Sunday, December 16, 2012

Weekend Post - I saw a UFO

I saw a UFO recently. It was early evening and I saw a bright light in the sky, much brighter than any of the stars that had just appeared. It seemed to be moving very slowly but was becoming brighter and brighter as I watched. Then, very suddenly it dimmed significantly and moved quickly to the left.

That’s when it ceased to be a UFO, an Unidentified Flying Object, and became an IFO, an Identified Flying Object. It was an Air Botswana flight initially heading directly towards me and then turning to approach the airport.

The problem with the initials “UFO” is that they are consistently misused. When most people see or hear them they think “alien spaceship”, not what it actually refers to, an Object that is Flying but which is currently Unidentified.

Here’s a bold statement about UFOs. So far, without exception, not one UFO has turned out actually to be an alien spaceship. Not one. It’s just like predictions of the End Of The World. Despite some religious cult predicting the end of the world every year, not once has any of them been right. Not once has the world ended. Not once has a genuine alien spaceship been seen.

Of course there’s no shortage of books, TV programs and above all web pages devoted to alien visits to earth. If you do a Google search for “aliens on Earth” you get over 78 million hits. In fact, I suggest you do exactly that as soon as you get a chance. Visit some of the links you find and you’ll learn one sure thing although it’s not about aliens, space travel of advanced technology. You’ll learn that a sizeable proportion of the human race is utterly insane. It’s a very good way of finding web sites written entirely in capital letters (always a sign of internet psychosis), bizarre colors and some deeply peculiar beliefs.

The boring fact is that we are NOT being visited by aliens. Given that it’s estimated that there are over 3 billion cellphones with cameras in the world, why hasn’t there been one, just one, picture showing without doubt that aliens have been here? If our alien cousins have been popping over, I’d expect there to be even a little bit of evidence to prove it.

The really disappointing news is that aliens probably can’t visit. If our understanding of science is correct, and it seems so far to be, the distances between the stars are so horribly vast that the trip simply isn’t worth it. The nearest star to our solar system is over 4 light years away. In other words even travelling at the theoretical maximum speed it would take more than 4 entire years to get there and another 4 to get back. Easy to say, harder to do. The energy required to do this is almost beyond imagination. It’s calculated that to accelerate one ton of matter to just one tenth of light speed would take 125 billion kWh. That’s roughly the output of a very large power station running continuously for seven years, just for one ton of spaceship. Given also that the spaceship would have to carry it’s own fuel to accelerate and later decelerate, the energy required is cosmically vast. Given that the journey times would be measured in tens of years, if not centuries, we’d need to find a way of putting people to sleep for all that time. It’s just unbelievable.

Just in case anyone’s in doubt, the laws of physics apply to aliens as well as us.

And why would we, or aliens, do it anyway? What possible purpose would it serve? What purpose would it serve for aliens to do the same?

Of course it’s impossible to stop people fantasizing about alien visits and why should we? I like alien movies as much as anyone, but they’re movies, just fantasies, just entertainment. They’re not real.

None of this stops people making the leap from seeing a UFO to thinking it’s a space ship. In the last few months I’ve seen stories of people reporting UFOs, thinking they were alien, but which turned out to be the plant Venus, floating Chinese lanterns, insects caught in front of a camera, car headlights on a distant hill, planes near a military airbase and on one occasion the Moon. None of these false sightings of alien spaceships turned out to be real, they were all mundane, everyday things. Of course that doesn’t mean aliens won’t arrive tomorrow but I suspect it’s as likely to happen as those predictions of the end of the world, homeopathy being proved to work or a TV evangelist turning out to be honest.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Weekend Post - Where did the moon come from?

My father used to tell me that the Moon was made of cheese.

I didn’t believe him. Just like I’m told I didn’t believe in Father Christmas or any other mythical creatures. Maybe it was because I had the good fortune to be born and be a curious child in one of the historical golden age of science and engineering, the 1960s. In that decade and in the early 70s humanity achieved some remarkable things. The most obvious was the triumph of the missions to the Moon.

The Apollo missions were famously inspired by President John F Kennedy, who, in 1961 told the US Congress of his plan for "landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth" before the end of the decade.

There were several reasons for this. One was that Kennedy was desperate to get back in the lead in the so-called Space Race. Only 6 weeks beforehand Russians cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first human in space, leaving the Americans lagging behind. Although space exploration wasn’t itself a defense priority any perception of weakness or being in second place was going to be a Cold War propaganda disaster for the USA.

The more uplifting motivation behind the program was a simple human one. Like our cousins, the other great apes, perhaps the one thing we have that separates us most from other species is our curiosity. It’s human nature to want to know what’s on the other side of the hill. Exploration of the world and of space has always fascinated humanity and in the 1960s Kennedy encouraged that with resources, money and a very limited amount of time.

Perhaps the most influential of all the reasons for this was the least planned. Out of this spirit of exploration came innovation and inspiration. There were also enormous economic benefits. It’s been suggested that for every $1 the US Government spent on the space program they received $8 back indirectly. The technological developments you and I now have that came from, or were encouraged by the space program is almost endless. Miniaturization of electronics, water purification, scratch-resistant lenses, smoke detectors, improved solar panels, fire resistant materials, radiation protection, air purification, MRI scanners and even sports bras were all influenced by the space program.

c/o Wikipedia
For me the most important thing was the generation of kids (like me) who were inspired to get involved in science and its often neglected cousin, engineering. The program created a genuine sense of excitement with regular launches of the enormous Saturn V rockets and the sense of achievement that resulted when a mission succeeded. There was also a genuine sense of danger, that technology was being pushed to the very edge as with the Apollo 13 mission which so nearly ended in disaster. If ever you want to see a movie that teaches you about creativity, perseverance and leadership watch Ron Howard’s film Apollo 13.

The trouble today’s generation face is that the space race is over. For various reasons, manned space exploration is effectively shut down. This is partially because of the expense but also because of the growing realization that it’s simply not worth the money. The latest exploratory missions have all been robotic, mainly because robots don’t need air, water and food and they don’t ever get bored. They also don’t expect ever to come home to earth. Robotic missions are therefore cheaper than manned ones. The science done by the robotic Curiosity rover on Mars is wonderful but let’s be frank, it’s not thrilling.

c/o Wikipedia
Last week there was fairly widespread news about new findings on the origin of the Moon. Despite stories of it being made of cheese, the new evidence seems to confirm a fairly recent theory that the Moon was formed from the debris following a collision between the early Earth and another planet, perhaps one the size of Mars. The scientists behind this, from Washington University in St. Louis, analyzed a phenomenon called “isotopic fractionation” and looked at fractional differences in the geology of the Moon and Earth.

The details of the research are fairly interesting to those of who aren’t geochemists but the thing I found surprising (silly me) was how little coverage the story received. This was about something meaningful, how our Moon was created. Forget the myths and fables, forget the business about cheese and forget superstition. This is about how it was really created, using the latest evidence.

But perhaps that’s the biggest result of the absence of excitement in Science these days. At the moment it’s hard to get people excited about the one thing that can possibly improve their lives in a genuine, measurable and meaningful way: genuine progress in material, knowledge and well-being.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Weekend Post - Admit you're wrong occasionally

A key component of the scientific method is being able to admit that you were wrong.

In his best-selling book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins describes an occasion when he was a student. An elderly and highly respected professor attended a lecture at which a visiting American academic publicly disproved the professor’s cherished theory. According to Dawkins, who was also at the lecture, instead of arguing with the American, or just ignoring his ideas, the elderly professor walked right to the front of the lecture hall, shook the visitor firmly by the hand and loudly said “My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.”

