How Naïve are Scientists?

An excellent examination of the cause of scientists’ frustrations….

The Grumpy Geophysicist

A FiveThirtyEight podcast recently included a segment with their senior science writer, Maggie Koerth-Baker, where she opined on what scientists were marching for, and in so doing she made the following comment (about 49 minutes in):

Something that I have been trying to get scientists to understand when I do, like, public speaking with them is that, you know, it’s important that evidence is a part of how we make decisions in politics, but evidence about, like scientific evidence, is never going to be the only thing people make these decisions on. You know, you have ideology, you have philosophy, you have, you know, what your personal conception of ethics and morality is, you have money, you have, like, all these different things that sort of come together to make political decision making, and just telling people facts isn’t going to shift people on all of those other things, because the facts…

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A Creationist Speaker Comes to Town

I am reblogging this post and commenting: Here is a thoughtful and intelligent discourse on creationism, written by an evangelical Christian, Scott Buchanan, who has a PhD in chemical engineering. I’m reblogging his post from his blog, Letters to Creationists. At over 10,000 words, it’s long. But very interesting and well worth the read.

Letters to Creationists

By the early 1800s European geologists (many of them devout Christians) realized that the rock layers they observed had to be far older than the 6000 years allowed by a literal interpretation of Bible chronology. For instance, as discussed here , angular unconformities like that shown below could not been formed in the course of the one-year-long Flood of Noah.

Angular Unconformity at Siccar Point, Scotland. Siccar Point, Scotland (Photo: Wikipedia “Hutton’s Unconformity”) Angular Unconformity at Siccar Point, Scotland. Siccar Point, Scotland (Photo: Wikipedia “Hutton’s Unconformity”)

Numerous other evidences for an old earth have been observed by scientists over the past two hundred years. These include fossil soils, and massive deposits of salt and of limestone in the midst of sedimentary rock layers, and tens of thousands of annual layers in lake bottom deposits (“varves”) and in glaciers (see Some Simple Evidences for an Old Earth). We can trace, in reasonable detail, the movements of the sections of earth’s crust over the…

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The Center

We love the superlative – biggest/smallest, widest/narrowest, and more often than not, the tallest, heaviest, strongest rather than the shortest, lightest, weakest.  Not many travel posters feature the ‘averagest’ waterfall, tree, or lake. So it might seem against human tendency to seek out the center. But the center has got it’s own appeal, especially when attached to something big: the centre of the Universe, or the center of the continent.

mercer-county-mapIn the 1800s, many states tried to locate their county seats near the county center. The county seat usually hosted the county government, the county court, and the county jail. Being equidistant from all villages, it seemed fair. In my own childhood home county of Mercer, Pennsylvania, the town of Mercer became the county seat. I was 16 when I drove our old farm truck to Mercer so I could take my driver’s exam. I remember my father clutching his passenger door the whole way there, rather sure that he wouldn’t survive my poor driving, though I did come home with permit in hand. It was lucky for him that the county seat was centrally located. Had it been in Grove City, our trip would have been ten minutes longer. As you can see in the map, the county seat is near the county center (actually 7 kilometres south, but there is nothing but woods at the actual center).

sask-mapIt’s not hard to find the geographic center of a square and Mercer County is very nearly a square. Later, I lived in Saskatchewan, Canada. It’s another jurisdiction which presents little challenge when looking for its center. Saskatchewan’s motto, “Easy to draw; hard to spell”, tells it all. The only surprise with Saskatchewan is that the center is ‘way up north’ – 99% of Saskatchewanians live south of center.  The northern half is sparsely populated Canadian Shield while the southern half of Saskatchewan has been flattened out to accommodate millions of acres of wheat fields. And a million European settlers.

