Category Archives: Science

My Professor in the NY Times

I took a class, at Johns Hopkins University, last semester called Stars and the Universe. I’ve enthusiastically recommended very few classes to my friends, and this was one of them. He’s a great professor who makes the material understandable and entertaining — and even inspiring, at times. I was constantly impressed by his ability to use analogies to help you understand. If you take the class, you’ll learn a lot about astronomy, and you can learn it even if you aren’t a science person (so says the philosophy major). Some of the things you learn about are mindboggling, such as the existence of dark matter.

The professor, Adam Riess, was actually involved in the discovery of dark energy. His thesis involved getting more accurate measurements for the distance to Type Ia supernovae by correcting for dust. He was a member of one of those groups mentioned in this NY Times article about dark matter, which won the Shaw Prize.

Anyway, here’s the part where they quote my professor:

Nor is there any solid evidence yet that dark energy is or is not varying with time — if it is not constant, it cannot be Einstein’s constant. Adam Riess of the Johns Hopkins space telescope institute, a key member of Dr. Schmidt’s team, said, “The biggest thing we could learn is by ruling that out.”

He added, “We have a suspect, but we’re not ready to convict anyone yet.”

Not a huge quote, but cool, nonetheless.

Global Climate Disruption

First, global warming, now global climate change. Global warming sounds pleasant. Global climate change sounds like bullshit. Any change in the environment and hey, it’s proof of global climate change. We should call it “global climate disruption.” Now that sounds more scary and more apt. Scientists are never good at naming things. I mean, Big Bang. Come on. (I prefer Calvin’s suggestion of horrendous space kablooie.)

Why Global Warming Makes Sense

I’m no scientist, but it tends to make sense to me. It takes a really, really long time for that carbon dioxide to sequester. It’s really quick and easy to release all that carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. We’ve also chopped down a lot of trees. Thus, we are most definitely pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. More CO2 in the atmosphere means more heat, as seen throughout history. I think I can trust scientists to at least figure out if we’ve got a lot of CO2 in the atmosphere. So, I think global warming makes sense.

I was confused before, but now I get it, at least to the extent that a dilettante gets it.

With so many scientists saying that it exists with a good degree of certainty, I’ve decided that I will trust that global warming exists until a good amount of evidence convinces me otherwise.

Skeptic’s Paralysis

I find myself flabbergasted by this story: Warnings on WMD ‘Fabricator’ Were Ignored, Ex-CIA Aide Says. I will ignore the politics of this issue and speak of a broader issue. This line stuck out in particular: “Drumheller, who is writing a book about his experiences, described in extensive interviews repeated attempts to alert top CIA officials to problems with the defector, code-named Curveball, in the days before the Powell speech” [emphasis mine]. Instantly, alarm bells are raised in my head. How can I know to trust this source? How do I know this ex-CIA aide isn’t exaggerating his story in order to write a good book?

Then again, with all the intelligence failure going on, how can I trust George Tenet or John E. McLaughlin? How do I know they’re not just trying to cover their asses?

Who do I trust? I find myself wanting to trust neither. At this point, I am struck with skeptic’s paralysis. I can believe neither side and therefore I know nothing. I don’t know what to believe, but I want to believe something. I can’t just ignore the issue, can I?

The answer, however, can be a yes. If you answer yes, then skeptic’s paralysis evolves into a worse disease: apathy. I can know nothing, so I will do nothing.

I find myself mired in the same situation with global warming. (Excuse me, global “climate change.”) Frankly, I don’t know who to believe. I am not fond of Al Gore. I am also not fond of the writer of Jurassic Park who supposedly “debunks” global warming. Supposedly, there is a scientific consensus, but how do I know I can trust those who say there is a consensus any more than I can trust those who say there is still a debate. I hear that there’s more and more evidence, but I have no idea what this evidence is, so I cannot base an opinion based on the concept of evidence.

