November 20, 2006

Though I don't care that much...

...about the culture wars in the US, I feel obliged to do my part in answer to RPM's request for a little google bombing on Casey Luskin. Ok, that was it. Despite the fun of reading the stupid claims of anti-science activists, and the joy of reading the often brilliant fisking by science bloggers, I'd be happy to see the IDiots fade away; then the public space could be used for more interesting (and real) controversies.

November 17, 2006

First idle post

I'm a sucker for silly tests, and now I have a blog. It follows that I must post what I got at the Belief-O-Matic.... Well, just the top and the bottom of the list:

1. Secular Humanism (100%)
2. Unitarian Universalism (100%)
3. Liberal Quakers (88%)
4. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (85%)
5. Nontheist (79%)
23. Islam (17%)
24. Orthodox Judaism (17%)
25. Hinduism (10%)
26. Eastern Orthodox (10%)
27. Roman Catholic (10%)

Seems like the path has been long since my days as an active Roman Catholic. And yes, it feels like a long path too. Hat-tip to Razib.

November 14, 2006

New Physics May Cure Cancer - or: On Hype

Just a commentary on titles, and sometimes content, of scientific news. Not long ago I was lead (by Digg, i guess) to a note titled "Antimatter discovery could launch new era of physics" (the original url is no longer valid, but the whole text is here). Sounds great, doesn't it? And a few weeks later I got a notice on another one (via PhysOrg), called "Particle decay may point to New Physics". Great too! Were they similarly interesting? Let's see.

The first one starts by saying
The discovery that a bizarre particle travels between the real world of matter and the spooky realm of antimatter 3 trillion times a second may open the door to a new era of physics, Fermilab researchers announced Monday.
The incredibly rapid commuting rate of the B sub s meson particle had been predicted by the Standard Model, the successful but incomplete theory aimed at explaining how matter and energy interact to form the visible universe. After 20 years of trying, scientists have now confirmed the rate, providing strong evidence for the theory.

The monumentally precise technology developed to measure the meson’s back and forth dashes also may open the way to discovering a new family of fundamental particles and possibly a set of new forces that could be harnessed for technological applications, physicists suggested.
Huh? A great feat, no doubt! But "antimatter discovery" launching a "new era in physics"? Of course, "Brilliant confirmation of still another prediction by the Standard Model" is not such an eye-catcher. But, come on... Why would someone title the note like that? Let's keep reading...
The discovery comes at a time when the future of Fermilab, located near Batavia, Ill., is in doubt. Its huge 4-mile circular Tevatron particle accelerator may be forced to close by 2010 if Congress does not approve construction at Fermilab of a multibillion-dollar, 18-mile-long International Linear Collider.
Aha. Money is badly needed. And it is not only about science, but also national pride:
Without the collider, the United States would lose its lead position in high-energy physics discoveries to Europe, where a new accelerator seven times more powerful than the Tevatron is to start up within two years at a site on the Swiss-French border.
And of course, the note was from the Chicago Tribune. The rest of the text mixes a few details about the science with sentences like "The meson finding shows that Fermilab, which began operations in 1967, is still capable of making breakthrough discoveries."; "Raymond Orbach, undersecretary for science with the U.S. Department of Energy, called the breakthrough 'a triumph for Fermilab.'"; "Such experiments are big and expensive and require huge workforces." And yes, new physics: "'We hope we will see either signs of the Higgs or the discovery of new physics,' said University of Chicago physicist Ivan Furic."

I fully sympathize with their demands. Fermilab is a great place, two quarks were discovered there, and I hope they will get the ILC. But is the hype really necessary? Need I receive that title in my feed? It not only makes the content a bit puny, when in fact it is very worthy work; it is also misleading, if you consider what the second note linked above was about:
A tiny flaw has caught the attention of physicists: the Standard Model (SM) predicts that the B meson mixing phase should be measured at nearly the same result using two different classes of decay modes. However, observations of the two different decay modes recently gave very different values, resulting in an unexpectedly large discrepancy in the B mixing phase.