I’m not going to say that all scientists are as grown up and noble as this. A very good example of scientific conservatism is the reaction from the scientific establishment in the early 20th century to the theories of relativity and quantum physics. These ideas were so revolutionary that the establishment couldn’t accept them. Many “scientists” at the time even thought that they were close to a complete understanding of the universe, that classical science from the time of Newton, Kepler and Copernicus explained everything. The new science, complicated by the fact that much of it came from Germans and Jews, was too revolutionary for the old guard. The resistance was formidable.

However the good thing is that the scientific community realized in the early 20th century that science doesn’t have to be convenient, it has to be correct. Einstein and his colleagues WERE right and progress was necessary.

The rest of the world often seems to find inconvenient evidence hard to digest.

Take the example of nuclear power. Almost everyone in the world thinks that nuclear power production is massively dangerous. Ask people and they’ll think of disasters like Chernobyl and, more recently, Fukushima.

But if you drill a little deeper, it’s not quite as simple as it seems. The biggest risk with exposure to radiation is cancer. It’s obviously impossible to say with any particular cancer victim that a particular thing caused their cancer but you can look at the number of deaths in an area and time and see if they’re different. In the initial explosion at Chernobyl 25 years ago, 57 people were killed but the long-term effects were significant. The International Atomic Energy Agency estimated that the long-term effect might be as high as 9,000 deaths. They also noted that there was no evidence of higher levels of birth defects or “solid cancers”.

The situation in Fukushima is similar but less significant. The Japanese government estimated that the release of radiation was about one tenth of that at Chernobyl. Even today, a year later, there remain some after-effects of the disaster. The BBC reported recently that fish caught in local waters remain contaminated above acceptable levels for human consumption. However that was at least in part due to the Japanese authorities changing the acceptable level to appease local consumers. The generally accepted predicted death toll is expected to be in the low hundreds.

It’s critical to understand how both of these disasters occurred. Both of the reactors were outdated, Chernobyl in particular, and used designs that haven’t been used in new reactors for decades. Although it was initially thought that the disaster at Chernobyl occurred because technicians at the plant were fooling around, it later transpired that the main cause was a combination of design flaws in the reactor and it’s catastrophic misuse. The main problems with Fukushima were its age and, again, operator errors.

No recently built nuclear reactor has any of the design problems that led to these two disasters. Of course new disasters can’t be ruled out but the chances are lower than ever before. There’s also the fact that although radiation can be dangerous, it’s not nearly as dangerous as the so-called “green” lobby would have us believe.

What about “conventional” power production, such as coal-fired power stations? They’re a much safer alternative, surely? There’s another uncomfortable truth we have to face.

Generating electricity by burning coal is by far the most dangerous way to produce power. It’s estimated that over 13,000 people in the USA alone are killed directly by inhaling particles from coal-powered power stations every year. The World Health Organisation estimates that around 3 million people around the world die every year from the results of air pollution caused by the combustion of fossil fuels.

Let me put it another way. For every one person killed by nuclear power, it’s been estimated that 4,000 die from coal. And which type of power production are we investing in? Why are we digging up large amounts of coal instead of encouraging more prospecting for uranium?

Is it possible we’re wrong but afraid to confront the truth?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Weekend Post - They're just charlatans

We’re surrounded by people who are deceiving us. I’ll be charitable and acknowledge that some of them are doing it out of ignorance, some of the ones selling us “alternative” health remedies and potions. I’ll be charitable. I suspect that a few of them genuinely believe the rubbish they say when they claim acupuncture, homeopathy, reflexology and QXCI machines actually DO something. Of course there’s precisely no evidence that they do anything, there’s even an enormous body of evidence suggesting that they do nothing at all but maybe these people haven’t seen that yet.

They’re the naïve, perhaps even gullible ones who believe they’re actually helping. My disdain is reserved for other groups.

Firstly I have moderate contempt for those that secretly suspect that their cures, potions and practices are nonsense but deliberately close their eyes to the evidence, presumably because they’re making an income out of it. And yes, despite the way “alternative” practitioners present themselves, they’re in it for the money. Their products and services aren’t free. Luckily for them there’s more than enough people who are easily conned by smart-talking salespeople selling pseudoscience and miracle cures. Who want money.

There’s another group whose outlook on life is reliant on nonsense: the believers in magic. It somehow fits into their worldview that science is bad, progress is evil, that there are magical explanations for complex phenomena and that fairies, hobgoblins and thokolosi exist. They believe in nonsense in a deep, almost religious way. For them nothing would be better than humanity turning it’s back on progress and diving back into the dark ages when we were all “more in touch with nature”. It doesn’t seem to matter to them that we were also more in touch with smallpox, dysentery, staggeringly high levels of child mortality and a life expectancy in the 30s.

Then there’s the least palatable crowd, the ones for whom I have complete contempt. The people who know they’re lying. Amongst this despicable group you can find a horrible mixture of so-called traditional healers, fake TV evangelists and my pet hate, psychics.

I suspect that everyone reading the Weekend Post knows that so-called traditional healers are charlatans. You’ve only got to read the stories in the tabloid press about how many are arrested, how many are illegal immigrants and the cons they pull on their unsuspecting victims. Like the fake termite mound one group of them created that contained a cellphone and speaker. A fellow crook could then call it and produce the voices of ancestors to convince the victim to part with more cash. Complete crooks.

You might think this is comical but presumably the (admittedly very gullible) victims were presumably desperate for help.

TV evangelists are worse. Perhaps the best example I know to illustrate how corrupt they can be is Peter Popoff.

Popoff was (and remains) a con-man. His ability to “see” the personal details of sick people who came to his miracle conventions was remarkable. He would “know” everything about his gullible victims in the audiences, including the illnesses they were suffering and even their home addresses. Of course this was all a huge con. The attendees had all filled in a questionnaire as they arrived and then Popoff’s wife would read the details to him over a radio link to a tiny receiver in his ear. After Popoff’s scam was exposed by James Randi he rapidly went bankrupt but that didn’t stop him bouncing back a few years later appearing on TV selling “miracle spring water”, “holy sand” and more cons.

You can still see the same thing happening with a variety of TV evangelists. The people who attend the meetings often are required to supply their personal details before they attend. These days it’s simple for the evangelist’s support team to then discover all sorts of things about the worshippers before they attend.

That approach is called “hot reading” and is a common technique also use by so-called psychics. A little Googling can unearth all sorts of facts about you that you might have thought were secret.

The other technique used by psychics is a little more clever. “Cold reading” involves a mixture of educated guesswork and responding to the clues the victims give as they talk with the psychic. Here’s a simple example. I sense, through the newspaper you’re holding, or the web page you’re viewing, that you’ve lost a relative or friend whose name starts with M, or perhaps S or E? If you respond by telling me it was one of your grandparents I can also be fairly certain they had some chest problems in the year before they passed away? Or perhaps problems with mobility? Of course a psychic does this face to face. The moment he sees your eyes light up he’ll know he’s onto something and will seize that as proof he has a connection with your lost relative. You’ll conveniently overlook the initials he got wrong or the non-existent chest complaint.

Psychics and TV evangelists use these techniques repeatedly to produce their fake miracles. The reason is simple: money, large quantities of it. The good news is that just a little knowledge of psychology and of hot and cold reading can help people see through their tricks.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

"Quack company litigates against its critics"

A South African "quack company" has decided that threatening legal action against people who expose their quackery is a good idea.

They're wrong.
"Solal Technologies is suing Kevin Charleston for R350,000 because he wrote on the Quackdown website that Solal Technologies' magazine, Health Intelligence is a "disguised marketing programme for Solal Technologies, a company that actively promotes pseudoscience and aggressively attempts to shut out valid criticism of its advertising."