map-of-croatia-editsBut what do you do with a place like Croatia? Croatia is one of my favourite countries. It’s got over a thousand beautiful Mediterranean islands, vast rolling vineyards in the north, an old Hapsburgian baroque capital (Zagreb), and a geographic center located in another country. To visit Croatia’s geographic center, one must travel over to the Serbian-controlled Republika Srpska, an enclave within Bosnia i Hercegovina.  The very definition of balkanization. Obviously few Croats would use the geographic center to define their country’s center, but might enlist a cultural, historical, or even population center instead. Probably the appropriate center of Croatia would be its center of mass, something we’ll discuss soon.

rugby-ndFor years, the geographic center of North America has been described as this stone and mortar obelisk in Rugby, North Dakota, 60 kilometres south of Manitoba, Canada. I used to drive past the monument a couple times a year back in the days when I owned homes in Florida and Saskatchewan. Here I am, thirty years ago, daughter in arms, standing at the center of North America. Had the monument been ten kilometres off Highway 2, this photo would have never happened. But there it was and so was I. In 1929, a US Geological Survey geographer cut out a cardboard map of the continent and balanced it on his finger. The balance point – the center of the continent’s mass (if all the mass of the continent were smeared around equally) was taken as the center of North America. He found the spot near the North Dakota towns of Balta and Orrin, 30 kilometres southwest of Rugby. Both towns claimed to be the center, but Rugby sent an application to the US Patent Office to trademark the title, leading suckers like me to believe we’ve been to the center when, in truth, we hadn’t. But the laugh was on Rugby last summer when the trademark expired and a bar owner much further south in North Dakota bought it. So, briefly, Hanson’s Bar became the continent’s center. But hold on to your cowboy hat, the center is moving again.

Geographers with a sense for plate tectonics might choose to use the continental shelf as the outer boundary demarcation, pushing the center east. Others may omit Central America, claiming the extremities of southern Mexico as the bottom of North America. This would slide the center well into Canada, especially if Canada’s claim of the North Pole proves that North America goes that far.

Now a State University of New York (at Buffalo) geographer wants to redefine North America’s center. Peter Rogerson has mapped a spot 175 km southwest of Rugby, North Dakota. His center is near the center of Center, North Dakota. The town – population 571 – got its name when it was determined to be the geographic center of Oliver County, North Dakota and thus chosen as the county seat, back in 1902. Center, ND, is only 30 kilometres north of Interstate 94, so Americans travelling from New York City to Seattle may consider taking an hour’s detour to stop, look, and have coffee at the Square Butte Diner in Center. Or maybe not, since the trademarked Center of North America(TM) is actually at a bar 115 km east. But an ambitious family would stop at both, I suppose.

Why move the center from Rugby to Center (or legally, Hanson’s Bar)? For that, we turn to Dr Rogerson’s wonderful 2015 paper, “A New Method for Finding Geographic Centers, with Application to U.S. States“, published in The Professional Geographer. Rather than cutting up a cardboard cereal box, as the USGS scientists did in the 1920s, Rogerson used a computer and an algorithm that:

“…minimizes the sum of squared great circle distances from all points in the region to the center. This entails

(1) projecting regional boundary points using an azimuthal equidistant projection,

(2) finding the geographic center of the projected two-dimensional region, and

(3) then transforming this location back to a latitude and longitude.

This new approach is used to find the geographic center of the contiguous United States and to provide a new list of the geographic centers for U.S. states. This list improves on the widely used but inaccurate list published by the United States Geological Survey in 1923.”

This all makes sense, of course. One wonders why it took almost 100 years to sum the great circle squares. I hope that Professor Rogerson can apply this to Croatia and move its mathematical center from Bosnia to Lekenik, Croatia, the village which Norm Jewison chose as Anatevka when he filmed Fiddler on the Roof. If this can be done, geographers will have proven their enduring value.

Is Lekenik Croatia's center of balance?

Is Lekenik Croatia’s real center of balance?

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Earth-shaking Selfies

myshakeMyShake is a phone app that can sense earthquakes. This is a cool idea, one that others have tried and failed to perfect, but now it seems to be living the promise. Folks at UCLA Berkeley 0ffer a free bit of software for your phone. It’s an accelerometer that “records earthquakes as they happen”. The only thing that would be better would be an app that recorded earthquakes the day before they happened. But for that, you’ll probably need an I-phone upgrade and about a century of new earth-science discoveries.

