Archive for the ‘science’ Category

Winner of $1.4 million Templeton Prize announced

The winner of the 2009 Templeton Prize has been announced.  According to the NY Times:

Bernard d’Espagnat, 87, a French physicist and philosopher of science, has won the $1.4 million Templeton Prize for his work on the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics, the John Templeton Foundation said Monday in Paris. Noting that the rules governing the behavior of subatomic particles contravene common-sense notions of reality, Dr. d’Espagnat, a professor emeritus at the University of Paris-Sud, coined the term “veiled reality” to describe a world beyond appearances, which science can only glimpse and which he said could be compatible with “higher forms of spirituality.”

ScienceNOW reports that “Over the years, he has developed the idea that the reality revealed by science offers only a ‘veiled’ view of an underlying reality that science cannot access, and that the scientific view must take its place alongside the reality revealed by art, spirituality, and other forms of human inquiry.”

The Templeton Prize (Wikipedia article), established in 1972, is the best known award given out by the Templeton Foundation; it is awarded to a person who “has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.”  Until 2001 it was formally known as the “Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion” and from 2002-2008 it was called the “Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities.”  The monetary award, currently £1,000,000 (ca. $1.4 million U.S.) exceeds the cash that accompanies the Nobel Prizes.

M. d’Espagnat will formally receive the award from the Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace on 5 May.

Happy birthday, Charles Robert Darwin

Charles Darwin, shortly after his return from the voyage of the Beagle. If he were still alive, he'd be 200 years old today

Charles Darwin, about age 30, shortly after his return from the voyage of the Beagle. If he were still alive, he'd be 200 years old today.

Today is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin (and of Abraham Lincoln too; they were born within hours of each other).  Darwin, who I have previously blogged about here, ranks with Newton and Einstein as one of the most important scientists of all time.  So take a bit of time today to learn more about this extraordinary individual.

To humanize him and add some context and framework for his accomplishments, here is a brief time line of some notable events in Darwin’s life, which may contain some facts that you don’t yet know about the great naturalist:

12 February 1809: Charles Robert Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England, the fifth of six children to physician Robert Darwin and Susannah (née Wedgwood) Darwin, the daughter of industrialist Josiah Wedgwood (1730- 1795).

1825–1828: Studies medicine at the University of Edinburgh. He joins the Plinian Society, a group for students interested in natural history. He gives up medicine because he can’t stand the sight of blood and 19th century surgery.

1828–1831: At his father’s urging, he begins preparing for a career in the clergy; he studies theology at Christ’s College, University of Cambridge, in preparation for a career as a parish priest. He collects beetles and enrolls in a course run by Rev. John Stevens Henslow, professor of botany.

HMS Beagle surveying the coast of South America

HMS Beagle surveying the coast of South America

1831–1836: At the suggestion of Rev. Henslow, he accompanies Captain Robert FitzRoy (1805–1865), future admiral and Governor of New Zealand, on the second survey expedition of HMS Beagle as an unpaid naturalist. Originally planned to take two years, the five-year voyage takes him across the Atlantic to the southern part of South America, returning via Tahiti and Australia; the Falkland Islands, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Australia, New Zealand, Mauritius and South Africa featuring on his extensive itinerary. He observed the behavior of different plant and animal species, and analyzed his large collection of specimens for three months on his return.

1838: Moves to London and, once compiled, he begins publishing his findings in various papers and volumes.

1839: Journal and Remarks (later known as The Voyage of the Beagle) appears in print and he is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society on 24 January. Five days later he marries his cousin Emma Wedgwood (1808–1896), the youngest of seven children to potter Josiah Wedgwood II (1769–1843), and his wife Bessy. They would have 10 children, two sadly dying in infancy. George, Francis and Horace became, respectively, an astronomer, botanist and civil engineer of repute. Charles and Emma were avid backgammon players; he faithfully records the results of their nightly games for many years.

