Quark Soup Archives

Dec. 29, 2001 - Jan. 14, 2002
January 14, 2002
   Lake Winnipesaukee update: still very much liquid.

January 13, 2002
   Scientists who bemoaned the Bush administration's late appointment of a science advisor may have wished he'd waited longer. John Marburger, speaking at last week's American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington D.C., warns that basic science will be judged more as an investment--and, presumably, less as an intellectually exciting quest that deepens man's understanding of nature and the universe. According to Sky and Telescope magazine, Marburger said, 

"This administration supports discovery-based science," but "[the president] insists on knowing why we are making an investment."
Uh...to continue in the tradition of Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, Faraday, Hertz, Curie, Fermi, Watson, Pauling, Lederman, or any of those others behind the cornucopia of knowledge and technology we live amidst?
   Thanks to Anton Skorucak for mentioning me in his Physlink.com newsletter, and the resulting increase in traffic.
   Know a crackpot? Rate him .

January 12, 2002
   Remember last winter's high gas and oil prices? Turns out much of it went to pad the bottom line of the energy companies. Profits of the major energy companies hit a new record as worldwide net income increased by 133 percent in 2000, compared to net income in 1999, according to data released yesterday by the Energy Information Administration (EIA). "The upswing in the major energy companies' bottom-line results was mainly driven by sharply higher prices for oil and natural gas in 2000."

   Wesley Crusher has a blog .

January 11, 2002
GM Euros:
   You have to love the irony: one of every six of those new Euro notes may be made from genetically modified cotton. (Euro manufacturers won't say either way.) Europeans insist on labeling food that contains any genetically modified ingredient, despite the lack of any scientific evidence whatsoever that they're unsafe.... (But try to find a smoke-free restaurant there.)

   Here's the kind of silly science story that the media loves: the universe is a "vast sea of green," according to a poster presentation at the just-ended American Astronomical Society. If it were possible to see the universe from afar (it isn't). If whoever was looking has the same optical response as humans (unlikely). But it's cute, so let's pump it up as important science and print it. 
   (That sound you hear is the sound of the common denominator ratcheting down yet one more notch.)

   A paper in the Jan. 4th issue of Science really makes you wonder about the veracity of predictions of coming climate change--you know, those predictions behind uncontroversial treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol. 
   Basically, any computer model purporting to predict climate ought to first pass one basic test: it should account for past results. The problem, this paper finds, is that climate models only do a so-so job at this first and most necessary step. 
   Much more work needs to be done on the rate at which oceans take up heat, they found. Too, the cooling effect of aerosols needs to be studied further.
   Choosing imput values that come closest to matching past climate, the researchers then go on to make their best prediction (guess?) of future warming. A much-cited measure of coming change is the global temperature rise associated with a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (from pre-industrial planetary levels). The current paper's best guess finds about the same lower limit as the long-cited 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit repeated by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), widely accepted as papal authority on this subject. (Some of the input to IPCC computer models come from polling researchers for their opinions.) But their value for the upper limit is 13.9 F, significantly higher than the IPCC's 8.1 F. Which raises the question: can we believe anyone's numbers?
   Don't expect to see much coverage of this in the mainstream media--real scientific issues like model accuracy and prediction uncertainities just aren't as cute as...the color of the universe. 

January 10, 2002
   According to a just published report in Nature, "The risk of getting variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), the human form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease), from sheep could be negligible. Or it could boost the total possible number of deaths (including those caused by cattle) from vCJD to 150,000, researchers calculate." We could have known more, but last year it was discovered that sheep brain samples were contaminated with cow tissue, so researchers had to resort to a computer model. 

   There is no scientific evidence for accurate identification by fingerprints, a federal judge has ruled . "It would thus be a misnomer to call fingerprint examiners a 'scientific community,'" he wrote. I guess that leaves them in the company of polygraph experts.

January 9, 2002
   This article in today's Manchester Union-Leader discusses a recent report ( press release here ) by University of New Hampshire economics professor Marc Herold, stating that between 4,000 and 5,000 Afghan civilians have died since the United States began the bombing Oct. 7th. Herold writes:

