Stories tagged History and Nature of Science

Dec
02
2009

Phil Jones, the director of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in Great Britain, is stepping down from his post pending an investigation. Jones is at the center of a controversy over the CRU’s activity. E-mails released on the web seem to indicate a variety of improper behavior, including manipulating data, destroying data, refusing to share data with other researchers, and trying to prevent researchers with other theories from getting their results published. Jones has not been officially charged with any wrong doing at this point. But until the controversy is settled, he will relinquish his position as director of the unit.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania State University has launched a review of Michael Mann, a University scientist also involved in the controversy and author of several of the e-mails.

We discussed the controversy in more detail in this post, with updated information in the comments.

Nov
29
2009

Wadena county, Minnesota
Wadena county, MinnesotaCourtesy wikipedia image
During the summer of 2009, I had the opportunity to spend four weeks in the field doing actual scientific investigation. From mid-June until mid-July, I was a participant in the University of Minnesota's archeology summer field school run by Professor Kat Hayes. The mission of the field school was to attempt to confirm the presence of a European footprint in this remote part of what would become a young Minnesota territory.

The site of Little Round Hill is located in Wadena County, Minnesota, part way between the towns of Staples and Wadena. Currently, it is part of a county park system. Located at the confluence of the Crow Wing River and the Partridge River, Little Round Hill is believed to be a historical site from the early French fur trading days.

The story goes something like this. In the mid- 1800's, William Warren wrote an account of Ojibwe life in a growing Minnesota territory. In his work, Warren interviewed an elderly Ojibwe man. This elderly man recounted days spent at a fur trading encampment while he was just a young boy. The encampment centered around the dwelling of a French fur trader and his handful or so of Coureur-des-bois . Staying with this trader were around ten Ojibwe hunters and their families. According to the account, Little Round Hill became the focus of contention between rival bands of Ojibwe and Lakota hunters. By oral recollection, there was an incident of more than 200 Lakota warriors approaching and attacking the outpost. The Frenchmen and Ojibwe held the attackers at bay with guns while barricading themselves into the main encampment. The attackers, with only a few guns and armed mainly with bow and arrow for projectiles, were unable to overcome the defenses and eventually retreated.

The site itself had been recognized for its historical implications for quite some time. For years, local residents have pondered that possible remains may lie buried at the Little Round Hill location. In 1992, Douglas Birk conducted an initial survey of the site. While artifact remains spanning several centuries were recovered in his explorations, they didn’t produce evidence of any of the structures described in the oral account.

The summer of 2009 excavations started out with a whimper. Rain and uncooperative weather hampered our beginning efforts. As the clouds passed, the field crew opened a handful of excavation pits and began searching for artifacts. The results were productive and encouraging. Items of distinct European influence started to appear in most of the test areas including musket balls, cut pieces of finished copper, small trade beads, a couple pieces of worked metal (still of undetermined nature), a few pottery shards and even a small ring (possibly silver).
musket ball: the first such item found and it came from my pit!
musket ball: the first such item found and it came from my pit!Courtesy K.Kmitch

Additional materials such as a stone arrowhead, lithic debris, and animal bones both broken and charred were recovered. After a month of work and close to a dozen open explorations, much more habitation evidence was revealed. While no sign was uncovered of the fortifications mentioned in the oral account, at least three of the excavation points did expose strong support for likely hearth locations. These may have been centered near the possible dwellings of the occupants.

Alas, the season of excavation is a short one in Minnesota. After a month of work, the crew retreated home with bags of evidence in hand. During the 2009-2010 academic year, the materials are being analyzed and cataloged at the University of Minnesota. A full report on the findings is expected this coming spring. While the preliminary data does not show conclusive evidence of the mentioned encampment, enough material was recovered to warrant further investigation. Plans are to return to the site next summer to resume excavations and expand exploration of the area. I, for one, can not wait and hope to have my hand in the dirt once again come summer 2010.

