January 14, 2002
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.,
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,
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?
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
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."
HE MADE IT SO:
Wesley Crusher has
January 11, 2002
You have to love
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
HOW GREEN IS MY UNIVERSE?
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
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
There is no scientific
evidence for accurate identification by fingerprints, a federal judge
. "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
DEFINITELY MORE RESEARCH NEEDED:
According to a just
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.
January 9, 2002
CALL IT EVEN?
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:
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
by Instapundit's Glenn Reynolds.
The incidence of Americans
who have sought treatment for depression has increased by 220% in the last
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
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.
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
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
today. A workshop and symposium in Cambridge, U.K., is being held in his
January 7, 2002
DOES IT DO A BODY GOOD?
Committee for Responsible Medicine claims that the upcoming Jan. 17th
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'
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
(I have not been able to find a link
to this release on the PCRM site.)
organizers are planning elaborate security measures in case any participants
disagree about the nutritional benefits of milk.
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
organizers planned to exclude members of the American Dietetic Association
known to look favorably on a vegetarian diet from the invitation list.
between PCRM and the National Dairy Council is
, 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.)
latest salvo, the National Dairy Council points to a Dec. 2001
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,
a poor cereal-lover to think? And is it any wonder that 30-50 million North
Americans are lactose intolerant?
January 6, 2002
NY Times has
replying to their earlier Op-Ed
on the necessity of teaching the beauty of mathematics. I especially like
"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
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."
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
there's someone who got the beauty of numbers.
Ramanujan was only 33 when he died.
January 5, 2002
Chomsky, whose insights are so reflexively shut out of the American mainstream
media that it takes Pakistani television to give them light,
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
summer I wrote a (highly unfavorable)
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
, a right-wing group that purports to assist journalists in getting the
news right--all the while putting their own conservative spin to it.
McCarten, editor of Chicago zine Merge
, wrote to inform me about her
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.
: The Euro-skeptic Times of London
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
-- John T. Chibnall, et. al., Archives of Internal Medicine
, Nov. 26, 2001, p. 2535.
Why sports writers should avoid science
BRAVE NEW RULING:
The Massachusetts Supreme Court
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?
"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.
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.
2001 was probably the second warmest year on record,
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
Lake Winnipesaukee (shown here from
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
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?
The issue of Scientific American with the famous article
"The First Human Cloned Embryo"
is now on the newstand. There was
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
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
IF ONLY IT WERE
"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
-- Christopher Hitchens,
Letters to a Young Contrarian
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
for a list), most shy away from scientific topics. (OK, Postrel and
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