Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Apology for a Loser

Mary Eberstadt has produced an interesting defense of religion against the recent series of books on atheism. It is an interesting satire, and while it lacks the sheer brilliance of the Screwtape Letters (Demons as evil bureaucrats was just perfect, though having a strung-out addict call God a loser is still pretty good), they make some interesting points.

I think she overlooks the aspect of God as parent that many atheists argue explains the formation of religion, as well as the attempts to use the modern jihad against all religions. She is spot-on in assessing why atheism isn't going to take off.

It would have been nice to have some better explanation of why atheists in general do not slide down the slippery slope. My friend over at ChicagoCon is a fairly harsh atheist, but is not some crazy deviant or monster. There are good explanations for this phenomenon that support religion, but she does not present them.

As for myself, I am a lapsed Protestant of unusual beliefs around an orthodox core.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Funny Fly Geneticists

While searching the wiki, I ran across HERG in a serious article on arrhythmias. The acronym stands for Human Ether-a-go-go Related Gene. Thank the wonderfully crazy scientists who study the genetics of the fruit fly. I have done my share of time with FlyNap and tweezers, and I would imagine it would get to the most serious of scientists after a while. Reminds me of a classic I heard from a genetics professor: gene cheapdate, which when mutated will render flies more sensitive to alcohol.

A few other classics here and here


Saturday, July 12, 2008

A new age of Zeppelins?

As an airship aficionado I was quite pleased to read this story on the resurgence of airship development. It has some flaws - the journalist focused almost exclusively on French airship development - but it discusses the issue well.

The airship has had similar strengths and weakness to the ship that travels the waterways. Both the airship and the ship are slower than planes, have better fuel efficiency for the weight they transport, and are tolerant of mechanical failure. The market air freighters will require a more durable material for airship design to reduce the effects of weather.

Hat tip: Original Cin


Thursday, July 10, 2008

Science as an adventure

On National Review Online, I was pleased to see an excellent article on the refreshing new law in Louisiana. As one who has studied science at the graduate level, it was always amazing to see how different the perception of science that was presented in my earlier education from the actual practice of science. Theories go back and forth, researchers try to either extend or overturn conventional wisdom, groundbreaking work runs into bureaucratic and personal disputes, etc. Much like any other field of human endeavor, science is quite capable of making errors and barking up the wrong tree Fortunately, science includes many ways of correcting errors, including rival researchers eager to disprove your theory.

Science also avoids errors by using consensus. Generally, the more researchers who have tested a theory and found it superior to previous knowledge, the more likely it is true. This is necessary to have some form of knowledge in science. A group of researcher seeking to present findings that challenge consensus have to provide very convincing data, as scientists are taught to see most differences from consensus are erroneous. If you notice two like charges apparently attracting, as I experienced in a physics class, you do not assume Coulomb's law is in question.

However, most truly dramatic scientific discoveries involve adding up the problems facing the consensus, and composing a rival theory. Some of these types will be cranks or frauds like the cold fusion fiasco, but a significant number will have a useful perspective. After all, scientific consensus has been wrong in the past on the Earth being the center of the universe (Why can't we see an parallax if it is revolving?), the Ether (What wave propagates without a medium?), and even classical mechanics (You expect us to believe that we have an uncertain position and momentum?) Perhaps it could be wrong on something else. And there lies the adventure.

The Louisiana law frees up the science classroom from these attempts at enforcing an orthodoxy, and is thus to be commended. Teaching science as it is would be much more exciting for students and better for public knowledge. Next time a news article is reporting that scientists have found some odd medical discovery, people would wonder about what other scientists think of the matter and if other studies have backed it up. It also might make debates on areas where science touches policy, such as climate change and evolution. While my views on these subjects are for a later post, the efforts to crack down on differing theories and brand them as crazy or unscientific are reprehensible. They bring back memories not of the great scientists like Pasteur, Darwin, Einstein, and Curie. Rather, they bring to mind zealous inquisitors enforcing the tenets of an ideological religion.