Category Archives: science

solar systems in spaaaaace

God I love it when people discover more solar systems and planets. A new technique that permits detection of solar systems that include large outer planets, as opposed to large planets close to their suns, is proving fruitful. The solar system that was discovered includes large outer planets and may have small rocky planets, akin to our own. The sun is smaller than ours, and red (Darkover?).

One of the best things about this discovery is the role of amateurs.

Among those who provided crucial data and appeared as lead authors of the paper in Science were a pair of amateur astronomers from Auckland, New Zealand, Jennie McCormick and Grant Christie, both members of a group called the Microlensing Follow-Up Network, or MicroFUN. Ms. McCormick, who described herself as “an ordinary New Zealand mother,” said she had done her observing with a 10-inch Meade telescope from a shed in her back yard.

One of the other best things about this discovery (there are lots of best things about it) is that, since the technique itself can only work in a very specific set of circumstances, and it has already proven so fruitful (this solar system and a few other planets), we can infer that these kinds of solar systems — our kind of solar system — are abundant.

the eternal verities of fashion preferences

christ what a crock: The London Times reports that:

We all know that women like pink and men prefer blue, but we have never really known why. Now it emerges that parents who dress their boys in blue and girls in pink may not just be following tradition but some deep-seated evolutionary instinct.

I guess “evolution” waxes and wanes with the fashion trends of the centuries, because in the US in the 19th & early 20th centuries pink was the boys’ color (because it was a type of red, a strong masculine color!) and blue was the girls’ color.

So many possible responses to this utter blithering idiocy. I don’t know whether I’m madder at the Times (and other press) for reporting this crap uncritically, or whether I’m madder at the evolutionary psychologists who, in all seriousness, confirm their own social prejudices as eagerly as did the phrenologists and racist European skull-measurers of the 19th century.
update: of course, the bloggers & commenters of the world have already hit this one: the comments on the London Times article are largely insightful; bad is snarky & gives historical context also; broadsheet @ had a little detail & a lot of commentary, but surprisingly, didn’t jump on the stupidity quite as much as they really could have.

best NYT on sex differences EVER

Some mathematicians have finally pointed out the really, really obvious problem behind a popular theory of sex differences: Men are purported to have more sex partners than women … but the math doesn’t add up. Folks loving the idea that men and women are intrinsically, inherently, biologically, different have long loved to cite things like the fact that men have more sex partners than women, which shows up in virtually any survey. It’s not logically possible, but people still cite the numbers as if they mean something. (“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”) Gee, I wonder if people studying and proclaiming numerous sex differences could be infected by any other forms of biased thinking?

update: broadsheet had the best headline: Chaste women + promiscuous men = impossible and some good commentary too in the article and one or two helpful points in the comments. Unfortunately, most of the commenters are stuck on arguing about the differences between median and mean (average), quibbling about the math professor’s take, and failing to understand that (a) the NYT article just did a sloppy representation of what the math professor said; and (b) at least some part of what the math professor is really getting at is the popular understanding and use of such studies (including frequent media stories). (Many of the commenters have fallen into the trap of never going back to the source to try to figure out what they’re talking about, so they’re arguing about misquotes and misunderstandings of third-generation reports about data. No wonder there’s confusion about median and mean.)

The NYT article of course didn’t help clarify anything about median or mean (that is after all part of the problem that leads to the necessity of the math professor speaking up) but they did, to their credit, get the lede implication right: The thing this really casts doubt on is the big, all-encompassing theories of human nature that argue that men are inclined to X, and women inclined to Y, because of their y and x genes respectively. So, the numbers in the surveys could be right or wrong, but the conclusions about “women’s nature” and “men’s nature” are not well-supported by relying on the median. It would have been cool if they had talked about the implications of mean and median for social sciences behavior: Are averages or medians more susceptible to social pressures, for instance? Seems plausible that those numbers would have different artifacts but I don’t know, and the NYT didn’t help.