1842: The Darwins move to Downe House in the village of Downe, Kent.  He does his theorizing in his home study, in part so he can be close to his children.  He publishes his first book on a specific subject, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs.

1853: He is awarded the Royal Society’s Gold Medal for his four volumes on barnacles.

1856: Darwin becomes aware of Alfred Russell Wallace’s theories on evolution and is persuaded to finally publish his work to establish priority.

1858: The outlines of his natural selection theories are jointly published alongside the similar theory proposed by Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913) in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society. His grandfather, scientist Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), was one of those who had already argued in favour of evolutionary ideas.

1859: His epic On the Origin of Species, a collection of evidence collected from the study of fossils, comparisons of anatomy and embryology, appears after more than 20 years in the making. It presents a theory in which living beings are related by common genealogical descent; discourses that life on earth adapts according to its environment; and offers views on such concepts as natural selection, adaptation and survival of the fittest.

1871: The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex is published; it links, in Part I, some of the ideas detailed in On the Origin of Species to the concept of human evolution, a topic already being discussed in detail by peers, and looks at the relationship between human sexes and races, responding to the thoughts and works of other writers in the process. In Part II and Part III, the book focuses on what he calls “sexual selection.”

1872: The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals is published; it looks at how humans and animals communicate their emotions.

1877: He is awarded an honorary degree from the University of Cambridge.

19 April 1882: He dies in Downe and is subsequently buried near Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey following one of only five state funerals given to a non-royal in the 19th century.

Darwin continued his research throughout his life and his work was not merely confined to the biological sciences.

The first evolutionary tree ever drawn, with the words "I think" written above it, from one of Darwin's notebooks

One of the first evolutionary trees ever drawn, with the words "I think" written above it, from one of Darwin's notebooks.*

His first specific-subject book, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, published in 1842, set out his theory—controversial for decades but later proven correct—of how atolls form, overturning the prevailing theories of his day.  His last work, published the year before he died, The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Actions of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits, analyzed the role that worms play in soil creation.  His conclusions, once again, would be proven correct with time.

Darwin was a skilled writer and very effective at conveying his thoughts and ideas—and not just scientific ideas; his other works include interesting travelogues and an autobiography. Almost all of his writings, including some of the most speculative, have aged very well.

I cannot help including an example, and if it is a long one it is, I hope, a good one.  Consider the concluding paragraph to his best-known work, On the Origin of Species, which sums up with some degree of poetry the whole work:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

If you want to learn more about Charles Darwin’s early life and family life, along with the discoveries that led to his formation of the theory of evolution, I highly recommend the following hour-long video of a 2005 lecture by Sean Carroll, titled (not coincidentally) “Endless forms most beautiful.”

Carroll is a great lecturer and the video includes many slides and videos that I think will hold your attention if you have even the smallest bit of interest in the subject.

darwinbadgeFor more on the Charles Darwin, see the excellent series of articles that Wikipedia has covering his whole life.  For more on the theory of evolution, which is one of the most important and central in all of science, see their introduction to evolution and the somewhat more technical article on the theory itself.  Berkeley has a nice page with explanations of evolution, the importance of the theory, and the many forms of evidence on which it is based.


* This post originally identified Darwin’s sketch as “the first evolutionary tree ever drawn.”  However, as commenter Zen Faulkes points out (see comments below), Jean Baptiste Lamarck had previously drawn a similar sketch. This blog regrets the error.

Guys with uncommon names more likely to commit crimes

MSNBC has a story discussing a new study published in the journal Social Science Quarterly which indicates that guys with less common names are more likely to commit crimes than guys with more common names.

David E. Kalist and Daniel Y. Lee of Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania compared the first names of male juvenile delinquents to the first names of male juveniles in the population. The researchers constructed a popularity-name index (PNI) for each name. For example, the PNI for Michael is 100, the most frequently given name during the period. The PNI for David is 50, a name given half as frequently as Michael. The PNI is approximately 1 for names such as Alec, Ernest, Ivan, Kareem, and Malcolm.

