The Steampunk Satyricon

Friday, December 31, 2010

Out with the Old

A catch-all, end-of-the-year megapost to clear the decks for the new year:

(10) Gratuitous display of one of the scary-looking equations that made cell phones possible.

An op-ed titled "Lab Politics" that appeared on the Slate web site a few weeks ago totally tweaked my outrage meter. The author -- Daniel Sarewitz, an academic at Arizona State University -- cited poll data that revealed 55 percent of scientists identified as Democrats and only 6 percent were Republicans (the rest were independent or undecided) and suggested that the American public would benefit if there were more scientists who considered themselves conservatives.

My initial reaction was, "Sarewitz, you're a whiny-ass moron." But the benefit of getting distracted and failing to write an immediate response is that you have a chance to reflect and give your reactionary fury a chance to subside. That's not to say there weren't major problems with the editorial.

Sarewitz starts with the completely faulty premise that *good* science is influenced by ideology. He openly accuses non-conservatives of doing bad science to score political points -- perhaps he was thinking of the pharmaceutical industry where "Science-on-Demand" is a regular occurrence and customized results, tailored to maximize profits, can end up killing people. Basically, Sarewitz is saying that scientists operate like political strategists (or pundits) who only ask questions when they already know what they want the answers to be. Science can be politicized, and when it is, it's no longer science -- it's bad science and we should all disregard it. But you can't dismiss good science just because you don't like what it tells you. There's a reason why no one takes flat-earthers seriously.

The real problem with Sarewitz's editorial -- like so many op-eds, where the writer is probably held to a word count even if it's for online publication -- is that the author states his grievance, but doesn't actually make a case. He raises the issue of climate change and suggests that if more climate researchers were Republicans/conservatives, more people would trust their findings. But Sarewitz only criticizes the policy suggestions for responding to the research findings, he doesn't explicitly mention any particular researcher or paper as being biased. He doesn't even attack the peer review process or give us proof that liberal reviewers are simply rubber-stamping work that conforms to their liberal views.

One woefully accurate aspect of the issue, that the author correctly alludes to, is that no debate can even begin if the two sides can't even agree on what the facts are. One side has its trusted sources and the other side has theirs. Both sides are convinced that their reality is the one that matters and the other side is presenting erroneous, hopelessly biased information that simply can not be considered credible. How is any kind of reasonable discussion possible where there is no common ground?

Sarewitz's op-ed is so wrong in so many ways that I'm tempted to go on for another 500 words, but there are other important (i.e. fairly trivial) things to get to. Suffice it to say that good scientists don't want to be leftists, they just want to be right.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Gobbledygook Pt. 1: Geophysics Without Fear

It was another object lesson in science's ability to obfuscate, intimidate and make you scratch your head till it bleeds. While I was researching the post before this one, I came across this passage in Geodynamics: Applications of Continuum Physics to Geological Problems:
"The gravitational potential anomaly [ΔU] due to a shallow, long wavelength isostatic density distribution is proportional to the dipole moment of the density distribution beneath the point of measurement."
For the layperson, this is the very model of a "What the fuck????" gob of indecipherable science babble. Let's break it down [DON'T BE SCARED, IT'S ONLY SCIENCE]:

Gravitational potential -- If you pick up a brick, hold it above the ground, and then let it go, it won't just stay suspended in mid-air. By lifting it up, against the pull of gravity, you gave it a certain amount of stored energy, called potential energy. And since that energy -- which is equal to the energy the brick will have when it falls -- comes from doing work on the brick against the earth's gravitational pull (and don't forget, the brick is pulling on the earth too), we call that energy gravitational potential.

Gravitational potential anomaly -- General science tip: whenever you see a delta ("Δ") in an equation, that usually refers to some kind of change or difference between two things. "ΔU" represents the gravitational potential anomaly and refers to how different the measured gravitational potential is from a standard reference potential. The difference is due to the fact that the ground beneath us does not have a uniform density, so a reference potential is used to get an idea of how different the pull of gravity is at any given location.

