Website Wednesday

Website Wednesday is an occasional feature in which we highlight one (or a couple) of sites from the Billions floating around the Intertoobz that just might help you with your Herculean task of educating inquiring minds. Any and all suggestions for future editions are welcome.

I don’t like Facebook, and I don’t use it, but if I did, I would be a regular reader of this site, called, “I Fucking Love Science.”

I first learned of it when it created something of a stir and a controversy broke into the news last March, perhaps surprisingly having nothing to do with the name and everything to do with the sex of the site’s author; regular readers were shocked–shocked I tell you–to find out that the site’s author is a woman!

Anyway, for great links to new science articles, fun and funny cartoons on science and scientific topics, and much, much more, you should check it out.

Things You Could Do Over (the Coming) Break #5: Science Edition

In recognition of the new, formerly chemistry teaching Pope and in anticipation of some spring break free time that you may want to fill up with fascinating reading, here is a list of some interesting things I’ve found laying around the intertoobz:

~On Science and its metaphors;

~Learn about Quantum Biology;

~Black holes have firewalls and physicists are confounded;

~Check out Symphony of Science;

The rest of the list is below the “fold”…


Things You Can Do Over Break #1: Science Edition

Learn some science! (First, crack open a beer–(I’m assuming positive effects irrespective of sex)):

“We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology,” Carl Sagan famously quipped in 1994, “and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That’s a clear prescription for disaster.” Little seems to have changed in the nearly two decades since, and although the government is now actively encouraging “citizen science,” for many “citizens” the understanding of — let alone any agreement about — what science is and does remains meager.So, what exactly is science, what does it aspire to do, and why should we the people care? It seems like a simple question, but it’s an infinitely complex one, the answer to which is ever elusive and contentious. Gathered here are several eloquent definitions that focus on science as process rather than product, whose conduit is curiosity rather than certainty.

Salon spoke with Kelly about hiding the science behind disgust, why we’re captivated by things we find revolting, and how it can be a very dangerous thing.

One of the classic conundrums in paleoanthropology is why Neandertals went extinct while modern humans survived in the same habitat at the same time. (The phrase “modern humans,” in this context, refers to humans who were anatomically—if not behaviorally—indistinguishable from ourselves.) The two species overlapped in Europe and the Middle East between 45,000 and 35,000 years ago; at the end of that period, Neandertals were in steep decline and modern humans were thriving. What happened?…

There is no shortage of hypotheses. Some favor climate change, others a modern-human advantage derived from the use of more advanced hunting weapons or greater social cohesion. Now, several important and disparate studies are coming together to suggest another answer, or at least another good hypothesis: The dominance of modern humans could have been in part a consequence of domesticating dogs—possibly combined with a small, but key, change in human anatomy that made people better able to communicate with dogs.

It is natural for those not deeply involved in the half-century quest for the Higgs to ask why they should care about this seemingly esoteric discovery. There are three reasons.

First, it caps one of the most remarkable intellectual adventures in human history — one that anyone interested in the progress of knowledge should at least be aware of.

Second, it makes even more remarkable the precarious accident that allowed our existence to form from nothing — further proof that the universe of our senses is just the tip of a vast, largely hidden cosmic iceberg.

And finally, the effort to uncover this tiny particle represents the very best of what the process of science can offer to modern civilization.

Over the next few years, Doeleman says, he and his group will combine as many as a dozen of the world’s most sophisticated radio-astronomy installations to create “the biggest telescope in the history of humanity”—a virtual dish the size of Earth, with 2,000 times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope. Tonight the Event Horizon Telescope astronomers have a more limited goal: They want to catch as much light from Sagittarius A* as possible and study its polarization to learn about the black hole’s magnetic field. But eventually (if all goes well) astronomers using the fully scaled-up Event Horizon Telescope—a machine with resolution high enough to read the date on a quarter from 3,000 miles away—will see the silhouette of an object that is, in itself, unseeable.

Imagine trying to learn biology without ever using the word “organism.” Or studying to become a botanist when the only way of referring to photosynthesis is to spell the word out, letter by painstaking letter.

