Tag Archives: science

The Long View

It’s good to step back some times and look at the really long view. Charlie Stross just did this with his new blog post on 2512, which provides a plausible look at what that world might be. I especially like the framing, about thinking what the world was like 500 years ago:

Five hundred years is a nearly unimaginable gulf from today’s perspective. Five centuries ago, the Portuguese conquistadores were beginning their rampage through South America; Martin Luther was finishing his doctorate in theology and thinking about sin: the huge sequence of civil wars that racked Japan for over a century were raging: the Great Powers were still the Chinese empire and the Caliphate (although the latter was undergoing a shift in center of gravity towards Istanbul and the Ottoman empire). The great powers in Europe were Spain and Venice; the English speaking world was a few million barbarians occupying a handful of damp islands on the outer fringes of Europe. It’s more than twice the historical existence of the USA to this date. Of our social institutions, very few survive from that long ago: the Catholic Church (and various orders and sub-groups within it), the Japanese Monarchy, and so on. A handful of universities, banks, and other institutions. The half-life of a public corporation today is about 30 years: ten half-lives out — 300 years hence — we may expect only one in a million to survive.

The whole post is definitely worth your time, but I do keep coming back to that half life statement. We take it for granted some time that organizations that exist today will be there tomorrow. But the reality is there is nothing magical about organizations, it’s about the people. Things only get done because some decides to do them.

Contemplating the long view seems like an appropriate Sunday morning activities.

This is what we can do…

This is what we can do when we work together, on science, on the future.

http://io9.com/5932042/what-is-the-first-thing-curiosity-will-do-when-it-lands

We can land a rover, by sky hook, on a planet so far away that it takes 14 minutes for light and radio signals to get back to earth.

This is what we can do when we work together, on science, on the future.

http://www.flickriver.com/photos/vwmang/7723995586/

We can bring people together, for a shared moment of humanity.

This is what we can do when we work together, on science, on the future.

We can inspire a generation.

Maybe we should do more of that.

 

Is the Sky Blue?

It’s a really interesting question, that isn’t as obvious as you might think. It’s wrapped up in the social construct of colors, and how color words emerge in languages.

Radio Lab covered this recently in one of their best podcasts I’ve ever listened to. And there is another great look at color evolution here. I especially like that we’re actually watching a color split emerge in modern Japanese language.

Evolution has a speed limit

From physorg, a statistical analysis of the velocity of evolution from the fossil record, looking for an upper limit:

Large evolutionary changes in body size take a very long time. A mouse-to-elephant size change would take at least 24 million generations based on the maximum speed of evolution in the fossil record, according to the work of Alistair Evans and co-authors. Becoming smaller can happen much faster than becoming bigger: the evolution of pygmy elephants took 10 times fewer generations than the equivalent sheep-to-elephant size change.

Now that computational cycles are becoming cheaper, some really interesting statistical analysis can be done in science to ask questions we never could before. Very cool.

Freakonomics off the rails

Great post at American Scientist about how Freakonomics has gone off the rails.

In our analysis of the Freakonomics approach, we encountered a range of avoidable mistakes, from back-of-the-envelope analyses gone wrong to unexamined assumptions to an uncritical reliance on the work of Levitt’s friends and colleagues. This turns accessibility on its head: Readers must work to discern which conclusions are fully quantitative, which are somewhat data driven and which are purely speculative.

I loved their first book, but as the author says, the strongest part was around Levitt’s own peer reviewed research. As they’ve gotten further away from that over the years, the methodology has become a lot more hear say and writing to a deadline.

The Grand Conspiracy

Last night, among a generally jovial conversation around new finds in astronomy, I also was subjected to various out bursts of “electrical theory of mars” (i.e. Mars was carved by machines) and similar Grand Conspiracy ideas about how NASA had hid all this from us. It all came from one new club member, who’s previous outbursts had been minor enough I hadn’t yet realized he was a full time crank. The reaction from the table was mostly ignore and move on.

But it still amazes me that someone thinks it’s far more plausible that tens of thousands of individuals are manipulating scientific information about Mars in a coordinated and consistent way. That they can manage to induct all new science students working on the data into their masonic clan. I guess it makes a good Dan Brown novel, but it maps really badly to reality.

And if the grand conspiracy was just at the kooky fringe, it would be something I could mostly chuckle at and move on. But grand conspiracies have become mainstream fodder. For instance, cable news generating a meme in conservative America that Climate Change is a hoax created by 10s of thousands of scientists to keep their jobs. Really? The next Dan Brown novel is going to be about grad students living 4 to an apartment, eating raman noodles, feeling so clever in their grand conspiracy?

I guess if you’re primarily motivated by dollars, have a poor understanding of science in general, and never worked with science researchers before, it might make sense. First, project your basest motivations on others. Then sprinkle gracious ignorance about how science or economics work. Make sure to pass over the fact that if you had the mathematical chops to work out something as complicated as a climate model, and money was your motivator, you’d easily make 10 times as much being a Quant for the financial sector. They heavily recruit out of the physical sciences, many of my classmates from college went that route. But no, the grand conspiracy would rather believe the route to riches is applying for competitive NSF grants instead of credit default swaps and derivative trading.

So why do people believe in the Grand Conspiracy? Because it’s comforting. It takes a complex world and makes it simple. Complex problems and motivations are now turned into mythical dragons that some mythical protagonist can go slay, making all right in the world.

The only problem with that: it isn’t real. The moon landing wasn’t faked, it took a generation of our best minds to get us there, and huge technological advances came out of it. Vacines don’t cause autism, they’ve eliminated a vast number of debilitating diseases that you no longer have to worry about if you live in the west, and are now starting to eliminate certain kinds of cancer. Climate change is not a hoax, it’s a real, hard problem, that we’re going to need to figure out how to address as a society. Evolution is demonstrated science, we don’t need a designer to create complex emergent behavior.

The world of facts and knowledge is one of spectacular beauty, complexity, and wonder, and doesn’t need Grand Conspiracies to make it majestic and exciting.