Anyway, as the professor suggested, the numbers have to be off somewhere, because while, yes, mean and median are different, you’ve still gotta make those numbers reconcile somehow. In other words, if median and mean are different, then there have to be differences in mean among subgroups that generate the median. In other words, if most women are more chaste than most men, then some women have to be having a lot more sex than either most women or men.

The most recent survey (NCHS 2007 survey of sex & drug behavior of US adults) that precipitated this discussion showed that 29% of US men report having 15 or more female partners, and 9% of women report having 15 or more male partners. It’s a little difficult to imagine that the 9% of women have so many more partners than the 29% of men, on average, that they make up for the 91% of women who had fewer … My guess is that there is greater variability among female sex habits, that there is some real, intentional fudging in the self-reported data, and that there is some methodological and definitional problems in how men and women define sex (I’m thinking of rape: I know that some people forced to have sex nonconsensually would not “count” that person as a sex partner, whereas it seems plausible that the rapist might well count their victim as a sex partner, especially if the rapist didn’t so self-define).

The greater variability point, if true, is itself interesting: Since “greater variability” shows up so frequently in sociobiological arguments about there being more male geniuses and idiots, you’d think the “greater variability” argument would be of interest to them in the realm of sexual behavior, too.
update: slate covered it too, with the mean/median point. while focusing on the trees, slate managed to notice the forest in a single paragraph toward the end.

atheist outreach and hypocrite hilarity

check out this awesome overpass/sidewalk art at — you have to scroll all the way to the right, and it’s not a flip photo so do it slowly enough to notice the homo sapiens-like creatures … at the shortest point of the wall, at about the 75% mark (L-to-R).

The pointer came from pharyngula, where they’ve also been discussing atheist outreach. Elsewhere in the blogosphere people have been wondering if posting flyers on cars in church parking lots is a good way to reach out to the faithful (the “parking lot challenge”) and what kinds of flyers would be good. I posted some of my thoughts in a comment, but to sum up: (a) flyers can come in all kinds of different information, and if you’re willing for 90% or more to be thrown away you could save the life or sanity of some unhappy teenager who *wants* rationality but doesn’t know how to find it; (b) lots of other places are good to pass out tidbits of reason: bus and train ads, newspaper inserts, inserts in bookstore books, hotel bibles; (c) anybody ever do “you’re welcome for the good deed” card?; and (d) what do you say when someone says “god bless you” and you want to be polite and friendly and brief, but corrective?

… And speaking of religious people: The “abstinence-only” promoter in the Bush Administration’s foreign aid department (aka the “AIDS czar”) resigned in embarrassment after getting caught on DC madam Jeane Palfrey’s list of prominent johns. (See WPost 4/28 and ABC 4/27.) Ha ha. Oh, my anger at BS thinly-veiled with sanctimony is rarely so well matched by my pleasure at hypocrisy revealed. My cup runneth over, but I tell you — the Bush administration has produced so many of these kinds of things that it’s kinda hard to keep up.

I anticipate many more such juicy stories once her client list (which is in the hands of prosecutors and ABC?) is published, and we know more names of people who sought “massage and sexual fantasy from college-educated women”. The irony of the abstinence-only AIDS czar being one of the first to go is rich though. It is Good to start the day with hypocrites brought low. I am in a happy, happy mood.

if the evidence doesn’t fit, ignore it

Years ago, my partner read some of Nicholas Wade’s NYT articles and shook her head at the shallowness of his analysis. It hasn’t gotten any better since. The NYT is running a lot of articles right now about sex, gender, and sexuality, and Nicholas Wade’s latest article is crap. He writes like the answers have been found, and, surprise, they’re exactly what people a hundred years ago thought, too. Conflicting evidence? Why bother? This is the New York Times, not actual science.

Sigh. Remember Gina Kolata? She was good. Why can’t we have good science writing again? (In fairness, the single line from the Wade article that annoyed me the most wasn’t Wade’s, but a quote from J. Michael Bailey: “If you can’t make a male attracted to other males by cutting off his penis, how strong could any psychosocial effect be?” Indeed. Because when I think about how to raise a gay man the first option that occurs to me is cutting off his penis. Jackass.)