So, you say, find the evidence. Yet, I’m not a scientist. I can be easily fooled into believing either position. Plus, the advocates of both sides are prone to exaggeration. That only exacerbates my skeptic’s paralysis. I want to trust the scientists, but how can I trust these people to predict the weather years and years into the future when they can’t predict the weather two weeks from now?

Even with that silly problem out of the way, it doesn’t end my skeptic’s paralysis. First, I can’t trust evidence I don’t understand and which can be easily manipulated. There is no way around it: I need to trust an authority. But then, I don’t know which authority to trust. I must rely on another authority to direct me to the proper authorities. How can I trust that person?

I cannot trust anyone, but I want to trust someone.

Luckily, I think my problem can be solved. I trust television, and the Discovery Channel is going to have a special on climate change. I think I will trust that. After all, I trust the MythBusters.

Still looming, though, is the even bigger issue, hinted at in the beginning: I don’t trust know whom to trust in my government.


No freakin’ way: “New materials that can change the way light and other forms of radiation bend around an object may provide a way to make objects invisible, researchers said on Thursday.”

Despite some doubts I’ve had in the past, after this, I’ve decided that science is definitely not boring.

Two New Blows to Intelligent Design

Two New Discoveries Answer Big Questions In Evolution Theory, by Sharon Begley, describes two new scientific discoveries which help refute the claims of Intelligent Design. First, the discovery of Tiktaalik roseae further illustrates how fish began to evolve into land-dwelling animals. Next, a discovery about hormones and receptors further discredits the idea of “irreducible complexity.” Science keeps marching on, and all Intelligent Design can do is make the same hackneyed claims.

Sunday (a few days before my birthday) Linkage

Lloyd directed me to this Washington Post article: U.S. unit masters art of counterinsurgency. There is hope in Iraq if we can duplicate success like this. Yet, much of the trouble in Iraq seems to be things we should’ve figured out in the first place. Things I figured my government had figured out. I mean, like language training. What most heartened me was mentioning treating the Iraqis with respect. If you treat your prisoners like shit, of course you’re going to breed more terrorists.

I’m a little bit late on this Scientific American article, Scientific American: Getting a Leg Up on Land, which came out last December. It talks about new discoveries of how fish evolved into land-dwelling animals. It’s very interesting how they bring different threads of research, like research on genes and research on fossils, to illustrate this evolution. Evolution isn’t rampant speculation; it’s a careful theory. And fish evolving legs completely destroys the “microevolution vs. macroevolution” distinction that creationists like to use.

From The Believer, A Soldier Upon a Hard Campaign. Wither satire. He says the world is so absurd that it does the work of a satirist already. Then, where does that leave one room to write satire? Of course, the article talks about more than that. It’s quite a humorous read, as well.

I just stumbled upon this article, After Neoconservatism from the New York Times. It’s by Francis Fukuyama. I think he’s going to be a speaker in the Foreign Affairs Symposium we’re having at Hopkins. Anyway, by just stumbled upon, I mean I’m only on the second page. His use of the phrase “realistic Wilsonianism” really attracted me, as I had recently mentioned to Lloyd that we need a more “patient Bush Doctrine.” (“If it isn’t oxymoronic,” I didn’t hesitate to add.)

Another Nail in the Coffin for ID

“Amino acids are molecules that come in mirror-image right- and left-handed forms. But all the naturally occurring proteins in organisms on Earth use the left-handed forms – a puzzle dubbed the ‘chirality problem’.

“‘A key question is when this chirality came into play,’ says Uwe Meierhenrich, a chemist at the University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis in France. One theory is that proteins made of both types of amino acids existed on the early Earth but ‘somehow only the proteins of left-handed amino acids survived’, says Meierhenrich.”

A proponent of Intelligent Design may claim that the chirality problem indicates that there must have been an intelligent designer at work. He looks at a problem, throws his hands up in bewilderment, and says, “Magic.” A scientist will look at the problem and try to figure it out. Lo and behold, Space radiation may select amino acids for life. [Note: Quote at the beginning of this entry is from this article.]

