Black hole photo: Back to the lone genius in science?

From one of our most intelligent citizens, a salute to the scientific genius working alone:

Brian Keating’s Losing the Nobel Prize, published just last year, said that the age of a Katherine Clerk Maxwell discovering Maxwell’s Equations mostly on her own was over. The book describes a paper regarding Higgs boson discovery with 6,225 co-authors.

Readers: What is the significance of this “photo” (it is all false or pseudo color since the emissions were not in the visible portion of the E-M spectrum)? What is the actual “advancement of science”? (Rare break from Trump hatred from the NY Times: article on how the experiment worked. The core article on the announcement doesn’t suggest that any in-question hypotheses were confirmed or rejected. I asked a physicist friend: “it’s not exactly the event horizon. It’s the photosphere seen on edge. With limb darkening, it appears as a torus. … eventually you might use images like this to see how general relativity plays out over time. In other words, make a movie called Event Horizon (after they see the actual horizon that is). … It confirmed part of a theoretical prediction. One that was made by a scientist other than Einstein.”)

(Separately, my Facebook friends who were energized by this example of female nerddom (a postdoc identifying as a “woman” writing software! And earning 1/8th the income of a same-age dermatologist (postdoc salary provides less after-tax spending power than obtainable by having sex with a primary care doctor in Massachusetts)) decided that they needed to add a photo of another successful female-identifying programmer. They had to reach back only half a century to find one:

In 1969 Margaret Hamilton wrote the onboard software code for Apollo 11 and coined the term “software engineering.” Now 50 years later, Dr. Katie Bouman’s algorithm enabled the connecting of telescopes around the world to take the first photo ever of a black hole. Here is a photo of Margaret Hamilton with the reams of code, and one of Dr. Bouman with the hard drives containing the 5 petabytes of data generated. Cheers to #WomeninSTEM – now imagine what we could do if they let women run the world! (Photo credit @floragraham). #blackhole #bigdata #IoT

The folks who were excited to see someone identify as female sitting at a desk typing code took their last science class in high school, would consider attending a computer science course to be a physical assault, and would flee if offered the opportunity to spend 45 minutes learning about how their smartphones work.

(There seems to be some question regarding whether Margaret Hamilton was the sole author of the big stack of assembly language code next to which she stands. In 2014, for example, the Boston Globe ran an obituary on Richard H. Battin:

Dr. Battin, who developed and led the design of the guidance, navigation, and control systems for the Apollo flights … As astronauts Neil Armstrong and Aldrin were approaching the Sea of Tranquility on that historic July 20, 1969, flight, Dr. Battin was at Mission Control in Houston with MIT Instrumentation Lab founder Charles Stark “Doc” Draper.

See also a 2016 discussion on Hacker News on the question of whether this Battin guy contributed anything significant.))

Is it safe to say that the 19th century lone genius of science is back?

Full post, including comments

Minimal number of approved drugs; fewer approved each year

Some numbers that I heard at Harvard Medical School:

  • About 1500 compounds that are currently approved as patented or generic drugs.
  • About 500 in clinical trials.
  • About 10 approved every year and declining.

Declining? With half of the new glass towers in Boston and Cambridge packed with biologists and chemists? “It’s getting tougher to approve new drugs because they have to be safe, be effective, and be somehow better for an average population of patients than current drugs,” said my source. “Don’t get me started on the FDA. These criteria are probably too strict. A compound that has bad side effects for one person might affect another person very differently. So it would be good to have more options, especially for those with unusual genetics.”

Full post, including comments

Party of Science scores lower than Party of Stupid

“What Americans Know About Science” (Pew Research) is subtitled “Science knowledge levels remain strongly tied to education; Republicans and Democrats are about equally knowledgeable,” but it turns out that “equal” translates to “Republicans know more”:

Republicans and independents who lean to the Republican Party average seven correct answers, while Democrats and independents who lean to the Democratic Party average 6.6.

A difference of 0.4 doesn’t sound huge, right? But the difference between Americans with postgraduate degrees and bachelor’s degrees was only 0.6. Being a Republican was worth about the same as two years of graduate school.

Considering that Democrats have branded themselves the “Party of Science” while decrying the purported anti-science idiocy of Republicans, these data are interesting.

Even more interesting is why we continue to have faith in our unique capacity to solve the world’s science and engineering problems. When a politician proposes a reduction in the growth of government spending on grants to science labs (not an actual cut, of course, though a lower growth rate will be characterized by “scientists” as a “cut”), the reaction includes statements that this will mean the end of scientific progress. This necessarily assumes that scientific discoveries can be made only in the U.S.