Scientists Rahul Sinha, Basudha Misra and Wei-Shu Hou have tried to explain the discrepency, and have shown that it is not possible to reconcile the deviation between the measurements, revealing a possible glitch in the stubbornly persistent SM.
Yes. Here is a possible hint of new physics. Could you tell from the titles?

And now, a similar issue. If you pay any attention to scientific news you will know by now that the genome of the sea urchin was recently completed. The first notice I got about it was from PhysOrg, "Sea urchin genome could shed light on human disease". Unlike the previous case, this time PhyOrg was the hyper. It's good news, no doubt; its position in the tree of life makes this genome very valuable. But why the word "disease" in the title? Reading the note I couldn't detect anything directly related to disease; of course, almost every new knowledge in molecular biology has medical potential in the long term, but...

I read other press notes (which, by the way, didn't have the word "disease" in their titles) and, ok, yes, there are some diseases on which this genome may shed new light. Like most genomes do. Perhaps a bit more? Finally I came across this post by Pharyngula, which I highly recommend as it puts things in the right perspective:
Another trend that compounds the humancentric problem is the taint of biomedical speculation: Sea urchin genome could shed light on human disease, which you can also see in the print media. Here, the emphasis is on odd little factlets: they can live for over a century! They never get cancer! You, too, can someday hope to acquire the virtues of sessile or slow moving aquatic grazers and filter feeders! Again, these reports miss the real excitement of understanding a little more about a different organism.
Yes, that was my feeling all along. Jonathan Eisen from The Tree of Life starts his post on this with 'All I can say is "AAAAARGH"', which I think would be enough, but just in case, he includes some ridiculous quotes from the press (and not by the journalists, but by researchers).

A last example came today, with a very interesting post at Nobel Intent (from Ars Technica) originally titled "Physicists come up with potential AIDS vaccine". Since the text made clear that it was about a model, which actually shows the difficulty of making a vaccine work, commenters quickly complained, and the word "model" was added at the end of the title. Still some people may misunderstand it, but now it's their problem.

You get the idea. Too much information, and the need to grab attention for your news site, or to convince the public that your lab needs funding, and we get hyped titles and misleading news items. Thanks FSM, the blogosphere seems to be alert. Though I wonder if the bloggers, when writing their papers or grant applications, can resist the temptation. How many articles on genuinely interesting biological questions end with some sentence which desperately attempts to make the case for potential medical application of the subject? I've seen almost ridiculous abstracts, but I don't have any at hand. The hype, the hype...

McKibben's review on climate change

(Este post en español.)

Ok, time to overcome the white-page-syndrome and start posting; when the current deadlines are over I may write something more digested.

In this post I just want to direct the attention of my still non-existent readers to this review in the New York Review of Books, by Bill McKibben. I recomend the whole piece; I'll quote some bits here as a hors d'oeuvre.

McKibben reviews several books related to global warming, starting with the scariest and moving on to the more hopeful. The first and most frightening is James Lovelock's The Revenge of Gaia: Earth's Climate in Crisis and the Fate of Humanity.

Lovelock is the well-known originator of the Gaia hypothesis, which states (in McKibben's concise words) that "the earth might usefully be considered as a single organism struggling to keep itself stable." I don't subscribe much to this point of view (specially the "usefully" part), but Lovelock is a clever guy if there ever was one, and despite some errors and controversial opinions throughout his career, he's someone worth listening to. In particular, when the topic is our planet as a whole.

