Physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said,
"If you're scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you. And that understanding empowers you."
(You can hear Mr. Tyson "sing" this line in the Symphony of Science/Poetry of Reality video below.)
Courtesy United Nations Development Programme
I've been thinking about that idea a lot today after hearing two stories:
The cause of the Haitian earthquake is clear--100% explainable without having to invoke pacts with the Devil or martyr's ghosts. Same in Iran -- geologic activity in the area will continue whether or not women are veiled and chaste.
The solution is not "to take refuge in religion." The wrangling over unverifiable, supernatural causes for things diverts very needed resources and attention from real world solutions to very urgent problems.
The solution is to take refuge in science. Michael Shermer (yup, he "sings") says,
"Science is the best tool ever devised for understanding how the world works."
The Earth hasn't changed. People have. We're seeing quake activity with big consequences because there are more of us than ever before, many, many of us live in developing countries where large populations live in dense communities with lax building codes, and communications technology means that we know what has happened, not because we're paying a geological price for not living our lives correctly.
So what do we do? We innovate. We devise new and better monitoring and warning systems. We develop building techniques that are both locally appropriate and safer in the event of a quake. We teach people how to protect themselves in an emergency and how to react afterwards.
Richard Dawkins (my current nerd crush; you can watch him "sing" in the video, too.) said,
"Science replaces private prejudice with publicly verifiable evidence."
How can you not get behind an idea like that?
Here''s another thought-provoking video from over at the TED site. Michael Specter is a staff writer for the New Yorker, and author of the book, Denialism. He gives a short talk about the dangers we face when science is denied. I don't know that I agree with everything he says but he makes some very good points.
Courtesy University of OsloPerhaps taking advantage of the Darwin publicity last year (200th birthday), a scientific paper was published revealing Ida, a 47 million year old fossil classified Darwinius masillae.
The study's lead author, Jørn Hurum of the University of Oslo, variously called the fossil the holy grail of paleontology and the lost ark of archeology. A two-hour documentary called "The Link" was on the History Channel and a book with the same title hit bookstores.
How big money became mixed with science is described in the Guardian post titled Deal in Hamburg bar led scientist to Ida fossil, the 'eighth wonder of the world'.
Now that money has been made, it is time for the scientific process (peer review).
John Fleagle, a professor at Stony Brook University, in New York state, who reviewed the paper for the journal, agrees that the fossil is not a lemur. But Ida's full significance would not be known until other scientists had seen the paper. "That will be sorted out, or at least debated extensively, in the coming years."
In a paper in the Journal of Human Evolution, Chris Kirk strongly argue(d) that Darwinius is not one of our ancestors. Science blogger, Brian Switek, also explains why ... That "Ida" is Not Our Great-Great-Great-Great-Etc. Grandmother. Dissenting scientists are awaiting a response from Jørn Hurum.
I am reminded of another case where the media was used to hype a story before it was properly reviewed by others. I wrote about it here: Jesus and family found in tomb? What moral is to be learned here?
Don't announce discoveries through the media, but through the tried and tested peer-review process.
Courtesy Mark RyanSidney Perkowitz is not a happy camper, or rather I should say not a happy moviegoer. The American physicist has been taking Hollywood to task for all the bad science portrayed in the movies. He recently told a meeting of American scientists that movies should be allowed to contain only one major scientific flaw. This isn’t new territory for Perkowitz, who teaches physics at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He published a book titled Hollywood Science in 2007, and has done numerous appearances, and written several articles on the subject.
One of the recent films Perkowitz complains about is Deep Blue Sea where careless scientists meddle with the brains of sharks that become super-smart and wreak havoc on the underwater laboratory. Great science? Not on your life, according to the crabby Professor Perkowitz. He says tests like those shown in the film where proteins are extracted directly from the super-sized shark brains would actually take place in large vats in a controlled laboratory setting. Think of the excitement watching that process! But as far as I’m concerned Samuel L. Jackson's inspiring rah-rah speech in the middle of the film makes any and all the bad science totally worth any money spent to see the movie.