Nov
25
2009

A controversy is brewing in the world of climate science. On Thursday, November 19, a Russian website posted over 1,000 e-mails and almost 3,000 data files from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in Great Britain. The CRU is one of the major centers of climate research in the world, and provided much of the data for the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

The e-mails, written by some of the leading climate scientists in Britain and America, seem to suggest some very disturbing behavior:

* manipulating climate data to fit pre-existing theory
* refusing to share data with peers to check for accuracy
* circumventing legal requirements to release information, and even deleting some of it
* pressuring journals to reject papers that don’t fit the theory, and even pushing editors out of their posts

The story has been covered by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. You can find a good summary of how the story broke on Pajamas Media. Blogger Bishop Hill is keeping a running list of the most controversial e-mails. And, if you just want a quick summary, there’s “Three Things You Absolutely Must Know About Climategate.”

The University has acknowledged that its system was illegally hacked, but cannot vouch for the authenticity of every item. (There is also some suggestion that the information may have been leaked by an insider.) Several authors and recipients have verified some of the e-mails as genuine; as of this writing, none of the messages have been refuted. The sheer amount of data – over 170 megabytes – suggests this is not a hoax, though many authors have cautioned that it would be easy for a prankster to slip a few bogus e-mails in with all the legitimate ones.

But, assuming the e-mails are genuine, what do they tell us?

The alleged non-compliance with the Freedom of Information Act is a legal matter. We can say nothing about it, other than no charges have been filed, and everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

The e-mails which seem to describe fudging the facts to fit the theory have received the most attention. It would be disturbing indeed if scientists at a major research institute were falsifying data. Though only a handful of papers have so far been implicated, if the allegations are borne out it would cast a pall over these scientists’ other work, their collaborations, and even work done by other scientists which was based on the disputed data.

These particular e-mails have also received the strongest defense. The authors, and even some third-party observers, maintain that the messages are being quoted out of context and misinterpreted, and that some phrases which appear damning actually have innocent explanations. (To date, there has been little reporting on the much larger, much more complex data files, which may shed light on this issue.)

Perhaps most disturbing, from a science standpoint, are the withholding of data from outside researchers, and the pressure put on journals to not publish dissenting views. Science absolutely relies on vigorous, evidence-based debate. If the evidence is not made available, the debate cannot take place. Furthermore, proponents of human-caused global warming have long criticized dissenters for not publishing their papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals. However, if it turns out that those journals were controlled by proponents who actively kept dissenters out, then the argument loses merit.

On this last point, global warming proponents and dissenters agree. Writers such as Megan McArdle and George Monbiot argue that the case for human-caused global warming remains strong, but that subverting the peer-review process blocks scientific progress and is a major blow to credibility.

So, what next? Politicians in Britain, Australia and America are calling for investigations. Climate studies are funded with taxpayer dollars, and lawmakers pass legislation based on the information the studies provide. Governments have an obligation to make sure it is accurate. And, as noted earlier, the easy work of reading the e-mails has largely been done. The more difficult task of sifting through the data files will take longer. Already, some programmers are questioning the computer models CRU developed to predict climate. If there are more updates, we’ll be sure to post them here.

Nov
20
2009

Of course, some dinosaurs may not be missing--just hiding.: Many species adopt camouflage to blend in to their environments.
Of course, some dinosaurs may not be missing--just hiding.: Many species adopt camouflage to blend in to their environments.Courtesy Elston

Looooooong time passing....

Seems like some of them were never here to begin with. Over the years, scientists have named about 700 different species of dinosaurs. But a recent study indicates that perhaps as many as a third of these were phantoms—specimens that were given distinct names despite actually belonging to another, well-known species.

For example, Torosaurus is now thought to be just a fully mature version of Triceratops. At the other end of the age scale, Nanotyrannus is considered by some to be just a juvenile form of the famous Tyrannosaurus rex.

Why the changes? Well, identifying species is hard, even under the best of circumstances. With fossils, it’s especially tricky. You often only have one specimen to study, not dozens or hundreds as with living creatures. You can only see the fossil’s bones, not the full creature. And, most important, you only have the dead body—you can’t watch the living creature to see how it changes as it grows. (Dinosaur bones, it seems, are extremely malleable and prone to change shape as the creature matures.)