Charleston will be defending himself against Solal’s charges. He will have the support of the Treatment Action Campaign. He will be represented by SECTION27. The case, when it comes to court, promises to be an important test of the right to freedom of expression, and the duty of companies to market their products honestly and accurately."

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Weekend Post - Skeptical feedback

Anyone who writes or blogs about science, critical thinking and skepticism is obliged to take criticism. Its part of the job description. It’s also one of the cornerstones of the scientific method. You open your ideas to criticism from others. That criticism can be both positive and negative of course, at its best it’s constructive, opening up the ideas to correction, improvement or perhaps even rejection.

Some belief systems aren’t as logical. I once had a conversation on radio with a senior representative of the so-called Church of Scientology who defended their habit of keeping their “teachings” secret until recruits had paid enough money to climb high enough up their preposterous levels of “Operating Thetans”. They claimed that all religions had secret scriptures like theirs but this is simply hogwash. I don’t share the belief systems of my Christian and Muslim fellow columnists in the Weekend Post but I’ll admit this. Neither of them will hide any of their beliefs from you and me. In fact, like all legitimate religions they seem rather proud of their beliefs. There are no hidden scriptures in a genuine religion. The most senior adherent, whether it’s a Pope or an Imam, believes the same things as the most humble new entrant. Not so the Scientologists. Only when you’ve given them your life savings do they share with you the psychotic claptrap about alien spirits, galactic overlords and evil psychiatrists.

But science is above all of that. Science, and the people who think the scientific method is the most useful intellectual tool we have, are prepared to take criticism. Even when it’s utterly silly.

In March I wrote about the misuse of the word “quantum”. My point was simple. On almost every occasion when you hear or read the word “quantum” you can be certain that the person speaking or writing is about to talk rubbish. I said that very clearly. So few people have a real grasp of quantum physics that you have to be very careful who you listen to. Here’s a simple rule I think works. Never trust anything you read about quantum physics unless the author is either a specialist in quantum physics him or herself or the author names the physicist he or she is quoting. Unless the scientist quoted is called Feynman or Hawking you should do some Googling before believing anything that is said. Trust nothing that is said about quantum physics by a journalist until you have consulted someone who knows a little. All stories written by reporters about time travel, teleportation or multiple universes must not be believed.

Above all, anything you read that refers to quantum physics and also mentions consciousness, healing or God was written by someone who doesn’t understand any of the above.

I got a response about that article I wrote. Someone who preferred to remain anonymous said that my use of:
“words like rubbish to discredit views you don't agree with is a bit intolerant. Nothing in this world is absolutely certain including even our precious science. wisdom whispers: 'when you feel most certain, you should doubt yourself more'. Pride leads to a rapid fall, Lucifer can testify to that.”
Let me take the points one at a time.

Actually it IS acceptable to use words like “rubbish” to discredit view I don’t agree with when those “views” either have no evidence to support them or are based on lies. The claims I was criticizing were, in fact, based on lies, deliberate distortions and fraud. I specifically referred to the “bogus ‘therapists’ offering their health-related services using a device often called the QXCI.”

The QXCI machine claims to be a biofeedback tool that combines:
“the best of biofeedback, stress reduction, Rife machines, homeopathic medicine, bioresonance, electro-acupuncture, computer technology and quantum physics.”
That, I’m afraid is a deception, a lie and a fraud. It’s all utter and complete rubbish.

The complainant also says that nothing is absolutely certain. I agree entirely but at any current moment science has actually given us the best available explanation for the world and it’s contents. The fact that there is doubt doesn’t mean you can replace the doubt or gaps in scientific knowledge with fairytales.

As for doubt, yes, that’s a core part of the scientific method. That takes some confidence to understand.

As for the business about Lucifer, don’t you think it’s interesting that the name Lucifer, often given as the Christian boogeyman, the Devil, can be translated as “bringer of light”? It’s almost as if they didn’t like illumination and preferred their flock of sheep to remain in darkness. But maybe that’s just playing with words.

So sorry to the reader who complained, I’m not planning to change my thoughts or my words about quantum claptrap. It’s hogwash, nonsense and utter rubbish used by either the naïve, ill-educated or the fraudulent. Anyone selling such silliness deserves to be in the rubbish heap.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Weekend Post - GMO Bad science

c/o Natural News
You may have seen recently a horrible picture of a rat covered in tumours, supposedly as a result of consuming genetically modified food. If you didn’t then do a Google image search for “GMO rat tumors” and you can see for yourself. The pictures show a rather large white rat being held up by a “scientist” with enormous and gruesome bulges (the rat, not the scientist), some even bigger than the rat’s head. Along with these pictures were headlines including “study concludes that rats fed genetically modified corn grew massive tumors”, “shocking cancer findings” and others saying that GM foods cause “tumors, organ failure and premature death”.

I’m no defender of big food business and what can only be called their occasional shady business practices but we need to be rational as well as skeptical. What’s the truth behind these freaky rats?

It turns out that the truth is more complicated than the news reports (and the researchers) would have us believe.

The first problem is the “science” involved in the study. There wasn’t much of it.

Firstly the researchers from the University of Caen in France neglected to mention that this particular strain of rat (“Sprague-Dawley”) get exactly this sort of tumor at the drop of a hat. They’re known to develop these enormous growths when allowed unlimited food or if they develop a hormone imbalance after consuming maize contaminated with a particular common fungus, or even if they are just allowed to live to old age. Whether or not they were given GM food, they would probably have developed the gruesome growths anyway. The researchers neglected to mention this in their report. Suspicious yet?

Then there was the rather selective report the “scientists” gave of their results. Their report only gave the results of SOME of the test groups of rats, other test groups exposed to GM food actually ended up healthier than the control group who had not received any GM food. They also neglected to publish any actual statistics from these groups so we could see the actual results. Suspicious yet?

Then there’s a technical detail. Generally in tests like this, the test group (that receive the thing being tested) is roughly the same size as the control group (the ones that don’t). It makes the mathematics simpler. In this case the test group was four times larger than the control group. Professor Anthony Trewavas from the University of Edinburgh, was quoted by New Scientist magazine, saying “these results are of no value”. Suspicious yet?

Sorry to be picky but consider one other thing. The researchers didn’t allow reporters to seek comments from other scientists about the “findings” until after the report was published. Did they have something to hide? Like bad science?

Perhaps if we ignore all of this, gloss over the fact that these rats get the tumors anyway and ignore the scientific skullduggery and statistical weirdness, it might still make sense?

No, still no joy. Every other similar experiment has showed no such effect of GM foods. It’s possible that this one is true and all the others are false but that’s not likely, particularly when you consider one last thing. Who undertook the research.

The lead researcher, Gilles-Eric Séralini, isn’t afraid of declaring his position. He heads the scientific board of the Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetic Engineering, an organization opposed in principle to genetically modified food. Did I mention that Séralini has a book and film coming out simultaneously, entitled “All of Us Guinea-Pigs Now?” Hardly unbiased. Suspicious yet?

I’m not going to state that GM foods are perfect, that’s not my point. My criticism, along with people infinitely more qualified than I am, is that the science in this case is dodgy. This study is deeply flawed and it’s results can’t therefore be taken seriously. If the critics of GM food want to persuade the people and the scientific community that GM foods are dangerous they need to come up with some real science rather than results like these that can so easily be dismissed. They don’t realize that when they do this they become their own worst enemies.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Yet another visitor dispensing wisdom (and fake degrees)

The papers have advertisements for a forthcoming visitor to Botswana, the hugely esteemed Dr John C Maxwell. He'll be offering "5 Levels of Leadership" at a conference at the Gaborone International Conference Centre. Maybe he's qualified to do that because apparently he's sold over 19 million books.