The video is also annoying: My invisible lesbian partner and I sat with open-jawed amazement as they talked about straight boys, gay boys, straight girls, and … let’s move on to another topic altogether, the sweaty t-shirt experiment (No, not the menstrual cycle-synching armpit sniffing experiment; the women sniffing men’s sweaty tshirts that shows that women may develop even emotional attachments to men with different immune systems.) So a total fluff piece with little useful content.

Natalie Angier’s article on sexual desire, as ever, is much better. (I especially liked the quote from the psychologist in her 50s: “Listening to Noam Chomsky always turns me on.” I hear ya, sister.) Angier treats some of the same subjects as Wade, but much more reasonably. Wade reports that scientists have found X, we now know Y, and other very definitive statements of Objective Scientific Truth. He describes the experiment in the terms of the conclusion, thus making it appear foregone, unquestionable, certain. By contrast, Angier describes experiments in detail, pulling out the findings, and then labeling the assumptions and hypotheses. She reports the uncertainties as well as the findings and (tentative) conclusions. The reader has a chance to understand the experiment and draw their own conclusions, and compare those to the conclusions of the scientist or commentator or writer of the article. … And she’s not just a better science writer, she’s actually a better writer. Her prose is actually enjoyable to read.

surprise! more copyright stuff!

People have called my attention to a few more copyright & related matters lately:

* Darren Barefoot, who did the project ““, received a hilarious anti-cease-and-desist in its comments section, purportedly from Ginsu Yoon, VP of Linden Lab (Second Life’s company). Or as Peter Hirtle put it when passing it along, a “proceed and permitted” letter. More P&Ps, please! And fewer C&Ds.

* The recent movie “Dodgeball” hit the courts on a copyright infringement suit; the NYT wrote up the story, hitting some of the colorful details as the court tried to distinguish coincidence from copying, and substantial similarity from generic scenes a faire. (Would it kill the NYT to link to the freakin’ case for readers? I’ll dig it up and post it.)

* In addition to the RIAA’s stepped up “enforcement” at college campuses, the RIAA is also now attacking open wireless networks. (See Wired News blog.) A friend was asking me about this: What’s in it for the RIAA? Are they really trying to deter individuals? Well, to some extent, but principally they’re just trying to keep the issue in the limelight. It doesn’t matter if any individual enforcement action is effective, or if they get bad press; as far as they’re concerned, there’s no such thing as bad press on this issue. The more press on copyright “infringement”, the better. They want to create copyright anxiety (“copyright awareness”).

* And, last but not least, an uplifting story about Bent Skovmand — unfortunately it’s an obituary, so some might not get the “uplifting” part. But what’s uplifting is that this person spent his life seeing a problem and working to solve it. That is a success story. Every time I think of the waste of space and destruction of human energy represented by the current occupant of the White House, I’m going to try to dedicate an equal amount of time to the inspirational life of Bent Skovmand.

In case you’re wondering, the NYT obit is great, and Wikipedia’s entry is stubby but accurate. Basically Skovmand was an agricultural scientist who worked to preserve plant diversity and access. He was concerned about the monoculture techniques of modern industrial farming, even as he worked with farmers and governments around the world to help foster the Green Revolution. Ultimately he began to collect and archive seeds of all sorts of strains of food and agricultural crops, developing a project called the doomsday vault — a warehouse for agricultural crops in an island off of Norway, heavily safeguarded and secured against all manner of natural and human-made catastrophes. The vault will contain at least three million crop seeds.

In keeping with his general concern for openness and human access to genetic diversity, Skovmand critiqued the propertization of genetic information: copyrighting genes is “like copyrighting each and every word in ‘Hamlet’, and saying no one can use any word used in ‘Hamlet’ without paying the author.” According to the NYT, he gave away his own data on CDs, rather than trying to control it.