But don’t be too hard on the poor paleontologists. Other scientists have this same problem. Last year, it was reported that over 30% of all living marine creatures had been misidentified, and for the same reasons. An individual (or small group) was slightly larger than normal, or slightly smaller, or a slightly different color, or came from a different location—enough to lead the scientist to classify it as a new species, when in fact it was already a member of an established species. If taxonomists can make that many mistakes with living creatures, we shouldn’t be surprised that the dinosaur family tree will need a little pruning.

Nov
16
2009

Calakmul: I'm not sure if this is the spaceport or the Institute for Marketable Prophesies.
Calakmul: I'm not sure if this is the spaceport or the Institute for Marketable Prophesies.Courtesy J&P Voelkel
The ancient Maya: keepers of arcane knowledge, masters of the celestial spheres, 7th century astronauts… prophesiers of DOOM!

Yes, how the Maya knew what they knew remains a mystery to the arrogant forces of modern “science,” but we know that what they knew was totally awesome and sinister. Because, like, they carved it in stone and painted it on walls, and we all know that anything carved or painted on a wall is pretty much a sure thing. That’s how I know that for a good time I will call 555-5646, and why I’m certain that one day this will surely come to pass. And it’s why I’m sure that the world will end in 2012.

I mean, sure, there are people who still follow many of the traditions of their Mayan ancestors, and they say that 2012 doomsday predictions are nonsense, and that they’re based on the willful misinterpretations of another culture’s beliefs and calendar system, but… those people are obviously ignoring the wisdom of the ancients. You know, the wisdom of the ancients?

Recently excavated murals at the Mayan site of Calakmul are further enhancing our vision of these ancient, mystical people. The colorful murals, preserved on the covered wall of a built-over structure (the Maya sometimes added layers to older pyramids, creating a larger structure with a new face) apparently depict scenes of everyday Mayan life. It’s a unique discovery, because most of the imagery archaeologists uncover shows much grander stuff—royalty, and scenes from mythology. But this one just seems to show normal Mayan people doing normal stuff.

Of course, the above statement has to be understood within the context of the popular understanding of the Maya. I mean, “normal stuff”? What’s normal for people who flew around in spaceships, predicting the end of the world?

Let’s take a look, hmm?

This part of the mural, at first glance, seems to show a man in a wide, sombrero-like hat dishing out ul, a traditional maize gruel, to another man, who is drinking it. Obviously things aren’t so simple as this. The wide hat? It’s no hat. That man is wearing a satellite dish, so that he can stay in contact with teams of Mayan astronaut-priests, as they divine the future from high orbit. And the drinking guy—yes, he’s drinking, but it’s not corn gruel. He’s drinking magic potion. The mural does have a hieroglyphic caption that says “maize-gruel person,” but that must be a type. The lords of destiny don’t eat. And they especially don’t eat corn.

Here, we see the color version of the above image, as well as several other scenes of ancient Mayan life, including a man labeled “tobacco person,” who is holding a vessel full of what may be tobacco, or possibly Tobacco-brand ancient Mayan rocket fuel. There’s also the woman labeled “clay vessel person,” who may be holding a stack of clay vessels, or perhaps a stack of crystal balls, still in their brown paper wrappers. The murals also seem to show a woman making tamales, and a man eating them. But that’s just one interpretation. Another way to look at it might be, like, she’s making little pieces of the future. And he’s eating them. He could be eating the 2012 piece right there. The expression on his face may hold key information for us.

It just shows to go you. Some people are going to look at this and think, “Hey, look, normal ancient Maya people doing normal stuff and wearing normal clothes. What a fascinating glimpse into the lives of a seldom-depicted portion of a long-passed society.” And they’re free to think this way, but they’ll have no excuse for acting all surprised in three years.

