Jamie Hale

Jamie Hale

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Science Matters

The information below was originally published at University of Louisville's Sciboard. It has be reprinted with permission from Univ of Louisville Professor Thomas Cleaver.

General Science

Q. What is a Scientist

Ans. Although a person with an advanced degree might claim to be a scientist, the true test of the scientist is how one thinks. A good scientist:
· Excepts nothing in science absolutely.
· Is willing to change his opinions based on new data.
· Does not rely on Authority.
· Thinks critically.
· Knows that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.
· Has an open mind.
· Relies on logic and reason.
· Knows how to form hypotheses and test them.
· Respects the scientific method.
· Examines all the data, not just the data that support his or her view.
· Builds on the work of others, giving them appropriate credit.
· Documents his or her experiments so they can be duplicated by others.
· Knows that if a claim is made, the claimant must provide the proof. (It is not up to others to disprove it.)
· Is intellectually honest.

Q. What is a Science?

Ans. Many people think science is a collection of facts: Hydrogen combines with oxygen to form water. The speed of light is 299 800 000 meters/second. Man evolved from ape-like ancestors. These facts are the products of science but they themselves are not science.

Science is a method, a technique, for looking at the physical world and finding out the facts. It is a search for truth -- the kind of truth that can be verified and quantified.

The basic tool of science in its search for truth is called "the scientific method." This consists of making a "hypothesis" and conducting an experiment. A hypothesis is a theory or assumption that must be tested.

As an example, suppose a scientist forms the following hypothesis: "Light stunts the growth of mushrooms." She then tests the hypothesis with an experiment using 2 sets of mushrooms. One set (the control group) is put in a dark basement. The other (the test group) is put in a sun-lit yard. After a week, she measures the height of all the mushrooms in each group.

She finds that the test mushrooms raised in sunlight grew an average of 0.8 centimeters. The control group mushrooms raised in the dark grew an average of 1.5 centimeters. She then concludes that her hypotheis was correct: Light DOES stunt the growth of mushrooms.

No "fact" of science is ever proven beyond doubt. All conclusions of science are always open to question as discoveries and new understandings occur. A scientist must always stand ready to cast aside his fondly held beliefs as new evidence is discovered.

Returning to the mushroom example, suppose the scientist's conclusions were challenged. Someone says, "Dry soil stunts the growth of mushrooms. Your outdoor mushrooms were in dryer soil than your basement mushrooms." To prove her results are valid, the scientist may have to repeat her experiment while making sure that the moisture for both groups of mushrooms is the same.

An experiment that demonstrates a hypothesis must be "repeatable". This means that anyone who performs the experiment correctly should get the same results. In the above example, the scientist should be able to explain her methods carefully enough that her mushroom experiment succeeds when anyone does it. If the experiment is not "repeatable", no one should be expected to believe her results.

Good science is painstaking, slow, and full of disappointments. But its record of success is unsurpassed for determining the truth of how the world works.

Q. What is the Scientific Method?

Ans. The scientific method is the best way yet discovered for telling the difference between truth and lies and delusion. The simple version looks something like this:

1. Observe some aspect of the universe.
2. Invent a theory to explain what you have observed.
3. Use the theory to make predictions.
4. Test those predictions by experiment.
5. Modify the theory in the light of your results.
6. Go to Step 3.

Usually, you can trust other scientists to follow the scientific method. So when a scientist claims to have done a certain experiment and obtained a certain result, you can usually believe it. This allows scientists to build on the work of others.

Q. What is Theory?

Ans. In scientific terms, a "fact" is an observation, such as "the sun rose today". This fact is explained by the "theory" that the earth is round and spins on its axis.

Many times, theories are so widely accepted that they are treated as fact. The "theory of gravity" and the "theory of evolution" are accepted as fact by virtually all scientists.

A theory that has not yet been tested is called a "hypothesis".

Some "theories" are untestable, and are therefore unscientific. You assert, for example, that you are the only person in existence, and that all reality is but a product of your imagination. This is the theory of solipsism. There is no way that anyone can prove that your theory is false. Therefore it is unscientific.

The solipsist theory may be true, but it falls into the realm of philosophy, not science.

Q. Can Science Prove Anything?

Ans. Yes and no. It depends on what you mean by "prove".

Suppose you have a theory that when you throw something into the air, it will fall back down. You test your theory by throwing many objects into the air, and they all fall down.