So — Bent Skovmand. May more of us have the opportunity to lead such fulfilling and satisfying and productive lives.

women, families, tenure

graphic from report showing academic tenure leaks for women with families

Surprise, having kids and a husband* make it less likely that women will get tenure-track positions or achieve tenure. See the “Marriage and Baby Blues: Re-defining Gender Equity” report (PDF) by Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden (2003).

Thanks to my partner (a postdoc) who sent me this illustrative graphic from the report.

* I say “husband” instead of “spouse” because I suspect this report, while in theory about “marriage”, most likely included only or primarily heterosexual partnership/marriages. This report and many others show that academic men do better with wives than without, while this report shows that academic women do better without husbands than with. The rather personal question it raises for me is, what about lesbian professional/academic couples? Does the penalty for “marriage” apply?

Also, does the parenting penalty apply only to the birth-mom or the stay-at-home mom, or does it apply regardless based on choices that most moms make to prioritize their children, regardless of the presence or absence of gender of their partner? The data showed that single moms did better than married-to-a-man moms, so I suspect that the problem for academic moms is not motherhood, per se, but persistent sexism in academic moms’ heterosexual relationships. Is there a better way to understand this data?

Calling Doctor Google

As a former medical librarian I thought this editorial by a medical librarian in the BMJ was fascinating.

First this amazing information:

Within a year of its release Google Scholar has led more visitors to many biomedical journal websites than has PubMed (J Sack, personal communication, 2005).

… which certainly lends credence to the pro-tagging, anti- or indifferent-to-cataloging thinkers.

I was particularly interested to see the table from the BMJ’s web access stats, which lists Google as its number one referrer, by far, in November 2005 (345,756), and Google Scholar as its number two referrer (105,185). PubMed trailed significantly far behind — fourth place was PubMed Medline (14,522) and fifth place was PubMed Central (9,616). Of course, one shouldn’t read too much into this relatively raw access-data. A lot of factors must play into the numbers. Who are these searchers? Medical consumers typing in terms in google, hoping for consumer information? If they end up going to the BMJ, that’s probably more than most of them want to know, at least in an initial search. Or are they physicians realizing google is a shortcut to particular articles? Does this set of referrals include, for instance, academic-affiliated researchers? Many of them probably have access to their own institutional subscriptions to BMJ, and if requests are being routed through a local proxy then how is that reflected in these numbers? Still, anyway you slice it, it’s obvious that Google — or maybe it’s better to describe it as “general search” — is becoming significant for medical research. And Google Scholar is more successful than I’d realized.

And then this cropped up in the editorial, too:

In a recent letter in the New England Journal of Medicine, a New York rheumatologist describes a scene at rounds where a professor asked the presenting fellow to explain how he arrived at his diagnosis.[4] Matter of factly, the reply came: “I entered the salient features into Google, and [the diagnosis] popped right up.” The attending doctor was taken aback by the Google diagnosis. “Are we physicians no longer needed? Is an observer who can accurately select the findings to be entered in a Google search all we need for a diagnosis to appear—as if by magic?”

Ten years ago librarians were all a-twitter about the fear that search engines (Yahoo! and Altavista were the big contendahs then) would displace librarians. Most librarians blustered it out: “Nothing can replace a librarian!” but there was definitely some anxiety in the ranks. Now physicians. Relax, docs. Librarians, doctors, and search engines, all will find their place in the brave new world of infinite search. And it’s important that consumers have access to as much information as possible to critically evaluate and assess all the other info streamed at us daily. For example, since the FDA has deemed it acceptable for drug companies to “inform” us about their wares via millions of dollars of direct-to-consumer advertising, consumers get barraged with info about commercial drugs provided by commercial for-profit entities. In that information environment, it’s vital for consumers to have consumer-directed diagnostic information to assess Big Pharma’s claims. Ultimately it will improve healthcare. What did you think all those consumer health awareness services were about if not, ultimately, this?

open content as solution to exploitation of indigenous IP

It’s great to see more info about the rumored the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library — which will publish India’s traditional knowledge:

Indian scientists say the country has been a victim of what they describe as “bio-piracy” for a long time.