It's worth reflecting on the "Dr" part though.

His doctorate is Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. He's doctorate is in Religion, not in Business, just like his Bachelors and Masters degrees.

But maybe the 19 million books qualify him instead? Actually if you look closely and read a little between the lines, I suspect that much of the writing is actually done by his "Book Writing Partner", Charlie Wetzel.

However what's more interesting is the second place on the menu: "Dr" David Molapo. Like Dr Maxwell, Molapo is primarily qualified in religion. His profile on his web site states that:
"Dr. David holds an Associates Degree in Math and Science, Bachelors in Education from Oakwood University, Masters in Education from Oral Roberts University, Doctorate in Religious Education from International Seminary."
Oakwood University is a private university run by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Oral Roberts University is rather more complex. It's certainly a recognised university, but only if you recognise rather controversial religious and bigoted establishment as "recognised".

My favorite though is "International Seminary". This is a non-accredited establishment of higher learning. Doctorates from this place are as recognized as doctorates written by me on a beer mat after a few drinks.

As always I'm not going to tell you whether you should or shouldn't attend Dr Maxwell's and MR Molapo's conference. If you really want to spend P3,000 on a day's uplifting hogwash that's entirely your business. Just know who's going to be spouting the hogwash. Then decide.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Weekend Post - Women in science (not in Iran)

I saw a news item on the BBC web site last week that was depressing. I should have known better, the world is over-supplied with depression these days, what with religious extremists taking offense at the slightest of things and thinking that gives them the right to riot, burn down buildings and kill ambassadors. I don’t understand it, I spend most of my life offended by one form of stupidity or another, but I’ve never been tempted to create mayhem, commit arson or murder as a result.

The news item came from Iran, where it has recently been decided that young women may no longer study certain subjects at university. Included in these presumably dangerous subjects are English literature, archaeology and nuclear physics. I'm tempted to launch into a major rant about the idiocy of theocracies doing these things, how when medieval superstitions influence public policy then savagery returns but this is meant to be about science, not fundamentalist-bashing.

The very first thing I thought of when reading the story from Iran, after I overcame the temptation to swear, was to think that it's a good job Marie Curie and Lise Meitner weren't born in Iran today. If they had been, the world would have been a much poorer place.

I don't have any daughters, just sons, but I feel strongly that every girl should learn about Curie and Meitner, perhaps the greatest female physicists in history.

Marie Curie c/o Wikipedia
Marie Curie's achievements are legendary.

She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in science. The only woman to ever win two Nobel Prizes in science. The only person, male or female, to have won two Nobel Prizes in different sciences, Chemistry and Physics.

She discovered two new chemical elements, invented the term "radioactivity", she was the first woman to become a professor at the Sorbonne, France's most prestigious university. She has a chemical element named after her along with many institutions and museums, even a unit of radioactivity is named after her.

She is surely a fitting hero for any girl wondering where life will take her.

It's Lise Meitner's bad luck to be in Curie's shadow. She was another nuclear physicist, the co-discoverer of nuclear fission.

Lise Meitner c/o Wikipedia
Shamefully she was discriminated against because of her gender and also because being Jewish in Germany in the 1930s was perilous. Luckily she was able to escape to Sweden and she avoided the fate of many other Jewish scientists. She was also overlooked when her research partner Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel prize for the work she had done alongside him. Her treatment was an embarrassment to the scientific community.

I think the examples of Curie and Meitner show that excluding women from science is as illogical as excluding men from the kitchen. Curie and Meitner are perfect illustrations that women are just as capable as men to achieve in science.

The prejudice against women in science is sometimes explained, by those with the prejudice, by the fact that women are somehow genetically different to men, not possessing the qualities that men have that allow them to understand science. Women, they say, are different. However, the voice of reason says, “So what?”

Let's imagine for a moment that perhaps men ARE, on average, naturally better than women at science, just as men are, on average, taller than women. But are ALL men taller than ALL women? Of course not, it's just an average difference. I'm fairly tall but I've met women taller than me. I've always been pretty good at science but some of my science professors were women, clearly more qualified than I was. Just because there’s a difference in averages, that doesn’t mean there’s a difference in individuals. It’s as logical to deny women the right to study physics, as it is to say that women can’t vote, drive or run for political office. OK, forgive me, there ARE countries that still do that, stuck as they are in the Dark Ages.

The science of gender difference is fascinating. There is some evidence that there are minor differences between men and women, apart from the obvious (and entertaining) physical ones but it’s unclear whether these are due to genetic differences or just the way people are raised. There really is no conclusive evidence that there are fundamental psychological differences between men and women and the way they think. However the critical point is that even if some evidence was found it would only be between the average scores of men and women. It would not be able to predict how an individual boy or girl would develop, what skills they would possess or how they would behave.

Like so many other areas of life, it’s surely time to put medieval superstitions about the nature of men and women behind us and embrace science, knowledge and those often challenging things, facts.

And if you have daughters, please tell them about Marie Curie and Lise Meitner. They’ll thank you for it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The "Doctor" will see you shortly. For P5,500.

The papers all have advertisements for a forthcoming seminar by Dr John Demartini, who they claim is a "Human Behavioural Specialist, Educator and Author". His achievements include being "featured in various national and international film documentaries and movies including The Secret, The Opus, The Compass, The Riches and Oh My God".

The Secret? That nonsensical, morally dubious claptrap?

The advert claims that he can "awaken your entrepreneurial spirit" etc etc etc blah blah blah.

You might be wondering how he is a "Doctor"? His first degree was in Biology but that's certainly where the science ends. His Facebook profile says that he "went on to study Chiropractic at the Texas Chiropractic College where he graduated with honors and his Doctorate in 1982".

Chiropractic? He's a chiropractor?

Chiropractic is pseudoscience. It's bogus. At best it doesn't work, at worst it harms people. And this qualifies him to teach us how to improve our lives? Why should we take advice (for P5,500) from a Doctor of Pseudoscience?

Unfortunately he's another of the many "educators" who break one of my cardinal rules. Please don't mention quantum physics unless you really know what you're talking about. If you know anything about physics see how long you can get through this video of Demartini discussing quantum physics without laughing, choking or swearing.

His knowledge of the subject seems similar to that of Deepak Chopra, someone else who also knows nothing about it. The bizarre thing is that he reminds me of someone else. Reading though his profile on his web site I found the following:
"Dr John Demartini is one of the greatest minds and illuminating teachers on the planet" (Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret)
"Dr. Demartini’s trademarked Demartini Method®, which is the result of 39 years of cross-disciplinary research and study into human behavior, works with perceptions and assists people to gain a more balanced perspective and enables them to dissolve their emotional charges, challenges or issues within a matter of hours."
"Dr. Demartini has donated his time to work with prisoners, wardens and police service personnel around the world. His focus with wardens and police has been to assist them in managing the stress and the emotions of their positions, understand human behavior and driving motives, stay inspired by what they do and grow their self worth."
"Dr. Demartini immersed himself in books covering subjects from cosmology, astronomy, astrophysics, physics, metaphysics, theology, mythology, philosophy, anthropology, economics, sociology, psychology until eventually his insatiable interest took him through the studies of over 280 different academic disciplines."
"At the age of 18 he read a book by the philosopher Wilheim Leibniz titled ‘Discourse on Metaphysics’ [which] inspired Dr. Demartini to set out on a quest to find a way of helping himself and others discover and experience this underlying divine or implicate order that Leibniz spoke of. Today, we now know that Dr. Demartini did master a way which is called the Demartini Method."
Let me think. Who does this nauseating hero-worship remind me of?