Global warming? Only Americans can help! This has the same logical basis as Tom Cruise explaining that a car accident calls for a Scientologist. It won’t be Chinese and German engineers who come up with improved solar cells, wind turbines, batteries, and CO2 vacuums. (After all, the fundamentals were all developed in the U.S. It was American Edmond Becquerel, working in a Paris, Texas lab, who discovered the photovoltaic effect; American Albert Einstein later explained the photoelectric effect while working in Zurich, Kansas.)

Who are these Americans ready to help solve the world’s toughest problems? Fully 39 percent of us know that a “base” is the opposite of an “acid”. Plainly we are going to be experts on the carbon cycle and atmospheric CO2 washing out into carbonic acid. Americans can do even better when adjusting for the sun’s influence on climate, since 63 percent of us know that the tilt of the Earth is responsible for the seasons (survey methodology).

Full post, including comments

Folks who vote for a larger Welfare State should also discourage the teaching of evolution?

I’ve been enjoying The Great Trials of World History and the Lessons They Teach Us, by Douglas Linder, a professor at the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law.

One of the trials covered is the familiar Scopes Trial, in which ignorance is pitted against Science.

Professor Linder highlights that one of the reasons William Jennings Bryan was against the teaching of evolution in schools, however, is that he was an advocate for equality and was fighting against attempts to discourage unsuccessful Americans from breeding, e.g., in the Eugenics movement.

I wonder if Jennings Bryan would be perplexed by the situation today in which advocates for a larger Welfare State, which encourages maximum reproduction by the least successful Americans (by providing free housing, health care, food, and smartphones on condition that they have children), are simultaneously loud advocates in favor of teaching evolution in schools.

Readers: Why do people who advocate for maximizing the percentage of Americans who are descended from those who never worked also enjoy rooting out the handful of American Creationists and calling them stupid? Shouldn’t folks who advocate maximum fertility among those on Welfare want to downplay a biological theory that says children will closely resemble their parents?

Full post, including comments

75 percent chance of career failure considered in a positive light

I was chatting with a successful physicist the other day. I said that reading Losing the Nobel Prize made me realize what a risky career choice science was. He scoffed at my timidity. “If you get into a top graduate school, you’re practically guaranteed a post-doc.” (i.e., a $52,116 per year job after 5 years; roughly at age 35 if the PhD program is started at 24 and it takes 6 years to earn the doctorate) What about after that? “You’d have a 1 in 4 chance of getting an assistant professorship.” Once on the tenure track, he considered actually earning tenure to be straightforward.

If we define “success” in science as a long-term job as a scientist, he was saying that the chance of failure was a minimum of 75 percent (maybe closer to 90 percent if we consider the probabilities of not getting into a great graduate school, not getting a post-doc, and not getting tenure once on the “tenure track”). In his opinion this was only a minor detraction from the appeal of a career in science.

Related:

  • How Many PhD Graduates Become Professors? (from 2016: “life science PhD graduates in the US have only a 16% chance of finding a tenure track position”; but how many people on “tenure track” actually do get that lifetime guaranteed job?)
  • “Women in Science” (“This article explores this fourth possible explanation for the dearth of women in science: They found better jobs.”)
Full post, including comments

Great book on the history of the horse

The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion by Wendy Williams is one of my favorite recent reads. The book is a fascinating mixture of geology, biology, and history. A great gift for anyone who rides, certainly.

Here are some excerpts to inspire you:

Horses are the stars of Ice Age art. Indeed, horses are the most frequently represented animal in the twenty-thousand-year period that preceded the advent of farming and what we call civilization.

contrary to popular belief, science has discovered that they are not “herd” animals. Instead of seeking safety in large numbers, horses live year-round in small groups called bands. Membership in these bands, which may consist of as few as three horses or as many as ten or so, is just as fluid as are the individual bonds, but there’s usually a central core of closely allied mares and their young offspring.

(Because of the stress of constant fighting with other males, stallions often live much shorter lives than mares.)

When I started researching free-roaming horses, I was astonished at their numbers—in the millions. I was also surprised by the variety of ecosystems where the horses not only live, but thrive. There may be more than a million free-ranging horses in the Australian outback alone

All over the American West, free-ranging horses roam in small bands. They even seem to do well in areas around Death Valley, one of the hottest and driest places on Earth. You would think that a species that can live in Death Valley would have trouble living in swamps and wetlands, but it turns out that they don’t. A little south of the Namibian desert, another population of horses lives in the Bot River delta of South Africa.