Have you proven your theory beyond doubt? No. The next object you throw might hover, or go off into orbit. But the theory is "proved" for most practical purposes.

Theories and facts (even everyday ones, not scientific ones), can be thought of on a scale of certainty. Your theory that things fall down is near the top. Down near the bottom is "the Earth is flat". Near the middle might be "I will live to be 80."

On this scale, no scientific theory can ever get all the way to the top (or the bottom), but reasonable people accept those that are near the top.

Q. What is Occam's Razor?

Ans. This is the scientific principle that says we should look for the easy explanations first.

If you have 2 theories that both explain the facts, take the simplest one. You won't always be right, but that's where the smart money is.


Your friend calls you and says he's in Miami. Moments later, he knocks on your door.

Theory 1: You're friend teleported from Miami.
Theory 2: You're friend was lieing about being in Miami.

Occam's razor says to select Theory 2. It doesn't require belief in an unproven mode of travel (teleportation).

Visit University of Louisville Sciboard @

Friday, August 21, 2009

Interview with John Horgan

by Jamie Hale

JOHN HORGAN is a science journalist and Director of the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. He’s a former senior writer at Scientific American, author of several books and columnist for BBC’s Knowledge Magazine. He is not a big fan of Superstring Theory in fact he says…………

How many books have you written? Could you give readers a brief summary of each?

The End of Science: All the big discoveries have been made. We're down to details and applications now. The Undiscovered Mind. If there are any big discoveries to come, they'll emerge from the study of the brain and mind. But based on science's lousy track record so far, don't hold your breath for big breakthroughs. Rational Mysticism: There is only one common insight from science and mysticism: You are really, really lucky to be alive.

The title of one of your books is Where Was God on September 11th. It seems that the title would appear a little controversial to some. Did it cause much of an uproar? How much hate mail did you get?

Some hard-core Christians got mad at me, but they god even madder at my co-author, Frank, an Episcopal priest.

Do you have any suggestions for enhancing the general publics knowledge of popular science?

Yeah, buy my books.

Who is your favorite writer?

Jorge Luis Borges, the metaphysical fabulist.

Favorite book? Favorite Magazine?

Labyrinths, by Borges. New Yorker still kicks ass.

On what terms can religion and science live in harmony?

See above. And that isn’t enough for most folks. I'm hoping religion will just fade gracefully away.

You have a $1000 bet with Michio Kaku that Superstring Theory won't pan out by 2020. Why do you feel so strongly about this?

Because string theory is pseudo-science.

Do you any projects you are currently working on?

I'm writing a lot about how science can solve the problem of war.

If you had to rate the top three scientists off all times who would they be?

The greatest I've met personally are Francis Crick, Hans Bethe and John Wheeler. Great scientists, great characters. I profile them all in my first book, The End of Science.

Visit John Horgan’s website @ http://johnhorgan.org/

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Interview with Carl Zimmer

by Jamie Hale

The following interview was conducted with Carl Zimmer science writer, Yale University Lecturer and author of The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution. E.O Wilson says " The Tangled Bank is the best written and best illustrated introduction to evolution of the Darwin centennial decade, and also the most conversant with ongoing research. It is excellent for students, the general public, and even other biologists.”

I have completed about 1/2 of your book Soul Made Flesh and I must compliment you on your writing style. Great job. What influenced you to write the book?

CZ: I like to write books about subjects I want to get more familiar with. In this case, I thought I wanted to learn more about the brain. But I didn't want to write yet another book about new developments in neuroscience. It's not that there aren't some great books on that particular subject, but there are so many that I didn't want to get lost in the crowd. It occurred to me that there hasn't been much written about the history of neuroscience. While there is a growing body of scholarship, few authors have written about that research for the public. So I started to nose around and discovered a period of history, in the mid-1600s, that was just incredible in its revolutionary discoveries and also in its political and religious turbulence. This was when the science of neurology was launched, when people came to recognize the brain as we see it today, as the center of our existence. Once I realized this, I knew I had to write the book.

How many books have you written? Do you have a favorite? Which one was the hardest to write?

CZ: I've written seven books now. I suppose my favorite is my first, At the Water's Edge, simply because it gave me the first experience of seeing my name on a book. That's a marvelous feeling.

Commenting on your soon to be released book (The Tangled Bank: An Introduction To Evolution) E.O Wilson says " The Tangled Bank is the best written and best illustrated introduction to evolution of the Darwin centennial decade, and also the most conversant with ongoing research. It is excellent for students, the general public, and even other biologists.” What do you think makes the book so great?