“The critical element remains the very low value put upon Afghan civilian lives by U.S. military planners and the political elite, as clearly revealed by U.S. willingness to bomb heavily populated regions.”
Minor point: Like most social science studies, there's very little attempt to estimate the accuracy of these numbers.
   Adding to yesterday's post on animals and emotions, this October 26th article in The Chronicle of Higher Education wonders if some animals feel empathy for the pain of others. Always the empiricist, after reading it I spent a self-conscious minute pathetically pretending to cry, with my cat Eli laying in the Kitty Bake OvenTM under my desk lamp. His tail twitched a few times, after which he rolled over and stretched his legs. He eventually got up and moved to the couch.
   Here's a column on Weblogs by Instapundit's Glenn Reynolds.
   The incidence of Americans who have sought treatment for depression has increased by 220% in the last ten years, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. (Actual numbers: 1.7 million to 6.3 million.) But are they receiving better care? Treatment visits per patient were down about a third, and pills are offered more than psychotherapy (a combination of the two has been shown to be more effective): 
"Treatment became characterized by greater involvement of physicians, greater use of psychotropic medications, and expanding availability of third-party payment, but fewer outpatient visits and less use of psychotherapy. These changes coincided with the advent of better-tolerated antidepressants, increased penetration of managed care, and the development of rapid and efficient procedures for diagnosing depression in clinical practice."
January 8, 2002
   Conservative bloggers like Joanne Jacobs and protein wisdom are up in arms that some animal rights activists have dared to criticize Ringling Brothers Circus. We're smart humans, they're dumb animals--ergo, too bad, is their attitude, we'll treat you any way we damn well choose.
   But science is putting the lie to this way of thinking. "Mounting evidence suggests that animals feel a wide array of humanlike emotions, from happiness, sadness and anger to perhaps even love and embarrassment," according to this fine article in the Sept/Oct 2001 issue of Natural Wildlife magazine. Its conclusion gets to the...er, meat of the issue:
Many scientists maintain that resolving the debate over animal emotions is much more than an intellectual exercise. If animals do experience a wide range of humanlike feelings, they say, it has implications for how they are treated by our own species.
   Quark Soup is not a vegetarian, for the record, though I have drastically curtailed my meat consumption in recent years. (It's amazing what they can do with soy these days.) I've tried vegetarianism several different times, but after a few months have always begun to feel...a little off, anemic. (Peter Singer isn't a vegetarian either.) That doesn't mean circus and stockyard animals don't suffer, of course, or that I'm not hypocritically aware of it. They clearly do--and that matters, in a deep, philosophical sense, just as it once came to matter that slaves suffered for the way they were treated, that women suffered (and still do, in places), or that blacks suffered. What's the use of pretending otherwise?
   Did inadequate fireproofing contribute to the collapse of the World Trade Center towers? That's the question posed in this December article in the trade magazine Construction News:
"Inspections in the 1990s indicate that at least some of the steel rods supporting the floors of the twin towers were not covered with enough fireproofing insulation.... Building codes required that each of the steel rods making up the floor joists at the World Trade Centre be coated with two inches of fire protection. But some photographs taken during the inspections show only a spattering of spray-on fireproofing."
In other words , says science writer Sheldon Rampton (co-author of Toxic Sludge is Good for You! and Trust Us, We're Experts!), cost-cutting, and not the choice of insulation material, may have lead to the WTC collapse.
   Remarkably, Stephen Hawking turns 60 today. A workshop and symposium in Cambridge, U.K., is being held in his honor.

January 7, 2002
   The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine claims that the  upcoming Jan. 17th "Calcium Summit II" in Washington D.C., being sponsored by the National Dairy Council and the Milk Processor Education Program, is actually an industry promotion, "orchestrated by BSMG Worldwide, the ad agency behind the $180-million-a-year 'milk-mustache' campaign."
   According to a Dec. 17th press release sent to journalists on the PCRM's mailing list (including yours truly), the documents obtained by the PCRM under the Freedom of Information Act reveal:

* The ad agency has given marching orders to many of the speakers, outlining proposed speeches.
* Conference organizers are planning elaborate security measures in case any participants disagree about the nutritional benefits of milk.
* At least one proposed participant, Jeffrey Koplan, M.D., M.P.H., director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, declined to promote the event because a government ethics code prohibits "endorsing any product, service or enterprise."
* Conference organizers planned to exclude members of the American Dietetic Association known to look favorably on a vegetarian diet from the invitation list.
(I have not been able to find a link to this release on the PCRM site.)
   The war between PCRM and the National Dairy Council is nothing new , driven, the anti-milk crowd says, by declining milk sales . (Don't ya love this press release? It reports that milk sales are down overall, down in California, the west, the southeast, and the northeast, but the release's headline draws attention only to the midwest.) 
   In their latest salvo, the National Dairy Council points to a Dec. 2001 NIH study that only 14 percent of girls and 36 percent of boys age 12 to 19 in the United States get the recommended daily amount of calcium. Their answer is the Milk Matters campaign.
   In a Jan. 3rd letter to journalists, the PCRM points to four studies showing "considerable evidence that dairy product consumption is not the best way to promote bone health," including a multiyear study (Feskanich D, Willett WC, Stampfer MJ, Colditz GA. Milk, dietary calcium, and bone fractures in women: a 12-year prospective study. Am J Publ Health 1997;87:992-7) that concluded, "We found no evidence that higher intakes of milk or calcium from food sources reduce fracture incidence." (For more info, look here .)
   What's a poor cereal-lover to think? And is it any wonder that 30-50 million North Americans are lactose intolerant?