Also note: “In 2000, an experiment showed that when circularly polarised ultraviolet light of a particular handedness was shone on an equal mix of right- and left-handed amino acids, it produced an excess of 2.5% by preferentially disintegrating one type.

“But that experiment was done using amino acids in a liquid solution, which behave differently than those in the solid conditions of icy dust in space. To avoid absorption by water molecules, it was also necessary to use light at a wavelength of 210 nanometres – significantly longer than the peak of 120 nm radiation actually measured in space.”

Again the proponent of ID would say, “Ah-hah! Look, you scientists have no idea what you’re doing. Your experiment is significantly different from real world conditions. You are completely defeated. Therefore, there must have been a designer.”

A scientist looks at the data and designs a new experiment, instead of throwing his hands up in defeat. He may be right, he may be wrong, but at least he attempts to find the truth.

“Now, Meierhenrich’s team has performed a similar experiment. The group shone circularly polarised light at a wavelength of 180 nm on a solid film of both right- and left-handed forms of the amino acid leucine. It found that left-handed light produced an excess of 2.6% left-handed amino acids.”

This looks encouraging. Instead of throwing your hands up in defeat and embracing ID, try giving science a chance. Search for the truth. God gave you a brain for a reason.

[P.S. It looks like I’ve learned from newspaper headlines how to create weblog entry titles. I hope you understand that the title was created to garner attention, while the entry takes a much less aggressive tone. If you leave a comment, address the entry, not the title.]

Intelligent Design is Bullshit

I heard that Bush talked about Intelligent Design. I figure now’s an appropriate time to give an opinion.

I’m not going to mince words here. I’m not going to be politically correct. Intelligent Design is bullshit. Intelligent Design is neither religion nor science. There is no “debate” about Intelligent Design. That is bullshit too.

Intelligent Design is demeaning to science and demeaning to religion. Intelligent Design pretends that religion isn’t good enough and dresses up itself in pseudo-scientific language in order to fool the public. Intelligent Design pretends that the people are too stupid to know that religion and science are two separate things and that each have their place in this modern world. Religion is about faith. Faith has its places, but the science classroom is not one of them.

Intelligent Design is blasphemous. Science is testable. If ID were science, which it isn’t, it would attempt to test God. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deuteronomy 6.16). Science is not so bold. It only attempts to explain the universe in human terms. As to the question of God, science cannot say that there is no God, only that God is beyond its realm because God is incomprehensible and undefinable. That’s where faith comes in, not Intelligent Design. Intelligent Design purports to know God.

Of course, the proponents of Intelligent Design will say, “No, we do not attempt to know God. We’re saying that evolution can’t explain everything. So, there must be an Intelligent Designer, or even Designers.” And that, my friends, is bullshit. It’s bullshit in a science classroom. And it’s bullshit religion. Intelligent Design doesn’t say anything.

Can’t you see? Look at the langauge the proponents of ID use! Intelligent Design has no regard for the truth. Intelligent Design is therefore pure and utter bullshit. Intelligent Design doesn’t care about God and it doesn’t care about science. If taught, it will dilute both.

Do you want your children to be taught something that has not a care for the truth?

Running Bats

From this month’s Discover magazine:

“Bat Bipeds: Several species of bat are known to use their strong forelimbs and weak hind legs to crawl along the ground, but no one suspected they might be able to run. At least not until Cornell University biologist Daniel Riskin dropped a common vampire bat onto a tradmill, only to be stunned as it broke into a bounding run…”

Scientists are so crazy. How the hell did he get the idea to drop a bat onto a freakin’ treadmill? Honestly, that’s hilarious.

Answering a Second Comment Regarding the Pledge

In response to my entry, Answering a Comment Regarding the Pledge (which answers a comment from my original Pledge entry), Landon said:

So in response of your response, what is the evidence for evolution? I bet you don’t even know it. I completly agree with the first guy.

George Washington states

“Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

I found that at the University of Chicago Press’ site. Now explain that. Our founding father states that we are a religious country.

