Thursday, August 28, 2008


I want to see more of the Dead Sea Scrolls. And now we can....
Too good to overlook. In which PZ Myers tries digesting James Carroll's Constantine's Sword, and comes up gasping for air:

I haven't finished it yet. It's agonizing to plow through. There are some good bits of history sprinkled throughout, but you have to suffer through the author's frequent, lengthy declarations of his Catholicism. Trust me, he's very Catholic. So Catholic that he feels guilty about his guilt over guilt.

You can actually skip the first 60 pages altogether, which consists of nothing but his personal history and his loud protestations that he is deeply Catholic. I have never before read a book where the author intrudes so obnoxiously.


It's the pop-science book meme, which I'm picking up from Steve:

Here's the deal, from originator Cocktail-Party Physics:
1. Highlight those you've read in full
2. Asterisk those you intend to read
3. Add any additional popular science books you think belong on the list
4. Link back to Cocktail Party Physics (leave links or suggested additions in the comments, if you prefer) "so I can keep track of everyone's additions. Then we can compile it all into one giant "Top 100" popular science books list, with room for honorable mentions."

To this I will add my own take: bolding the authors you've read, like Stephen Jay Gould, even if you haven't read the book on the list.

1. Micrographia, Robert Hooke
2. The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin
3. Never at Rest, Richard Westfall
4. Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, Richard Feynman*
5. Tesla: Man Out of Time, Margaret Cheney
6. The Devil's Doctor, Philip Ball
7. The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes
8. Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, Dennis Overbye
9. Physics for Entertainment, Yakov Perelman
10. 1-2-3 Infinity, George Gamow
11. The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene*
12. Warmth Disperses, Time Passes, Hans Christian von Bayer
13. Alice in Quantumland, Robert Gilmore
14. Where Does the Weirdness Go? David Lindley
15. A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
16. A Force of Nature, Richard Rhodes
17. Black Holes and Time Warps, Kip Thorne*
18. A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking
19. Universal Foam, Sidney Perkowitz
20. Vermeer's Camera, Philip Steadman
21. The Code Book, Simon Singh*
22. The Elements of Murder, John Emsley
23. Soul Made Flesh, Carl Zimmer
24. Time's Arrow, Martin Amis
25. The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, George Johnson
26. Einstein's Dreams, Alan Lightman
27. Godel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hofstadter*
28. The Curious Life of Robert Hooke, Lisa Jardine
29. A Matter of Degrees, Gino Segre
30. The Physics of Star Trek, Lawrence Krauss
31. E=mc<2>, David Bodanis
32. Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, Charles Seife
33. Absolute Zero: The Conquest of Cold, Tom Shachtman
34. A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, Janna Levin
35. Warped Passages, Lisa Randall
36. Apollo's Fire, Michael Sims
37. Flatland, Edward Abbott
38. Fermat's Last Theorem, Amir Aczel*
39. Stiff, Mary Roach
40. Astroturf, M.G. Lord
41. The Periodic Table, Primo Levi
42. Longitude, Dava Sobel*
43. The First Three Minutes, Steven Weinberg
44. The Mummy Congress, Heather Pringle
45. The Accelerating Universe, Mario Livio
46. Math and the Mona Lisa, Bulent Atalay
47. This is Your Brain on Music, Daniel Levitin
48. The Executioner's Current, Richard Moran
49. Krakatoa, Simon Winchester
50. Pythagorus' Trousers, Margaret Wertheim
51. Neuromancer, William Gibson
52. The Physics of Superheroes, James Kakalios
53. The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump, Sandra Hempel
54. Another Day in the Frontal Lobe, Katrina Firlik
55. Einstein's Clocks and Poincare's Maps, Peter Galison*
56. The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan
57. The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins
58. The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker
59. An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears
60. Consilience, E.O. Wilson*
61. Wonderful Life, Stephen J. Gould*
62. Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard
63. Fire in the Brain, Ronald K. Siegel
64. The Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas [I've read excerpts]
65. Coming of Age in the Milky Way, Timothy Ferris
66. Storm World, Chris Mooney
67. The Carbon Age, Eric Roston
68. The Black Hole Wars, Leonard Susskind
69. Copenhagen, Michael Frayn
70. From the Earth to the Moon, Jules Verne [a long, long time ago]
71. Gut Symmetries, Jeanette Winterson
72. Chaos, James Gleick
73. Innumeracy, John Allen Paulos
74. The Physics of NASCAR, Diandra Leslie-Pelecky
75. Subtle is the Lord, Abraham Pais

Of course, I'm going to suggest my book be on this list!