Oct
30
2009

For me, the greatest mystery in the universe is Lindsay Price, and how she continues to find work.: Not that great a mystery, I guess…
For me, the greatest mystery in the universe is Lindsay Price, and how she continues to find work.: Not that great a mystery, I guess…Courtesy catechism

And, let’s face it, who hasn’t had the urge now and then? At the “Quantum to Cosmos” physics conference in Waterloo, Canada, seven physicists were asked, "What keeps you awake at night?" (Apparently, they meant “what issue in science” as opposed to love, money, or lack thereof.) The panel came up with some pretty heavy questions:

Why are the fundamental laws of nature the way that they are? There doesn’t seem to be any reason why they couldn’t be some other way. Are there, perhaps, other universes with other rules?

How does the Observer Effect work? This is a little deep for me, but apparently at the sub-atomic level, simply observing a particle over here can effect another particle thousands of miles away. How does nature do that?

What is the nature of matter, anyway? Especially the “dark matter” which is theorized to exist in outer space, messing up all our gravity calculations.

On a related note, will string theory ever be proven? String theory is the latest theory for how matter and energy interact at the sub-sub-sub-atomic level. And while it is very elegant and seems right on paper, no one has any idea how to conduct an experiment to prove or disprove it.

How do complex systems arise out of simple, basic particles and forces? You know, complex systems. Like life, the universe, and everything.

How did the universe begin, anyway? Physics can only take us back to a few fractions of a second after the Big Bang, a moment at which the universe was very small, very hot, and very dense. Before that, the laws of physics break down. No one knows how to describe the Bang itself, or how / why it happened.

Which brings us to, what are the limits of science? Science is based on observation and experiment. But, at some point, you run into ideas that can’t be tested. In theory, it’s entirely possible that there are other universes. But we’re stuck in this one—how would we ever know?

If anyone has answers to any of these questions, please send them to Canada ASAP. It sounds like there’s a bunch of scientists up there who could use a good night’s sleep.

Sep
17
2009

A memorial statue of Alan Turing
A memorial statue of Alan TuringCourtesy Kurt Seebauer
This has been in the news recently, but it didn’t occur to me until just now that it really has a place on Science Buzz.

Alan Turing was an English mathematician, and one of the fathers of computer science. He developed some of the earliest computers, and created the very first designs for a “stored-program” computer (a computer that keeps data and instructions inside of it, as opposed to one that required the operator to input every step.)

He was also interested in artificial intelligence, and proposed an experiment called the Turing test, meant to determine if a machine was truly intelligent. (Basically, a computer that could fool a human into thinking that he or she was talking with another person would pass the Turing test.)

Turing was also a code breaker, which is where the “war hero” part comes in. The day after the United Kingdom entered World War 2, Alan Turing went to work for the Government Code and Cypher School, an organization meant to break enemy codes. At GCCS, Turing and his colleagues developed automatic code breaking machines to decipher the elaborately encrypted messages of the Axis forces.

Turing’s work in collecting German military secrets through code breaking has been said to have shortened WWII by as much as two years, saving thousands of lives.

Alan Turing was also gay, and when he admitted this to the police after his home was broken into, he was charged with “gross indecency,” a law that essentially made homosexuality a criminal offense. Turing was given the choice of going to prison or accepting probation on the condition that he undergo chemical castration. Chemical castration involves the administration of drugs that change the subject’s hormone balance. This can cause the loss of sexual drive, as well as loss of hair, and muscle and bone density.

Two years after his conviction, Alan Turing killed himself.

It was a pretty awful way to treat someone who had contributed so much to the peace and safety of the world, as well as to the revolutionary discipline of computer science. This month the British government finally issued an apology to Alan Turing, acknowledging the scientist’s great contributions to humankind, as well as the shameful way he had been treated by his own government.

So there you go. Let’s not let it happen again.

Jun
22
2009

The titans close on each other: Look at how much bigger they are than that house! But how do we know that's a werewolf and not just a normal giant wolf?
The titans close on each other: Look at how much bigger they are than that house! But how do we know that's a werewolf and not just a normal giant wolf?Courtesy JGordon
JK. The war has already been fought, Bigfoot totally won, you missed it, and remarkably little blood was spilled. Go figure.