For deaf students, this game of scientific Password has long been the daily classroom and laboratory experience. Words like “organism” and “photosynthesis” — to say nothing of more obscure and harder-to-spell terms — have no single widely accepted equivalent in sign language. This means that deaf students and their teachers and interpreters must improvise, making it that much harder for the students to excel in science and pursue careers in it.

The idea of building artificial life forms, whether in software or in synthetic cytoplasm, has always been controversial. Mary Shelley, almost 200 years ago, wrote a deep meditation on this theme: Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. In Shelley’s time the debate was framed in terms of vitalism versus mechanism. The vitalists argued that living things are distinguished from inorganic matter by some “spark of life” or animating principle. The opposing mechanist view had its greatest early champion in René Descartes, who compared animals to clockwork automata.

Within the world of science, the doctrine of vitalism is long dead, and yet there is still resistance to the idea that life is something we can fully comprehend by disassembling an organism and cataloging its component parts. In the brash early years of molecular biology, DNA was “the blueprint of life,” a full set of instructions for building a cell…Now that we read DNA sequences quite fluently, it seems clearer that there’s more to life than the “central dogma” of molecular biology.

The idea of simulating a living cell with a computer program stands in the crossfire of this argument between reductionism and a more integrative vision of biology. On one hand, the WholeCell project makes abundantly clear that the DNA sequence by itself is not the master key to life. Even though the transfer of information from DNA to RNA to protein is a central element of the model, it is not handled as a simple mapping between alphabets. The emphasis is on molecules, not symbols.

On the other hand, the very attempt to build such a model is a declaration that life is comprehensible, that there’s nothing supernatural about it, that it can be reduced to an algorithm—a finite computational process. Everything that happens in the simulated cell arises from rules that we can enumerate and understand, for the simple reason that we wrote those rules.

I would love to believe that the success of simulation methods in biology might forge a new synthesis and put an end to philosophical bickering over these questions. I’m not holding my breath.

What made antibiotics so wildly successful was the way they attacked bacteria while sparing us. Penicillin, for example, stops many types of bacteria from building their cell walls. Our own cells are built in a fundamentally different way, and so the drug has no effect. While antibiotics can discriminate between us and them, however, they can’t discriminate between them and them–between the bacteria that are making us sick and then ones we carry when we’re healthy. When we take a pill of vancomycin, it’s like swallowing a grenade. It may kill our enemy, but it kills a lot of bystanders, too.

Using simple behavioral tests, Wright’s research team showed that like other lab-tested brooders — which so far include us, monkeys, dogs, and starlings — stressed bees tend to see the glass as half empty. While this doesn’t (and can’t) prove that bees experience human-like emotions, it does give pause. We should take seriously the possibility that it feels like something to be an insect.

The concept that current humanity could possibly be living in a computer simulation was first seriously proposed in a 2003 paper published in Philosophical Quarterly by Nick Bostrom, a philosophy professor at the University of Oxford. In the paper, he argued that at least one of three possibilities is true:

  • The human species is likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage.
  • Any posthuman civilization is very unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of its evolutionary history.
  • We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

Savage said, however, signatures of resource constraints in present-day simulations are likely to exist as well in simulations in the distant future. These constraints include the imprint of an underlying lattice if one is used to model the space-time continuum.

Is scientism defensible? Is it really true that natural science provides a satisfying and reasonably complete account of everything we see, experience, and seek to understand — of every phenomenon in the universe? And is it true that science is more capable, even singularly capable, of answering the questions that once were addressed by philosophy? This subject is too large to tackle all at once. But by looking briefly at the modern understandings of science and philosophy on which scientism rests, and examining a few case studies of the attempt to supplant philosophy entirely with science, we might get a sense of how the reach of scientism exceeds its grasp.

Website Wednesday

Time to blind you with some science! Loungers, meet Txchnologist; and Txchnologist, Loungers.

I was a little hesitant about this one because of the prominent “sponsored by GE,” but I kept coming back to it because they regularly have cool stuff (corporate money and communication know-how can help, I guess).

I originally found this through a link on The Browser to  “Ten of the Best Science Videos of 2011” and then once there, found this on how to define life (and I was really happy to see all of the links in it) then I was off to the races.

If you find something great, please post the title in the comments.

PS: Some bonus science from The Browser can be found HERE.