Results show that, regardless of race, juveniles with unpopular names are more likely to engage in criminal activity. The least popular names were associated with juvenile delinquency among both blacks and whites.

Correcting for race is obviously needed; Hispanics, blacks, and whites often follow different naming conventions for their children.  However, the study would also need to be correct for income; wealthy people and poor people may well follow different conventions when naming kids and poverty often correlates with criminal activity.  The presence of a father also correlates with tendency towards criminality and it seems possible to me that whether a child is named only by his mother or by both his mother and father may influence the sort of name he is given.

While the names are likely not the cause of crime, the researchers argue that “they are connected to factors that increase the tendency to commit crime, such as a disadvantaged home environment, residence in a county with low socioeconomic status, and households run by one parent.”

“Also, adolescents with unpopular names may be more prone to crime because they are treated differently by their peers, making it more difficult for them to form relationships,” according to a statement released by the journal’s publisher. “Juveniles with unpopular names may also act out because they consciously or unconsciously dislike their names.”

I am dubious about using a kid’s name to tell how likely he is to commit crimes.  Why not just look at socio-economic status and family situation itself to decide where to focus resources and aid?  Parents should definitely not worry about what name they give their son; just be good parents and he’ll probably turn out fine.

For my part, I would simply point out that according to the Social Security Administration Jacob has been the #1 name for baby boys in the United States for every year between 1999 and 2007 (the latest year for which data are presently available).  You could therefore say that I should be at low risk for committing crimes.

People procrastinate more on abstract than concrete matters

I’ve been putting off writting this blog post for a while.  Anyway, as reported in The Economist, a team of psychologists lead by Sean McCrea of the University of Konstanz, in Germany, conducted a series of experiments whose results indicate that people procrastinate more when asked to think abstractly than they do when asked to think in more concrete terms.

As the team report in Psychological Science, in all three studies, those who were presented with concrete tasks and information responded more promptly than did those who were asked to think in an abstract way. Moreover, almost all the students who had been prompted to think in concrete terms completed their tasks by the deadline while up to 56% of students asked to think in abstract terms failed to respond at all.

Check the article for details on how the several experiments were conducted.

The Economist story reminded me of another one on procrastination that I’d read in Slate last spring.  The author of that piece argues that we need to examine procrastination across different cultures to see what trends, if any, pop out and laments that not enough such research has been done among, for instance, the indiginous people of New Guinea.

Did perhaps just one anthropologist ever think to ask a penis-gourd-wearer if he wakes up some days and thinks he’s going to make a new penis gourd, but instead this happens and that happens, and making the new gourd just gets put off, along with everything else that he’s supposed to be doing, until he feels terrible and the only option seems to be to move to a place where no one notices that his gourd is outmoded?

Anyway, the Slate article indicated that Japanese respondants to a survey reported higher levels of procrastination than did Americans; New Zealanders reported less procrastination than did people from the States.

Explore space with probes and telescopes, not people

The Economist has an interesting short article criticizing manned space exploration and praising the Obama administration for appearing ready to reprioritize America’s goals in space.

Mr Obama’s transition team had already been asking difficult questions of NASA, in particular about the cost of scrapping parts of the successor to the ageing and obsolete space shuttles that now form America’s manned space programme. That successor system is also designed to return humans to the moon by 2020, as a stepping stone to visiting Mars. Meanwhile, Mr Obama’s administration is wondering about spending more money on lots of new satellites designed to look down at the Earth, rather than outward into space.

These are sensible priorities. In space travel, as in politics, domestic policy should usually trump grandiose foreign adventures. Moreover, cash is short and space travel costly.

The article recommends using space probes and robots, like New Horizons (going to Pluto), Cassini (already at Saturn), and Mars Pathfinder to explore our Solar System.

