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Current Topic: Science

idealistic remembrances of how things were
Topic: Science 6:59 am EDT, Mar 12, 2012

William D. Nordhaus:

One might argue that there are many uncertainties here, and we should wait until the uncertainties are resolved. Yes, there are many uncertainties. That does not imply that action should be delayed.

Marilynne Robinson:

Since it is intelligence that distinguishes our species and inventiveness that has determined our history, by what standard should an unconventional act or attitude be called unnatural? How can human nature be held to another standard of naturalness than its own? Perhaps with our intelligence comes the capacity to know about and empathize with the problems of strangers, and this makes it natural for us to do so. On grounds of their intellectual and practical limitations, bears in Canada must be forgiven their apparent indifference to the fate of bears in China. Under other conditions -- bigger brains, opposable thumbs, bipedalism -- for all we know they might be model activists.

My point is that our civilization has recently chosen to identify itself with a wildly oversimple model of human nature and behavior and then is stymied or infuriated by evidence that the models don't fit. And the true believers in these models seem often to be hardened in their belief by this evidence, perhaps in part because of the powerfully annealing effects of rage and indignation. Sophisticated as we sometimes claim to be, we have by no means evolved beyond this tendency, are deeply mired in it at this very moment, and seem at a loss to think our way out of it.

Tony Judt:

We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it.

The Economist:

As we grind through the Republican primary process, it seems like the debate over morality in America has less to do with moral outcomes and more to do with a vision of how society should look based on idealistic remembrances of how things were.

APOD: 2012 January 21 - Days in the Sun
Topic: Science 12:40 pm EST, Jan 21, 2012

From solstice to solstice, this six month long exposure compresses time from the 21st of June till the 21st of December, 2011, into a single point of view. Dubbed a solargraph, the unconventional picture was recorded with a pinhole camera made from a drink can lined with a piece of photographic paper. Fixed to a single spot for the entire exposure, the simple camera continuously records the Sun's path each day as a glowing trail burned into the photosensitive paper.

APOD: 2012 January 21 - Days in the Sun

Sharks Save Lives
Topic: Science 9:57 pm EST, Dec 13, 2011


The availability heuristic is a phenomenon (which can result in a cognitive bias) in which people predict the frequency of an event, or a proportion within a population, based on how easily an example can be brought to mind.

Have you read Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman?

Here's Freeman Dyson:

A striking example of availability bias is the fact that sharks save the lives of swimmers. Careful analysis of deaths in the ocean near San Diego shows that on average, the death of each swimmer killed by a shark saves the lives of ten others. Every time a swimmer is killed, the number of deaths by drowning goes down for a few years and then returns to the normal level. The effect occurs because reports of death by shark attack are remembered more vividly than reports of drownings. System One is strongly biased, paying more prompt attention to sharks than to riptides that occur more frequently and may be equally lethal. In this case, System Two probably shares the same bias. Memories of shark attacks are tied to strong emotions and are therefore more available to both systems.

Sharks Save Lives

Like standing next to a 65,000-foot-high vacuum cleaner
Topic: Science 11:30 am EST, Nov 28, 2011

Mitch Dobrowner:

Landscape photographers count ourselves lucky to be in the right place at the right time if a storm system is moving through -- but I wanted to actively pursue these events. In July 2009 Roger Hill (regarded as the most experienced storm-chaser in the world) and I tracked a severe weather system for nine hours -- from its formation outside of Sturgis, South Dakota, through Badlands National Park and into Valentine, Nebraska. Eventually we stopped in a field outside of Valentine, and there we stood in awe of the towering supercell (a thunderstorm with a deep rotating updraft) which was building with intake wind gusts of 60mph. It was like standing next to a 65,000-foot-high vacuum cleaner.

Words are inadequate to describe the experience of photographing this immense power and beauty. And the most exciting part is with each trip I really don't know what to expect. But now I see these storms as living, breathing things. They are born when the conditions are right, they gain strength as they grow, they fight against their environment to stay alive, they change form as they age... and eventually they die. They take on so many different aspects, personalities and faces; I'm in awe watching them. These storms are amazing sights to witness ... and I'm just happy to be there -- shot or no shot; it's watching Mother Nature at her finest. My only hope my images can do justice to these amazing phenomenona of nature.

Charles Mudede:

When we see a beautiful cloud passing by, sometimes it is best just to live in and then leave that moment forever.