Of course you're welcome to drop P5,500 per person to attend this one-day workshop if you wish. It's your money. Or perhaps your company's. Just don't expect miracles. Just expect to be P5,500 poorer.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Weekend Post - The organic food movement is bogus

Let me be blunt. The “organic” food movement is largely bogus.

To understand organic food you have to play with words a bit. All foods are organic, they’ve all come from some other form of life, whether animal or vegetable. Organic foods are no more “organic” than conventionally produced foods. So-called organic food is actually just conventional food that’s been grown, processed and delivered according to certain agreed standards. It’s similar to the production of Halaal meat. Fundamentally there’s no noticeable difference between an organic potato and a conventional one, just like there’s no observable difference between a Halaal chicken burger and a conventional one, it’s just the production method that’s different.

Organic foods are produced largely without modern farming products like pesticides, veterinary products like antibiotics and modern fertilizers. That’s the main reason why organic foods are so expensive. In a store I visited recently they offered conventional spaghetti and organic spaghetti for exactly three times the price. Given that there’s no noticeable difference in taste, texture or quality I happily bought the cheaper version and will continue to do so.

Perhaps the biggest argument for organic food, and the reason that many people are willing to spend three times as much for certain items is that they think it’s somehow healthier. The inconvenient truth for the followers of the organic movement is that there appears to be no evidence for this whatsoever. None.

In fact some of the fertilizers used in organic farming are really rather scary. Although the chemicals often used are “natural” that doesn’t mean they don’t cause cancer, Parkinson’s disease or food-poisoning. Unfortunately the organic food movement has also resurrected an old farming practice that industry had begun to eradicate: using excrement as a fertiliser.

While over two-thirds (pdf document) of people who buy organic food say they do so for the health benefits there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that this is mistaken. Not only is there no evidence that they are healthier, there IS growing evidence that they’re not. They’re not actually worse for your health, they just don’t seem to offer any actual health benefit either.

For instance a report by scientists at Stanford School of Medicine and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine just a few days ago concluded, after reviewing “17 studies in humans and 223 studies of nutrient and contaminant levels in foods” that the “published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.”

The studies they included suggested, amongst other things, that there was no difference in the levels of nutrients between organic and conventional food, there were no difference in the risk of exposure to pesticides or bacteria and there was no difference in the levels of allergies people experienced. In short, there’s no evidence that organic food actually offers anything to its consumers.

Needless to say you can expect a bit of a backlash from the organic food industry. Like the so-called “alternative” medicine industry you shouldn’t see organic food as an idealistic community of hippies growing a few things in some prehistoric paradise. Both “alternative” medicine and organic food are parts of massive industries. While they sound small and unorthodox they are both produced in almost exactly the same way as any other item, just without certain chemicals. Admittedly alternative medicines are usually cheap to produce but that’s because they don’t actually contain any ingredients or because they aren’t produced to the same exacting standards as real medicines. Organic foods on the other hand are produced incredibly inefficiently which is the main reason they cost so much.

The organic industry is going to do its best to persuade us that their products are, in fact, wonderful despite the complete lack of evidence. They’ll say they’re healthier which we know they’re not. They’ll claim they safer, which they’re also not. They’ll claim that they have a smaller impact on the environment when clearly they don’t, being highly inefficient to produce.

If health is your concern, you can save a lot of money by buying conventionally produced food and use the savings to join your local gym instead.

They might even claim that they’re tastier but all I can offer is my personal experience. They’re not. The only thing they have left is an appeal to our sense of magic. Like homeopathy and other bogus ideas all they have left is a feeling that they’re good. If that’s enough for you then I wish you good luck. Just don’t ask me to lend you money when you’ve spent it all on food three times more expensive than it needs to be and is covered in traces of poo.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Weekend Post - Natural?

If something is “natural” does that mean it’s good? If something is unnatural does that make it bad?

Of course many “natural” products are perfectly wonderful. Oxygen is natural. Water is natural. Vitamin A, otherwise known as retinol, is natural. But all of these things, if taken to excess, will kill you. Arsenic, cyanides and many bacteria are perfectly natural but they will also kill you stone dead. Lions and hippos are natural, just like mosquitos. Falling off a cliff is natural.

Anti-retroviral drugs, plastics and semiconductors are all “unnatural”, none of them occur “naturally”, but all of them have improved the quality of our lives immeasurably. Hospital operating theatres, telephone exchanges and refrigerators are all completely unnatural. iPads, cellphones and cars aren’t natural either but try taking any of these things away from me and I’ll show you a perfectly natural reaction.

It’s not as simple as natural is good, unnatural is bad. That’s the “naturalistic fallacy”, the idea that natural products are somehow better for you than unnatural ones. This fallacy is everywhere. Take sugar for example. Sugar is sugar, wherever it comes from. C6H12O6. However there is a belief, held by almost everybody in the world, that somehow brown sugar is better for you than white, refined sugar. But there’s no significant difference at all between them. They’re both just sugar, the only difference is the process by which they are produced. White sugar is produced by taking natural sugar cane and removing molasses from it. Here’s the key point. Brown sugar is NOT the original product that preceeded the removal of the molasses. In fact more often than not it’s actually white sugar that has then had the molasses added back to it. Brown sugar has actually been processed even more than white sugar.

Practically, chemically and, above all, nutritionally, brown and white sugar are completely equal. They’ve both as bad as each other. They will both make you as fat as each other, they’ll both rot your teeth as much as the other.

Several people have contacted me recently asking me about a product called Moringa. They’ve all seen claims made about it, in particular that it can help them lose weight. Their skeptical brain cells have been, well, skeptical. Can one single product be so miraculous?

The starting point is that the Moringa plant, Moringa Oleifera, really is genuinely quite remarkable. The leaves in particular are remarkable nutritious, full of vitamins and minerals and can even boost the milk production or nursing mothers. It’s an excellent crop in countries plagued by drought and famine.

But, and it’s an important “but”, that doesn’t make it miraculous. It doesn’t mean that just because it’s leaves are pumped full of beta-carotene, protein, potassium and a host of vitamins that it can cure cancer, make you shed weight or win a Nobel Peace Prize.

This is actually one occasion when a fair amount of research has been done. On the US National Institute of Health research web site I found 305 (update, now 307) different research papers into the properties, effects and usefulness of Moringa. The vast majority of the results were what scientists describe as “inconclusive”. That’s a polite way scientists have of saying there’s no evidence either way. No evidence at all. Many of the experiments were on rats or done in test tubes, others were “sociological”, seeing how many people used Moringa. One particularly interesting one looked at the use of various “herbal” concoctions used by people in Zimbabwe taking anti-retroviral drugs to help minimize their side effects. Some appear to have a minor effect but unfortunately for the Moringa industry, Moringa wasn’t one of them.

As far as the weight loss claim is concerned, that again appears to have nothing more than “inconclusive evidence” on it’s side. So no evidence at all then. The conclusion seems to be simple. Moringa doesn’t make you thinner and it doesn’t make you fatter either.

I was also asked recently about the use of aluminium in anti-perspirants. Was aluminium, the most abundant metal in the planet’s crust, harmful? In particular was it’s use in anti-perspirants a risk to the people that use it? Again it’s one of the “inconclusive evidence” situations. There’s no evidence it harms people but there’s also no evidence that it doesn’t. It’s not like alcohol, tobacco or shooting yourself in the head, all of which are know to kill a large proportion of people who indulge in them. It’s still no more than speculation without any evidence.