“When we put out this encyclopaedia in the public domain, no one will be able to claim that these medicines or therapies are their inventions. Till now, we have not done the needful to protect our traditional wealth,” says Ajay Dua, a senior bureaucrat in the federal commerce ministry.

[I]n most of the developed nations like United States, “prior existing knowledge” is only recognised if it is published in a journal or is available on a database – not if it has been passed down through generations of oral and folk traditions.

The irony here is that India has suffered even though its traditional knowledge, as in China, has been documented extensively.

But information about traditional medicine has never been culled from their texts, translated and put out in the public domain.

A little confusion between “publication” and “public domain” …

No wonder then that India has been embroiled in some high-profile patent litigation in the past decade – the government spent some $6m alone in fighting legal battles against the patenting of turmeric and neem-based medicines.

In 1995, the US Patent Office granted a patent on the wound-healing properties of turmeric.

Indian scientists protested and fought a two-year-long legal battle to get the patent revoked.

Last year, India won a 10-year-long battle at the European Patent Office against a patent granted on an anti-fungal product, derived from neem, by successfully arguing that the medicinal neem tree is part of traditional Indian knowledge.

In 1998 the US Patent Office granted patent to a local company for new strains of rice similar to basmati, which has been grown for centuries in the Himalayan foothills of north-west India and Pakistan and has become popular internationally. After a prolonged legal battle, the patent was revoked four years ago.

The rice patent was new to me. Apparently, we will have to document not just every single preexisting medicinal use, but every single preexisting bit of human knowledge, to prevent companies from trying to enclose human knowledge.

Then they mention the yoga case (now settled favorably for open source yoga advocates):

And, in the US, an expatriate Indian yoga teacher has claimed copyright on a sequence of 36 yoga asanas, or postures.

public knowledge of science

I want free public lectures about science (and okay, social sciences, humanities, politics, art, whatever — but especially science!) to be as freely, conspicuously, and ubiquitously available as church/synagogue/temple services. In a city the size of Boston, people have the opportunity to choose from hundreds of free lectures about religious ideas every week, probably several within easy walking distance. Counting Christian, Jewish, and Islamic, these offerings hit Sunday, Saturday, and Friday; plus scattered such offerings sponsored throughout the week.

Viewed in this light, religious services are simply free public lectures about religious ideas, and I want the same for science: multiple series of lectures on biology, astronomy, nuclear physics, astrophysics (I really don’t get it at all), geology, chemistry … Choose between folksy styles with food & discussion, lecture styles from authoritarian learned types; series that tie it all into politics, or series that tackle the ethical questions relating to particular scientific techniques.

Over the last few months I’ve been thinking about the various statistics on US citizens’ belief and understanding of evolution, claims of particular religious beliefs, and the like. Recently I’ve followed the Dover, PA, trial, read various histories of science, religion, and the conflicts between religious and secular values. Here in the US and elsewhere, the forces of religious intolerance, bigotry, and ignorance are on the rise. At the same time, polls seem to repeatedly suggest that knowledge about basic science is declining and belief in creationism is rising. At times, it can look pretty bleak.

The dubious appeal of religious doctrines aside, some piece of this must surely be an artifact of the availability of particular kinds of information. The supply of information helps shape the demand, and we are well supplied (I might say too well supplied) with religious information. Religious institutions provide free public lectures on a weekly basis from people who are (some lay ministers excepted) trained in the field.

In a sense, religious services prove the effectiveness of open content as a means of popularizing a source of information. How many billions, quadrillions, zillions of dollars have been given to religious groups over the years freely? (Not counting all the coerced funds produced by ties to the state or through outright violence.) Religions are funded with the pledge drive from hell: every single religious service. “We interrupt this service … to ask you for money to help keep our services going. You don’t get this quality of direct-to-God information anywhere else! Pledge now, and you’ll get this lovely piece of pie in the sky when you die! Marked with our logo.” Religious institutions give away their content for free, and they get back in spades: donations to support mega-churches, cathedrals, “towers of power” and so on.

