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The God Chemical? (and I’m not dead) May 25, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Article Review, Faith, science.

However I’ll grant that depending on your definition of death you may be able to make a decent argument for whether I’ve been alive or not the past months.

Where has Valence been?  Unfortunately the answer is quite mundane and I’m tempted to make up a more interesting explanation than confess the truth… (I’ve been on a 3 month sabbatical meditating in Tibet?…The audible voice of Cthulhu answered all my questions but regrettably forbade me to share the deep meanings with you all?…I’ve actually been writing this entire time but Valence has been under attack from a Vatican conspiracy to hack dissenting media (help me Tom Hanks!)?) Unfortunately, to go with any of these I’d need to take down the whole bit above about pursuing truth.  Damn you, commitment to authenticity!

The simple answer is that my wife and I have been buying and remodeling a house over the past months.  I apologize that I never gave a “my blogging life is on hold message”.  The moment where I was going to start writing again was always just around the corner only to be postponed by this task or that.  Anyways, I won’t bore you with further excuses as much as I’ll simply beg your grace and jump back in the deep end.

The Science of Spirituality

Psilocybin3dYou thought I was joking about the deep end?  Recently NPR’s All Things Considered aired a 5 part series on the Science of Spirituality.  I want to discuss the first of their five parts (hopefully getting to the other four eventually): The God Chemical: Brain Chemistry And Mysticism. (Go ahead, listen, it’s only 7 minutes long)

The piece begins by dropping a bombshell of a question: Is God beyond the tools of science to even measure?  While I suspect they are going to spend the series exploring that question and we’ll have time o’plenty to thoroughly vet the issue in future posts I think it’s worth touching on briefly before getting into a discussion of brain chemistry.

It’s a popular platitude to claim that science and religion are looking at two completely different aspects of the world and denying that the results of scientific inquiry should change our faith.  There is some truth here but I think this line of thought is more than often misused to insulate peoples’ personal faiths from the light of critical thought instead of parsing out how we should be thinking about the “unknowable”.  It’s argued that ultimate questions about meaning and miracles can’t even be approached by science because science is rightfully limited to exploring strictly material explanations about the world (see NOMA).  True, in a very real sense science is agnostic on questions of spirituality.  Honest science can only answer “I don’t know” when presented with a question for which it has no evidence.  The spirit is defined as non-material and science is limited to the material after all so how could science ever inform our spirituality?

Two ideas here:

1. This would be well and fine if religious claims never crossed the material border.  However, many religious claims are specifically material (i.e. God created the earth or Jesus rose from the dead).  Further, I think it’s curious that the separation of religion and science is only touted when science is threatening an article of faith.  If perchance science suddenly found undeniable evidence for the biblical flood I doubt that believers would shrug their shoulders and dismiss the evidence, claiming that matters of faith shouldn’t be informed by science since they’re simply addressing separate issues altogether.

2. Science can still help us make informed and rational decisions even if it’s not ultimately “proving” or “disproving” spiritual questions.  If it is completely honest, science must respond “I don’t know” to the assertion that invisible Red Elves are controlling the weather.  This is a non-falsifiable claim.  Science just doesn’t know.  However, by providing an alternate consistent physical model for us to understand the weather that doesn’t need to invoke the jurisprudence of red elves, science allows us to dispense with an infinite number of non-falsifiable theories that have no pragmatic utility.  Let me make it clear that science is not disproving the existence of invisible red elves it’s just admitting that their presence is unnecessary to explain the weather patterns.

Okay, on to brain chemistry and drugs!  Being neither a neuropharmacologist nor much of a drug user my experience with hallucinogens is pretty thin.  This might be for the best on both counts even though I tried my hardest to also be invited to a peyote ceremony to research this post.  I did, however, read the study NPR referenced from John’s Hopkins titled “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance” performed by Roland Griffiths.  (The study is actually pretty short and readable for those tempted to click the link.)

The crux of the study is simply trying to answer the question “Can we reliably induce spiritual/mystic experiences?”  Since science often needs repeatable and consistent iterations of a test to get valid data it has had trouble addressing spirituality simply because of the sparse and often anecdotal nature of peoples experiences.  Many believers may live an entire lifetime of devotion based on one truly transformative experience.  Without the luck of having people in a brain scanner at that exact moment of epiphany science simply has no data to go on.

Now, it’s no secret that taking hallucinogens gives people mystical experiences.  From Navajo peyote use to the reference of Leary and the drug culture in the 60’s we are accustomed to stories of spiritual enlightenment associated with drug use.  However, is this drug induced mysticism similar to the natural emotions many report feeling during worship on a Sunday?  If there is significant physiological similarity what does this say about our assertion that we are ‘feeling God in the room’ instead of reacting to a chemical rush?