Qingkai Kong, one of the scientists responsible for the MyShake app says that separating noise from seismic events in real time required neural network training which appears to have succeeded. The problem with a device like this, of course, is that every train or bus ride, every hike, and every incoming call may be interpreted as an earthquake. The software is now able to subtract such random noise. Coupled with hundreds of other localized users, such noise is very easily filtered out and a quake’s vibration becomes unmistakable. With enough apps, epicenters are triangulated and the earthquake’s magnitude and s-wave speed can be calculated.

MyShake app tests in the lab: X and Y components of accelerometer are horizontal; the Z-waveform is due to vertical acceleration of 0.5g.

MyShake app lab test: X and Y components from the accelerometer are horizontal; the Z-waveform is due to vertical acceleration of 0.5g.

There are now 200,000 MyShake apps in use. The software is free and the next iteration is supposed to have an early warning signal – if phones located a hundred kilometres away from you sense an earthquake, your phone will blast a siren advising you to crawl under a table or stop your car. There might be a minute of advance notice – lifesaving in some cases.

Here’s how the inventors describe their device:

“We show that smartphones can record magnitude 5 earthquakes at distances of 10 km or less and develop an on-phone detection capability to separate earthquakes from other everyday shakes. Our proof-of-concept system then collects earthquake data at a central site where a network detection algorithm confirms that an earthquake is under way and estimates the location and magnitude in real time. This information can then be used to issue an alert of forthcoming ground shaking.”

 The next adaptation should include a stabilizing selfie-arm that jumps out of the phone so users may film their expressions as the world shakes around them. If the makers add that feature, there will be a million narcissistic downloaders registering the app.

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Why Non-Experts are Experts

duncecap

It seems that youngsters who are not particularly gifted in science and math are more likely to want a science job later in life. Kids who excel in science are less likely to want to be scientists. At least, that’s the odd result from testing and polling 540,000 15-year-olds in 70 countries.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an evaluation of the competency of a half million 15-year-old students, randomly chosen from the world’s 35 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries and over 30 non-OECD countries (places like Croatia, Uruguay, China, Singapore, Russia). Here’s a link to PISA. You can get the raw data there and inspect their methods and summary reports.

Every three years, the newest crop of 15-year-olds take the PISA Reading, Science, and Math exams. The OECD does this so various education techniques can be compared with the kids’ results. For example, what leads to higher scores: More homework? More money dumped into the education system? A smaller teacher/student ratio? (No, Sometimes, Yes.) If you are interested in this sort of thing, the reports and the PISA data are publicly available.

2015-pisa-rank

2015 Science Rank

PISA is also a ranking system enjoyed by gloaters in select countries. In reading, Canada tied with Hong Kong for second place in the world. (Singapore was number 1, USA #24, Russia #26). Singapore was number one in math, science, and reading. Canada was in the top ten in everything. Other high-scoring countries are Finland, Japan, Estonia, and China. The analysis indicates that a lot of factors make the difference. National wealth, priorities (sports/fitness, nutrition, health care), and culture interact to define the success of students. The Economist has a nice analysis of the results.

While I was reading the tables of numbers, I happened upon some curious data. In the most recent assessment (2015), PISA asked participants: “Do you think that you will pursue a career in science?” From the answers, the OECD guesstimates how many future scientists may be entering university. On average, the number was encouraging – 26% of 15-year-olds worldwide think that their future career (as physicians, engineers, science-teachers, chemists, computer scientists, researchers, etc.) will involve science. But here’s the odd thing: youngsters who did poorly on the science exams were actually more likely to think that they will become scientists.

The most blatant example of the gap between career aspirations and expertise is found in the country of Dominican Republic. Students there did more poorly than any of the other tested countries. The average science score places 15-year-old D.R. students 7 academic years behind 15-year-olds in Singapore. In D.R., performance is at a Grade 5 level while in Singapore, the scores indicate a Grade 12 achievement. By the way, American students performed roughly 3 years behind the Singapore kids but just one year behind the world average.