Knowledge about the world — science, our governments, our communities, our environment, our history and literature and art and human nature and health — is not comparably available. This knowledge — which would go so far to empowering and pleasuring people — is carefully metered out to those who can pay for “higher education”.

But imagine if we had free public lectures about science every week; several within walking distance from any point in the city. Would it make a difference? Could people fill the deity-shaped holes in their hearts with excitement and passion about the real world? Could we imagine no hell below us, above us only sky? and then learn why the sky is blue and how fast light travels and really help people understand dark matter and black holes and string theory, for gods’ sakes?

I’d love to find out. And I’ve seen a few moves towards greater openness of academic & scientific content. Stanford is making public lectures available via iTunes. I’ve recently seen advertising on MBTA for free public lectures from Harvard. It’s not quite multiple ongoing series of free public lectures, but maybe it’s a start.

Every university and college should record just a tiny fraction of their content and make it available for free to the public. Consider it a good-will gesture for all those high-handed renovation projects that so annoy the local neighbors. Start with the big lecture hall introductory classes. When a professor wins an award for lecturing or teaching, tape them for the next semester & put them online so everyone can see how fabulous they are. And all those endowed lecture series are just begging to be digitized and made freely available. Many of them have been taped for years; digitization would simultaneously preserve the original tape, make the material more widely available, publicize the lecture series, and honor the, uh, honoree.

And frankly, I’d like to see how well the much-vaunted popularity of religious doctrines stands up to a little competition. [Perhaps this whole issue lends support to the entertainment industry’s contention that “you can’t compete with free” ….]

update 11/22: This posting about “open knowledge drives out closed” is relevant …

update 12/4: Just read about Cafe Scientifique in an article about PZ Myers.

update 12/21: PZ Myers / pharyngula has this relevant post about scientists’ need to communicate clearly, succinctly, engagingly.

mouse songs verified by at-home cat test

BoingBoing recently posted about the songs sung by male mice during courtship, linking to the PLOS Biology article, and the audio files of the actual songs.

We independently verified the actual mouse-nature of the songs by performing a Spontaneous Audio Performance Test (SAPT) with a feline experimental audience.* Sure enough, four sleeping cats roused, lifted their heads, and twitched their ears while the songs were played. One actually rose to a standing position. The subject felines failed to respond to the recorded sparrow song.

Because PLOS Biology is open-access, you can try this one at home.

* No animals were harmed in this experiment. All research animals involved in this experiment receive the highest quality of care, including personalized feeding and support by a trained post-doctoral biologist and her aide; free access to legal counsel and representation; and consultations with a high-quality veterinary facility.

anti-racist Einstein

A new book by Fred Jerome & Rodger Taylor, Einstein on Race and Racism, fleshes out the historical record on Dr. Einstein’s anti-racist work. The most amazing thing is that, apart from a few quotes, the work that Einstein did on race has been largely forgotten by the public, and obliterated from popular historical accounts of his life.

The avalanche of Einstein images – genius, brilliant, absent-minded, kindly, bumbling and more – has all but buried Einstein’s political dimension, and totally covered up his civil-rights activities which have remained virtually unknown to his tens of millions of fans and followers.

… Einstein and Paul Robeson, two of the 20th Century’s most famous and popular figures, were not only friends but co-chaired the American Crusade to End Lynching and shared a dozen other anti-racist activities ….

Yet, despite Einstein’s clear intention to make his politics public – especially his anti-lynching and other antiracist activities – the history-molders have seemed embarrassed to do so. Or nervous. “I had to think about my Board,” a museum curator (who doesn’t want his name used even today) said, explaining why he had omitted some of the scientist’s political statements from the major exhibition celebrating Einstein’s one hundredth birthday in 1979.