An exchange:

Ernie: Is there anything fluffier than a cloud?

Big Tom: If there is, I don't want to know about it.

David Lynch:

So many things these days are made to look at later. Why not just have the experience and remember it?

Andrea de Majewski:

The cloud channel has several advantages over regular TV ... It's very relaxing. One reason for this is that there are no ads. No one tries to sell you anything at all on the cloud channel.

Ian Malcolm:

You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could and before you even knew what you had you patented it and packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you're selling it, you want to sell it!

Al Jarnow's Cosmic Clock
Topic: Science 6:48 am EST, Nov  9, 2011

Al Jarnow:

We are going to take a trip. Not in space, but in time. Faster and faster, until we've moved one BILLION years into the future.

Michiru Hoshino:

Oh! I feel it. I feel the cosmos!

Freeman Dyson:

The truths of science are so profoundly concealed that the only thing we can really be sure of is that much of what we expect to happen won't come to pass.

Al Jarnow's Cosmic Clock

The Dark Side
Topic: Science 10:49 pm EDT, Sep 12, 2011

David Owen:

The day after Dave Crawford and I inspected nighttime Tucson, I drove five hundred and fifty miles north to Bryce Canyon National Park, in southern Utah. That evening, I joined about two hundred people, including many children, outside the visitors' center, where telescopes of various sizes had been set up in the parking lot. Several were equipped with computerized tracking devices, which could be programmed to find and follow interesting objects in the sky. At one station or another, I saw the four Galilean satellites of Jupiter (tiny dots in a line), Saturn (with rings), a dense group of old stars, known as a globular cluster, a pair of twin stars (one blue and one gold), and the mountains and valleys that Galileo saw on the moon. With just my own eyes, I saw the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope, which rapidly crossed the sky just before eleven o'clock, and, a little later, I saw the meteor-like flash of a passing Iridium satellite.

I spoke with Chad Moore, the program director of the National Park Service's Night Sky Team. "Many people who come to our programs have never really looked at the night sky," he told me. "A woman once came up to me and said, 'The moon was out during the day this morning -- is that O.K.?' "

I laughed out loud when I read that last sentence.

Here's a photo I took of the daytime moon in Bryce Canyon:

And for good measure in reference to Bruce Sterling's photos of a recent Texas fire, here are two of a 2009 fire at Bryce Canyon:

The Dark Side

Rejecting new ideas that cut into the heart of the narrow field you spent your 20's getting bitter about
Topic: Science 7:55 am EDT, Jul  8, 2010

Barry Bozeman:

Honest clients are in short supply. Most of them think they already have the answers, and want someone to find the numbers to prove them right.

John Marburger:

We need disinterested people.

Mark Bauerlein, Mohamed Gad-el-Hak, Wayne Grody, Bill McKelvey, and Stanley W. Trimble:

More published output means more discovery, more knowledge, ever-improving enterprise.

If only that were true.

While brilliant and progressive research continues apace here and there, the amount of redundant, inconsequential, and outright poor research has swelled in recent decades, filling countless pages in journals and monographs. The avalanche of ignored research has a profoundly damaging effect on the enterprise as a whole.

More isn't better. At some point, quality gives way to quantity.

Louis Menand:

Getting a Ph.D. today means spending your 20's in graduate school, plunging into debt, writing a dissertation no one will read -- and becoming more narrow and more bitter each step of the way.

Rachel Toor:

I can tell you, after years of rejecting manuscripts submitted to university presses, most people's ideas aren't that brilliant.

Julian Gough:

As we all know, lax writing practices earlier this decade led to irresponsible writing and irresponsible reading.

Anne Sasso:

History shows that the deeper your idea cuts into the heart of a field, the more your peers are likely to challenge you.

Rejection is indeed a big part of being a scientist.

Ben Goldacre:

Open data -- people posting their data freely for all to re-analyse -- is the big hip new zeitgeist, and a vitally important new idea. But I was surprised to find that the thing I've advocated for wasn't enough: open data is sometimes no use unless we also have open methods.

Straining an avalanche of redundant, inconsequential, and outright poor research through an ideological sieve
Topic: Science 7:55 am EDT, Jul  8, 2010

Chris Mooney:

We've been aware for a long time that Americans don't know much about science.

But as much as the public misunderstands science, scientists misunderstand the public.