So, the Dominican Republic came in last in science skill. But that country was first in science career aspiration. 45% of Dominican Republic’s 15-year-olds hope to take a career in science, according to the PISA study. That’s higher than any other country. Some other countries showed a similar dichotomy, but not as severe. I did a simple Pearson’s correlation (Science aptitude and Science career aspiration). For the 70 countries, there is a negative 0.49 correlation, which is reasonably strong. The Dominican Republic is a bit of an outlier, so I masked it and the correlation went down just a little, to -0.45. My plot, below, is a bit scary – it is unfortunately obvious that decreasing skill is accompanied by increasing confidence.

pisa-earth-space-2015-for-15-yr-olds-with-domrep

Plot of science career aspiration as a function of science skill. Each dot is a country. Dominican Republic, upper left, shows high confidence but low science score. Dot furthest right is Singapore with highest science skill and slightly above average confidence. The sloping blue line is a linear least squares fit, showing negative correlation of skill and confidence. (Data from PISA)

The USA is below the world average in science (and math and reading) but with 38% expecting a career in science, many of its children are nevertheless thinking that they’ll have a science career.

I realize that there can be a lot of reasons for boys and girls to claim that they will pursue science – motivators could be cultural and financial. However, I wonder if hubris also plays a role. Even doing poorly in science, some 15-year-olds nevertheless think that they will work as scientists. It may be a case of not knowing the unknown. I’ve fallen into this same trap myself. After flipping through an easy-to-read science book (How to Remove Your Own Appendix, or Quantum Explanations of Everyday Accidents), I’m sure I can remove my own appendix or teach nuclear physics because it just sounds so easy. I’m not an expert, but heck, I can do it.

 

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December 20: Light Up Day

edisons-glass-globe-post-1879

Edison’s light, reported in the Washington Post four days later.
The text says “A” is a glass globe from which air has been abstracted, resting on a stand, “B”.

What are the odds that three important electricity developments should all occur on December 20th? Probably, statistically, rather good. So I’ll not make much of the coincidence. Impending winter darkness was not a likely motivator – in the case of Edison’s light bulb, the electric light had been around for years before he claimed to invent it and as the New York Herald pointed out, Edisnon’s people had been working on their version for fifteen months.

On December 20, 1879, in a news-press event, Thomas Edison showed off a glowing light bulb at Menlo Park, New Jersey. He actually had a working model three months earlier (October 1879). Edison’s poorly-paid immigrant scientists had tested thousands of materials before they discovered that carbonized cotton filaments in a vacuum inside a glass bulb would throw a strong light without breaking. There was quite a fuss about the magic ball of glass, but Edison’s team had already been bested by Canadian medical student Henry Woodward who had received the first patent for the incandescent light bulb five years earlier. Edison’s company bought the Canadian patent and Edison took credit for being really, really smart.

broadway-lightsOn December 20, 1880, just one year after Edison invited the press to witness the little glowing glass globe, Broadway was lit by arc lighting which is much brighter than the punny incandescent bulbs that Edison’s company was selling. This eventually led to George Benson’s expression, “The lights are always bright on Broadway”. Except when there’s a massive power outage.

Also on December 20 (but in 1951), the first radioactive electricity hit the wires from the Experimental Breeder Reactor I, at the Argonne National Laboratory in Idaho. On that day, a string of four light bulbs lit up, using the world’s first nuclear-generated electricity. The lab’s director, Walter Zinn, had worked on the Manhattan Project and was a leader on developing the atomic bomb. Zinn, from Kitchener, Ontario, ran a staff of scientists who used a football-sized nuclear core to make enough electricity to eventually supply all the power for its own building – you might say that a secretive place in Idaho went ‘off-grid’ for the first time on December 20, 1951.

