Stories tagged science

Check out this insightful TED Talk on "How simple ideas lead to scientific discoveries" given by Adam Savage, host of television's Mythbusters. The simple method he describes that was used to first calculate the speed of light is pretty inspiring.

Stephen Hawking in 2008
Stephen Hawking in 2008Courtesy alvherre at Flickr
Acclaimed astrophysicist and author, Stephen Hawking, the former Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge - a position once held by Sir Isaac Newton - turns 70 years old today. Stricken with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (aka ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease), Hawking has defied doctors by living well-past their predicted "few years" when he was first diagnosed with the disease in 1963. A celebration in Britain took place today but Hawking was ill and couldn't attend the celebration. A recorded speech by Hawking was presented instead. Despite his debilitating disorder, Professor Hawking has managed to raise a family and through the use of computers to write several best-selling books, including A Brief History of Time. Here's an interview with Hawking's biographer, Kitty Ferguson. In Great Britain, ALS is known as motor neuron disease.

BBC report of birthday celebration
ALS Association page
Hawking cracks black hole paradox New Scientist article
A Brief History of Time (downloadable pdf)


You are Cordially Invited

Publication Party, Public Reading, and Book Signing Event

FOOL ME TWICE: Fighting the Assault on Science in America

Introduction by Don Shelby
Emcee Jim Lenfestey

"A gripping analysis of America's anti-science crisis."
Starred Kirkus Review
“In this incredible book, Otto explores the devaluation of science in America.”
Starred Publishers Weekly Review

You know you want to read it. Click here for more info
You know you want to read it. Click here for more infoCourtesy Shawn Lawerence Otto

Tuesday October 18, 2011 at 7PM
Target Performance Hall, Open Book
1011 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis
(click here for directions and free parking)
This event is free and open to the public

sponsored by
the Loft Literary Center
the Science Museum of Minnesota

no reservation required, but click here to RSVP to help us plan

Beer, wine and light refreshments served
Books for sale at the event
Free book by drawing. To qualify: A) post about the event on Facebook B) tweet at the event with hashtag #FoolMeTwice and mention @ShawnOtto

Google is holding a science fair. According to the contest website, the search-engine giant is "looking for the brightest young scientists from around the world to submit interesting, creative projects that are relevant to the world today."

The contest is open to anyone in the world who is aged 13-18. Contestants can work alone or in teams, and who knows, maybe you and your project could win the fabulous Grand Prize which includes a $50,000 scholarship, AND a 10-day expedition to the Galapagos Islands with National Geographic Expeditions (not to mention the opportunity to spend 3 days at CERN or at the Google research site in Zurich)! Geez Louise, these really are grand prizes. It'd be so cool to win.

So, if you think you have a science project that could wow the judges, you should definitely enter. All the information and details you need can be found at the contest website. You have until the April 4, 2011 to enter. Good luck!

President Obama
President ObamaCourtesy Public domain
Today at the White House Science Fair, President Obama announced his appearance on the Discovery Channel's show Mythbusters. The episode airs December 8, 2010. It's nice to see the president involved with science so this might be worth watching. Go here for more on the Mythbusters appearance. And some other info here.


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.)

Earthquake: Are you going to listen to the guy who tells you this happened because of a ghost? A pact with the Devil? Because God is angry with unveiled and unchaste women? No, thanks. My money's on the well-understood science of plate tectonics, and I'll be looking to the science peeps for the solutions, too.
Earthquake: Are you going to listen to the guy who tells you this happened because of a ghost? A pact with the Devil? Because God is angry with unveiled and unchaste women? No, thanks. My money's on the well-understood science of plate tectonics, and I'll be looking to the science peeps for the solutions, too.Courtesy United Nations Development Programme

I've been thinking about that idea a lot today after hearing two stories:

  1. In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, Protestants, Catholics, and practitioners of Voodoo are trying to increase followers by placing blame for the quake on supernatural causes. Some blame it on Voodoo, claiming that the earthquake is the price for a centuries old covenant made on the eve of the Haitian revolution. Others say Voodoo isn't at fault, but the consequence of not properly burying Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a hero of the Haitian revolution. (And you don't have to be living in Haiti to believe some of this stuff -- just listen to Pat Robertson).
  2. And in Iran, one of the most earthquake-prone places on Earth, Senior Cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi was recently quoted saying, "Many women who do not dress modestly ... lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes. ... What can we do to avoid being buried under the rubble? ... There is no other solution but to take refuge in religion and to adapt our lives to Islam's moral codes."


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.


Missing Link - Not

Darwinius masillae
Darwinius masillaeCourtesy University of Oslo
Perhaps 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.

One million dollars

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."

Confirmed: Fossil Ida is not a human ancestor

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.

How science should be done

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.


What's wrong with this picture?: Georges Melies' 1902 fantasy film; A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune), has very little to do with actual science, although it does contain some similarities with the Apollo missions of the 1960s.
What's wrong with this picture?: Georges Melies' 1902 fantasy film; A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune), has very little to do with actual science, although it does contain some similarities with the Apollo missions of the 1960s.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Sidney 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.

BBC story
Guardian story
Professor Perkowitz’s Emory University page
Sidney Perkowitz homepage
The 20 worst science and tech errors in films