It appears that politics comes first on such a contested subject, and better information is no cure-all -- people are likely to simply strain it through an ideological sieve.

Louis Menand:

Ideas should never become ideologies.

Geoffrey Munro:

The scientific impotence discounting hypothesis predicts that people resist belief-disconfirming scientific evidence by concluding that the topic of study is not amenable to scientific investigation.


Experts and policy makers mustn't be deceived by the fact that people often appear, on the surface, to be arguing about scientific facts. Frequently, their underlying rationale is very different.

Cornelia Dean:

For some, the most worrisome thing about geoengineering is the idea that, once people know about it, they will think of it as a technological quick fix that makes it unnecessary to control emissions of greenhouse gases, an effort everyone takes pains to point out is by far the most important step to be taken now.

All the while, humanity is already engaged in a gigantic geoengineering experiment, one that has been under way, however inadvertently, since people started large-scale burning of fossil fuels 150 years ago. So far, the world's efforts to act together on the problem have been, to be charitable, unimpressive.

David Freedman:

We should avoid the kind of advice that tends to resonate the most -- it's exciting, it's a breakthrough, it's going to solve your problems -- and instead look at the advice that embraces complexity and uncertainty.

We have to learn to force ourselves to accept, understand and even embrace that we live in a complex, very messy, very uncertain world.

Barack Obama:

Science is more essential for our prosperity, our health, our environment and our quality of life than it has ever been before.

Colin Macilwain:

Beneath the rhetoric, however, there is considerable unease that the economic benefits of science spending are being oversold.

And even if scientific research does drive innovation, will more investment in science necessarily speed up the process? Unfortunately, economists concede, no one really knows.

Head Case
Topic: Science 8:26 am EST, Feb 26, 2010

Louis Menand:

There is little agreement about what causes depression and no consensus about what cures it.

As a branch of medicine, depression seems to be a mess. Business, however, is extremely good.

Gary Greenberg basically regards the pathologizing of melancholy and despair, and the invention of pills designed to relieve people of those feelings, as a vast capitalist conspiracy to paste a big smiley face over a world that we have good reason to feel sick about. The aim of the conspiracy is to convince us that it's all in our heads, or, specifically, in our brains -- that our unhappiness is a chemical problem, not an existential one.

Slim Charles:

It's what war is, you know? Once you in it ... you in it. If it's a lie, then we fight on that lie. But we gotta fight!


The discovery of the remedy creates the disease.

Is psychopharmacology evil, or is it useless?

Ian Malcolm:

You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could and before you even knew what you had you patented it and packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you're selling it, you want to sell it!


Many people today are infatuated with the biological determinants of things.

People like to be able to say, I'm just an organism, and my depression is just a chemical thing, so, of the three ways of considering my condition, I choose the biological. People do say this. The question to ask them is, Who is the "I" that is making this choice? Is that your biology talking, too?

Roger Highfield:

The reality is that, despite fears that our children are "pumped full of chemicals", everything is made of chemicals.


Do we resist the grief pill because we believe that bereavement is doing some work for us? Maybe we think that since we appear to have been naturally selected as creatures that mourn, we shouldn't short-circuit the process. Or is it that we don't want to be the kind of person who does not experience profound sorrow when someone we love dies?

Drew Gilpin Faust:

In the 21st century, we shy away from death, and we tend to think of a good death as a sudden one. Not so in the 19th century. Dying well meant having time to assess your spiritual state and say goodbye -- which is difficult to do if you're killed in battle.

Head Case

Easy = True
Topic: Science 8:03 am EST, Feb 16, 2010

Drake Bennett:

Invest in companies with names that are very easy to pronounce.

This would probably not strike you as a great idea. But, if recent research is to be believed, it might just be brilliant.

It turns out that people prefer things that are easy to think about to those that are hard.

Decius on Sarah Palin:

She is the slick corporate VP who is all image and no substance, and they love that about her because they have convinced themselves that if they do away with substance it will free them from the problems that substantial people attempt to address.


It's the sameness of the familiar that closes minds.

In West Virginia:

"You can't talk sense to them," Bush said, referring to terrorists.

"Nooooo!" the audience roared.

John Lanchester:

If I had to name one high-cultural notion that had died in my adult lifetime, it would be the idea that difficulty is artistically desirable.

Easy = True

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