While it'd be neat to have people on the Moon, this is a bad idea

While it'd be neat to have people on the Moon, the idea is not cost-effective at all

While nothing is as cool as people in space, I wholeheartedly support investing our scarce space dollars in robotic and remote exploration instead of for crewed (“manned” is a bit androcentric) missions.  For instance, NASA’s Moon Base proposal, despite being very modest, will still cost hundreds of billions of dollars. And it is unlikely that the knowledge and experience that we gain from such a base will justify the expense.  The last Apollo missions were canceled and we haven’t been back to the Moon since the early 70s precisely because the place isn’t all that interesting.  (For a good critique of NASA’s moon base idea, see “Moon Baseless“, an article by Gregg Easterbrook, who has been following the space program for decades.)

By contrast, excellent science is being done by our newest space probes and robots—and for far less money.  New Horizons will have a total mission cost (from planning through the end of operations) of just $650 million; the total cost of the Cassini-Huygens mission is about $3.26 billion (including $1.4 billion for pre-launch development, $704 million for mission operations, $54 million for tracking and $422 million for the launch vehicle).  Telescopes are also very cost effective.  The Sptizer Space Telescope itself cost just $800 million and the planned James Webb Space Telescope will have a total cost (including planning, launch, and operation) of about $4.5 billion.

In short, for the cost of a Moon base we can explore the entire Solar System with probes and robots and explore the depths of space across all portions of the spectrum via orbiting and ground-based telescopes.  If funding were unlimited things would be different; but it’s not and they aren’t.  We have limited money for science, so we should spend it wisely.

New experiment shows indifference to racism

An interesting experiment reported on by MSNBC indicates that the way people react to overt acts of racism and the way people say they would act to such acts are two different things.

The study involved 120 non-black students from York University in Toronto who were recruited for a purported psychology study.

A participant was directed to a room where two actors posing as fellow participants — one black, one white — waited. The black person said he needed to retrieve a cell phone and left, gently bumping the white person’s leg on the way out. The white actor then did one of three things: Nothing. Said, “I hate when black people do that.” Or used the N-word.

Then a researcher entered and said the “psychology study” was starting and that the student should pick one of the two others as a partner for the testing.

Half the participants just read about that scene, and half actually experienced it.

Those asked to predict their reaction to either comment said they’d be highly upset and wouldn’t choose the white actor as their partner.

Yet students who actually experienced the event didn’t seem bothered by it — and nearly two-thirds chose the white actor as a partner, the researchers report Friday in the journal Science.

The lead author of the study, Kerry Kawakami, said the results indicate that “just because a black man has been elected as president doesn’t mean racism is no longer a problem or issue in the States.”

Our galaxy is 50% more massive than previously thought

Artist's conception of what the Milky Way looks like from above the galactic plane. Click to enlarge and see labels.

Artist's conception of what the Milky Way looks like from above the galactic plane. Click to enlarge and see labels.

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, appears to be about 50% more massive than we previously thought.  A team of scientists lead by Mark Reid of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have conducted a detailed 3-D survey of our galaxy and determined that it’s diameter is about 15% greater than previously believed and it is spinning more rapidly than had been thought.  The greater rotational speed indicates the presence of more mass, most of which is probably dark matter.

It is much harder to measure our own galaxy than those which are a million light years away because we’re embedded within it and can’t see the whole thing.

The Andromeda Galaxy, the most distant object you can see with your naked eye, will crash into our galaxy in about 2-3 billion years.

The Andromeda Galaxy, the most distant object you can see with your naked eye, will crash into our galaxy in about 2-3 billion years.

The new findings, which were presented today at the American Astronomical Society’s convention in Long Beach, California, mean that the Milky Way is about the same size as, not smaller than, our nearest large neighbor: the Andromeda Galaxy.  Andromeda, a.k.a. M31, may be larger in volume than our home galaxy, but appears to only be about the same mass, likely due to differing amounts of dark matter between the two bodies.