Two for Tuesday

For the Scientist-types!

This is an old one that I’ve been saving for awhile for anyone looking for some summer reading on theoretical physics:

What can you do to top suppositions like those? Not much, it seems. The new books on physics promise “a state-of-the-art tour of cutting-edge science that is changing the way we see our world,” as the jacket blurb for The Hidden Reality puts it. But they are just recycling the once-startling propositions of Car­ter, Everett, Wheeler, Barrow, Tipler—and Nietzsche and Borges, for that matter.

And this is a new one about some excitement down at FermiLab:

Physicists at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory have observed anomalous data that suggest they may have discovered a new elementary particle or a new fundamental force of nature. Or, they acknowledged Wednesday, they may have simply observed a chance statistical fluctuation in their results.

If the results are real, they could provide the first significant change in what is known as the standard model of physics in more than five decades, and researchers are holding their breaths in anticipation.


Science Meets Cinema

Tuesday is Science day in the New York Times.

Check out this cool article:

Dr. Lue is one of the pioneers of molecular animation, a rapidly growing field that seeks to bring the power of cinema to biology. Building on decades of research and mountains of data, scientists and animators are now recreating in vivid detail the complex inner machinery of living cells.

The field has spawned a new breed of scientist-animators who not only understand molecular processes but also have mastered the computer-based tools of the film industry.

Lots of cool images, and video, too.

UPDATED: Now with the link to the actual article!

The Effects of Art Explained Through Neuroscience

The article is called, “Six Ways that Artists Hack Your Brain,” and it’s a really interesting combination of Neurology and Aesthetics (called “Neuroaesthetics!”):

Since humankind first put brush to canvas, artists have played with the mind and the senses to create sublime atmospheres and odd impressions. It is only recently, with a blossoming understanding of the way the brain deconstructs images, that neuroscientists and psychologists have finally begun to understand how these tricks work.

Here we take you on a grand tour of the burgeoning field of neuroaesthetics. You’ll find out how Claude Monet bypasses your consciousness and plugs straight into your emotions, how Salvador Dali triggers neural conflicts and how Renaissance art and trompe l’oeil fool us into believing the impossible. And we turn the spotlight on the artist’s mind, revealing how Wassily Kandinsky drew on his synaesthesia to produce some of the most celebrated artworks of the 20th century.

Check out the whole thing here.

On Assessment

Lots of interesting ideas in this NY Times article about experimentally validated approaches to assessing  student learning. For example:

Instead, we should come up with assessments that truly measure the qualities of well-educated children: the ability to understand what they read; an interest in using books to gain knowledge; the capacity to know when a problem calls for mathematics and quantification; the agility to move from concrete examples to abstract principles and back again; the ability to think about a situation in several different ways; and a dynamic working knowledge of the society in which they live.

This task is not as difficult as one might think.

And then there’s this (are you reading this “Effective Writing” Assessment Sub-Committee members?), among others:

For instance, children could write essays in response to a prompt like, “Choose something you are good at, and describe to your reader how you do it.” That would allow each student to draw on his area of expertise, show his ability to analyze the process, describe a task logically and convey real information and substance. In turn, a prompt of, “Write a description of yourself from your mother’s point of view,” would help gauge the child’s ability to understand the perspectives of others.

Check out the rest of the piece HERE.

The Human Touch

I am most definitely NOT suggesting that you go around touching all your students or anything like that, but in certain cases, done, as Aristotle might say, in the right way at the right time with the right person, it might make all the difference in the world.

It says so in the Times so it must be true.

Diversity and Justice

In early February, the American Bar Association Journal reported on a pair of studies presented at the ABA mid year meeting, that suggest a “judge’s race or gender makes for a dramatic difference in the outcome of cases they hear—at least for cases in which race and gender allegedly play a role in the conduct of the parties.”

Check out the article here, where you can find the links to the studies (or you can get them by going here and here).

I found this while checking out a feminism-related blog called Shakesville, originally known as Shakespeare’s Sister, which was named for they Virginia Woolf’s thought experiment discussed in A Room of One’s Own. I included that part because I know at least one English class is reading Woolf’s book; I saw a student on the elevator with it and asked. She said, “I am loving it.”  Just thought I’d throw that in.)