CZ: You'd have to ask Wilson or the other scientists who gave such wonderful endorsements why they like it so much. All I'd say is that it was a huge amount of fun to write, because there are so many fantastic lines of research in evolution these days to choose from. Making the experience even better was the opportunity to work with illustrators and photo editors to make the book as handsome as possible, and to use pictures to explain the science in ways words can't.

Do you think there will come a time in America where the majority of the population will believe in evolution?

CZ: I'm fairly optimistic, in the long term. For now I don't expect tremendous changes, though.

If Darwin were alive today and he were to modify his theory of evolution what would he change?

CZ: I think Darwin would be fascinated by the genome. Genomes are shaped by evolution in all sorts of complex ways. There are even virus-like stretches of DNA that make copies of themselves over time and gradually swamp their host genome. Most of our DNA comes from these genomic parasites. There's also plenty of evidence now that genes have moved many times from one species to another. So genomes are not just sculpted by mutations, drift, and selection from one generation to the next. They're also mosaics, made up of bits of genetic material from many different sources.

What does a typical day in the life of Carl Zimmer look like?

CZ: Breakfast with the family, then trundling off to my home office, where I interview, research, and write till dinner. I punctuate that sedentary work with the occasional trip to visit a scientist in his or her medium--a lab, a bog, a hospital, or wherever they may do their work.

Do you have a favorite writer? Favorite book?

CZ: I do love Melville--both the novels and the stories. The Loom's name is from one of my favorite passages from Moby Dick, where Melville describes how Pip, a cabin boy, was altered by a plunge into the sea:

"...among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters, heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad."

About the Author

Carl Zimmer bio http://carlzimmer.com/bio.html

Monday, August 3, 2009

Knowledge Roundup 2

Brain Facts
A Primer on the Brain and Nervous System

Brain Facts is a 74-page primer on the brain and nervous system, published by SfN. Designed for a lay audience as an introduction to neuroscience, Brain Facts is a valuable educational resource
Free Ebook http://www.sfn.org/index.aspx?pagename=brainFacts§ion=publications

Mirror Neurons
You see a stranger stub her toe and you immediately flinch in sympathy. You watch a baseball outfielder run to catch a long fly ball and feel your heart racing and your leg muscles pumping along with him. You notice a friend wrinkle up his face in disgust while tasting some food and suddenly your own stomach recoils at the thought of eating. This ability to instinctively and immediately understand what other people are experiencing has long baffled neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers alike. Recent research now suggests a fascinating explanation: brain cells called mirror neurons. Read More http://www.sfn.org/index.aspx?pagename=brainBriefings_MirrorNeurons

The Science of Gossip: Why We Can’t Stop Ourselves

In the past few years I have heard more people than ever before puzzling over the 24/7 coverage of people such as Paris Hilton who are “celebrities” for no apparent reason other than we know who they are. And yet we can’t look away. The press about these individuals’ lives continues because people are obviously tuning in. Although many social critics have bemoaned this explosion of popular culture as if it reflects some kind of collective character flaw, it is in fact nothing more than the inevitable outcome of the collision between 21st-century media and Stone Age minds.

When you cut away its many layers, our fixation on popular culture reflects an intense interest in the doings of other people; this preoccupation with the lives of others is a by-product of the psychology that evolved in prehistoric times to make our ancestors socially successful. Thus, it appears that we are hardwired to be fascinated by gossip. Read more http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-science-of-gossip

I want to Believe

In a 1997 episode of The Simpsons entitled “The Springfield Files” — a parody of X-Files in which Homer has an alien encounter in the woods (after imbibing 10 bottles of Red Tick Beer) — Leonard Nimoy voices the intro as he once did for his post-Spock run on the television mystery series In Search of…: “The following tale of alien encounters is true. And by true, I mean false. It’s all lies. But they’re entertaining lies, and in the end isn’t that the real truth? The answer is no.”
Read more http://www.michaelshermer.com/2009/07/i-want-to-believe/

Darwin Myths

Darwin coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” (Herbert Spencer actually coined the phrase)

Darwin was an atheist (no he was agnostic)

Darwin was always an evolutionist which was passed down to him from his grandfather (Darwin was a creationist before and during the voyage of the Beagle and didn’t become an evolutionist until approximately a year after his return. Darwin did not devise his theory while in Galpagos)