first-christmas-lightsThe first electric Christmas lights were a cheesy promo-gimmick by Thomas Edison who lit his Menlo Park lab with strands of lights visible to rail passengers riding past his shop. That was Christmas, 1880. Two years later, Edward Johnson, Edison’s partner in the Edison’s Illumination Company, patriotically wrapped 80 red, white and blue hand-wired light bulbs around a Christmas tree. That’s his tree, in 1880, to your right. Looks like he waited too long to buy his balsam fir, doesn’t it?  It took another 40 years before electric lights were safe and reliable enough for the public.  Until then, people hung unsafe and unreliable burning candles to their highly flammable dead pines, often just before their wooden frame homes caught fire.

Matin Luther's Combustible Christmas Tree.

Martin Luther’s Combustible Christmas Tree, around 1530.

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Naming Schools after Nobel Laureates

Abdus Salam

Abdus Salam 1926-1996

The Washington Post recently ran a story about the late Abdus Salam, a physicist who won the Nobel Prize almost 40 years ago. The piece concerns the politics of naming a building at a Pakistani university in honour of a man from a religious minority background. Salam’s family belonged to the Ahmadiyya community – followers of a Muslim faith deemed heretical by Pakistan’s dominant Sunni Muslims. The religion was formally declared ‘non-Islamic’ by the Pakistani government in 1974. Before the new decree, extremists sometimes attacked and burned Ahmadi businesses, mosques and schools; after the decree, members could be imprisoned for their beliefs. In protest and for safety, Dr Salam moved to London.

Salam from Pakistan

Before leaving Pakistan, Salam had been the chief science advisor to Pakistan’s president, had contributed to theoretical and particle physics, was the founding director of the Space Research Commission (SUPARCO), and had established the Theoretical Physics Group (TPG) in the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. He helped stage events that led to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. He was undoubtedly loyal to his country.

expanding-universeAbdus Salam is considered a major figure in 20th century theoretical physics. Salam had worked on the Grand Unified Theory, supersymmetry, the magnetic photon, vector meson, and neutrinos. His name is on the Pati-Salam model which uses four flavours of quarks to predict high-energy right-handed weak interaction with heavy W’ and Z’ bosons. The Pati-Salam Theory was proposed in 1974, is considered a mainstream theory, but faces competition from the Georgi-Glashow SU(5) unification theory. We still don’t know how this will play out or what it will mean for our survival as a species. Probably not much.

Salam was the first Pakistani and first Muslim to receive a Nobel Prize in science. He shared the 1979 Nobel with Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg for contributions to the electroweak unification theory. Salam was connected, political, energetic, influential, and a brilliant scientist. But having a school building named for him now, 20 years after his death, has been a politically charged exercise.

As the Post reported,

“In most countries, it would hardly require an act of courage for the government to rename a university science center after a native-born Nobel Prize-winning physicist who died two decades earlier.”

It took courage for the committee to propose the name change that would recognize their fellow countryman’s achievements because “officials often feel the need to appease religious hard-liners at the expense of progress and international stature.”  The downside of their bold move is it could incite looting, arson, and even violence against the name-change advocates.

America, too.

In America, too, it may sometimes “require an act of courage for the government to rename a university science center after a native-born Nobel Prize-winning physicist who died two decades earlier.”  When I read about Salam, it reminded me of an American Nobel Prize winner.  There was an attempt to get a new high school in his hometown named for him, but the effort failed. I think it failed because Thomas Hunt Morgan, a Nobel Laureate, was an atheist evolutionary biologist, and his home city was in Kentucky.

thomas-hunt-morgan

Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866-1945)

Thomas Hunt Morgan was the first Nobel Laureate to win for research in genetics. He grew up in Lexington, Kentucky. This year, 2016, is the 150th anniversary of his birth – a notable milestone in biological science history. But it passed largely unnoticed. Nevertheless, Morgan was the first to demonstrate that genes are carried on chromosomes and are the basis of heredity. He was the first to show the location of specific genes on specific chromosomes – we now measure distance along chromosomes in centiMorgans. He also proposed that mutated genes lead to evolved species.  His discoveries form the basis of modern genetics.