To be fair, Griffiths’ experiment was not aimed at answering the later questions but simply at first establishing under rigorous controls that mystic experiences could be reliably induced in so called “hallucinogen-naïve” subjects.  That is, he removed the bias of someone who considers peyote a sacrament or has a lifestyle based on LSD use by choosing subjects who were religious and had never used drugs before.

Before going any further I have to talk about the actual science just a little (without the aid of disco music this may not have same punch that NPR had).  The specific drug Griffiths studied was called psilocybin which is the active chemical in certain mushrooms.  Psilocybin works on the brain by mimicking the effects of a natural neurotransmitter called serotonin which the brain uses to send messages and is used in the control of appetite, mood and anger.  Psilocybin essentially looks like serotonin knocking at the door to a unsuspecting neuron but once inside delivers an entirely unexpected message causing the neurons to misbehave and the net effect is a trip.

When compared with the ‘placebo’ (which was Ritalin in this case, also physco-active in order to give a more relevant baseline to compare the relative mystical effects of one drug to another) psilocybin by far was reported to increase distance from ordinary reality, increase emotions like crying, joy and intense happiness and also increase peace and harmony.  The study is quoted as finding:

…the volunteers judged the meaningfulness of the experience to be similar, for example, to the birth of a first child or death of a parent. Thirty-three percent of the volunteers rated the psilocybin experience as being the single most spiritually significant experience of his or her life, with an additional 38% rating it to be among the top five most spiritually significant experiences. In written comments about their answers, the volunteers often described aspects of the experience related to a sense of unity without content (pure consciousness) and/or unity of all things. (Griffiths)

71% of the subjects reported their experience with psilocybin as one of the most significant spiritual moments of their entire lives.  That’s astounding to me.  The astounding part is not that they had a reaction to a drug it’s that they knew they were having a reaction to a drug and still felt spiritually connected to the supernatural.  The physical, artificial if you will, origins of this mystic incident just didn’t matter when it came time to interpret the ultimate meaning of their experience.  That is, even though they knew it was a purely physical response to a chemical they still walked away feeling as having communed with God.  I’d be terribly interested to know now what the long term significance of that moment has been in their lives.

The NPR piece concludes rather ambiguously (perhaps in an effort to tease us back next time) by quoting Griffiths:

Still, Griffiths says all the studies in the world can’t answer his central question about spirituality: “Why does that occur? Why has the human organism been engineered, if you will, for this experience?”

I see 3 options to explain this apparent “engineering” in humans:

  1. Calling our mystical experiences a communion with the supernatural is a mistake.  Our brain and therefore our reality is governed by a complex dance of chemicals which has been refined by eons of evolution.  When any part of this dance is altered we get a different reality.  When our serotonin receptors act up and we think we experience the euphoria (or fear) of meeting with God we are no more experiencing the supernatural than those tripping on psilocybin.
  2. God is just using the physical to interact with us.  Why wouldn’t he?  Just because we can artificially induce a spiritual reaction to a drug doesn’t mean that God isn’t the one naturally inducing this reaction under ‘normal’ circumstances.
  3. You can’t prove that the chemical pathway used by psilocybin is the same that was used in my spiritual experience.  Just because the effects may look the same doesn’t mean that my experience wasn’t truly supernatural.

What do you think?


Darwin Does It February 11, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Article Review, science.
Tags: , , ,

darwinjpgThis week marks the culmination of our trifecta of evolution discussions here at Valence. February 12th is Darwin Day (his 200th birthday, except I don’t like counting dead peoples’ birthdays, do you?) and this year is the 150th anniversary of his release of On The Origin of Species.  The media is awash in Darwin controversy and I can’t help but weigh in.

I suppose statements like “evolution kicks ass” probably already gave away my opinion that the Theory of Evolution is not only good and sound science but also is the kind of idea that has literally revolutionized what it means to be human.  Therefore, I’ll stop beating the intelligent design horse this week and instead spend a bit of time exploring this character Darwin and his discerning idea called natural selection.

(Proceed with caution, the next bit may appear dry but it won’t hurt too bad, I promise.)

Simply put, natural selection recognizes that no two individuals of a species are exactly the same.  When competing for shared but limited resources (whether it be food or potential mates) one will have a slight advantage over the other by default.  Those individuals best equipped to reproduce in their natural environment will be those most likely to pass on those advantageous characteristics to their offspring.  Over many generations favored features statistically come to dominate the population.  If, perchance, a new adaptation were to better equip an individual to compete than that feature would eventually become pervasive in the population.

I confess, when looked at in hindsight Darwin’s theory of natural selection doesn’t appear to be so revolutionary.  Sounds like common sense.  Thomas Huxley is famously quoted as saying “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!” when he heard of it.