And what is in store for out pale blue dot?
Lovelock predicts —more gloomily than any other competent observer I am aware of— that we have already pushed the planet over the brink, and that we will soon see remarkably rapid rises in temperature, well beyond those envisioned in most of the computer models now in use —themselves quite dire.
He goes on to describe the several feedback mechanisms that may come into action to make things worse than currently predicted.
Some or all of these processes will be enough, Lovelock estimates, to tip the earth into a catastrophically hotter state, perhaps eight degrees centigrade warmer in temperate regions like ours, over the course of a very few decades, and that heat will in turn make life as we know it nearly impossible in many places.
A small percentage of mankind would survive, if wise leaders can arrange its deployment next to the Poles. An extreme view? Sure. Lovelock is aware of it, and McKibben points out some reasons to be skeptical. But then,
That said, there are very few people on earth —maybe none— with the same kind of intuitive feel for how it behaves as a whole. [...] Moreover, for the past twenty years, the period during which greenhouse science emerged, most of the effects of heating on the physical world have in fact been more dire than originally predicted. The regular reader of Science and Nature is treated to an almost weekly load of apocalyptic data, virtually all of it showing results at the very upper end of the ranges predicted by climate models, or beyond them altogether. Compared with the original models of a few years ago, ice is melting faster; forest soils are giving up more carbon as they warm; storms are increasing much more quickly in number and size.
I'm one of those regular readers, and McKibben is right; worrying news about the state of the planet have been even more frequent than reports of the anti-science policies of the Republicans (another regular feature of recent years, which happily is more easily dealt with). No one is expecting The Day After Tomorrow anytime soon, but the acceleration beyond the original models is a strong warning, and possibly a sign that the tipping point is behind us. Next McKibben cites James Hansen of NASA, "the planet's top climatologist".
Hansen is not quite as gloomy as Lovelock. Although he recently stated that the Earth is very close to the hottest it has been in a million years, he said that we still have until 2015 to reverse the flow of carbon into the atmosphere before we cross a threshold and create a "different planet." When Hansen gave this warning last December we had ten years to change course, but soon we'll have only nine years, and since nothing has happened in the intervening time to suggest that we're gearing up for an all-out effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the divergence between Hansen and Lovelock may be academic. (Somehow it's small comfort to be rooting for the guy who says you've got a decade.)

What's amazing is that even Al Gore's fine and frightening film An Inconvenient Truth now lags behind the scientific cutting edge on this issue —the science is moving fast. It's true that the world is beginning slowly to awaken to the idea that global warming may be a real problem, and legislatures (though not ours) are starting to nibble at it. But very few understand with any real depth that a wave large enough to break civilization is forming, and that the only real question is whether we can do anything at all to weaken its force.
To weaken the wave's force Lovelock has been promoting nuclear energy, to the chagrin of many of his former environmentalist followers. The argument put forward by Lovelock and many others is that nuclear plants may be necessary as a bridge until the technologies for renewable energies get better; on the other side, many think that with appropriate incentives green energies is already possible. And here McKibben turns to Travis Bradford's The Solar Revolution: The Economic Transformation of The Global Energy Industry,
...which argues at great length and in great detail that we will soon be turning to solar panels for our power, in part for environmental reasons but more because they will soon be producing power that's as cheap —and much easier to deploy— than any other source. This is a fairly astounding claim [...] but he makes the case in convincing fashion.
The most encouraging experience seems to be in Japan, where a government program of subsidized rooftop solar panels succeded in creating a rising demand (which continues to rise now that the subsidy has almost dissapeared) and in driving down the prices.
In any event, Bradford says the Japanese demand for solar power (and now an equally large program in Germany) will be enough to drive the cost of producing solar panels steadily down. Even without huge technological breakthroughs, which he says are tantalizingly near, the current hardware can be made steadily cheaper.
And technological breakthroughs can be expected; there are frequent reports on improvements (check this recent article, for instance), and nanotechnology may be expected to deliver, too. Yet,
...even the widespread adoption of solar power would not put an end to the threat of global warming. The economic transition that our predicament demands is larger and more wrenching even than that. Some scientists have estimated that it would take an immediate 70 percent reduction in fossil fuel burning simply to stabilize climate change at its current planet-melting level. And that reduction is made much harder by the fact that it is needed at just the moment that China and India have begun to burn serious quantities of fossil fuel as their economies grow.
...which leads to a brief review of Kelly Sims Gallagher's China Shifts Gears: Automakers, Oil, Pollution, and Development. I'll jump to the interesting last line of this part:
In retrospect, historians are likely to conclude that the biggest environmental failure of the Bush administration was not that it did nothing to reduce the use of fossil fuels in America, but that it did nothing to help or pressure China to transform its own economy at a time when such intervention might have been decisive.
Time to act, and McKibben reviews two books full of ideas: WorldChanging:A User's Guide for the 21st Century, edited by Alex Steffen, and Design Like You Give a Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises, edited by Architecture for Humanity. Little to say about the second, except to note that most of the brilliant ideas presented there have not been applied, despite been practical and cheap. O, Inertia!