Morgan built the world’s first modern genetics lab.  The lab goes way back to the time shortly after Gregor Mendel’s genetics work had been rediscovered (around 1900). By then, Morgan had finished his first two degrees at the University of Kentucky (1890s) and had a freshly earned PhD from John Hopkins. He was drosophiladoing embryology research when Mendelian inheritance was ascending. In 1900, at Columbia, Morgan happened upon a mutated (white-eyed) Drosophila. It occurred to him that the fast reproductive cycle and odd mutations of his fruit flies would make a much faster and more easily controlled subject than Mendel’s peas. From that, Morgan’s Fly Room was built – a dingy space where bugs were bred and mutations documented. Generations of flies could be tested within months. Drosophila is still the go-to animal in genetics research.

Morgan wrote 22 books and at least 370 papers, though he sometimes let his students take full credit for joint work, so the actual number is certainly greater. One of his doctoral students was the famed Theodosius Dobzhansky, who worked with Morgan after Thomas Hunt Morgan moved to California to found Caltech’s biology division. Dobzhansky’s work influenced another generation of evolutionary biologists as well as the public, especially through his essay “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”. Dobzhansky (1900-1975) was an Eastern Orthodox Christian and believed in a personal God that directed the evolution of all life, including humans. Morgan, who described himself as an atheist, had no interest in his student’s efforts to reconcile religion with science.

Morgan and Darwinian evolution

Morgan questioned aspects of Darwinian evolution and saw the theory as subject to scrutiny. In A Critique of the Theory of Evolution (1916), Morgan asked,

“Does selection play any role in evolution? How can selection produce anything new? Is selection no more than the elimination of the unfit? Is selection a creative force?”

Through his research with fruit fly mutations, Morgan began to understand the mechanism of Darwinian evolution. He wrote,

“Evolution has taken place by the incorporation into the race of those mutations that are beneficial to the life and reproduction of the organism. Injurious mutations have practically no chance of becoming established.”

Mutations due to environmental interference (cosmic rays, radiation from soil, chemicals) were inherited on the genes which Morgan had discovered. Mutations explained the cause of evolution; genes on chromosomes described the mechanism.

His stunning discoveries and explanations of their significance led Thomas Hunt Morgan to be elected President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, President of the American Morphological Society, the American Society of Naturalists, and the National Academy of Sciences. He was a member of the Royal Society of London. And, of course, there was his 1933 Nobel Prize.

But all of this was hardly noticed during this year’s sesquicentennial of Morgan’s birth. I suspect nary a fireworks display was launched in his memory. The recent suggestion to get a Lexington high school named Thomas Hunt Morgan Senior High also seems to have failed.

But like his Pakistani Nobel colleague, Morgan was honoured with a university building in his name. I am well aware that comparing the religious extremists in Pakistan with those in the USA is a very broad stretch. Salam was a Muslim, but of a minority sect. His people were discriminated against and violence is possible because of the science building’s bew name.

Maybe because they are an invisible minority, agnostics and atheists aren’t normally the targets of violence in the States. But they are sometimes discriminated against in hiring, usually can’t get elected to public office (if their non-religion is known), and they are generally the least liked and least respected group in America (according to Pew research). If Morgan’s work and beliefs had been generally known, some elements of the public might have protested naming the new biology building after him in 1966. It would not be easier today. Nevertheless, in 1966, 21 years after his death, the University of Kentucky named its new Thomas Hunt Morgan School of Biological Sciences building for him. Morgan was an atheist evolutionary biologist – born, raised, and educated in Kentucky. The Nobel Laureate was arguably America’s greatest geneticist.  So, in the state of Kentucky, there is a building named in honour of an atheist evolutionary biologist who won the Nobel Prize – but there will likely never be a T.H. Morgan Senior High School.

th-morgan-bio-bldg

The Morgan Biological Sciences Building at the U of Ky

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