A professor of the history of science at Kean University in New Jersey is arguing that Bigfoot, in fact, killed the werewolf. Not for really real, but in the collective mind of our society. However, Bigfoot had a secret weapon: Charles Darwin. (I’m assuming it was a silver-tipped Charles Darwin, at least.)

See, everybody has to be afraid of something, pretty much. And for a long time we were all, “I have to be afraid of something, huh? Well… I’m already sort of afraid of wolves, so why don’t we throw in this unnatural wolf/man mix thingy. I’ll be afraid of that.” And because we were too dumb to know about stuff like flesh eating disease and giant crocodiles and cancer, we were pretty satisfied being afraid of werewolves.

But then, says New Jersey science historian Brian Regal, then along comes ol’ Charles Darwin (and his silver tongue?), and begins to popularize evolution with On the Origin of Species. People start thinking, “Hey… wolf-man? Why did I ever think that was scary? That’s old, magicky nonsense. No, what makes sense is an ape-man. I’ll be afraid of that now.”

Science gave the supernatural a little boost of legitimacy, in a roundabout way. And at the cost of poor, dear wolf-man.

Or so says Brian Regal. Take it for what it’s worth; he’s an assistant professor, after all. I don’t trust assistant anythings. Especially not dental assistants. Regal will be presenting his theory to the British Society for the History of Science in Leicester, UK in July. He’s going to show how period artwork also reflects this werewolf to Bigfoot transition, which sounds pretty neat. So if you can make it to Leicester and into the British Society for the History of Science sometime in the next month, maybe you should check it out.

A brutal win!: Look—the wolf has pants. Case closed. Oh, right... this drawing isn't appropriate for more delicate viewers.
A brutal win!: Look—the wolf has pants. Case closed. Oh, right... this drawing isn't appropriate for more delicate viewers.Courtesy JGordon
I’m more than a little disappointed in the lack of an epic, bloody monster-on-monster battle here, though. So I’ll be drawing one for y’all just now, on the back of some paper I pulled out of my trash.

May
11
2009

I stumbled across this story on BBC news. A medieval church was discovered by a team of archaeologists from Lampeter University. The site was discovered in a city that is apparently unpronounceable by humans. A geophysical survey was used to detect the foundation of the church in Swyddffynnon, Wales. Given the amount of material, possible other buildings and additional evidence of human activity found it has been speculated by the team that this may be the site of a medieval village.

May
04
2009

Not to freak y'all out, but did you know that germs are on everything you touch? Using a special powder called Glo Germ (get it here) you can actually see how germs spread from one thing to another. It will make you want to wash your hands more often. (And the CDC recommends washing your hands frequently. In fact, why don't you go wash up right now?)

Scrub 'em: Use soap and water, and wash for 20 seconds. That's about the time it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice.
Scrub 'em: Use soap and water, and wash for 20 seconds. That's about the time it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice.Courtesy mitikusa

TRY THIS:
Goal: to observe how germs are spread
Age level:: 3 and above
Activity time: 2 - 5 minutes
Prep time: 5 minutes

Materials needed:

  • Glo Germ powder
  • Toys or common household/school/office objects to "spike" with germs
  • UV lamp or detector box

Preparation:

  1. Sprinkle Glo Germ powder on your objects.
  2. Arrange them somewhere where others can handle them.
  3. Plug in UV lamp, but don't turn it on.

Directions:
Encourage others to pick up and play with the objects. Ask them what they know about germs.

  • Do you know where microbes are found?
  • Do you know what a microbe/germ is?
  • Do you know what illnesses are caused by germs?
  • Do you know the best way to avoid getting sick because of germs?

After the discussion, tell them that, as part of an experiment, you've put "pretend" germs on one or some of the objects they may have touched today. Switch on the UV lamp: what glows?

Reinforce the fat that the Glo Germ powder is just to simulate germs. It won't make you sick. You can get rid of the germs by washing your hands. In fact, encourage your audience to wash their hands and then hold them under the UV light again.

(On the other hand, remember that not all germs are bad. Exposure to some germs is thought to protect people against asthma and allergies or colitis, and overuse of antibacterial products leads to antibiotic resistance and superbugs as well as potential damage to the environment.)