Isostatic density distribution -- You can take two columns of earth, for example one that starts at the top of a mountain and one that starts on the ocean floor, and by the time you burrow down and reach the creamy filling (i.e. the big mass of molten lava that all land masses rest on) you'll have two columns of earth that weigh pretty much the same, but you'll find the mountain column will be less dense than the ocean floor column. The principle of isostatic density distribution tells us this will be true for any two columns of earth we might want to consider. The "long wavelength" part just means you're talking about something massive enough to make a dent in the lithosphere (which consists of the earth's crust and the top part of the mantle layer).

Dipole moment of the density distribution -- This one really threw me at first. I knew about dipole moments as they related to electric charges and magnetic fields, but didn't know what they had to do with rocks and dirt. If a gravitational anomaly is detected, that's an indicator the density of the earth in that area has sort of adjusted itself, compensated to achieve normal isostatic density distribution. Think of the dipole moment as a measure of the extent of the self-adjusting that occurred to get the right density distribution. Plus, it's proportional to the gravitational potential anomaly (as the equation at the beginning shows... trust me, that's what it says).
Moho -- Beneath the earth's crust, but before you get to the mantle layer, there is a boundary called the Mohorovičić discontinuity, or Moho for short. It was named after a Croatian seismologist and marks the depth at which there are notable changes in the earth's chemical composition compared to the crust above it. This has nothing to do with anything, I just like the word "Moho." 
So here's what the bizarre, scary passage at the beginning was saying:

Geophysicists, folks who might be looking for ore and petroleum and things underground, start with a standard measure of what gravity is like for the whole planet. But the earth doesn't have a uniform density, so the gravity is actually a little different depending on where on earth you are. This is why, in some places, you weigh a little less and in other places you weigh a little more (there can be other factors, but here we're concerned with the effects of density). The difference in how much you weigh in a particular location compared to the standard measure depends on the nature of the difference in the density of the earth where you happen to be standing. You can take measurements and calculate the difference because there is a mathematical relationship between how the earth's density at your location changes and how the gravity changes in that same place. Different things alter density in different ways, some of which are known. That's why knowing about gravitational potential anomalies is useful: measuring what the gravity is like at a particular location gives us a hint of what might be underground.

There, you see? Was that so hard? Don't we all feel better now?


  • Geodynamics: Applications of Continuum Physics to Geological Problems. ©1982, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  • Geophysical Methods in Geology, 2nd Ed. P.V. Sharma. ©1986, Elsevier Science Publishing Co., Inc.
  • U.S. Geological Survey,

Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!

A certain incident has been nibbling away at my consciousness for ages like a kind of psychic termite. It happened in my freshman physics class when the teacher was introducing Newton's law of gravitation. In order to protect the reputation of said teacher, I shall refer to him here as Professor X.

Professor X presented the equation for finding the force exerted on an object by the earth's gravity. It's a classic, lovely little equation...

Me = the mass of the earth, about 1.3 x 1025 lbs or 5.97 x 1024 kilograms. (Do we remember our metric conversions and our scientific notation?)
m = the mass, in kilograms, of some object.
r = how far that object is from the center of the earth.
G = the universal gravitation constant, a sort of cosmic fudge factor, equal to
6.673 x 10-11 N•m2/kg2 
(the "N" stands for "Newtons", the unit of measure for force; read as "Newton meters squared per kilograms squared").

A student asked a question: "So, if r = 0, the force is infinite?"

Knowing that we had been taught in our math classes that anytime you divide a number by 0 the answer is , Professor X said, "Yes, if r is 0, Fg is infinitely large."

There are a few reasons why the professor might have responded to the student's question with such an incredibly wrong answer:

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

WAY Faster Than A Speeding Bullet

There is an excellent article on the Washington Post's web site on Danish astronomer, Ole Romer, who devised a method of estimating the speed of light in 1676. The number he and his contemporaries got was about 30 percent slower than later findings, but getting even that close was fairly amazing given the equipment Romer and his colleagues had at the time. According to the article, even when it was recalculated later, "They didn't change Romer's method of calculation; they just had better data to feed into it." (The currently accepted value is 186,410 miles per second.)

Romer: Obsessed with speed.

