures of the Navajo are to be seen at Zion National Park where it reaches more than 2,500 feet in thickness. When the Colorado Plateau was uplifted in the Laramide Orogeny in last 45 million years, that created a lot of elevation difference between the uplifted ground surface and sea level, which allowed water to cut deeply through  the rock, exposing it to erosion. If you look at the cross section of the Grand Staircase below, you’ll see that more than a mile of rock has already been eroded from the ground above the Grand Canyon, the Vermillion Cliffs, and the White Cliffs of Navajo.

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    Posted in Science, USA | 9 Comments »

    The Sun

    Posted by Michael Hiteshew on 9th May 2016 (All posts by )

    From NASA TV, here’s an image of Mercury transiting the sun today:

    Mercury Transit

    Mercury Transit

    That image gives a good feel for the scale of the planets versus the sun. Earth would appear a little more than twice that size. Here’s an amazing 4k time lapse video of the sun in various ultraviolet wavelengths. Based on the scale of Mercury in the image above, pick out a small feature in this video and consider the entire Earth would probably fit inside it. Then by comparison, consider the scale and the energies of the loops and streams and mass ejections in this video.

    The video is even more amazing just left running in full screen on an HD monitor . It’s completely mesmerizing.

    NASA Ultra-HD Video Gallery

    Posted in Science, Space | 1 Comment »

    Intelligent Design

    Posted by Michael Hiteshew on 26th March 2016 (All posts by )

    Sistine_Chapel

    I believe in the evolution of life, I think there’s lots of fossil evidence for it and none for a single-point-of-time creation of mankind. I also believe in the evolution of the universe for the same reason. 14.5 billion years ago the universe came into existence as a hot plasma, from which galaxies, stars and planets condensed. How simple and straightforward is that?

    It could hardly be more complex. Starting with the universe, no one can explain from where the universe came or into what it is expanding. In other words, we can say “The following things have happened and here’s the evidence”. And that’s fine, I accept the evolutionary description. What’s missing is how a universe of material was born from a point in nowhere. No one wants to talk about that and will cry “No fair!” if you try to discuss it. It is unanswerable, apparently. How does one discuss what happened or even what existed in a time before time existed? And no one wants to think about the consequences of that violating every principle of what we call science and physics. It’s too uncomfortable to confront.

    Biologists will tell you life is easy to create. It seems to have existed on Earth within a few hundred million years of its formation. Provide a suitable habitat that’s warm and stable, wet with water or suitable liquid, add energy and a few raw materials like carbon and hydrogen, and bingo! you get life. We’ve been trying that for 50 years and can’t get that experiment to work. We get complex chemicals forming similar to the ones we see in life forms, but nothing that’s alive.

    Something fundamental bothers me about all this. Why? There’s no answer to that question. It’s the question we seem to be asking from the moment we’re born, children ask it endlessly. Why should a universe pop into existence out of nothing? Why should life exist in it? What is the purpose of either? For all of our ability to describe what happened, we cannot answer the why of it. How could something like life come into existence from inanimate matter unless it was designed to do so? Carl Sagan famously quipped, “If you want to make an apple pie, first you must create the universe.” That’s very profound in its way. The simplest things, like a pie, require the inexplicable to have occurred, and on a scale beyond human comprehension.

    In the end, it seems, I have no answers, only questions. But I reject the notion that all of this is meaningless. A universe does not exist for no reason. Life does not exist for nothing. It all exists for us to learn, to experience it. It’s where our souls grow up. It’s where our spirit evolves. That’s what I think.

     

    Posted in Deep Thoughts, Philosophy, Science | 54 Comments »

    Another step for Craig Venter.

    Posted by Michael Kennedy on 24th March 2016 (All posts by )

    cell

    I have previously posted about Venter’s work with synthetic organisms.

    While I was digesting this new material, Craig Venter was making the Gene VII book obsolete. He set up a new company to compete with the Human Genome Project The result is well described in The Genome War by James Shreeve who was given access to Venter but less to the government funded project. This year, Venter’s autobiography was published and his plans for the future are described.

    The links are at the original article which is from 2007.

    Now, his group has progressed to a synthetic bacterium.

    Using the first synthetic cell, Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 (created by this same team in 2010), JCVI-syn3.0 was developed through a design, build, and test process using genes from JCVI-syn1.0. The new minimal synthetic cell contains 531,560 base pairs and just 473 genes, making it the smallest genome of any organism that can be grown in laboratory media. Of these genes 149 are of unknown biological function. By comparison the first synthetic cell, M. mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 has 1.08 million base pairs and 901 genes.

    A paper describing this research is being published in the March 25th print version of the journal Science by lead authors Clyde A. Hutchison, III, Ph.D. and Ray-Yuan Chuang, Ph.D., senior author J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., and senior team of Hamilton O. Smith, MD, Daniel G. Gibson, Ph.D., and John I. Glass, Ph.D.