But you are exactly correct about this country; about it being a Democracy, and you have a chance to voice your opinion, but the fact is, America was founded upon religion of the ‘Almighty’ as Washington puts it. If you don’t like what America is, LEAVE, GO SOMEPLACE ELSE. I’m sure Mexico will love you to voice your opinion.

‘Under God’ was put there for a reason. It was during the Cold Wars’ most difficult time.

Pres. Eisenhower states “In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.”

‘Under God’ is simply a reflection of our religious heritage.

First, regarding evolution… Read Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. The finches of the Galapagos Islands adapted to fill different ecological niches. Another supporting piece of evidence is that artificial selection produced different dog breeds. Different pressures in nature can produce change in species. How about bacteria that are becoming resistant to certain antibiotics? Explain that without evolution by natural selection. Evolution is defined as a change in allele frequencies within a population. And before any one shouts out anything of macroevolution versus microevolution, I’d like to quote the Agnosticism/Atheism FAQ on evolution: “If you find a creationist arguing that microevolution can occur but macroevolution cannot, simply ask them what biological or logical barriers prevent the former from becoming the latter – and listen to the silence.” From now on, if any one wishes to comment, please read: Evolution is a separate issue from the Pledge of Allegiance. Comments on the two subjects should therefore be separate.

On to the second point regarding George Washington’s address on Thanksgiving… Please look at this page on Thanksgiving from the Smithsonian Institute. I don’t deny that some of the Founding Fathers were religious. I don’t deny that people had religious beliefs when founding this nation. But, I do believe religion is a personal issue, not a state issue. The state should not interfere with religion, and religion should not interfere with the state. Apparently, I’m not the only one: “The next three Presidents proclaimed, at most, two days of thanksgiving sometime during their terms of office, either on their own initiative or at the request of a joint Resolution of Congress. One exception was Thomas Jefferson, who believed it was a conflict of church and state to require the American people hold a day of prayer and thanksgiving. President James Madison proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving to be held on April 13, 1815, the last such proclamation issued by a President until Abraham Lincoln did so in 1862.” You can state privately that you believe America is supported by a god, but the government should issue no laws respecting any religions.

Although you can choose to believe that a god provided the opportunity for the United States to be formed, you can’t deny that people wrote those words, not any god. We are a nation founded by people, not any god. This nation is for the people, not any god. Notice this within address itself: “especially by affording them [the People of the United States] an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

Now, look at this, also within the proclamation: “for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed” [emphasis mine]. And is that liberty not infringed upon when a government forces us to pledge to one particular “God”? Even that day of Thanksgiving was but recommended to the American people.

The statement by Eisenhower merely reaffirms that “under God” is meant specifically to endorse religion. I don’t believe that the Constitution allows that. Since I don’t believe in any god, I specifically disagree with the theology behind the statement. We are not “under” any god. The people are subject to their own authority, not any god’s authority. That however, is a different point. The main crux of my argument still is that it is not Constitutional.

I disagree with you about your viewpoint on democracy. I seem to be getting an image that if people disagree with you, they should put up with what you believe, or get out? I believe that democracy involves discourse between disagreeing opinions. If something is wrong, we should try to fix it, not “get out.” Sorry, there are people who disagree with some of your opinions, and they love America just as much as you do. They just may love different aspects of it; for example, I value democracy, republicanism, religious freedom, and discourse. Getting out doesn’t solve anything. Did the Founding Fathers just “get out” when they didn’t like Parliament’s policies? Not that I’m equating the two issues, just making a rhetorical point.

But no, I just love how I have the right to voice my opinion, but if I’m “wrong,” I should be quiet, but still thankful that I can voice my opinion because in other countries they can’t… I just love how that adds up…

Not-So-Intelligent Design

Again, I will refer you back to this from Alan Boyle’s Cosmic Log and encourage you to look at the links.