Racism in America depends for its survival in large part on the smothering of anti-racist voices, especially when those voices come from popular and widely respected individuals – like Albert Einstein. This book, then. aspires to be part of a grand un-smothering.

It’s on my library reading list now. [Link from Marian’s Blog 10/31 via Dru Blood]

new yorker on bush on science

In The New Yorker, The Talk of the Town, posted 2005/8/15, Hendrik Hertzberg had this to say about Bush & his recent comments on intelligent design:

If the President’s musings on [intelligent design] were an isolated crotchet, they would hardly be worth noting, let alone getting exercised about. But they’re not. They reflect an attitude toward science that has infected every corner of his Administration. From the beginning, the Bush White House has treated science as a nuisance and scientists as an interest group—one that, because it lies outside the governing conservative coalition, need not be indulged. That’s why the White House—sometimes in the service of political Christianism or ideological fetishism, more often in obeisance to baser interests like the petroleum, pharmaceutical, and defense industries—has altered, suppressed, or overriden scientific findings on global warming; missile defense; H.I.V./ AIDS; pollution from industrial farming and oil drilling; forest management and endangered species; environmental health, including lead and mercury poisoning in children and safety standards for drinking water; and non-abstinence methods of birth control and sexually-transmitted-disease prevention. It has grossly misled the public on the number of stem-cell lines available for research. It has appointed unqualified ideologues to scientific advisory committees and has forced out scientists who persist in pointing out inconvenient facts. All this and more has been amply documented in reports from congressional Democrats and the Union of Concerned Scientists, in such leading scientific publications as Nature, Scientific American, Science, and The Lancet, and in a new book, “The Republican War on Science,” by the science journalist Chris Mooney.

linked from chris mooney 8/15

charles darwin’s posse

A friend passed me this stamp along with the following message for ‘pro-science subversives’:

Charles Darwin has a posse.

These stickers are being introduced to increase awareness and appreciation of Charles Darwin. His theory of natural selection provided a simple, non-supernatural explanation for how life on earth had evolved and continues to evolve. Although scientists worldwide view evolution and natural selection as completely uncontroversial, popular support in the United States is waning, especially with respect to the origin of humans. Without more public displays of affection for the theories of natural selection and evolution, it is likely that more and more schools will allow or even promote the teaching of evolution “alternatives” that invoke dabbling by supernatural entities. To provide some of the needed visible support for science and reason, please consider stickering something with his image. Sure, these efforts are probably completely futile, but wouldn’t you sleep better tonight knowing that you’ve done your part to delay our slip into Dark Ages II? Instructions and tips can be found below. Thanks!

… And in keeping with my passion for noting cultural begats, I note that designer Colin Purrington says of the image that

The overall design shamelessly emulates the “Andre The Giant Has A Posse” art project that I got to witness when I was a youth in Providence.

“André the Giant Has a Posse” was conceived by Frank Shepard Fairey and “at least one other unidentified person”. The WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment] threatened a lawsuit (presumably right of publicity?) and the image mutated into a more iconic image with the words “OBEY” or “DISOBEY”. More info at and Wikipedia.

but would time travel let us undo the 2004 election?

In yesterday’s NYT article on time travel:

Saving Grandpa

But what about killing your grandfather? In a well-ordered universe, that would be a paradox and shouldn’t be able to happen, everybody agrees.

That was the challenge that Dr. Joe Polchinski, now at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, Calif., issued to Dr. Thorne and his colleagues after their paper was published.

Being a good physicist, Dr. Polchinski phrased the problem in terms of billiard balls. A billiard ball, he suggested, could roll into one end of a time machine, come back out the other end a little earlier and collide with its earlier self, thereby preventing itself from entering the time machine to begin with.