But what’s the big deal, really? There’s always been a demand for suspension of disbelief in the movies especially in the oxymoronic genre of science fiction. Look at Georges Melies’ fantastical A Trip to the Moon (1902). Based on the written works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, most of the film lacks any scientific truth. Oh, sure it has some prophetic parallels to the actual 60’s Apollo missions. A NASA-like organization of space scientists and technicians is shown launching a manned capsule in an actual “moon shot”. Once there the astronauts (in top hats!) do witness Earthrise from the lunar surface. And when they return to Earth, they’re picked up in the ocean by a ship. But the rest of the classic film is crazy, and has more scientific holes than the Moon has craters. But, again, so what?
My whole childhood was spent absorbing bad science in movies. But I don’t think it was harmful. If anything it fired my interest in science, and gave me a sense of curiosity and wonderment of the natural world. In 1960’s Dinosaurus!, a caveman, Tyrannosaurus rex, and Brontosaurus (its very name a scientific faux pas) are all dredged up frozen from bottom of the Caribbean Sea, all in one tight little group, despite the fact they all lived millions and millions of years apart in time from each other. Did I care? Naw. I doubt anybody did back then. It was just a blast watching them terrorize the island.
The Time Machine (1960) was another favorite that came out the same year. Using a modified Everglades airboat, Rod Taylor travels through time to wage a personal war against the underground Warlocks and save the grazing Eloi. Was it believable? It was for me. I thought it had some real interesting hypotheses. But was it good science? Not really. Was it in any way prophetic? Not yet, but I guess time will tell.
Perkowitz isn’t bother by a little inaccurate science in a movie, but he wants to put a limit on it. To this end, Perkowitz serves as a member of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, an organization bent on aligning movie producers with competent science advisors in hopes of improving the portrayal of scientists (less nerdiness, fewer pipes and eyeglasses, more witty banter) and scientific ideas in their motion pictures. Perkowitz thinks it will be good for everyone involved.
"The Core did not make money because people understood the science was so out to lunch," he said.
If you saw the 2003 movie, I think you’ll agree bad science was the least of The Core’s problems. The real problem was someone gave the script a green light in the first place. Perkowitz reasoning doesn't explain why an error-riddled movie like The Day After Tomorrow, and a ton of similar science clunkers out there bring in money. Of course, movies in no way have a corner on the market for bad science. Television is full of it, too (pun intended). On the TV series Star Trek, chief engineer Mr. Scott was always saying he couldn't defy the laws of physics whenever Captain Kirk insisted they power-up to Warp 9. And it looks like Scotty was right, as evidenced in a recent post by JGordon. I admit, however, I do enjoy the current show, Bones. Some of the lab equipment used may be questionable and before its time, but the lead character is a woman of pure science. A humorless woman at that, but she does adhere to the scientific method. And she does smile sometimes.
So what do you think? Do you agree with Professor Perkowitz, that bad science needs to be reined in, or do you think the whole purpose of Hollywood motion pictures is merely to entertain our socks off, no matter how mangled the facts? Are there movies you’ve seen where the science portrayed made you wince? Or made you think? Or yell at the screen? Let us know.
Courtesy Da Vinci
When attempting to communicate the world of science, visualization often works better than words. Illustrations are a quick and effective means for communicating science, engineering and technology to an often scientifically challenged population.
The National Science Foundation and the journal, Science, created the International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge to encourage the continued growth toward this journalistic goal.
Judges appointed by the National Science Foundation and the journal Science will select winners in each of five categories: photographs, illustrations, informational graphics, interactive media and non-interactive media. NSF.gov
This link will take you to the 2004-2009 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge winners. I am also embedding a You Tube video of past competitions below.