    This is huge news and will take years to develop.

    The most surprising result of their work—and perhaps the most sobering one for the rest of the field: The team still doesn’t understand what 31 percent of the essential genes do in even the simplest organism, to say nothing of a human genome. It’s a development Venter called “very humbling.”

    “We are probably at the 1 percent level in understanding the human genome,” said Clyde Hutchison III, a distinguished professor at the Venter Institute.

    That lack of knowledge isn’t standing in the way of entrepreneurs. Biology has been “hot and heavy” since the development of a molecular tool that makes gene editing easy, Hutchison explained. Scientists might be able to remove disease-causing genes or even determine a baby’s eye color. This technology, known as CRISPR/Cas-9, has alarmed many inside and outside the research community, who fear it may be used on the human genome before its effects are understood, with unforeseen results.

    If he does another public seminar, I hope my friend Bradley can get me a ticket. I am now reading Lewin’s Genes XI, although he seems to be no longer the editor.

    I hope I can wade through it. Sometimes, as knowledge progresses, it becomes simpler. I hope so.

    “These cells would be a very, very useful chassis for many industrial applications, from medicine to biochemicals, biofuels, nutrition, and agriculture,” said Dan Gibson, a top scientist at both Venter’s research institute and his company, Synthetic Genomics Inc. Ultimately, the group wants to understand the tiny genetic framework well enough to use it as a biological foundation for more complex organisms that could address many of the world’s ills. Once each essential gene’s function is identified, scientists can build an effective computer model of it; from there, they can simulate how best to go about “adding pathways for the production of useful products,” they wrote.

    I will be following this story closely, if I can only understand it.

    Posted in Book Notes, Miscellaneous, Science | 5 Comments »

    Quote of the Day

    Posted by Jonathan on 17th March 2016 (All posts by )

    Charles Murray, quoting himself and Richard Herrnstein from The Bell Curve:

    In sum: If tomorrow you knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that all the cognitive differences between races were 100 percent genetic in origin, nothing of any significance should change. The knowledge would give you no reason to treat individuals differently than if ethnic differences were 100 percent environmental. By the same token, knowing that the differences are 100 percent environmental in origin would not suggest a single program or policy that is not already being tried. It would justify no optimism about the time it will take to narrow the existing gaps. It would not even justify confidence that genetically based differences will not be upon us within a few generations. The impulse to think that environmental sources of difference are less threatening than genetic ones is natural but illusory.
     
    In any case, you are not going to learn tomorrow that all the cognitive differences between races are 100 percent genetic in origin, because the scientific state of knowledge, unfinished as it is, already gives ample evidence that environment is part of the story. But the evidence eventually may become unequivocal that genes are also part of the story. We are worried that the elite wisdom on this issue, for years almost hysterically in denial about that possibility, will snap too far in the other direction. It is possible to face all the facts on ethnic and race differences on intelligence and not run screaming from the room. That is the essential message [pp. 314-315].

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    Posted in Culture, Human Behavior, Quotations, Science, Society, Statistics | 4 Comments »

    Rough-Hewn Land: California to the Rocky Mountains

    Posted by Michael Hiteshew on 6th March 2016 (All posts by )

    RoughHewnLandKeith Meldahl, a geologist and professor of geology, has written one of the most interesting books on the history of the American West I’ve ever encountered. It’s a history of how it got the way it is, physically. He covers the creation of California – it’s only recently been pasted onto North America – how the Sierra Nevada formed and what it actually is, why Nevada looks like it does, how the Colorado Plateau got there, how the Rocky Mountains were formed, and some very interesting and odd details as well. Along the way, he provides a few vignettes of the early explorers and settlers and their often brutal encounters with these features.

    Probably the two most important players in all this are something you’ve never heard of, the Farallon Plate, and the North America continent itself. Long story short, 240 million years ago  the world’s landmasses had merged together into single massive conglomeration called Pangea (All Land). Prior to that time, North America had moved West to East, the East coast was the active margin and the West coast, which then ended in a line from Wyoming across Utah and through Nevada, trailed along. The eventual impact with Africa raised the Appalachians to Himalaya scale and merged us to it like India to Asia. By 150 million years ago, Pangea was breaking apart and a newly born mid-ocean ridge opened the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. As the ridge continued to build new seafloor, it spread apart. Everything east of that ridge began being pushed to the east, and everything west of it, including North America, began being pushed to the west. It was then that things began changing for the western states. You can page through that 100 million years at Arcadia Street for a glimpse at the plant and animal life you would have seen, had you been there.