The reason Darwin’s idea was so radical is that he defined a completely natural “pressure” that enables random physical change to accumulate in a species with the appearance of a defined direction (ie giraffes’ necks getting longer or human skin changing tone).  If two groups of the same species are separated and subjected to different pressures for long enough they accumulate different physical features and eventually will become different species.  Run the clock backwards and we find each species sharing some common branch point, a common ancestor.

The problem Darwin had is that his theory required a reliable mechanism by which parents could endow their offspring with inherited traits but also one that would randomly mutate from time to time to allow for variation in physical features that could be acted on by natural selection.  It wouldn’t be until the 1920’s when an obscure monk’s (Mendel’s)  experiments on peas would be rediscovered and kick-start genetics and even later in the 1950’s as DNA was discovered that Darwin would have his mechanism.

Darwin surely didn’t have all the details mechanisms exactly right but his overarching concepts have still held up surprising well.  Even so it’s really been the persistent research of the past 150 years building upon Darwin’s foundation which has solidified evolution as scientific reality.  This fact has some people saying we need to lose the fascination with Darwin and start paying more attention to the breadth of evolutionary research since his time.

The New York Times ran an essay this week by Carl Safina called “Darwinism Must Die So That Evolution May Live” in which he essentially argues that by linking evolution with Darwin too tightly we give the false impression that this beautiful theory lives and dies by just one man alone.  Safina is really making PR appeal to the scientific community (which is interesting in a week dedicated to the celebration of Darwin’s contribution to science).  By seeking to downplay the importance of Darwin (and especially “isms” like Darwinism) he aims to highlight the last 150 years of research which he feels, if the public could understand, would not so flippantly be denied or ignored by so many.

…our understanding of how life works since Darwin won’t swim in the public pool of ideas until we kill the cult of Darwinism. Only when we fully acknowledge the subsequent century and a half of value added can we really appreciate both Darwin’s genius and the fact that evolution is life’s driving force, with or without Darwin.

I agree that we should never be deifying a historical figure like Darwin and that any perception that scientists ‘believe’ in the theory of evolution as a cult is seriously misguided.  The idea that evolution is “Darwin’s theory” betrays a deep misunderstanding of the depth confirming evidence found since the 1860’s and only by setting Darwin in the proper context do his advances actually carry the weight of genius instead of just myth.  But is celebrating Darwin’s achievements this week really as dangerous as Safina implies?

Safina correctly recognizes that the mid 1800’s were already broiling over with bits and pieces of the evolutionary puzzle (like common decent and inherited features) which were waiting to be put together into a unified theory.  Darwin didn’t invent all the components of evolution but instead recognized the mechanism by which evolution could occur, natural selection.  There is no doubt that had Darwin not thought of natural selection someone soon after him would.  In fact, in fear of being scooped by Alfred Russel Wallace, who outlined an almost identical theory, Darwin (after mulling over his theory for 20 years) was forced to publish The Origin before he actually felt ready.  Evolution “…was an idea whose time had come, with or without Darwin.”

However, I disagree with Safina that celebrating Darwin’s contribution to science is dangerous.  Evolutionary theory may have been inevitable with or without the historical character “Charles Darwin” but it would have certainly been impossible without a man (or woman) with the character traits that Darwin embodied.  His unique obsession with naturalism coupled with an absurd dedication to the tedious methodology of science equipped him to tackle a problem that no one before had been able solve.  In a way, celebrating Darwin is not elevating a man but instead is recognizing the fruits of the scientific process itself.

Respect for Darwin is as much for the disciplined and scientific way he addressed the problem as it is for the discovery itself. When we celebrate Darwin, we are not cheering for a man who got lucky one day, but for someone who represents many of what we consider scientific virtues: curiosity, rigor, discipline, meticulous observation, experiment, and intellectual courage. (PZ Myers, Pharyngula)

Darwin was writing and thinking at the height of the Victorian Era.  To call his ideas, which gave teeth to a material explanation of human existence, controversial would be a gross understatement considering the religious fervor of his time.  Hell, the religious fervor of our time is still pretty feverish.  I have to admit that I admire his resolve to chase truth down trails that he knew would not be popular.  But even more than his resolve was the tangible weight he carried to be cautious and meticulous with evidence before jumping to conclusions.  I want to think and process like that, with a burden for the utmost care and an open-mind to follow the evidence where it leads.  I still find that a cause worth celebrating.

Intelligent Design? February 4, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Faith, science, Skepticism.
Tags: , , , , ,

Last week, in order to discuss the strategy of ‘academic freedom’ which intelligent design proponents are hiding behind, I introduced the evolution vs. intelligent design (ID) debate briefly.  Apparently, judging by the lack of push-back I got in the comments, it is a fairly safe opinion to hold here at Valence that ID has no place in public schools and that evolution should be taught as the factual scientific theory it is.   A fantastic discussion of this exact discussion was on These Day KPBS on Tuesday; I’d definitely recommend giving it a listen.