As interesting as the article was, I was particularly fascinated by the comment left by a reader who seemed to be lamenting the fact that the 700-word article didn't present a more thorough explanation of the calculations involved. I posted what I considered a fairly reasoned response. Of course, what I really wanted to say was, "Are you fuckin' kidding me?!? Pedantic, know-it-all assholes like you are *killing* interest in science! When will you people learn!!!" But that would have been so rude.

Also this week, new developments at the Large Hadron Collider as reported in The Guardian.

And also... FRACTALS!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Terms of Estrangement

As a shiny new science writer, there are certain things I do out of a sense of duty. One of them is listening to Science Friday on NPR, not an unpleasant way to spend one's time. But one of the things that makes it even better is logging on to Second Life and participating in the live chat amongst the avatars in the virtual audience gathered on Science Island. Naturally, it's a fairly science-savvy group, but a while ago, they completely left me in the dust during a discussion of viruses and cell structures.

To be honest, of all the sciences, I'm probably least interested in biology and the life sciences. Here, I am very much out of step with the broader public whose interest in science so often seems to stem from an interest in medical science and health research, the sorts of things that should interest anyone with a carbon-based, organic body.

The terms being thrown around in chat were all related to life science. They were completely foreign to me and fairly intimidating. But then, I went to look them up. I found nearly all of those strange, exotic terms in the first one or two chapters of basic cell biology text books. Scary as they seemed, they were all Bio 101 terms. Some examples:

Eucaryotes and Procaryotes -- All life is classified as either a eucaryote (also spelled "eukaryote") or one of the two types of procaryotes (or "prokaryotes"). A eucaryote is a type of organism that is usually multicellular (animals, plants, fungi) in which the DNA of the cell is restricted to a nucleus -- a separate, bounded region within the cell. The word is of Greek origin and translates as "truly nucleated." Eucaryotes usually have relatively large, complicated cells. Procaryotes, organisms in which the DNA is not concentrated within a nucleus, are typically single-celled organisms. There are two types of procaryotes: bacteria (or eubacteria) and archaea (or archaebacteria).

Mitochondria -- A structure found within a eucaryotic cell separated from the other parts by a membrane (just like the nucleus is separated from the rest of the cell interior by its own membrane). They are often referred to as the "power plants" of a eucaryotic cell. Mitochondria use oxygen to oxidize fuel (i.e. food) and convert it to energy for the cell to go about its cell-y business.
Chloroplasts -- Found in plants and algae (which are single celled eucaryotes). Chloroplasts allow plants to perform photosynthesis: they absorb carbon dioxide and water and, using energy from sunlight, turn them into carbohydrates.
Organelles -- Chloroplasts, mitochondria and nuclei are examples of organelles, sub-structures within a eucaryotic cell that are separated from each other by their own membranes.
Cytoplasm -- The stuff inside of a cell but outside of the cell's organelles. (What kind of stuff? Protein type stuff that seems to be beyond Bio 101.)
Cyanobacterium -- A bacterium that is capable of photosynthesis. It soaks up carbon dioxide and sunlight and spits out oxygen.
Fungi -- Something we've all heard of, but how many people know what a fungus really is? The mushrooms you put in your spaghetti sauce, like all fungi, are eucaryotic organisms that have mitochondria in their cells like animals do, but no chloroplasts. No chloroplasts means no photosynthesis (and no getting classified as a plant). Instead of sunlight and carbon dioxide, fungi live off of the nutrients that come from the dead and decaying cells of other living things. Mangia!
Protists -- Single-celled eucaryotic organisms like protozoa. (You probably saw protozoa through a microscope when looking at a drop of pond water in elementary school science class.)
Heterotrophic -- Most animals are heterotrophic, that is, they obtain nutrients from external organic and inorganic sources.
Autotrophic -- Most plants are autotrophic, meaning they use inorganic sources to build nutrients on their own (think photosynthesis).
On several occasions, I've "Tsk, tsk'd" people for avoiding math classes, even as I was expending considerable effort and energy to avoid taking biology classes for the opportunity to take an ever more challenging succession of physics courses, each of which I nearly flunked. But if I had taken a college-level biology class, it would have stripped me of the opportunity to learn, once again, how to not be intimidated by science... but it also would have given me the foundation I needed to follow Second Life Science Friday chat without the whole "WTF?" factor. Tsk, tsk.