I'd also add Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel; The Plausibility of Life by Marc Kirschner et al; Making of the Fittest by Sean Carroll; The Mystery of Conciousness by John Searle;
Darwin's Ghosts by Steve Jones; The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin; Our Inner Ape by Frans DeWaal; Cosmology and Controversy by Helge Kragh...I could go on.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Not for Cat Lovers

Definitely not going to endear them to the animal rights crowd...




But I have a sick sense of humor....


It isn't that he's probably at least fifteen years older than the next oldest commentator on the panel with him. And it isn't that he looks like he can barely see or hear that well, either. But Dan Kennedy's point is well taken. Fifteen years ago Pat Buchanan wouldn't have ignored Maddow's challenge.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Larry Moran weighs in with some thoughts on Steve Matheson's critique of Behe's assumptions.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Carl Zimmer paints a brighter picture on U.S. Science Education.

I keep hearing it latelyin conversations, dialogues, op-eds: The claim that the number of scientists being produced by U.S. universities is in decline. Or, that the number of students enrolling or majoring in science, at the undergraduate or graduate level, is falling. For a classic example, see this recent San Francisco Chronicle op-ed, which makes a very important argument about energy education, minus the following erroneous claim: “American universities are graduating fewer students each year in the crucial fields of science, mathematics and engineering.”

We have been sold—hard—on the idea that U.S. preeminence in science is now threatened.

The facts clearly say otherwise, no matter how you slice them. According to the National Science Foundation, in 2006the last year for which data is currently availablethe nation produced a record number of science and engineering Ph.D.s: 29,854 in total. This was the fourth year in a row that the total doctorate number has increased, and a 6.7 percent increase from the year 2005 (the previous record).


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Theodore Dalyrymple, on Childhood's End:

The British, never fond of children, have lost all knowledge or intuition about how to raise them; as a consequence, they now fear them, perhaps the most terrible augury possible for a society. The signs of this fear are unmistakable on the faces of the elderly in public places. An involuntary look of distaste, even barely controlled terror, crosses their faces if a group of young teens approaches; then they try to look as if they are not really there, hoping to avoid trouble. And the children themselves are afraid. The police say that many children as young as eight are carrying knives for protection. Violent attacks by the young between ten and 17, usually on other children, have risen by 35 percent in the last four years.

The police, assuming that badly behaved children will become future criminals, have established probably the largest database of DNA profiles in the world: 1.1 million samples from children aged ten to 18, taken over the last decade, and at an accelerating rate (some law enforcement officials have advocated that every child should have a DNA profile on record). Since the criminal-justice system reacts to the commission of serious crimes hardly at all, however, British youth do not object to the gathering of the samples: they know that they largely act with impunity, profiles or no profiles.


Breaking News. When atheists start to organize, certain kinds of ...intolerant, thoughtless, bullying behavior normally associated with ...organized religion start to manifest themselves.
Even at its best, organizations like NYCA (and some of their national counterparts) come across as strident, angry, and overall unpleasant. There certainly is a time and a place for anger and protest, but those components by themselves never go very far. That is why my model in these matters is Carl Sagan, not Richard Dawkins. I know that god is a delusion, and I know that s/he ain’t great either, Mr. Hitchens, but I also know that we need much more than angry denunciations to overcome the religious fundamentalist onslaught and change society for the better. This change comes to pass through real tolerance and pluralism, not the fake kind espoused in “sermons” preached by autocratic atheists. As I wrote in other contexts before, the problem isn’t religion, pace Dawkins and the New Atheists. The problem is uncritical adherence to any kind of ideology, and atheism can be as unpleasant an ideology as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. We can do better, and the cleaning has to start at home. That is why, with much regret, I left New York City Atheists.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Simon Blackburn has a nice review of Alan Sokal's new book.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Siris has the list. Time to fess up. How many of the books have you read?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Playing Against Type Dept.
Here's a gem: Christopher Lee singing about the joys of drinking, to a subdued Alan Arkin in the The Return of Captain Invincible. (Sorry about the widescreen formatting--someone forgot the cinemascope....)

Steve Matheson, with installment two of three, on the problem with Michael Behe:
But Behe's reasoning is stunningly dumb. It goes like this.
  • In the fifty years since antimalarial drugs were brought to bear on P. falciparum, more than 1020 (that's 10 to the 20th power, if the superscript isn't working) of the parasites have been born.
  • In that time, the parasite has adapted to the drugs, through selection acting on random genetic variation, but hasn't developed any completely new proteins or biochemical functions.
  • This means that the Darwinian process is unable to generate significant novelty in fewer than 1020 tries.
That's the argument. And Behe uses it to identify the "edge of evolution."

