Stories tagged scientific process


I'm both a linguist by training and a puzzle enthusiast by inclination, so this story in the New York Times caught my eye. Um, so to speak. The Copiale cipher is an 18th century docment found in Germany, written with a set of symbols that include Roman characters (the ordinary letters that are used to write many European languages, including English), and other symbols that included Greek letters and abstract designs. The text has now been shown to describe an initiation ceremony for a secret society centered around eyes. Eye: The Copiale cipher talks about eyes, but the eye also symbolizes observation and discovery.  See what I did there?
Eye: The Copiale cipher talks about eyes, but the eye also symbolizes observation and discovery. See what I did there?Courtesy Thomas Tolkien

The story about the codebreaking itself is fascinating and worth a read. The cipher was cracked by a team of linguists and computer scientists with the help of software that's been developed for machine translation, which is the automatic translation of a text from one language to another, for example Russian to Japanese. Machine translation, and the problems that it presents, is fascinating in itself. But what really got me thinking as I read the researchers' paper
is the parallels between the process of deciphering this unknown document and the procedure that scientists everywhere go through in making discoveries about the natural world.

The scientific method is a series of steps intended to lead to explanations of previously unknown phenomena. Generally, the method consists of four parts:

1. Noticing something;
2. Making a hypothesis, or educated guess, that explains what you notice;
3. Predicting what will happen if you test your educated guess; and
4. Testing the guess to see if you're right.

If your guess was right, you can make more predictions and do more experiments. If you're wrong, you can learn from that to make a new guess, and then continue with the process. Sometimes being wrong is the most valuable part of the process, because knowing what *isn't* happening can help you discover what *is*.

The researchers working on the Copiale cipher made a lot of wrong guesses at first. For example, they predicted that the Roman letters held the information and the others were filler, when the opposite was true. Still, they might never have found meaning in the other symbols if they hadn't started with a reasonable, though ultimately wrong, hypothesis.

In a way, every scientist is a codebreaker. Information about the natural world, about biology, astronomy, sociology, or any other field of science is about finding the information hidden deep within the phenomena that we observe as we look at the things around us. To decipher it, all we need is the desire to know what's behind the code, and the patience to keep trying until we figure it out.


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.


A computer error leads to bad climate data: The sudden jump in temperatures around January 2000 was caused by a faulty formula. New calculations show many years were actually cooler than previously thought.  (Source: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies)
A computer error leads to bad climate data: The sudden jump in temperatures around January 2000 was caused by a faulty formula. New calculations show many years were actually cooler than previously thought. (Source: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies)

We here at Science Buzz have discussed global warming a time or two. And long-time readers know that I am The Science Museum’s resident global warming skeptic. Not a denier – I recognize that the Earth’s temperatures have been generally increasing over the last 25 to 30 years, and I’ll admit that human-produced carbon dioxide could well be a contributing factor. However, I am skeptical about claims that human activity is the sole or even primary cause of this warming; that there is a simple, direct correlation between our actions and global climate; or that the planet is headed toward some sort of ecological disaster in the next 10 years if we don’t do something drastic now.

Toward that end, I keep an eye on the various global warming threads, and try to temper the more intemperate comments made by those who hold different views. (And they do the same for me, of course.) So, in the course of a debate, if someone says “the Earth is warming,” I correct them by pointing out that the Earth has warmed: global temperatures rose in the 1980s and ‘90s, peaked in the US in 1998, and have held steady or dropped slightly since.

I have recently learned that this was wrong. As painful as it is for me to admit, I must set the record straight: temperatures in the US did not peak in 1998. They actually peaked in…


In 1934, the world’s population was a fraction of what it is today. (One-sixth, more or less.) Manufacturing and industry were smaller. The number of cars and the miles traveled in them were far fewer. Commercial air travel – a huge producer of greenhouse gases – was in its infancy.

(1934 was also the year my mother was born and, in a coincidence science has thus far been unable to explain, the year Yoko Ono was born.)

And yet despite the lower levels of greenhouse gas, 1934 was warmer than any other year, before or since. And while global temperatures had been generally increasing since about 1890, they leveled off around 1940 and even took a slight dip in the 1970s. All of which indicates that record-high temperatures may not be the harbinger of doom so many assume them to be.

So, how could I have made such a drastic mistake? Well, I’m not the only one. Y’see, I was relying on a temperature chart produced by NASA scientists Reto Reudy and James Hansen. Their graph showed temperatures spiking in the late ‘90s, and staying near that peak.

Of course, other people were studying that chart, too. One of them, Steve McIntyre, thought it looked a little fishy. So he asked Hansen for the formula he used to produce his chart. Hansen, operating in the spirit of openness and transparency that is the hallmark of science and a requirement of the federal government…refused. (Other scientists have also accused some federal agencies of not sharing their data so it can be reviewed.) So McIntyre reverse-engineered the formula from the published data. And he found something interesting.

Temperature data from many reporting stations around the country suddenly jumped around the year 2000. After some digging, McIntyre found an error in the formula used to process the data. As a result, Reudy and Hansen reported many years as being warmer than they really were.

(Is this the same James Hansen who has accused the Bush administration of playing politics with science, trying to suppress views that contradict their positions and cherry-picking data that advances its agenda? Why, yes it is!)

NASA has recomputed the figures and issued a new set of corrected data. It now shows that five of the ten warmest years on record occurred before World War II, when global temps leveled off and later fell. Four of the years in our current decade which were supposed to have been near record highs were actually colder than 1900.

Minnesotans can be proud that their state played a role in uncovering this mistake. It was data at the Detroit Lakes station that first led McIntyre to believe something was amiss.

So, what lesson do we learn from all this? That I need to be more skeptical. I have to stop believing everything I read in the New York Times. I need to recognize that even rocket scientists can sometimes make mistakes.

So my promise to you, dear readers, is I will check my sources and do my best never to fall for this sort of mistake again.