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In Which Anastasia Writes A Review

January 28, 2017 Leave a comment

Dearest readers,

I just wanted to take some time to share this review from my fiance Anastasia on the play “Informed Consent” by Zoe Laufer.

Anastasia’s take on the play is much more critical than others, and I find myself largely in agreement with her criticisms. The issues raised in “Informed Consent” are complicated and require careful and subtle understanding. To heighten the drama, it seems to me that complexity is substituted for one-dimensional conflicts that simplify and obscure, rather than elucidate, the problem.

The scientist has motivations that make her obsession with the research much more personal than what happened in real life, and I believe that this skews the conversation that the play tries to create against the scientific research aspect. Like other plays Anastasia has reviewed, such as Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem,” it seems that the drive to create a compelling narrative for the heart overtakes the story for the brain. Complex ethical and philosophical issues can be explored in theater, but “Informed Consent” and “The Hard Problem” do the topics that they cover a disservice and, therefore, their audiences.

Make no mistake: I certainly believe that we should have these kinds of difficult conversations, especially the one that “Informed Consent” tries, but fails, to elucidate. But narratives can be a dangerous way to approach them, and these two plays show why. Ascribing emotional, personal motivations to the researcher undercuts the argument in favor of scientific research while doing nothing to really advance our understanding of the ethics involved between the Native American tribe and the researchers.

In case you’re wondering, in large part I sympathize with the Havasupai Tribe’s concerns and I think that the University and the researchers erred and acted somewhat unethically. But I do not believe that automatically makes the scientific questions raised and the answered found ethically wrong, or morally wrong. My hope is that, in the future, researchers will tread carefully and ensure that they do have consent for the kinds of genetic studies that they want to perform.

I also hope that if someone writes a play about future ethical issues in scientific endeavors they will not distill the side of science into a character with made-up questionable and personal motivations that were not present in the real events that seem to poison the well for science and scientific investigations.

StarTalk Radio and Scientific Ignorance

January 26, 2015 Leave a comment

I’ve long been a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson, and see him as my generation’s Carl Sagan. I think it’s important to have affable people who can communicate scientific ideas and philosophy clearly and an in a friendly manner, especially now that our society is so steeped in anti-science sentiments or largely ignorant of science. Recent headlines, for instance, talk about how 80% of Americans are supportive of efforts to make labeling food containing DNA mandatory.

Sure, there are problems with that study and it should be taken with a grain of salt. But I think it’s part of a larger dialogue going on now about things like genetically modified organisms and medicine. I don’t want to go into the GMO debate right now (suffice it to say I generally and vocally support them–but don’t confuse this with support for companies like Monsanto or personal ignorance about the dangers of modern agriculture from monocultures to fertilizer runoff), and as for the uptick in, say, people sympathizing with homeopathy, I refer you to this news story about a recent study.

I don’t really blame people for ignorance, but I do not suffer it. It’s not that hard to get facts and learn new things with things like the internet (which, to be fair, can also be used to learn absurd and wrong things, like the bone-headed notion that vaccines are bad). So, in the spirit of trying to enlighten people, I want to talk a bit about StarTalk Radio.

Tyson hosts this show (with frequent guest hosts like Bill Nye), and it’s generally both entertaining and enlightening. Topics range from questions about gravity to discussions about technology. One of the better shows is “StarTalk Live: I, Robot” (Part 1, Part 2). Tyson, comedians, and robotics experts discuss the current state of robotics and where it might go in the years to come. It’s certainly not a topic that should be ignored, even by laypeople. Whether we like it or not (I’m looking at you, Luddites) robots and, possibly, superhuman intelligence, will be a part of human society. If we’re smart about how we approach it, we can do amazing things like this:

If we’re not so smart, we could do things like this:

StarTalk has conversations that are worth having, while educating and entertaining you. I really recommend listening to it, even if you don’t know that much about science or technology. Both of these topics should be priorities for a civilization that depends on them, as ours does.

In the future I hope to write more about robots, from ethics about them to their legal status. With the increasing possibility of superhuman intelligences, how we handle synthetic intelligence (and whether or not it constitutes life) will be of increasing importance in the coming years.

The Geek-in-Chief Does Science!

June 1, 2014 Leave a comment

I’ve got to be honest, dear readers. I love science, and I love experimenting. I had one of those cool whacky chemistry sets as a kid that allowed you to make all kinds of foamy, slimy concoctions and I had (have, actually) a telescope and a microscope.

I was a nerd of the best kind: I loved to explore the natural world and I had an unbounded curiosity. Sadly, my life didn’t really allow me to revel in that for very long as other concerns ate most of my attention as I got older. This is why I’m so happy that President Barack Obama hosts an annual science fair at the White House, demonstrating the capabilities of curious young scientists and engineers.

Kid: “You put a hole in the ceiling!” Obama: “Aww, you’re in trouble. I’m tellin’ Michelle.”