Now, I hope it's already clear to most readers why the argument is spectacularly bad, but here are some comments.
  • Most basically, it should be obvious that demonstrating the failure of X to happen in one particular situation is hardly proof that X cannot happen. To extrapolate from a single negative observation (even if it were representative of the scenario in question) to the blanket impossibility of the phenomenon is a foolish mistake.
  • More specifically, it should be obvious that we need not expect dramatic new functions to appear during adaptation, since we need not even expect adaptation to occur at all. If functional innovation were as inevitable as adaptation, the dinosaurs would not merely have survived, they would have mastered apparation in additional to intergalactic travel (and world peace). Behe wants you to believe that evolutionary biologists expect dramatic evolutionary innovation to occur, at the level of molecular machinery, whenever selection is applied to a population. That's nonsense, and I think he must know that.
  • It is important to keep in mind that Behe solidly affirms common ancestry, and knows that mutations account for the differences between lineages. This means that he acknowledges the existence of a continuous genetic tree of life, which means that he should be able to formulate scientifically credible approaches to his hypothesis. Pointing to the lack of innovation in one special (parasitic) scenario is hardly a substitute for a direct examination of the myriad exemplars of evolutionary novelty. In other words, the way to determine whether gigantic population sizes are needed for the stepwise generation of novel functions via random mutation is to: a) identify examples of such evolutionary innovations and to work on elucidating the genetic trajectories that could have led to their development; then b) work on determining the population sizes, mutation frequencies, and other parameters that apply to the trajectory. (I like to call this "science.")
This kind of detailed critique from a scientist who isn't a ranting atheist--is necessary--and welcome, because too often proponents of Intelligent Design fall back on complaints about the 'nasty' tone of their critics as a way to justify not responding to their scientific points. That just won't fly anymore. (It's no surprise that Behe's Amazon blog allows no comments whatsoever.)
Hanson on Russia's attack:
The Russians have sized up the moral bankruptcy of the Western Left. They know that half-a-million Europeans would turn out to damn their patron the United States for removing a dictator and fostering democracy, but not more than a half-dozen would do the same to criticize their long-time enemy from bombing a constitutional state.
Joshua Green has an in-depth post-mortem of Hillary Clinton's campaign.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Steve Matheson has a great post, pretty much summing up why his fellow biologists (religious or otherwise) don't take Michael Behe seriously:
Behe has excused himself from the company of those who seriously study evolutionary science, and has done this by approaching the complex and fascinating analysis of evolutionary genetics with a malignant combination of arrogant condescension and pitiful ignorance. (Or, alternatively, his integrity has been somehow compromised.) You see, it actually doesn't matter how you couch your words when the message to an entire field of science (about which you know relatively little) is: "Hey, guys, give it up; I just figgered the whole thing out." In fact, in my opinion, there's something pretty creepy about a bland smile on the face of an undistinguished biochemist who claims to have overturned a century of work by some of the best minds in the history of biology.

There is only one new scientific idea in TEoE: Behe claims that random mutation rates are insufficient to generate the genetic diversity that is necessary for evolutionary change. That's it. That is an empirical claim, one that leads to some clear predictions. The claim is, at least in principle, testable. It's not theology, it's not metaphysics, and it doesn't have anything specific to do with "complexity" or any other doctrine of Intelligent Design. Behe's hypothesis, that random mutation cannot drive evolutionary change, is a scientific hypothesis of significant import that should have been carefully constructed and vetted by the professional scientific community. But as near as I can tell, the claim was never subjected to peer review. As far as I know, Behe has not completely formulated his hypothesis (by, for example, analyzing actual measurements of genetic variation in living organisms), and has not attempted to publish it in the professional literature or even to present it to a gathering of scientific experts. Instead, he wrote a popular book, aimed at a lay audience. His ideas are, in fact, almost completely without merit, but even if his radical hypothesis were worthy of scientific consideration, his choice to abandon the scientific community – and to eschew even the most basic review of his proposals by known experts – is an expression of arrogance and contempt that is difficult to overstate.
Indeed. It would not surprise me if Behe somewhere along the line did decide the paychecks he gets from the Discovery Institute are worth the alienation from his colleagues.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Speaking of the Church and Science, Ian Laurenzi, professor of chemical engineering at Lehigh, read my piece; Ian takes a decidedly more grim view about the prospects for science education in the Church than I do. He sent me this via email:
I think you hit some good points, but there is a much bigger issue and there is no hope of fixing it.

Look to the sources and sinks.

Catholic schools (K-12) are by and large weak in the sciences. The priests are educated in seminaries that have no scientific education component, and are almost exclusively graduates of Catholic education. Thus, all priests and bishops have a poor scientific education that comes exclusively from their science-poor Catholic high schools. Ignorant priests, ignorant laity.