Second Life, where you can choose to be virtually hunky. 
Or would you rather be a mule?

  • Essential Cell Biology, 3rd Ed., Bruce Alberts, Denis Bray, et al. (C)2010, published by Garland Science, Taylor & Francis Group.
  • Molecular Biology of the Cell, 4th Ed., Bruce Alberts, Alexander Johnson, et al. (C)2010, published by Garland Science, Taylor & Francis Group.
  • Integrated Principles of Zoology, 13 Ed., Cleveland P. Hickman, Jr., Larry S. Roberts, et al. (C) 2006, McGraw-Hill.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Y B Blu?

Patent number 3,931,459 : Video Disc
Inventor: Adrianus Korpel
Assignee: Zenith Radio Corporation
Filed: Feb. 4, 1974
Summary of the Invention [Excerpt]: "Optical image reproducing systems have been proposed as adjuncts to home color television receivers to increase their use by arranging for the play back of recorded program material through such receivers. As heretofore proposed, the program material is stored in a carrier, such as a disc quite similar to well known audio discs, to be read by a beam of energy, usually a laser beam, to develop an electrical signal representation of the stored information." 
In other words, stick the round, flat shiny thing into the right kind of player, and you can watch "Xanadu" whenever you like. Oh, wait, 1974... make that "The Exorcist" or maybe "American Graffiti." Actually, video disc movies and players wouldn't be available to the public until the early 80s, several years after the application for this patent was filed by Zenith. It was one of many disc-related patents filed by many companies even though, two other companies, Sony and Philips, were the primary developers of the technology. Not that it mattered much back then since, in the US, most people wanted their movies on VHS videotape. At least they did until the DVD -- with it's commentary tracks, extra scenes and additional cinematic goodies -- became the format of choice in the late 1990s. Which brings us to Blu-ray (capital "B", lowercase "r", don't forget the hyphen and, for God's sake, don't stick an "e" in there and write "Blue").

You have to wonder: Is the entertainment industry going to keep doing this to us every few years? Getting us hooked on their product like drug dealers and then making us come back, again and again, to re-buy the same stuff in a new form? How many media players and versions of "Blade Runner" do I really need to buy? And what's the difference between a DVD and a Blu-ray disc anyway?

Entertainment industry executives -- entrepreneurial champions of the capitalist ethos or money-grubbing scumbags, take your pick -- love to find new reasons for the media-mad public to hand over some cash. But just as poly cotton blends have replaced bison pelts in our wardrobes, embracing the new video technology is about more than just money or fashion: It's about good science and genuine progress. Progress that helps you experience, with hitherto unimagined clarity and nuance, the campfire fart scene from "Blazing Saddles."

Sunday, June 13, 2010

F*ck Baseball

For the past week or so, folks in the Washington, DC area have been going gaga over the Nationals' new pitching phenom, Stephen Strasburg (not the gratuitous beefcake pictured above). Needless to say, the fawning, the adulation, the level of attention given to this baseball player has been making me ill. He's a baseball player! HE'S JUST A DAMN BASEBALL PLAYER!!!

A couple of days after Strasburg's big league debut, I received a copy of the University of Maryland's alumni magazine which (much too briefly) mentioned the work of chemists Sang Bok Lee and Gary Rubloff. Lee's research group is working on the creation of nanotube structures -- made of various materials -- and how those structures might be used, including their use in electrical energy storage systems. For me, this was an OMG moment.

I realize we all have our own enthusiasms, our personal list of things that excite and interest us, but imagine circuit components that are several times smaller and lighter than the smallest and lightest components we have now. Imagine batteries for computers and other electronic devices that are half the size, a third of the weight and last many times longer than the ones we currently use. Imagine being able to drive cross-country in an electric car with a battery that's so efficient, you'll be able to leave New York, speed down the highway at 65 mph and reach Vegas before you need to recharge. These things won't happen tomorrow, but it's where scientists like Dr. Lee are taking us. This is the future he and his research team are helping to build one nanotube at a time. TOP THAT, STRASBURG, YA BALL PLAYIN' FUCK!!

