Sunday, February 12, 2017

Darwin Day thoughts on origins and the March for Science

This page from Darwin’s First Notebook on Transmutation of Species contains what I believe to be the most important scribble ever written in the history of science.

No doubt, scribbles exist elsewhere which also capture historic moments in scientific progress. I suspect they can be found in the drafts for Isaac Newton’s 1687 “Principia” announcing the the discovery of his universal law of gravitation or in the manuscript of Einstein’s 1905 "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies" in which he reveals to the world his grasp of mass-energy equivalence or in Rosalind Franklin’s lab notebooks from the early 1950s and the very first realization of the helical structure of the DNA molecule.

But I dare say that none of these is both as profound and as accessible as Darwin’s 1837 sketch. In it, the great naturalist divines the origins of the biological world we see today as the vivid branching of a tree of life. Hidden in the subtext, if scribbles are allowed to have subtexts, is the answer to the question of human origins, as well.

There is some poignancy with which I recall Darwin’s scribble today, the 208th anniversary of his birth in 1809.

Having had a hand in the initial organization of the March for Science in Atlanta, a counterpart to the national march scheduled in Washington, DC for April 22, it was with some interest that I watched the national mission statement and a local variation unfold.

It was no mean feat to bring so many committed and engaged people together, along with their differing scientific and political agendas, to decide on a public statement intended to communicate what the march was about. Personally, and as the executive director of the Atlanta Science Tavern, I support the results of their effort; I learned long ago, and was painfully reminded in the course of our most recent national election, that holding out for perfection when it comes to selecting platforms or candidates is a prescription for disaster.

Nonetheless, I am saddened by the fact that the national mission statement, in the interest of maximizing buy-in from those not-yet persuaded of the importance of evidence-based policy making, has been drained of all specificity. There is no overt mention, for example, of climate change or vaccination in it. But what troubles me the most is that reference to Darwin’s great contribution has also been omitted.

It’s as though Darwin’s conception of the process of evolution through natural selection has become a theory that, at least in some quarters, dare not speak its name.

And the reason I find this so troubling is that the fight to teach evolution in public schools here, going on now for over one hundred years, is the prototypical battle pitting scientists and the best possible, indeed irrefutable, scientific evidence against elected officials whose political opposition stems from uninformed, indeed willfully ignorant, parochial opinion.

For me, to march without recognition of our very own origins in this long-standing struggle is unthinkable. My understanding is that such messages, although absent from, are consistent with the national mission statement. So, you can expect me to be marching with enthusiasm in Atlanta on Earth Day. I’ll be carrying a sign that says, “I’m with Charles Darwin.”

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

To punch or not to punch Nazis, here are some questions


There's a debate raging in certain segments of social media about whether it's OK to punch Nazis in the face. This debate has been inspired by the punching-in-the-face of white supremacist Richard Spencer during an interview in Washington shortly after the Trump inauguration.

Many of those who approve of Spencer's being punched in the face say that he deserved it, and that that, in and of itself, is sufficient justification. Given his support of a white nationalist agenda and complicity in endorsing "black genocide," it's easy to see how they could come to this conclusion. The man and his politics are not only despicable but also a potential public danger. Anti-punchers tend to be either stalwart defenders of free speech or people with strong non-violent or even pacifist commitments.

I'm not sure that I have much new to add to the discussion. My opinion is pretty much rooted in a conventional ethical analysis of when the use force to resolve disputes is appropriate. The pro-puncher position does, though, pose a number of questions which, I feel, need to be addressed.

First, who is it exactly who determines when advocating hateful ideas crosses the line, making the use of force justified? Is it a matter of how despicable the ideas themselves are? Or do they have to amount to a palpable threat, a so-called clear and present danger. And what proof is required before punches are thrown? A social media firestorm is a mix of facts and, as they say, alternative facts. Does this kind of evidence constitute actionable information?

[I'll note here in passing that I've participated in many political demonstrations in my life, mostly advocating unpopular causes. I've been called a commie and a traitor and worse by people passing by. There is no doubt in my mind that, as far as they were concerned, my speech had crossed the line and that my actions represented a clear and present danger to the country.]

There's also the related question as to what measure of force is to be administered. A punch in the face can result in a superficial bruise that disappears in a few days or a broken jaw that may take months to heal or even the permanent loss of vision in an eye. Punches are hard to fine tune. And why stop at a punch? Why not a whack with a baseball bat or a slash across the face with a razor blade? Does the violence employed somehow scale with the gravity of the speech crime committed? Who makes this call?

Also, what exactly is the objective of the use of force in these circumstances? Is a punch in the face meant to be little more than a rebuke for saying vile and dangerous things? Or is it intended to strike fear in the speaker and deter future speech and actions? If history is any guide, the use of force against determined foes often does not have this effect. We imagine, at times, that if we hurt our enemies sufficiently then they will grow weary of the battle. This is the rationale behind terrorism.

Finally, who is responsible if a punch in the face results in melee that spins out of control, injuring bystanders, including innocent ones? A single punch can quickly escalate into a fistfight, which, in turn, can lead to knives and other weapons being drawn as others are pulled into the fray. We are ethically accountable for the consequences of our actions that can be foreseen. How does the puncher explain to those injured or maimed in the aftermath of a punch that their suffering is justifiable? The words "collateral damage" somehow ring hollow.

As I mentioned, my own ethical analysis of the punch-in-the-face conundrum is unremarkable: except in cases of self-defense and circumstances that demand immediate action lest great harm occur, I'm comfortable with delegating the use of force to the authorities. This approach is not without its flaws, but, of one thing I'm certain, predicating the use of force on the magnitude our personal outrage is a prescription for disaster. Questions like the ones posed above have to be answered if there is to be any ethical basis for punching someone in the face.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

European Space Agency busy anticipating Mars colonists' popcorn needs

Schoparelli lander final descent to the surface of Mars (ESA/ATG medialab)
SpaceX leader and all-around science action hero, Elon Musk, has recently announced plans to put humans - lots of them - on the surface of Mars within the next dozen years or so. In addition to all the space-age technological challenges this implies, one big question remains: what are they going to eat when they get there?

This is where the European Space Agency (ESA) is coming to the rescue. As part of their ExoMars mission now underway, they will be deploying the Schoparelli lander, shown here in an artist's conception making its final descent to the surface of the Red Planet.

Original Jiffy Pop in action
Modeled after the iconic Jiffy Pop popcorn maker developed for NASA in the late 1950s, at over 1.65 m (a little less than 5 and a half feet) in diameter and with a carrying capacity of 577 kg (almost 1,300 pounds), "Schop," as it's known, will be able to supply 100 Mars colonists with all their popcorn needs for well over a year.

So, although these brave pioneers will be undoubtedly be spending most of their time sciencing the shit out of stuff, every now and then, when they kick back and settle in for a quiet evening watching a movie - my guess is that Matt Damon's "The Martian" will be a favorite - they'll never have to worry about running out of traditional snacks. Also, Schop is equipped with ample salt and butter-flavored topping dispensers, seen on the top of the spacecraft in the above image.

And there's no need to worry about all those golden kernels going bad waiting for customers. Given Mars's frigid surface temperature averaging around −55 °C (−67 °F) and almost non-existent atmosphere, Schop's popcorn payload will stay fresh for decades. And, thanks to a constant stream of Solar wind radiation bombarding the lander, any microbes that decided to hitch a ride with the corn, will be toast, so to speak, long before Schop starts to popping.