I’m not going to write a lot because this doesn’t actually require a lot of thinking. Look at this definition of theory from Intelligent Design is not a theory. It does not make any predictions. ID also has no direct facts that support it. That alone says that ID is simply pseudoscience. Speciation by natural selection, on the other hand, has been directly observed. One more point: the theory of evolution by natural selection only involves the evolution of species from pre-existing ones; it has nothing to do with abiogenesis. You cannot equate the two.

Tomorrow: The Manipulation Game

If You Only Believe

If you only believe, then you will be fooled. ESP doesn’t work better when believers around. Believers are more gullible. John Edward with an audience full of skeptics wouldn’t be able to do anything. They’d question what he was doing. He can’t very well have that, can he? No, he has to get people who will unwaveringly believe in him and fill in the answers.

Psychic powers don’t fade over time. That’s a property of probability. Flip a coin twice. You have a good chance of getting both right. Flip a coin ten times. It gets a little harder. Flip a coin a thousand times. You don’t have a chance. Rigorous testing proves that so-called psychic powers are flukes. Luck.

John Edward is a charlatan. And not a very good one, at that. Edited tape. Any technique to get information before the show. Notice how he covers his ass by saying that nothing’s definite. Perhaps nothing is definite because everything is a guess! Why do you think he’s on the science-fiction channel?

This guy can’t speak to spirits. He (pitifully) uses a technique called cold reading. In a series of rapid-fire questions, he asks about common things, then moves down to more specific items. Of course, all the hits are remembered, but the misses are not. I, myself, was able to do a cold reading okay, even though I had no experience.

I need to get a book on cold reading so I can do it well. Hey, and maybe if I practice cold reading enough, the ghosts of dead people will actually come to me because they don’t want me to be a charlatan. Then, you can get real messages from dead loved ones. If you only believe…

Methods for Negative Eugenics

Note that whenever I say I’m for negative eugenics, I also add “to a certain extent.” This means that I’m not saying, “Rahg. I want to kill babies. Die babies die! I want to kill all ‘inferior’ peoples. I want to eat babies so they won’t poison the gene pool. Arg. I want to create a race of superhumans so I can take over the world.”

Negative eugenics is only the deletion of harmful traits, not adding new traits to make humans uber-powerful. I want to help people. The only way this can happen is if the benefits of a certain method outweigh the harm. That means that strict controls on everyone’s reproductive rights are out of the picture. In fact, some things may not be possible until the near-future. Current controls could limit the reproductive rights on the mentally disabled, but that still makes people squeamish, so I can really only suggest technologies for the future.

Nanobots would be ideal. For example, they could find sperm or egg with an abnormal number of chromosomes and destroy them. People would have a hard time arguing the ethics of this.

Pre-natal screening needs to be improved so much so that the screening of infants is automatic. This would mean the rate of aborted babies due to the testing is extremely low. I suggest legislature to make it mandatory at that point. At that point, it would seem ridiculous to resist. However, when the baby is found to be defective, abortion should be the automatic response. Some people are against abortion. My idea is that the testing is done early enough so that the fetus’ nervous system has hardly taken any form.

The options of screening fetuses and nanobots I don’t think infringe on the rights of people. These methods are ideal and would help the human race progress.

Unfavorable Traits

As stated before, the human population’s gene pool is stable. Thus, the percentage of people who have a certain trait is stable. The human population is also increasing exponentially. Therefore, if the same percentage of people have a trait, then a greater number of people have that trait over time. For example, let’s say 5% of people have straight hair. Let’s also say the population is at 100. Then, five people have have straight hair. Then, let’s say the population reproduces, and now there are 200 people. There are now 10 people who have straight hair.

So, if we continue to keep our gene pool stable, over time, more and more people will have unfavorable traits. If we chose never to do something, or to ignore the issue, then it seems as if we want this to happen. Do we really want an increasing number of people suffering? This is not beneficial. This is why I’m for negative eugenics, to a certain extent.

Certain traits are unfavorable and should not be in the population, this includes: down syndrome, other non-multifactorial forms of mental retardation, other chromosomal abnormalities, and single-allele genetic defects.