Dr. Thorne and two students, Fernando Echeverria and Gunnar Klinkhammer, concluded after months of mathematical struggle that there was a logically consistent solution to the billiard matricide that Dr. Polchinski had set up. The ball would come back out of the time machine and deliver only a glancing blow to itself, altering its path just enough so that it would still hit the time machine. When it came back out, it would be aimed just so as to deflect itself rather than hitting full on. And so it would go like a movie with a circular plot.

In other words, it’s not a paradox if you go back in time and save your grandfather. And, added Dr. Polchinski, “It’s not a paradox if you try to shoot your grandfather and miss.”

“The conclusion is somewhat satisfying,” Dr. Thorne wrote in his book “Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy.” “It suggests that the laws of physics might accommodate themselves to time machines fairly nicely.”

Dr. Polchinski agreed. “I was making the point that the grandfather paradox had nothing to do with free will, and they found a nifty resolution,” he said in an e-mail message, adding, nevertheless, that his intuition still tells him time machines would lead to paradoxes.

It’s not just intuition. It’s that the paradox is still there: even though the billiard ball didn’t stop itself from entering a time machine, it stopped itself from entering the same time machine. Why do the shoot-your-grandfather paradox folks only consider the most extreme version, in which your grandfather is dead? The fact is that before you entered the time machine, your parent was born of a grandfather without a wound; after you entered & exited the time machine & shot your grandfather, your parent was born of a different grandfather — a grandfather with a wound. Likewise the billiard ball has now had two entrances into the time machine: one clean, and one with a glancing blow that made some impact on the time machine itself — a dent to a minor transferance of energy.

Well, I should read the paper. Maybe they address this! But it seems like this resolution — you don’t actually hit your grandfather, billiard ball (2) doesn’t knock billiard ball (1) completely off its course — resolves nothing. (And it took them months of mathematical struggle to come up with it?) I can only see the shoot-but-miss solution working in two possible ways: (1) the shooting has one and only one possible effect: hitting and killing your grandfather. All the other effects on the world that shooting a gun normally has do not exist. This is logically absurd. Or, (2) It would only work if in the travel to the past you actually can effect absolutely no change whatsoever. But wouldn’t Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle dictate that even if you are present only as an observer you carry the potential to effect change? What if you’re observing something previously unobserved?

I’m assuming that these paradoxes & their potential resolutions exist because the time machine goes in & out of the same universe. If it leaves one universe (Time Stream 1, TS1) and enters another (TS2) or creates another with its entry, then these paradoxes don’t exist. Kill away. But this theory has always struck me as unsatisfying …

Will have to discuss this with physics- and math-minded scientists.

news flash: surnames are (usually) patrilineal

And geneticists are using DNA to uncover relationships in populations all the time. Jobling’s colleague, Turi King, profiled the Y chromosomes of 150 men with random surnames and compared them with 150 men who shared surnames. Unexpectedly, she found that sharing a surname means you are highly likely also to share a Y chromosome.

— Alok Jha, The Adam and Eve of genetics, Technology, 2005/4/29

Okay, what am I missing here? Isn’t this, well, obvious? Maybe with extremely common surnames (Smith, Garcia, or Chang/Zheng) the expectation is that there is virtually no relationship at all among those so named, because the names independently developed multiple times. But surely it’s statistically likely that Juan Garcia is more closely related to Tomas Garcia than to, say, Leon Martinez? And in the case of less common surnames, passed down patrilineally, in almost all cases with the actual Y chromosome, wouldn’t we really expect to find a high concordance of common Y chromosomes?

notes on open scientific publishing

nice article profiling plos & issues relating to public access to publicly-funded research.

“Publisher for the People” by Will Harper, East Bay Express, 2004-09-29

Marc Brodsky, with Association of American Publishers, disputes the virtually indisputable benefits of open publishing of publicly funded research:

Brodsky points out that the government subsidizes other commercial activities where the public is charged for something value-added. “For example,” he says, “when we get medical advances that come out of NIH-funded research, we have to pay for the drugs.”

Hmm. Aside from the retort which springs promptly to my lips — just because we can double-charge the public for research doesn’t mean we should — a few other comments come to mind.

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