I mean, really... priorities, people!

Proof: Be Not Afraid

"For years, mainstream thinking about math anxiety assumed that people fear math because they are bad at it. However, a growing body of research shows a much more complicated relationship between math ability and anxiety."
From "A real fear: it's more than stage fright..." by Paul Ruffins, published in Diverse Issues in Higher Education, March 8, 2007
Too many people feel distanced from science because of one thing: Math. Or, more precisely, their math anxiety. It's fine to talk about theories and experiments and genius discoveries, but none of it means dick until some math is attached to it; the nasty, intimidating, complicated kind of math with lots of Greek letters and odd symbols and practically no actual numbers. Science is grounded in math, and math has as its foundation THE PROOF.

Even if you take math classes every semester in high school (shockingly, many people don't -- you know who you are), very little time is spent in class specifically discussing the nature of mathematical proofs. Teachers show them to students all the time and expect students to learn them, but while showing proofs is often a big part of math and science classes, teachers often seem to skip over the whole "What is a proof?" thing. Nobody tells you that most of science and pretty much all of math is about proofs. It's an incredibly important subject that educators hope you'll just sort of pick up as you go along.

There are basically three parts to any proof: The hypothesis (the thing we are trying to prove is true), the arguments (the relevant ideas we will stack like bricks to see if they support the truth of the hypothesis) and the conclusion (where we learn whether or not the arguments show the hypothesis to be true or false).

The arguments are things we know to be true because they have already been proven. Bad arguments ruin good proofs. Consider this proof that penguins can fly from Antonella Cupillari's book The Nuts and Bolts of Proofs:
  • Penguins are birds.
  • All birds are able to fly.
  • Therefore penguins are able to fly.
The hypothesis is false, but, based on an invalid argument, we are led to believe that it's true. Consider an actual news event that recently occurred in the UK:
  • A girl died.
  • The girl had recently been given a vaccine.
  • Conclusion: The vaccine is fatal.
A minor panic ensued in England because of people employing this proof who never once considered whether or not the argument was valid (i.e. represented a direct causal link between an event that occurred previously and a subsequent event). It was not valid. They were idiots.

Like any other proof, a math proof is a logical progression of steps, but to say that no intuition or insight is involved is wrong. There's a reason some people are better at it than others. It's why we are in awe of geniuses like Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman who solved the Poincaré conjecture which, according to the Clay Math Institute, is one of the millennium's seven most difficult math hypotheses.

It's about understanding that facing real science means facing math, facing proofs and doing it fearlessly. Genius is NOT a prerequisite. I'll prove it.

The Greek Alphabet: Math Without Numbers (kind of)

This is the sort of thing that drives people away from science:

It's a formula for the magnitude of an electric field as a function of time in an unmagnetized plasma. It's math, but you don't see any numbers. There are numbers there, but they're hidden behind the letters and those mysterious symbols. For the layperson, it makes no sense, even when you realize that most of those "mysterious symbols" are just Greek letters.

Blame Diophantus of Alexandria (c. 200 A.D., but reports of the exact dates of his lifespan vary widely). Before this Greek mathematician came along, equations were simply expressed as sentences written out in words. Diophantus is credited as being the first to use symbols to stand in for the numbers that change (the variables) and the numbers that are used repeatedly (the constants) in different equations. For many centuries after Diophantus, lessons in Latin and Greek were a common part of any aspiring scholar's education, and using Greek letters as symbols in mathematical equations was just the tradition and no big deal.