As Carl Sagan said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Almost all occupants of the natural remedy worls are very fond of making extraordinary claims. Very few of them can back them up with real, genuine, peer-reviewed scientific evidence. The reason is that almost all of them, even the ones relating to products with some benefits, like Moringa, are bogus.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Weekend Post - Aiming for the stars

As a child, the biggest thing that sparked my interest in science was space travel. I was born in the mid-1960s and the first manned Moon landing was just two days after my fifth birthday. One of my first memories is seeing grainy black and white TV footage of men in spacesuits clomping around on the Moon’s surface, playing golf, driving rovers around and collecting rocks.

What impressed me just as much as the science was the engineering. Watching a Saturn V rocket launch is still an astonishing sight, even though you can only now see it on YouTube. This rocket remains, 40 years later, and at nearly 3,000 tons, the largest and most powerful rocket ever launched.

As a result of this I, like millions of others, became a fairly traditional space and astronomy-obsessed kid, forever getting science books for Christmas and birthdays and watching whatever TV shows I could find on the subject.

That’s probably the biggest single achievement of the entire American space program. I admit that they reached space and the moon, I admit that they placed satellites around the planet and I admit that they put the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the greatest technological achievements of the last century, up there. But what I think was even more important was the way the whole program inspired people to be interested in science. Throughout the world you’ll find people of my generation who studied science because of the example the space program gave us. With a little luck we’ve been able to pass that inspiration on to our children and to theirs as well.

The good news these days is that the media, particularly international TV, is full of programs that discuss and educate people about science. They cover everything from A to Z, from astronomy to zoology.

The problem is that for every program dispensing scientific knowledge there seems to be another spouting hogwash. Whether it’s American nutcases chasing Bigfoot, alternative health fanatics selling bogus cures or fraudulent psychic “detectives”, they’re all promoting ignorance, superstition and fraud.

Unfortunately much of the excitement has been lost from space exploration in recent decades. With the exception of two tragedies with the Space Shuttle program, much of space exploration became rather routine, perhaps even dull. It also coincided with the growing realization that space exploration was an incredibly hazardous endeavor. Human beings really aren’t meant to be in space. We haven’t evolved to cope with the vacuum, the incredible heat and incredible cold, the blistering radiation and the distances involved. The depressing truth is that humanity is highly unlikely ever to venture very far from Earth, the scale of the challenge is so immense.

Of course you can get a sense of that original excitement from missions like the recent mission to Mars. Right now, as you read this, a robotic vehicle called Curiosity is exploring Mars, zapping rocks with it’s laser, measuring and photographing everything it encounters. It’s magnificent but we have to admit that it’s not quite the exciting as the space program of the 60s and early 70s.

Image c/o NASA
I was prompted to remember those days of space exploration by the recent death of Neil Armstrong, the commander of the Apollo 11 mission and the first human to walk on the Moon. Unlike so many so-called contemporary celebrities Armstrong was a shy, retiring man who never sought fame. He seemed content just to have contributed towards a great human achievement. In one obituary of him he was quoted as saying:
"I think we're going to the moon because it's in the nature of the human being to face challenges. It's by the nature of his deep inner soul... we're required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream."
That comment is a perfect epitaph for a good man, someone who represented progress for those of my generation. Armstrong and the rest of the space program were great examples of human nature, of the desire to explore and face challenges. But that’s gone now. The challenge for the scientific community is to come up with a new topic that inspires the next generation. It might be new forms of nuclear power production, the fight against global warming or the next evolution in agriculture.

Whatever it might be it’s essential that it inspires kids to take an interest in the only thing that can save humanity from itself. Science.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Weekend Post - Curiosity

Anyone watching the international news recently will have seen stories about the landing on Mars of NASA’s latest explorer. The pictures coming back have been fascinating, even for laypeople. They show a desolate landscape, superficially devoid of life, water and anything of interest. Feel free to make a joke about it reminding you of your home town.

Image c/o Nasa
But it’s more complicated than that. If there’s water on Mars other than in its ice caps, it’s going to be hidden away. One of the key objectives of the mission is to determine whether there might ever have been life on Mars and to assess how manned missions might get there and survive. The explorer has a lot of work ahead of it.

The technological triumph is astonishing. A payload weighing almost a ton was sent over 560 million kilometers through space, exposed to astonishing levels of radiation, hitting the Martian atmosphere at 20,000km/h, reaching temperatures of 2,000C, decelerating and then deploying a parachute, dropping its heat-shield, and then being lowered by the built-in “skycrane” to the surface, just over 2km from it’s target.

Consider just one illustration of that achievement. Landing 2.4km away from it’s target after a trip of over half a billion kilometers is a bit like hitting the bulls-eye on the dartboard in my house just outside Gaborone with a dart you threw from Dar-Es-Salaam.

The explorer is now motoring around the Martian surface, taking pictures, examining rocks and soil and sending the results back home to Earth. It’s a genuine triumph of science, and its often overlooked cousin, engineering.

One thing that charmed me about the mission is it the name they gave to this explorer: “Curiosity”. The name was actually given to it by a 12-year old girl who won a competition to name the explorer. Her essay included the wonderful phrase “curiosity is the passion that drives us through our everyday lives.” I agree entirely. Curiosity is surely a sign of intelligence. It’s by no means a purely human virtue, plenty of other animals are curious, but humanity has been able to take curiosity to the highest level. Curiosity combined with science and engineering has led to automated explorers on Mars, the Moon landings, the extinction of smallpox, anti-retroviral drugs and to people living longer and happier lives today than they have ever done in the past. Curiosity has propelled humanity to its current heights, just like rockets propelled Curiosity to Mars.

The problem is that curiosity has an enemy: established thought.

There’s a proverb you may have heard. “Curiosity killed the cat”. It’s used whenever someone thinks that someone else, someone cleverer than them, is being overly curious, a bit too enquiring, someone who is asking to many questions.

The problem with the phrase it what it suggests: that curiosity is somehow dangerous. That asking questions leads to trouble. That having an enquiring mind is a bad thing.

As well as hearing this from parents tired of questions from their irritating children you also encounter the same reaction from any person or group who don’t want to be questioned. Unfortunately this happens an awful lot within religious belief systems. They have a dogma, a set of core beliefs that members are often simply forbidden from questioning. They’re certainly forbidden from getting a logical answer. Questions undermine the authority and power of the leadership. No religion is immune to this and neither are certain political belief systems. Unfortunately for the people of many countries in the past, and quite a few today, questioning things is not permitted. Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Syria, North Korea and a host of countries ending in “-istan” haven’t permitted open questioning of authority. People have died for doing so.

All of these groups have portrayed curiosity as something wrong, something anti-social, something to be stamped out by burning the curious at the stake, imprisoning them or forbidding them from speaking and writing. The problem is that all countries that opposed curiosity eventually collapsed either due to failed economies, war losses or popular uprising. Their leaders failed to understand that oppressing curiosity is a recipe for disaster. What it means for supernatural belief systems is another matter.

Meanwhile those of us who approve of humanity’s desire to question and explore can sit back, delighted that they show themselves in magnificent feats of exploration, scientific progress and prosperity. The opponents of curiosity only have extinction to look forward to.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Weekend Post - Changing your mind

A lot of people seem to think that changing your mind is a sign of weakness. It offends their sense of pride to think that they might have been wrong about something. I think that’s silly. Changing your mind, based on reason, rational discourse and, above all, new evidence is a perfectly respectable thing. That’s how humanity makes progress.

Unfortunately the pressure to stick with existing beliefs can be intense. We all know the stories about the Roman Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo for his support of the Copernican view that the Earth rotated around the Sun, not the other way round. He even spent the last decade of his life under house arrest for suggesting such a thing, after being bullied into recanting his scientific beliefs. For 75 years after his death the Church banned the printing of any of his works all because they couldn’t bear the thought that they might be wrong about the nature of the solar system. OK, it was probably more because they realised that once one belief was undermined then nothing was sacred any longer. All their other beliefs might be questioned.