January 6, 2002
   Today's NY Times has several letters replying to their earlier Op-Ed on the necessity of teaching the beauty of mathematics. I especially like this:

"It is misguided to justify teaching music by pointing to the marching band that glorifies athletic activities, or the fact that it "builds stronger minds," even though that may be perfectly true. Good teachers should teach students the enchantment not just of numbers, but of music, literature and the other arts as well."
   I'm also reminded of G.H. Hardy's hospital visit to the dying number theorist and genius Srinivasa Ramanujan. Looking upon arrival to begin a conversation, Hardy said, "I thought the number of my taxicab was 1729. It seemed to me rather a dull number."
   To which Ramanujan replied, "No Hardy! No Hardy! It is a very interesting number. It is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways."
   Not there's someone who got the beauty of numbers.
   N.b. Ramanujan was only 33 when he died.

January 5, 2002
   Noam Chomsky, whose insights are so reflexively shut out of the American mainstream media that it takes Pakistani television to give them light, explains in a November interview why it's a shame that more of those responsible for setting the world's governmental, social, and economic policies aren't trained in scientific thought:

"I don't think the problem of objectivity in human affairs is fundamentally different from science. I mean, no one working in the sciences has any confidence that what they are saying is correct. You can't. It's their empirical domains. You are drawing the best conclusions you can from scattered and limited evidence and finding the best theories you can--understanding that they are partially [unclear]...That's what science is. That's what rational activity is. With regard to objectivity every scientist knows--is aware--that he or she starts from a certain perspective. And you try to be critical of your own perspective. But you recognize that you can't [unclear]. I mean, you are approaching the problems you are dealing with from the point of view that you reached on the basis of earlier work--sometimes prejudiced--sometimes you think you have forgotten. You constantly try to challenge it. And that's the search for objectivity. And it's fundamentally no different when you are looking at international affairs or economic policy or social issues. Yes, of course, you are always starting from a point of view. You always want to recognize that point of view. You want to allow others to hear you, to understand your point of view and want to challenge it."
or, as Dr. Dean Edell put in on a recent edition of his radio show : "The politicians are sure of everything...and their record stands before us."

January 4, 2002
   Last summer I wrote a (highly unfavorable) review of the It Ain't Necessarily So: How Media Make and Unmake the Scientific Picture of Reality (Murray, Schwartz, and Lichter), which appeared in Salon. The authors were associated with the Statistical Assessment Service , a right-wing group that purports to assist journalists in getting the news right--all the while putting their own conservative spin to it.
   Kim McCarten, editor of Chicago zine Merge , wrote to inform me about her article on STATS and its affiliate, the Center for Media and Public Affairs. McCarten comes much to the same conclusion, questioning STATS' and CMPA's "...credibility, their sexism, and their hidden conservatism":

"Lichter's many organizations (including NewsWatch.org) seem to have a clear agenda---and it's not being a media watchdog or promoting 'non-partisan' critical analysis. And the news organizations and publications that use Lichter as a source need to be called on it." 
Beware from whom you get your news.
Via Slate : The Euro-skeptic Times of London claims that "one in three young women" could be allergic to euro coins. Apparently, they contain so much nickel (four times as much as the British pound and 16 times as much as the French franc) that millions of people, "particularly shop assistants, can expect to develop eczema from allergic reactions." 
   "...science is a collection of abstract maps of the world, not a substitute for our own experience of the world (our own intuitive map). Each specialized map must omit everything that is irrelevant, out of scope, and out of scale. What is the result? Science does not deny God, miracles, and the like; rather, it merely neglects them."
     -- John T. Chibnall, et. al., Archives of Internal Medicine , Nov. 26, 2001, p. 2535.