President Obama used the 2014 Science Fair to extoll the roles of girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and  Math) fields. According to an article by Kristin Lee at whitehouse.gov, entitled “Girls Rule at 2014 White House Science Fair,” the Obama Administration will “…host a series of ‘role model roundtables’ between girls and female STEM leaders…”

I think that this is very encouraging news. We need to get more people, especially people like women who aren’t as well represented in these fields as they could be, interested in science and math. The White House Science Fair allows some of the brightest and best to showcase their discoveries, innovations, and love of science, math, and engineering. These young people will be the people who build tomorrow’s world, and many of them could make discoveries that change the course of human history.

Alan Boyle, in an article at NBC News, noted that Obama announced more education initiatives, including an expansion of the AmeriCorps STEM program, new mentoring programs, and a series of interactive online lessons.

Boyle quotes Obama:

“As a society, we have to celebrate outstanding work by young people in science at least as much as we do Super Bowl winners because super-star biologists and engineers and rocket scientists and robot builders, they don’t always get the attention that they deserve, but they’re what’s going to transform our society,” he said. “They’re the folks who are going to come up with cures for diseases, and new sources of energy and help us build healthier and more successful societies.”

I hope that the next president keeps the White House Science Fair, and continues to encourage children to pursue careers in the STEM fields. I imagine that if I had that kind of encouragement when I was young I would have stayed involved in the sciences.

So here’s to the next generation of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. Let’s continue to encourage younger generations to pursue lives of the mind to the benefit of all humanity.

The following is a video of the White House Science Fair:

A-to-Z Challenge Day Twenty-Four: Xenobiology

April 28, 2014 1 comment

I had a busy day so I just wanted to briefly touch on an idea I had to write a book on alien biology and anatomy as if it were a real book.

This idea first occurred to me when I was thinking of a realistic physiological explanation as to the green color of Spock’s blood. I want to write a kind of Grey’s Anatomy for aliens.

Anyway, that’s all I have tonight. Thanks for reading!

A-to-Z Challenge day Twenty-One: Universe from Nothing?

April 24, 2014 2 comments

Hello, dear readers! For a while now I’ve wanted to share some deep science videos but haven’t gotten around to it. The letter “U” for the A-to-Z blogging challenge has allowed me to under the shaky premise that the word universe begins with the same letter.

The first video is by Lawrence Krauss, in which he talks with Richard Dawkins. It is entitled “Something from Nothing” and it’s an interesting dialogue about science, cosmology, and other things.

The second video has eminent physicist and cosmologist Sean Carroll on the topic of existence, and why it exists. It’s a very interesting video, though it’s a bit heavy.

So, what do I think about all of this? To be honest, I don’t really know. I think these leading thinkers offer interesting ideas and I’m willing to cast my lot in with them for now. Was the big bang the first big bang, or one in an infinite series? Who knows! There are people with very strong opinions on this one way or another, but I think that they’re unwarranted based on what we know and what it is possible for us to know.

For instance, are actual infinities impossible? I’m not so sure you could ever claim they are with certainty, outside of metaphysical arguments. I largely haven’t found this arguments convincing simply because they’re often excluding them from possibility (mathematicians often hold that they do exist, like in set theory, where you can have an infinite set of whole numbers) because they can’t imagine something existing that is actually infinite. Well, there are more reasons then that, to be fair. But in the end, can they be sure? No.

Anyway, I don’t really have time to write at length about the universe right now, even if I would like to. I hope you enjoy these videos in the meantime.

A-to-Z Challenge Day Twenty: Transcendence and Transhumanism

April 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Lately I’ve found science fiction movies and television to be largely disappointing. Star Trek Into Darkness was a letdown (and I’ll get into that at some later time). Almost Human was a HUGE disappointment and has left me feeling empty inside for all of the hope I had it wouldn’t be another vacuous JJ Abrams project (it was–I’ll get into that in another post, perhaps, someday when I talk more about artificial intelligence and whatnot).

So I put a little bit of faith in the movie Transcendence to not, well, completely disappoint. I haven’t actually seen the movie yet, but I have read some reviews that have given me pause.

The one that, I think, bears the most relevance for now is by Derek at SF Signal. In the review, Derek writes:

As with most technothrillers, Transcendence dares to ask Important Questions — What is the nature of the human? What happens when the quest for knowledge becomes a quest for power? — but, as with most technothrillers, very quickly devolves into a series of chases, forgetting its loftier aims.

It raises important questions! But…it doesn’t really offer any introspection to lead us to answers, it sounds. This is exactly what I was hoping wouldn’t happen. So, let me issue a preemptive sigh and move on to what I hoped the movie would be about.

Well, I can say that I hoped that it would raise those questions. But I want to list some of the questions that I had hoped would be addressed.

  1. What is the nature of humanity?
  2. What is the nature of consciousness?
  3. Is identity static or plastic?
  4. If a human mind is uploaded into a machine, will it maintain its humanity?

This is a movie that is, obviously, steeped in transhumanism. Mind-uploading is a very interesting idea on the frontiers of science and philosophy, and one that I find endlessly fascinating. Can a human being whose mind has been transferred to a computer or a machine maintain his perspective and identity as a human, or is it something fundamentally different? I don’t know the answer to that, but I had hoped that Transcendence would give an honest look at it without reducing itself to the standard technothriller formula.