The other extreme is a story told by Richard Dawkins in his best-selling book, The God Delusion. He describes an occasion when he was a student. An elderly and highly respected professor attended a lecture at which a visiting American academic publicly disproved the professor’s cherished theory. According to Dawkins, who was also at the lecture, instead of arguing with the American, or just ignoring his ideas, the elderly professor walked right to the front of the lecture hall, shook the visitor firmly by the hand and loudly said “My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.”

Clearly I’m not going to say that all scientists are as generous and open-minded and this. Scientists aren’t immune from arrogance and self-deception but their method is. The nature of the scientific method is that someone proposes a hypothesis, scientists decide how to test it and then do their level best to disprove it. Its important to understand that they do NOT try to prove the theory, they actively try to disprove it.

In fact that’s one of the key tests of whether something is genuinely scientific or not. Just ask yourself, can an idea be disproved? That’s why Freudian and Jungian psychoanalytic theories aren’t science, it’s why astrology isn’t scientific and why, despite what some political “scientists” will tell you, Marxism is many things but scientific isn’t one of them. On the other hand, Einstein’s theories of Relativity could be disproven tomorrow, they just haven’t been yet. It’s why Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection is scientific. It’s why evolution in general is a scientific concept. All it would take is a single fossil to be found in the wrong sequence and the idea would need to be reconsidered. That hasn’t happened yet.

The ability to change your mind is critical in science. Just a couple of weeks ago the New York Times published an article by Professor Richard Muller of University of California, Berkeley, a so-called “climate change skeptic” who had undergone a change of mind. Having previously identified problems with some of the research into global warming, he then undertook a thorough review of the evidence and found himself changing his mind. He said:
“I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.”
His research took into account all the objections the various climate change deniers had recently raised but he was able to reject them all. He also then published all of his findings online so the rest of us can review them as well if we want. (You should have a look, it includes data from Botswana as well.)

I don’t want this to be about climate change, that’s another issue, the point is that this scientist did what science demands. He saw the evidence, in fact he gathered much of it, he analyzed it thoroughly and saw that in certain areas his skepticism was misplaced. Like Dawkins’ professor he did the honorable thing and admitted he had been mistaken and changed his mind.

Of course life would be a lot simpler if we all had the courage to do this. I know from personal experience that my political views evolved and there came a point when I had to renounce certain labels I had used to describe my politics. It wasn’t easy to do this. I was once called a traitor for changing my mind. And that’s just politics. When certain religious groups will cheerfully have you condemned to death for changing your mind and either adopting a different religion, or worse still, abandoning superstition entirely, I can understand why many people decide to keep it secret. They continue to regularly visit their place of worship and go through the motions even though deep down they don’t believe in the core beliefs any more. This internal psychological dissonance is toxic.

Maybe if all political, religious and cultural groups were willing to accept that changing one’s mind is a natural and inevitable thing then life might be a little more tolerable. We might have slightly fewer excommunications, jihads, fatwas and killings. We might even be a bit more rational.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Weekend Post - Theories

Does anyone deny gravity? Is there anyone who believes that gravity doesn’t exist, that things aren’t somehow attracted to massive objects and, if possible, move towards them? Are there gravity-deniers out there prepared to jump off a high building to prove their point?

Of course not. No sane person denies the facts of gravity. But that doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been debate about HOW gravity works. The first great description of gravity came from Isaac Newton who described how objects attract each other and was the first to describe the mathematics of it. His “Inverse Square Law” described how gravity’s strength diminishes in proportion to the square of the distance between two objects. Double your distance from a large object and the gravitation attraction will only be one quarter of what it was. At ten times the distance the gravity will be a mere hundredth of what it was. All of this is true, certainly true enough for everyday purposes. True enough for getting spacecraft to the moon and back. True enough for almost all circumstances.

It explains things like the tides. Few people who’ve travelled to the coast have thought much about tides, why the sea level rises and falls twice a day and I suspect most people find it surprising that the water is being pulled away from the center of the Earth by the gravitational attraction of the moon. They would find it even more perplexing that the tide rises on both the side closest to the Moon AND the side furthest away. How can that be? (The first person to email me the correct explanation will get a prize.)

The problem is that although Newton described the mathematics of gravity he didn’t explain how it actually happened. He referred to objects attracting each other but didn’t say how they do this. How can a star like our Sun exert an instantaneous force on a planet like Earth from such an enormous distance? Newton didn’t know.

C/o Wikipedia
It took a couple of centuries for a convincing explanation to come along. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity contained a lengthy list of new ideas but perhaps the most revolutionary was that space, the three-dimensional framework within which we operate, is indistinguishable from a fourth dimension, time. Einstein and his followers talk a lot about “space-time”, a combination of the three dimensions of space that we know and another dimension that reflects time. The less well-known thing is this was how Einstein was able to explain what gravity actually was. He suggested that space-time is curved. The reason that satellites move in a curve around the earth is because the mass of the Earth has warped the space-time through which the satellite moves. Imagine water circulating around a bath plughole and you get an idea of what it would look like if we could see in 4 dimensions. The satellite is actually taking the easiest route. This also explains how gravitational attraction appears to happen faster than the speed of light. Gravity is no longer an action that happens over a distance, it’s an object just following the simplest path.

Here’s the key point. Einstein’s “Theory” of General Relativity is a theory. It’s a way of explaining thing, including gravity. There is no “theory of gravity” because there’s no need. Gravity is like radiation, reproduction and rain, we don’t need proof that these things exist, the evidence is overwhelming. Theories are ways of explaining WHY and HOW known things happen, not that they DO happen.

The controversy isn’t with gravity, it’s with the other great known fact. Evolution.

Evolution happens, it’s as simple as that. It’s been observed in a wide variety of creatures, their characteristics adapting gradually as a result of changes in their environment. That isn’t denied by anyone who’s seen the evidence. Fossils show that creatures in the past were different to similar creatures today and the further back you go in the fossil record, the bigger the differences are.

There is no “theory of evolution” just like there’s no “theory of gravity”. There ARE however theories of HOW and WHY evolution happens and what makes species gradually change. So far, just as Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity explains gravity well, the best explanation we have for evolution is Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection. Despite what you might think, and unlike Einstein’s theory, Darwin’s suggestion is remarkably simple to understand. It has only two basic ideas. When species reproduce they combine their genes randomly and this occasionally leads to offspring with particular strengths or weaknesses. The second element is just as simple to understand. Those random variations that give the offspring a better chance of reproducing and passing on his or her genes to the next generation are most likely to stick around. That’s all there is to it. Over time and thousands of generations these slight changes bring about a much bigger overall change to the species as a whole.

So far, just like Einstein’s theory, Darwin’s has shown considerable strength. Both make predictions that can be tested and so far no test of either theory has failed. Of course it might fail tomorrow and then we’ll need to come up with a new, better theory but so far there’s no need.

For now, despite what certain belief-based groups will tell you, we can stick with both General Relativity and Natural Selection as the best theories we have to explain the FACTS of gravity and evolution.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Weekend Post - Mythtakes

Tall and short, fast and slow, left and right, science and mythology, they’re all examples from the primary school classroom of opposites. Science is the exact opposite of mythology. Science is backed up by research, evidence and facts and mythology is backed up by, errrr, nothing apart from tradition. And often that tradition is meaningless and made-up anyway.

The problem is that myths are all around us, we’re surrounded by them. I’m not talking about innocent fairy-tales like Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy but those so-called truths that are in fact lies and distortions and that many of us fall for. Personally I blame the Internet but some of them have been around for ages. Here goes.