January 3, 2002
   The Massachusetts Supreme Court has ruled that children conceived with the sperm or egg of a dead parent are legal heirs, the first state in the country to so rule. In a case in which two six-year old twins were born two years after their father died (he had frozen his sperm), the Social Security Administration had shamefully ruled that the girls were not entitled to survivors' benefits because the he was only a sperm donor and not their legal father. (Whether the girl's mother would have the ability to pay for their shelter, food, and clothing was apparently not the SSA's concern.) It will be interesting to watch the courts, and society in general, grapple with the question of such legitimacy as increasingly many births become more about DNA and less about traditional, straightforward, nuclear parents. Guess who will pay the price until they do?

Why sports writers should avoid science metaphors:
   "Greatness is not achieved because of one flashing burst across the sky. If it were, Halley's comet would be a greater fireball than the sun. It is not." [In fact, it's not a fireball at all, but a dirty ball of ice!]
        -- Ron Borges, The Boston Globe, Dec. 30, 2001, p. C4
   "My review of 2001 is the same as my review of 2001: A Space Odyssey--it went on too long, it was hard to understand, and you could only enjoy it if you were really, really, really stoned."
        -- Lewis Black, The Daily Show, Jan. 2.

January 2, 2002
   Today's NY Times has an Op-Ed on our palindromic year and the need for better math teachers . Somehow I think it's going to take more than a couple of 4-digit numbers to interest students in studying mathematics, but the article then hits the nail on the head: "...qualified math teachers who might actually inspire children are in short supply, and math teaching in today's schools is often dry and boring." How many secondary school math teachers even get the concept of beauty in mathematics, let alone are inspired by it? (The best I got in high school was a statistics teacher who was enthralled by an early computer, and some of his enthusiasm bled off to us.) Most of those who do get it go on to graduate school, where after typically teaching a few years of math or science remedial classes they're still required to go through a two-year slate of hoops if they want to teach below the college level. Accelerated credentialing is a great idea, but even that is probably not enough: a grad-school friend of mine, highly qualified in both math and science and just the kind of person who'd be able to excitedly convey the beauty and deepness behind them, started the rapid route to teacher certification, but instead found much more lucrative opportunities with a software company. 
   Ah, what's the use. G. H. Hardy had it right in A Mathematician's Apology : "Most people are so frightened of the name of mathematics that they are ready, quite unaffectedly, to exaggerate their own mathematical stupidity." For that they can thank...their teachers.

January 1, 2002
   2001 was probably the second warmest year on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization. 
   I keep fairly detailed statistics on New Hampshire weather, where I live. The state's average temperature was 46.9 degrees (F) for the past year, 1.7 degrees above the long-term normal. (Last year's average was 0.9 degrees above normal.)
   Lake Winnipesaukee (shown here from my perch high above its southern shore) is usually frozen by now, but thanks to our very warm December even its bays are not yet solid. In 1998 the Lake froze on 12/27 -- I happened to catch what looked to be waves of crystallization move across its surface, a few miles away, in one of the more amazing things I've ever seen. Last year the Lake froze on 12/30, and in 1999 it was nearly frozen over by 1/7. Because the edges of the back bays have only begun to freeze, my guess is that this year it will be at least another week until the surface freezes over, and perhaps two. 
   Incidentally, "Winnipesaukee" comes from the Abenaki Indians, and means "beautiful waters in the high place."

   Fewer than half of American adults understand that the Earth orbits the sun yearly, according to a 1996 National Science Foundation study. If that many don't understand the basic concepts of seasons, is it any reason that global warming is nowhere on the American radar screen?

December 31, 2001
   The issue of Scientific American with the famous article "The First Human Cloned Embryo" is now on the newstand. There was discussion about whether Sci Am jumped the gun on this article, given that the embryo only reached the six-cell stage before it stopped dividing. (To their credit, Gary Stix covers this very issue on Sci Am's own Website.) After a query on this question from a member of the discussion list of the National Association of Science Writers, here is Sci Am editor-in-chief John Rennie's response .

December 30, 2001
   "We still inhabit the pre-history of our race, and have not caught up with the immense discoveries about our own nature and about the nature of the universe. The unspooling of the skein of the genome has effectively abolished racism and creationism, and the amazing findings of Hubble and Hawking have allowed us to guess at the origins of the cosmos."
       -- Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian    [emphasis mine]

December 29, 2001
   The start of the new year seems a good time to try my hand at that growing phenomenon, the Weblog. While there are many devoted to coverage of politics and culture (see Virginia Postrel's Dynamist.com for a list), most shy away from scientific topics. (OK, Postrel and Fumento are exceptions.) 
     If nothing else, here's a place to put all those thoughts, ideas, musings, and exclamations that I'd otherwise swallow, to the detriment of my health.

David Appell, science journalist

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