Catholics who are educated in public schools (K-12 and college) have a better chance at getting a decent scientific education. The simple reason is that someone looking for a teaching job (K-12) will make a decent wage in a public high school but will not do so in a Catholic school. So anyone with a B.S. in a scientific field (biology, chemistry) who wants to take a pay cut to teach can get by on a public school salary. The problem for public-school Catholics though is that they are almost 100% secular by the end of their schooling. Educated laity = Faithless laity.

Catholic schools (K-12) will hire anyone with a B.S. and pay quite poorly. It's a career disaster to teach science in a Catholic school and you essentially live at the poverty level, so the only people who will work at Catholic schools are typically poor students who just got through their college programs and didn't have the grades to get a job at a public school (or in industry). So Catholic school kids have no chance of getting a teacher who has any real scientific skills or teaching training.

Catholic schools can't afford to hire good scientists fresh from a B.S. program. Moreover, a faithful married Catholic teacher will immediately be put to the test, since Catholic school salaries are insufficient for the support of a family.

In summary, there isn't any hope. Bishops and priests won't see the problem because they have no reason to care (I never took chemistry!), and monetary restrictions would prevent them even if they did (since most Catholic schools are operating on a shoestring budget).
Apropos my article about the Church's indifference to science, it turns out Peter Wood has noticed the U.S. on the whole isn't exactly encouraging its children in that direction either.

Success in the sciences unquestionably takes a lot of hard work, sustained over many years. Students usually have to catch the science bug in grade school and stick with it to develop the competencies in math and the mastery of complex theories they need to progress up the ladder. Those who succeed at the level where they can eventually pursue graduate degrees must have not only abundant intellectual talent but also a powerful interest in sticking to a long course of cumulative study. A century ago, Max Weber wrote of "Science as a Vocation," and, indeed, students need to feel something like a calling for science to surmount the numerous obstacles on the way to an advanced degree.

At least on the emotional level, contemporary American education sides with the obstacles. It begins by treating children as psychologically fragile beings who will fail to learn — and worse, fail to develop as "whole persons" — if not constantly praised. The self-esteem movement may have its merits, but preparing students for arduous intellectual ascents aren't among them. What the movement most commonly yields is a surfeit of college freshmen who "feel good" about themselves for no discernible reason and who grossly overrate their meager attainments.

The intellectual lassitude we breed in students, their unearned and inflated self-confidence, undercuts both the self-discipline and the intellectual modesty that is needed for the apprentice years in the sciences. Modesty? Yes, for while talented scientists are often proud of their talent and accomplishments, they universally subscribe to the humbling need to prove themselves against the most-unyielding standards of inquiry. That willingness to play by nature's rules runs in contrast to the make-it-up-as-you-go-along insouciance that characterizes so many variants of postmodernism and that flatters itself as being a higher form of pragmatism.


Max Boot provides some second thoughts on the energy-saving plans of T. Boone Pickens.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

You Have Got to be Kidding Me Dept.

Of all the Manny moments in Boston, the last ranks as one of the most confounding. Within an hour after Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein informed Manny Ramírez he had been traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers Thursday, Ramírez's agent, Scott Boras, called the Sox back, according to a source with direct knowledge of the negotiations. If the Sox dropped the option years on his contract - which they had agreed to do if they traded him - Boras said Ramírez would not be a problem the rest of the season.

For the Sox, the source said, Ramírez's pledge of good behavior only served as a tacit admission that his disruptive conduct of the last couple of weeks had been calculated, and they had had good cause to suspect more was in the offing if they did not trade him. The Sox told him thanks but no thanks, what was done was done, and pack plenty of sunscreen.

Are they serious? Sports Agents, man. Sheesh.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Astronomer Phil Plait is excited about this (and so am I because it figures in the new book proposal I'm trying to sell right now):

The Antikythera Mechanism is an artifact found on a sunken boat a century ago. It’s a device that has bronze gears and apparently was used to do some sort of calculation… by ancient Greeks, because it’s about 2000 years old.

Its specific function has always been a mystery because of the deteriorated condition of the device, but new techniques (including advanced X-ray imaging) have revealed writing on the back side of the mechanism, indicating it was used as an astronomical tool. The names of the 12 months are inscribed, and other markings indicate it was used to predict solar eclipses and the timing of the four-year Olympiad.



Friday Night Summer Special
This one's for Mr. and Mrs. Darwin. Especially for a warm Friday. 1.5 oz Sauza Hornitos (agave or anejo) on the rocks. Add 7-Up or Sprite, and then fresh squeezed orange juice (absolutely no substitutes) on top.

Salt is up to you.