WorldChanging looks quite interesting, and was made by "the cheerful proprietors" of the WorldChanging Web site, which I didn't know until now but has made it straight into the top level of my bloglines feeds. Wikipedia quotes Bruce Sterling calling it "the most important website on the planet", and McKibben seems to agree:
This is one of the most professional and interesting Web sites that you could possibly bookmark on your browser; almost every day they describe a new technology or technique for environmentalists. Their book, a compilation of their work over the last few years, is nothing less than The Whole Earth Catalog, that hippie bible, retooled for the iPod generation. There are short features on a thousand cool ideas: slow food, urban farming, hydrogen cars, messenger bags made from recycled truck tarps, pop-apart cell phones, and plyboo (i.e., plywood made from fast-growing bamboo). [...] It's a compendium of everything a younger generation of environmental activists has to offer: creativity, digital dexterity, networking ability, an Internet-era optimism about the future, and a deep concern about not only green issues but related questions of human rights, poverty, and social justice.
I don't own an iPod, but I'm a member of its generation; I loved the reference to the Whole Earth Catalog, a marvelous effort by our hippie forefathers about which I only found out recently, thanks to a friend who in turn discovered it through this inspirational talk of Steve Jobs at Stanford (which I highly recommend if you haven't heard it), where he declares it (in Wikipedia wording) "a conceptual forerunner of a Web search engine". Both the WEC in its time and WoldChanging now are wonderful ideas (go and add that bookmark, now!); I can only wish that the second will become the forerunner of something, and something big. Action is badly needed, and at all levels. As McKibben notes towards the end, not only smart and bold individuals, but also cooperating communities and farsighted leaders will be necessary if we want to deal with the menacing wave. Here is the last paragraph of this good review/call to arms:
The technology we need most badly is the technology of community—the knowledge about how to cooperate to get things done. Our sense of community is in disrepair at least in part because the prosperity that flowed from cheap fossil fuel has allowed us all to become extremely individualized, even hyperindividualized, in ways that, as we only now begin to understand, represent a truly Faustian bargain. We Americans haven't needed our neighbors for anything important, and hence neighborliness—local solidarity—has disappeared. Our problem now is that there is no way forward, at least if we're serious about preventing the worst ecological nightmares, that doesn't involve working together politically to make changes deep enough and rapid enough to matter. A carbon tax would be a very good place to start.

November 04, 2006

print "hello world"

(Este post en español.)

And thus it came to happen, that in a cold autumn night of the Alps, dileffante started blogging. And since a time-consuming blog was being started, why not two? This site and dilefante, its Spanish-speaking twin, shall be my outlets in the blogosphere. Blogosphere, beware!

If you're reading this post, you're probably an early visitor (welcome!), and you won't find much here. So, what can you expect to find in the future? Well, I plan to comment science, post idle bloggy things (you can't escape them), and rant on whatever calls my attention, be it world affairs or funny French cheeses. I think I won't be posting much about the hottest science news; there are already plenty of brilliant and learned bloggers doing that. I guess I'll rather scrap the bottom of the barrel, or even grab some things that fall around it; my unhealthy habit of perusing the contents of too many journals in too many fields may thus finally find some use.

I don't know yet what the posting frequency will be; probably more than weekly but less than daily. Who knows. It also depends, off course, on what posts you count: there are posts, and then there are posts. We'll see.

Oh, and about the twin blog: some posts (most? a few? dunno yet) will have a counterpart there (not necessarily an exact translation), but some will be only here or only there. I may go for the Top News of science on dilefante, for instance, since the Spanish-speaking scientific blogosphere is still little more than a waste land; local affairs from my native country are likely to be commented only there, too. Par contre, if I discuss or highlight some paper without introducing the matter to non-iniciated readers, I'll probably do it only in English: if the reader is already into science, she will surely be able to read English anyway.

Finally, about the language. Since I'm not a native English speaker, I hope you will be tolerant of my Globish; however, if you notice gross errors, definitively non-idiomatic expressions, or just can't understand what the heck I'm trying to say, please let me know.

That's it. Let the show begin.