So what is transhumanism anyway? This is how Wikipedia defines it:

Transhumanism (abbreviated as H+ or h+) is an international cultural and intellectual movement with an eventual goal of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.

The movement itself raises the question about what makes a human. For instance, is there a line between a real, natural human and something that was once a human but is no longer? If we upload a mind to a computer and we give it a synthetic, but realistic earth-like living condition will it maintain its humanity? And if we let it control its existence within the digital environment how will it change?

How can we handle the ethical debates of transhumanism and its many tenets? I would first argue that we’d need to have a lot more transhumanist innovations before we could actually really begin to talk about the ethics. Cybernetics are a good step, and we have a lot of modern examples of those. So will there be a point where a human being can replace their internal organs and limbs with fully-functional and realistic prosthetics that we have a hard time defining them as human?

So, I suppose that I shall have to watch it, take some notes, and then give a review about what happened in the movie. Will it fall victim to the kind of technophobia that tends to run through a lot of technothrillers and make artificial life or new ideas seem terrible? Or will it instead give it a dispassionate view of the subject matter that will leave the audience with a new appreciation of the topics of transhumanism and mind-uploading?

Based on Derek’s review I’m not hopeful for a positive outcome.

A-to-Z Challenge Day Seventeen: Quarks, and Quasars, and other Quantum Nonsense

April 19, 2014 11 comments

I think it was Deepak Chopra who first discovered that you could make any kind of outrageous claim you wanted to as long as you put the word “quantum” in front of the words “mechanics” or “science.” For instance, “According to quantum mechanics, the quantum superposition of the wave function is such that all things exist in every possible way that they can exist simultaneously until you observe it, then the wave function collapses.”

See? A pile of nonsense. I think.

So what’s the deal with quantum mechanics, anyway? It’s a complex field of study that seems like it’s mostly math and focuses on things that are infinitesimally small. And, shocker, it also happens to be probably the most rigorously evidence field of science we’ve got right now. Even more so than the other great scientific theory, evolution (tons and tons of evidence if you know where to look–why not start out and get Darwin’s The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection from Project Gutenberg?).

I think that reason that quantum mechanics finds itself so easily manipulated to support pseudo-scientific woo like quantum energy fields that do…um…something? I don’t know,  there’s some stuff out there about spiritual energy fields thanks to quantum this or that. I lose interest and zone out when I figure out it’s bunk. Oh, anyway, the reason I think that it’s so easily manipulated is because there are people who want to prey on the naivete and scientific illiteracy of others to make millions of dollars selling junk that doesn’t work with a pretty label.

Well, this isn’t working. I keep getting sidetracked by the some incredulity that’s seeping to the surface. Let’s talk for a bit about Erwin Schrodinger.

Now this is a guy I could play extreme chess with.

Well, there’s also a ton of other scientists who really led to the breakthroughs that spawned QM, like Neils Bohr, Albert Einstein, and Werner Heisenberg.

The father of quantum mechanics.

Anyway, Schrodinger came up with a famous thought experiment called Schrodinger’s cat (this was before the days of the animal rights movement). It presents a paradox in the so-called Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics in which a cat is placed in a box with a bottle of poison and a radioactive element. If a sensor detects the decay of an atom, the bottle of poison is broken and the cat dies (poor cat!). Well, the idea is that after a while because of quantum superposition the cat exists simultaneously as both alive and dead. This occurs until the box is opened and the cat observed, at which time the superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or another, i.e., the cat is either dead, alive, or somehow napping on your laptop keyboard.

And what’s with cats, anyway? I mean, they think they’re so great and in charge. Well, quantum mechanics makes fools of us all, I guess.

I keep digressing. The purpose of talking about Schrodinger’s cat is to illustrate just how much quantum mechanics goes against our intuitions and how little “common sense” can help us understand it.

After all, how can a cat be both alive and dead? Well, that’s where the charlatans step in. It’s because of quantum energy fields and flux and all kinds of other spiritual things that connect all life and stuff. Think positively and buy my product and the quarks and quips and other kinds of subatomic particles and imaginary things that begin with the letter “q” will heal anything!  Feeling tired? Buy this quantum field harmonizer kit that jiggles the quarks in the free air around you, stimulating a reaction at the cellular level, down to the quantum level, in your brain, revitalizing you and giving you an extra pep in your step with a minimum exposure to rads.

Quit quaking and quickly quaff the quantum quencher! A miracle drink that synergizes your mind with your body, helping you to produce better healing effects.

Gah. I can’t keep up this bloody joke any longer because it starts to cross the line from satire to a mirror-image of some actual quantum nonsense.

I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade here, but none of this stuff means a damn thing. Anything that has the word “quantum” in the title or description besides extremely complex theories with equations like this one:

Yeah. Look at that. Fun stuff.

probably isn’t real science. It’s probably just pseudo-science masquerading as science.

So, in essence, what this post is really about is learning how to check your sources, and really it’s an advertisement for skepticism. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. There are a number of great resources to get real, knowledgeable opinions on a lot of information floating around on the web, like one of my favorites, Science-Based Medicine.

Oh, and the quasar bit was really just because I love astronomy. Thanks, NASA.