The book gives multiple examples of evolution in action:

consider the case of the sea-island horses who live on Canada’s Sable Island, a small harborless sandbar of an island located far out in the North Atlantic, about a ninety-minute plane flight east from Halifax, Nova Scotia. This tiny island, shaped like a crescent moon, is about thirty miles long and very narrow. Buffeted constantly by violent North Atlantic storms, this island seems an unlikely home for free-roaming horses, yet as many as 450 graze here, surviving by eating beach grass and sea peas. This sounds like a meager diet, but the horses, abandoned there by a Boston entrepreneur before the American Revolution, have endured for more than 250 years.

The only non-marine mammals on the island, the horses serve as a real-world laboratory of evolution. Over the centuries, they have become unique. Their pasterns are now so short that, from a distance, their lower legs look something like the legs of mountain goats. The pasterns of most horses are long and angled, allowing for plenty of spring in the horse’s step, which in turn allows for greater speed and stamina when a horse gallops at high speeds over an open plain. Long pasterns evolved as a survival strategy. But longer pasterns also carry an important disadvantage: the pastern’s fragile bones and vulnerable tendons can easily break or strain, laming the horse. Many a racehorse has ended his career because of this vulnerability. But on Sable Island, the horse does not have to run fast to escape predators. Instead, their enemy is deep sand and their worst “predators” are steep, treacherous sand dunes, some almost a thousand feet high, which the horses must climb in order to eat. These dunes provide some pretty dangerous footing for horses. On Sable Island a horse is much more likely to injure a leg while descending these steep dunes than by running along the island’s beaches. Still, a hungry horse must ascend and descend these obstacles. Consequently, evolution has made a clear choice, just as in the Camargue region. Sable Island horses have shorter, less vulnerable pasterns, giving them that goatlike look. Over 250 years, natural selection has opted for shorter pasterns, improving the horses’ ability to graze, thus improving the horses’ ability to live longer and produce more offspring. We often think of evolution as complicated, but in this case, the process is pretty easy to grasp.

The author covers some of the dynamism of the Earth’s climate:

Most likely, paleontologists suggest, the truth behind the extinction involves many factors. When the asteroid fell, the world was already changing. The great supercontinent of Pangaea had broken up and North and South America were slowly migrating west, creating an ever-widening Atlantic Ocean—an ocean that would become a major player in the appearance of humans and in the evolution of horses and in the flight paths of birds and in the pulsations of ice and rain and drought for the coming tens of millions of years. These long-term events, the results of our always-convulsive, seething-with-energy planet, were probably more influential in the appearance of horses and humans than the onetime crash of a mere mega-asteroid. … the Yale University paleontologist Chris Norris called the emphasis on disaster as a major evolutionary force “asteroid porn.”

His point is well-taken: the worldwide climate had been changing for 10 million years before the asteroid fell. The dinosaurs were no more enjoying a steady-state world before the asteroid impact than we are today.

It was hot. For a brief period, it was very hot, much hotter than when I visited. In fact, it was as though there was a sudden explosion of heat, as remarkable in its own way as the fall of the asteroid had been 10 million years earlier. Curiously, this explosion of heat also marks the appearance of Polecat Bench’s horses and primates. This was a time when temperatures in some places shot up by 6 or 8 degrees Celsius in a very short time period, lingered at those heights, then, almost as suddenly, dropped back down. The cause of this heat spike remains elusive, but it may have been due to large bursts of methane that bubbled up from the deep ocean. On temperature charts that track the rise and fall of heat throughout our planet’s history, the heat spike looks to me like the outline of the Eiffel Tower. The anomaly is officially called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, PETM for short, but I prefer to think of it as the Eiffel Tower of Heat, with its sharp lines of ascent and descent that mimic so closely the graceful lines of the Parisian landmark. It’s a weird event. And it’s doubly weird that both horses and primates may owe their existence, in part, to its existence: the spike marks the beginning of the Eocene, when not just horses and primates, but most modern mammal groups finally came into their own.

Just a few things that surprised me:

  • North America, devoid of horses when the Europeans showed up to trash the place, has a rich fossil record of horses. Horses were here at least as recently as 30,000 years ago.
  • Horse teeth keep pushing out for about 20 years.
  • “The ten thousand or so varieties of grasses that cover Earth today take up an estimated 30 percent of our planet’s land surface.” (and grass is a relatively new plant)

More: Read The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion.

Full post, including comments