These days, Greek letters are more commonly associated with fraternities and sororities (at least for the less-than 30% of Americans who have college degrees). One reason equations like the one at the beginning of the post seem so intimidating is because they look so freakin' strange, very much like another language. Check that... mathematics is another language. If you're going to learn it, and stop being intimidated by it, it is helpful to recognize the letters of the Greek alphabet:
If the equation is being presented properly, it should be apparent what the author means for each symbol to represent. A mark's meaning can change depending on which branch of science you're dealing with, but I've never seen the character pi represent anything other than 3.14159,blah,blah,blah. There are other freaky non-Greek symbols to learn, but that's for another post. Download this PDF (127 K) containing a Greek alphabet cheat sheet.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Cooking is Chemistry

Tab Hunter and Roddy McDowall

Chemistry and Biology. Admit it, that's all it boils down to (and boiling is the lowest form of cooking). Romantic images in your head of grandma stirring a pot of some great smelling something in her rustic kitchen with an old, hand-bound book with yellowing pages full of recipes handed down through generations close to hand... forget 'em. The too-slick celebrity chef with the tall hat and the lab-coatish coat and the foreign accent and the imperious bearing... that's a bit closer to the new reality. I'm tempted to make this a full-blown post on molecular gastronomy and food science, but for now, just an appetizer...
The Vilcek Foundation

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The New Blog Rules

Okay, time to get serious here. Until now, Science Kick has mostly been about what other people are writing. While I will continue to post links to intriguing science articles and assorted ephemera, it's time for me to add more of my own contributions to the foggy bloggy cloud of science on the internet. To that end, I will be instituting some new policies. To wit:

Post Classifications
To make it easier for people to find just the sort of thing they're looking for, I'll have a system for classifying posts that will, I hope, make it easier for you to find only the sorts of items you like:
  • Basics: Simple lessons on things everyone ought to know as well as things you will need to know if you're going to understand more advanced topics.
  • Beyond Basic: Just what the name implies; things that might be taught in an advanced high school science class or perhaps in the first year or so of college.
  • Advanced: Typically things involving heavy duty math and seriously advanced abstract thinking. Not for the faint of heart.
  • Op-Ed: Another category that should be self-evident. I am simply reserving the right to shoot my mouth off about science, right or wrong.
  • OPP: Other People's Posts. Links to other science articles and blogs on the web that the thinking classes should be aware of.
  • News: Straightforward reportage that is (mostly) free of opinion, or just a link to a news article.
  • Tangent: An item that I felt like sharing that may or may not be related to science. (Most likely not... expect lots of stuff on comic books.)
  • Random Acts: Catch-all for anything that doesn't quite fit into one of the other categories. But new categories will be added as I feel they are warranted.
One of these terms will always appear in the tags to help you search for the things you're interested in.
    Corrections to factual inaccuracies are welcomed and encouraged! All I ask is that you cite one (or preferably two) offline sources that anyone might find in a decent university science library. I really, really, really do not trust Wikipedia and don't consider it a reliable source. I look at it like everybody does, but, generally, I prefer professionally edited and/or peer-reviewed stuff.

    Salty Language
    When I encounter an individual whose language is fairly saturated with profanity, I sometimes conclude that I am dealing with someone whose home training and socialization were truly lacking... a low-born, uncouth person who is not to be taken seriously and whose capacity for elevated intellectual discourse must be called into question. But this is my blog, and I reserve the right to resort to gutter lingo whenever I jolly well want to. If you don't like it, the cybersphere is blessed with a plethora of fine writers posting their work to their own blogs, leaving you free to abandon my efforts and flee to one more suited to your sensibilities. Fuck you.

    Now, about the half-naked men...
    Some people will think it's stupid, some people might even be offended, but I have them there for only one reason: I like looking at them. It's not a gimmick or a lure, it's purely a self-indulgence. Most of the photos are random internet finds, but every effort will be made to get permission to use all of the photos I post here. If, however, you have a legitimate claim as the owner of an image and you want it taken down, save yourself a call to a lawyer for a cease and desist. Just send me an e-mail and the pic will be gone from the site. Speaking of sending me stuff...

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    Saturday, May 29, 2010

    Here's to you, Mr. Gardner

    Ben Goldacre writes about the late mathematician, Martin Gardner, and, with a great deal of diplomacy, includes several comments about a certain brand of moron without really referring to them by name. But we know who they are.

    This guy probably isn't one of them and I'm more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

    Friday, January 1, 2010

    New Year, New Decade, Old Science

    I resolve to fill this blog with interesting science, difficult math and many, many gratuitous images of hunky guys.