The new mass data has another implication for Milky Way-Andromeda relations: the anticipated collision between the two galaxies may now happen sooner than previously thought.  But don’t worry, it’s still 2-3 billion years in the future.  The Sun won’t go nova for about 5-6 billion years, so it will still be around, as will the Earth. However, the expansion of the Sun will make it impossible for liquid water to exist on the Earth’s surface in only one billion years.

The Mice Galaxies (so-called because of their appearance) are colliding and will likely form one larger galaxy, in many millions of years.

The Mice Galaxies (so-called because of their appearance) are colliding and will likely form one larger galaxy, in many millions of years.

Galaxies collide are hardly unique occurrences in the universe.  When they do happen, the stars themselves don’t collide, they’re too far apart for that to be likely; however, a star or star system might be ejected from it’s galaxy or, less likely, the orbits of planets within a star system might be disrupted.  In any event, the gravity of the two galaxies will rip them apart until, millions of years later, they may form a new, bigger galaxy.  It is thought that the Andromeda-Milky War collision will form a large elliptical galaxy, which some have preemptively dubbed Milkomeda.

While you’re waiting for the collision, note that 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy.  Learn more about our endlessly fascinating universe by checking out some of the above links, or research any astronomical topics which are of interest to you.  It’s your universe—learn about it!

Gay adolescents effected by parents’ reactions to coming out

A new study released today in the journal Pediatrics indicates that gay adolescents are greatly impacted by how their parents react to them “coming out.”  In short, youths whose parents are loving and supportive have better outcomes than those whose parents react negatively.

Among other findings, the study showed that teens who experienced negative feedback were more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide, nearly six times as vulnerable to severe depression and more than three times at risk of drug use.

More significantly, Ryan said, ongoing work at San Francisco State suggests that parents who take even baby steps to respond with composure instead of rejection can dramatically improve a gay youth’s mental health outlook.

Check out the article (linked to above) for the definitions and methodology of the study along with more details on the findings.  The study was conducted by a team of researchers from San Francisco State University’s Cesar Chavez Institute and was led by Caitlin Ryan, the director of adolescent health initiatives.  The study took three years to perform.

The story indicates that more gays and lesbians are coming out earlier in life, with the average age among those in the studies being about 16.

“So many families of children who are gay, bisexual or transgender, particularly families of gay male youth, think that if they are tough on the kid and tell him how unsatisfactory his gay lifestyle is to the family, he will have it knocked out of him,” Vermund said.

Vermund said he also was impressed by Ryan’s finding that a little bit of familial acceptance could go a long way in increasing a child’s chances for future happiness.

“The Southern Baptist doesn’t have to become a Unitarian,” he said. “Someone can still be uncomfortable with their child’s sexual orientation, but if they are somewhat more accepting and do the best the can, they will do the youth a lot of good. That to me is an important message.”

In the event that we want to prevent depression, the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, and suicide, the results of the study are worth considering.   If the findings of this study are accurate and withstand further scrutiny, maybe they have something to tell us about the way we treat not just homosexual youths, but adult homosexuals in our society as well.

The experience of pain and perceptions of intentionality

According to a new story in the Economist, two psychologists, Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner of Harvard University, have just published a study in  Psychological Science that indicates our perception of pain may be influenced by whether or not we think it was intentionally inflicted.  Like the famous Milgram experiments (blogged about here), Gray and Wegner’s study involved electric shocks.  When subjects thought that their partner (in actuality a confederate) decided to shock them, they rated the shocks are more painful than equivalent shocks that they were told were administered due to impersonal experimental protocol.

2009 has been delayed

The 2009th year of the common era is going to be delayed and its predecessor is being extended.  For real.  But just by a second.

As reported by MSNBC, the extra second, which is required to keep the time in sync with the Earth’s rotation, was ordered by the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (yes, that’s a real thing—here’s their website).  Said rotation can vary slightly due to various factors, like the planet’s liquid core sloshing around and the gravitational effects of other Solar System bodies.

Leap seconds are added periodically; the last was inserted into 2005.  Wikipedia has, unsurprisingly, more information on them.