Chromosomal abnormalities occur due to nondisjunction. In laymen’s terms, this will result in a baby that has either three or one (normal is two) of a certain chromosome. Now, this kind of problem will often cause an early natural abort of the baby. This isn’t a problem in terms of genetic propagation. However, there are cases when the baby lives. One of these cases is down syndrome, when an individual has a trisomy of chromosome 21. When this individual reproduces there is a 50% percent chance of the defect being passed on! Fifty percent! That’s a coin toss. There should be some way to control this. Or else, as the population increases, the number of people suffering increases.

[01/24/04 – EDIT: I’ve since learned that this is wrong, but is it still passing on the proclivity for nondisjunction?]

When dealing with single-allele genetic defects, the trait never goes away. The recessive trait can be hidden by the dominant trait but it can never be eradicated, except by chance or selection. Chance is out of the picture because of the large human population. Natural selection, as I said before, is no longer working against these people. So, these traits continue to propagate, and more people will suffer… unless we chose to do something about it.

What can we do about it? That’s tomorrow’s topic.

Halting Evolution

I was going to do this yesterday, but something was up with my server or something because I kept getting Error 500 for unmodified Moveable Type pages. Weird.

I’d like to refer you to an earlier post about negative eugenics if you don’t know what this is relating to.

I’m taking AP Biology right now, so I’ve learned a little about evolution, population genetics, and speciation. Thus, I can state specifically how we are stopping human evolution.

The first point is that humans beings make up a large population. Over 6 billion people, and all are pretty well adapted to their environment, or rather, the environment has adapted to people. There aren’t a lot of natural hazards we have to worry about. When a population is large and well-adapted, the gene pool is rather stable.

My book gives five factors that can change the equilibrium in a gene pool: mutation, gene flow, genetic drift, selection, and nonrandom mating. Let’s go over each one individually.

Mutation can cause quick changes. However, I’d like to restate that humans make up a very large population. This means that one small mutation won’t have much effect on the overall population since it only affects one person.

Gene flow is defined as the movement of genes in and out of the gene pool due to migration. Okay, it’s pretty easy to go from one place to another, but altogether, we make up one big population. People are still connected. To be a separate population, they must be isolated. Populations are not isolated from each other.

Genetic drift is a random change in the gene pool. Chance has a larger effect on smaller populations. Anything due to chance with our 6 billion plus people will probably be lost.

Neither artificial nor natural selection is taking place in developed countries. Unless you count the Darwin awards… But people are generally not being selected against. Those with unfavorable traits are allowed to live. (What traits? That’s tomorrow’s post.)

Nonrandom mating involves mating which is not random. There’s a great deal of relationships out there between people of different genetic backgrounds.

Moreover, speciation most often occurs due to isolation from one another. Humans are not changing because of the lack of isolation. There are many different types of isolation. Geographic isolation is pretty much moot because of the different types of transportation we have invented, allowing us to travel anywhere in the world. Humans are not ecologically isolated because we all live in the same environments. Seasonal and mechanical isolation haven’t really been a factor in humans ever. Humans mate year-round and I doubt there are any problems with… ahem, things not fitting correctly. Behavioral isolation only occurs in the loosest sense of the word. Humans do not have a set premating ritual that can be tampered with to stop mating between certain populations. The only type of isolation that may be in effect is prevention of gamete fusion. However, those couples can rely on in vitro fertilization.

None of the above factors are in effect. Our allelic frequencies are not changing. We are not evolving.

Negative Eugenics

I’m in support of negative eugenics, to a certain extent. Eugenics is improving the human race through controlled selective breeding. Negative eugenics is limiting that to removing genes that are harmful.

That may seem really evil to some people, but it’s in line with my view. Why should we allow harmful genes to propagate? That’s stupidity. Percentages may stay the same, but population is increasing, so more people will have it. Do we want more people with harmful genes?

We, as humans, have been stopping evolution. How, exactly? I’ll tell you tomorrow. Then, I’ll go over more weighing ethical implications the day after.