Alternative” medicine. It’s nonsense. The distinction between “conventional” and “alternative” or “complimentary” medicine is a myth created in order to sell things. The only real distinction is between medicine that works, and fake medicine that doesn’t. As has been said before, we tested all the alternative medicines and the ones that worked became medicine. The rest is just a bunch of herbs, some of which smell nice.

Cell memory”. Despite what alternative therapists say, it simply doesn’t exist. Cells cannot remember things. Sorry to all those followers of The Journey, but cell memory is a myth. Find me a single piece of truly scientific evidence for it and I may re-consider. The trouble is there isn’t any. None.

“Darwin denied evolution on his deathbed”. No he didn’t. That was made up by a certain Lady Hope, a lying fundamentalist Christian who claimed she had been there at Darwin’s side as he passed away. No she wasn’t. She made it all up. She never met Darwin. Not even once so she couldn’t have witnessed a deathbed conversion that never happened.

Hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness”. Well, I suppose that’s true, but only in the same sense that sneezing is an altered state of consciousness. Yes, hypnosis affects your brain but so does coffee. Hypnosis is just a mixture of extreme relaxation and some people being incredibly suggestible. There’s no magic involved, nothing deep and meaningful. Almost everything you’ve read or seen about hypnosis is utter nonsense.

Crystals have healing powers”. No, they don’t, they’re just pretty. There’s nothing special about crystals. They’re no more amazing than the glass in your window. Hang on, lenses are crystals aren’t they? If crystals could heal your ailments why can’t your spectacles?

“They’ve founds traces of Noah’s Ark”. A huge number of largely American Christian fundamentalists believe the Bible legend that Noah created an Ark and that it’s remains have been found on Mount Ararat in Turkey. No, this simply isn’t true. Much of this can be traced to a film-maker who said the Ark had been found, but the funniest thing is that this was a deliberate hoax to test the gullibility of certain religious groups. It was such a good hoax people still believe it!

“The Greeks and Romans stole their philosophy from Africans”. Yet another myth without any evidence. Much of this so-called “Afrocentrism” comes from Masonic texts. The Masons have a long history of making extravagant claims about their origins, much of it based on earlier books that, in turn, made up Egyptian history. These earlier texts were written well before we could read Egyptian hieroglyphics so Hey Presto, we have yet another myth. It’s a mythological chain made up of mythological links. Myths, all of them.

“Mary Magdelene was the secret lover of Christ”. How on Earth are we meant to believe this? It wasn’t “The Da Vinci Code” that started it, this story has been going on for ages. However as not one of the so-called historical documents is even slightly reliable how can we tell?

“Intelligence is related to race”. Well, as nobody can agree what either intelligence or race really are it’s all nonsense. It’s about as sensible as saying that “success in life” and “being a nice person” are related. We’re not going to agree on definitions of those either so it’s all a bit, well, mythic don’t you think?

“The author is a cynic who believes in nothing”. No, I believe in lots of things. Like truth that is based on facts, not just believed in because someone says we should. I believe in wonders like the safety glass that saved my eyesight when I had a car windscreen explode in my face a few years ago. An eye full of glass fragments and not even a drop of blood. That’s the sort of thing I believe in.

Some myths are fun. Those of us with kids have no doubt repeated many of them. I know I have. I’ve gone to great lengths to construct reindeer footprints outside my house on Christmas Eve, I’ve slipped Tooth Fairy money under the pillows of my children when they lost teeth and I’ve threatened them with eternal damnation if they disobey me. But none of these things are actually true. None of them are scientific, they’re all mythical and deserve either to be ignored or rejected by grown-ups. With the exception of entertaining immature children shouldn’t we abandon them?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Weekend Post - Transplants

It’s hard to write this. A year and a half ago my Dad died. This was a tremendous shock because he was still fairly young, was fit and healthy and seemed full of life. It was a devastating experience for the entire family but despite the shock, the grief and the sense of emptiness we all felt, my mother in particular, there were nevertheless certain comforts about the way he died. The first was that the cause of death was a sudden and catastrophic burst aneurysm in his brain that caused almost instantaneous death. According to the doctors he would have known virtually nothing about it and the knowledge that he didn’t suffer remains a huge comfort to us all.

However there was an even greater comfort, something that happened after he died. Because he died in the UK the family was automatically asked if we would consent to his organs be transplanted to people in need. None of us had any hesitation in saying yes. It helped that he’d discussed it with us several times in the past and on every occasion he’d made it plain that after he was gone he’d be delighted if any part of his body could be used to help others. As a result of Pete’s death two grandmothers who never knew him now have working kidneys and are off dialysis treatment for the first time in years. Burn victims who didn’t know he existed were given skin grafts as temporary dressings while their own skin could be grown. Two blind people who’d never heard of him can now see. Trying to describe these events is the closest I ever come to using the word “miracle”.

Organ transplantation has become one of the great achievements in science over the last half a century. Despite some legends about transplants done in ancient history, genuine transplantation began in the early 20th century and as often happens it was prompted by warfare. Skin transplants began shortly after the First World War as a result of the burns so many soldiers experienced but these weren’t “donor” transplants. Skin was moved from an intact part of the patient to another, damaged part of his own body. The first successful donor transplant was in 1954 when a kidney was transplanted from one person to their identical twin, neatly avoiding the issue of “rejection”. This was the biggest challenge that transplant surgery faced. An organ taken from a donor would be rejected by the recipient’s body. It wasn’t until the 1980s that we had drugs that effectively suppressed the immune system’s desire to reject foreign tissue.

Despite what you’ll hear from some people the real breakthrough wasn’t in South Africa, where Christiaan Barnard successfully transplanted a heart in 1967. In the next few years over a hundred more transplants were undertaken in South Africa but very few of the recipients lived more than a couple of months. Barnard and his colleagues cracked the plumbing side of things but the real breakthrough was the immune suppressors that became available in the 1980s. [Yes, I know describing transplant surgery as “plumbing” is insulting but I’m sure you get the idea.]

As a result of these immune response suppressors in countries like the UK transplants can now almost be described as routine but this is just one technique to fix broken bodies. Carnegie Mellon University in the USA recently announced the award of a $1.1 million grant to a researcher to develop an artificial retinal implant to help people with impaired vision to see better. A wafer thin film will be inserted behind the retina with electrodes to stimulate nerve signals from the eye to the brain using signals coming from a special pair of glasses the patient will wear. In effect the glasses will act as a camera feeding information into the brain through the retina.

The long-term future is even more impressive. Regenerative medicine offers the possibility of growing replacement parts of the body to replace damaged or diseased ones. Using stem cells either from umbilical cord blood or bone marrow, bits of body might be grown to provide spare parts. So far this has been done with fairly simple body parts like cartilage, trachea and even the tip of a finger but it’s early days yet. Once we become more familiar with how to manipulate stem cells the possibilities are amazing.

However all of this faces the usual threats from ignorance and religion. Shortly after Pete died I mentioned his death and organ donation to a shopkeeper who knew him. He expressed the usual sympathy for our loss but pointed out that “in my religion we don’t permit transplants”. I restrained myself from pointing out that I felt that whatever religion he followed was clearly an immoral one.

There’s been the same objection in principle to the stem cell research that would enable regenerative medicine, mainly because of the mistaken perception by certain faith groups that stem cells are obtained from aborted embryos. While this is possible, and was once thought of as a source of stem cells, things have long since moved on to much simpler sources. But that hasn’t prevented the religious right-wing in the USA and elsewhere from resisting progress yet again.

Stem cells offer humanity an unparalleled opportunity to cure disease and restore damaged bodies. The forces of ignorance cannot be allowed to prevail. My Dad would have wanted progress.