Courtesy Mark Ryan January 30th is Draw A Dinosaur Day. It also happens to be my birthday, and I can't think of a better way to celebrate than to draw a dinosaur and upload it to the Draw A Dinosaur Day website. It doesn't have to be your birthday to participate in the festivities - anybody can submit a picture. Just grab some paper and a pencil, pen, paintbrush, or even your mouse and computer and draw your favorite dinosaur. Then scan it or whatever, and post it to their site between now and February 2nd. Personally, my drawing technique is a bit rusty so I've dug through the archives and found some dinosaur pictures I drew back in the middle of the last century that I'm thinking of uploading. This is the holiday's 4th year.
Pretty cool. There are more if you click the link.
Hey - I'm John Boswell, the head musician and producer behind the Symphony of Science. The goal of the project is to bring scientific knowledge and philosophy to the masses, in a novel way, through the medium of music.
Courtesy ESACan it be true? Yes, for a mere $5,544 dollars round-trip airfare to Greenland! In March 2009, the European Space Agency launched the Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) into orbit around our planet, which is now transmitting detailed data about the Earth’s gravity. The GOCE satellite uses a gradiometer to map tiny variations in the Earth’s gravity caused by the planet’s rotation, mountains, ocean trenches, and interior density. New maps illustrating gravity gradients on the Earth are being produced from the information beamed back from GOCE. Preliminary data suggests that there is a negative shift in gravity in the northeastern region of Greenland where the Earth’s tug is a little less, which means you might weigh a fraction of a pound lighter there (a very small fraction, so it may not be worth the plane fare)!
In America, NASA and Stanford University are also working on the gravity issue. Gravity Probe B (GP-B) is a satellite orbiting 642 km (400 miles) above the Earth and uses four gyroscopes and a telescope to measure two physical effects of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity on the Earth: the Geodetic Effect, which is the amount the earth warps its spacetime, and the Frame-Dragging Effect, the amount of spacetime the earth drags with it as it rotates. (Spacetime is the combination of the three dimensions of space with the one dimension of time into a mathematical model.)
Quick overview time. The Theory of General Relativity is simply defined as: matter telling spacetime how to curve, and curved spacetime telling matter how to move. Imagine that the Earth (matter) is a bowling ball and spacetime is a trampoline. If you place the bowling ball in the center of the trampoline it stretches the trampoline down. Matter (the bowling ball) curves or distorts the spacetime (trampoline). Now toss a smaller ball, like a marble, onto the trampoline. Naturally, it will roll towards the bowling ball, but the bowling ball isn’t ‘attracting’ the marble, the path or movement of the marble towards the center is affected by the deformed shape of the trampoline. The spacetime (trampoline) is telling the matter (marble) how to move. This is different than Newton’s theory of gravity, which implies that the earth is attracting or pulling objects towards it in a straight line. Of course, this is just a simplified explanation; the real physics can be more complicated because of other factors like acceleration.
Courtesy noneSo what is the point of all this high-tech gravity testing? First of all, our current understanding of the structure of the universe and the motion of matter is based on Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity; elaborate concepts and mathematical equations conceived by a genius long before we had the technology to directly test them for accuracy. The Theory of General Relativity is the cornerstone of modern physics, used to describe the universe and everything in it, and yet it is the least tested of Einstein’s amazing theories. Testing the Frame-Dragging Effect is particularly exciting for physicists because they can use the data about the Earth’s influence on spacetime to measure the properties of black holes and quasars.
Second, the data from the GOCE satellite will help accurately measure the real acceleration due to gravity on the earth, which can vary from 9.78 to 9.83 meters per second squared around the planet. This will help scientists analyze ocean circulation and sea level changes, which are influenced by our climate and climate change. The information that the GOCE beams back will also assist researchers studying geological processes such as earthquakes and volcanoes.
So, as I gobble down another mouthful of leftover turkey and mashed potatoes, I can feel confident that my holiday weight gain and the structure of the universe are of grave importance to the physicists of the world!
Courtesy Annie in BeziersIn an effort to cut costs the powers that be at Michigan State University are considering shutting down the Department of Geological Sciences. The vote to close the department could come as soon as December 1st. This is not good. Read about it here. Dinochick Blogs has posted a reaction to it from paleontologist Chris Noto. Also, you can sign an online petition against it.