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    Posted in Book Notes, Environment, History, North America, Science, USA | 8 Comments »

    Catch D’Wave

    Posted by Michael Hiteshew on 5th March 2016 (All posts by )

     

    QuantumChipDWave

     

    D-Wave Systems, located in British Columbia, is a builder of commercial quantum computers. It stores bits as magnetic directions in one of three states: clockwise, counterclockwise, and both directions simultaneously. The math and physics are far beyond me, but they claim to solve certain sets of optimization problems up to 100,000,000 times faster than classical computers. Customers for their computers, which cost $10 million apiece, include Lockheed Martin, an unnamed intelligence agency (NSA?), Google, JPL and NASA Ames Research.

    Applications appear to be computationally intensive problems with lots of variables, and the solution involves a process called quantum annealing, where an optimal approach is found by exploring millions of solutions simultaneously to find the most efficient solution path. I’m reminded of a discussion on the famous double slit experiment, a classic physics experiment that demonstrates photons displaying behaviors of both waves and particles, known as wave-particle duality. Most interesting is that quantum probabilistic behaviors are also observed, in that the experiment functions differently when the particle paths are observed and when they are not. When the photons in the experiment are observed, the probability function collapses and the photons behave like a particles. If they are not observed, the photons take many paths through the slits and create a dispersed pattern on the target. That behavior has been described as “spooky”, because the particles seem to know when they are being observed. Weird, I know. It’s been said that anyone who claims to understand quantum mechanics is lying. But that doesn’t mean we can’t describe its behavior. Richard Feynman explained that at the quantum level, every possible path a photon can take is considered, and the path chosen is a probability function, like a bell curve. As photons are emitted from a source, the most likely path is taken most often, but some photons will take slightly less probable paths, still other even less probable paths, and so on. Quantum annealing seems to be a form of that, where many paths are simultaneously considered until a most probable path emerges, then it is chosen.

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    Posted in Science, Tech | 5 Comments »

    The Fermi Paradox and SETI

    Posted by Michael Hiteshew on 31st January 2016 (All posts by )

    The Atacama Compact Array

    The Atacama Compact Array

    In 1950, amidst the UFO hoopla that was sweeping the world, Italian physicist Enrico Fermi posed a simple question, Where are they? By that he meant with lots of people making the argument that in a universe full of stars presumably with planets there should be lots of intelligent life out there. That seems plausible. So, he wondered, how come there isn’t a shred of evidence for it? After all, if we lived in a city full of people, wouldn’t we see them or at least see evidence of them being there? So why don’t we?

    Kepler

    In 1961 astronomer Frank Drake, interested in that very question, made an estimate of how many intelligent civilizations should exist inside our galaxy. The Drake Equation has seven terms, each a guess, from how many stars are born per year and how many of those have habitable planets through how many of those planets have developed technologies (like radio) that allow them to be detected. In 1961 there was not enough data to give reliable estimates to any of the terms. In the intervening 50 years we’ve accomplished enough basic research to apply actual values to the first few terms.

    The Milky Way produces about seven new stars per year. Virtually every star forms within a disc of gas and rock/metal dust called a protoplanetary disc that eventually condenses into planets. According to research derived from data collected by the Kepler spacecraft, at least 22% of Sun-like G type stars have an Earth-like planet in the habitable zone, the habitable zone being defined as the distance at which water neither boils off or is continuously frozen. Result: the number of habitable Earth-like planets in the Milky Way is at least 50 billion.

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    Posted in Science, Space | 22 Comments »

    The Ice Age Floods

    Posted by Michael Hiteshew on 1st January 2016 (All posts by )

    About 18,000 years ago, the Earth began to warm substantially. That was a really big deal, because the Northern Hemisphere was in an ice age. As much as 2 mile (~ 3-4 Km) thick ice sheets blanketed the northern continent. Because so much of the global water supply was locked up in ice, sea level dropped 350 feet (~ 120 m) and beaches and coastlines would have been miles further offshore than their current locations. Coastlines on the Atlantic Seaboard, and presumably globally, contain buried river channels cut deep into the continental shelf. During the Ice Age they weren’t buried, they were river valleys to then more distant shorelines.

    Last Glacial Maximum, 20.000 years ago

    Last Glacial Maximum, 20,000 years ago

    A wide lobe of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet crept across the valley of the Clark Fork River, eventually shutting off the flow completely, while the river pooled into the vast watershed behind it, including Missoula Valley, Flathead Valley, Thompson Valley, Mission Valley and Clearwater Valley. By 15,000-17,000 years ago the lake that was created, Glacial Lake Missoula, exceeded 2,000 feet (~ 600 m) in depth, had a surface area of ~3,000 square miles (6,500 Sq Km), and held 600 cubic miles (2,500 cubic Km) of water, as much as Lake Erie and Lake Ontario combined.

    Glacial flood map, 17,000 - 15,000 years ago

    Glacial flood map, 17,000 – 15,000 years ago

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    Posted in History, North America, Science | 22 Comments »