That being said, I have had some extremely interesting conversations offline (thank you to those who e-mailed me this week) about the soundness of intelligent design.  I’d like to take to the time this week to explore the central tenants of ID a little further and explain why I believe they hold little to no merit.

While ID parades itself as a new modern scientific theory it is fundamentally just a restatement of the age old Teleological Argument for the existence of God put forth by thinkers as early as Aquinas and Cicero.  Simply put, there are components of the natural world which appear to be designed by their sheer complexity.  In the same way that the existence of a pocket watch implies that there exists a watchmaker, natural systems which appear designed imply the existence of an ultimate designer, that is God.

Here’s a rather humorous example of the argument from design (yes, this is serious):

By the way, I’m not trying to paint all believers with the same brush here.  Ray Comfort is arguably a poor representative for believers seeing as how he’s a… well an idiot.  Admittedly, there are design arguments that aren’t so embarrassing, though I’m not sure that at their heart they don’t struggle with the same logical fallacies.  By assuming it immediately follows that any system which appears designed must have a supernatural designer (a false dichotomy and a non sequitur) we ignore the possibility that natural causes may also affect systems to organize in complex or intricate ways.

In fact, natural causes do often result in complex and intricate systems without the intervention of a divine being.  Less controversial examples would be the self organization of snowflakes or diamonds and next week we’ll explore the grand-daddy of intricate systems resulting from natural causes, Darwinian Natural Selection.  Ohh, I can’t wait!

Intelligent design specifically looks to put a modern spin on the teleological argument by setting it the context of modern biology.  The buzz phrase that ID proponents have coined to describe biological systems which they insist must have been designed is irreducible complexity.   Irreducible complexity is the idea that any biological system which must be completely whole in an advanced intricate form in order to function could not have evolved since natural selection couldn’t operate on a more primitive and thus non-functional organ.

Like the fantastic and candid scientist he was, Darwin was actually the first to note that his theory of evolution by natural selection could be falsified by the existence of just one proven irreducibly complex system:

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case. (On the Origin of Species)

The main advocates of ID (namely Michael Behe, William Dembski and Philip Johnson among others) claim that they have indeed found such cases that Darwin could not.  Perhaps the most popular example (and certainly the easiest to explain here at Valence) is the supposed irreducible complexity of the eye.

ID claims that if you remove any portion of the eye (ie the lens, cornea, the photo receptor cells or even the molecular proteins that trigger the neural relays to the brain) then the eye ceases to function.  Evolution implies that modern eyes are the result of modification from less complex eyes in our ancestors.  But if those less complex eyes weren’t functional, how did natural selection favor increased performance?  This seeming paradox is where ID insists that supernatural intervention is required.  To further bolster their claim that a designer is necessary they often cite the impossible odds of a complete system like the eye coming together by chance.  Anyone up for the proverbial tornadoes building 747’s or chimps typing Shakespeare?

As we’ll see next week, the example of the eye as irreducibly complex (and similar systems) and the appeal to impossible odds really betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of natural selection as a mechanism on the part of ID proponents.

Behe in Darwin’s Black Box focuses further attention on cellular (bacterial flagellum) and molecular (blood clotting cascade) examples which are a bit more advanced but still essentially the same claim.  For all you A students out there, quality discussion of each can be found here and here.

For the rest of us, let me just note that no irreducibly complex system proposed by ID has actually been shown to be irreducible.  In fact evolution researchers have thoroughly debunked each of ID’s concerns and ID has produced no recognized scientific research to back up their claims.  That is, there is absolutely no reputable argument about whether the eye (for example) is irreducibly complex.  It’s not.  Multiple researchers have time and again provided compelling evidence for the natural evolution of proposed irreducibly complex systems like the eye.

Behe himself, as he testified in Kitzmiller vs Dover, admitted that many of his initial critiques made in Darwin’s Black Box have been answered and that in the 20 years of ID research not one peer reviewed ID article has been published in a respected scientific journal.  (For you A+ students, NOVA did a great special on the Kitzmiller trial that I highly recommend.)

That being said, it is perfectly valid and probably even healthy for the scientific process to be challenged by the problems that IDers have noted.  Science thrives on challenges and grows by having people try to falsify its theories.  However, there is an intellectual dishonesty in clinging to those initial critiques of evolution after a preponderance of evidence has proven you wrong.  This kind of dogmatic persistence actually hinders scientific progress.

Bringing the issue back home.  What confounds me is, if ID research is so inflated and paper thin (which is the case I’m making), why does the majority of the religious community still hang our hat on their theories?  There are the few scientists like Ken Miller and Francis Collins who strive to reconcile an adherence to strict evolution with Christian faith but I think we can agree they are in the minority here in America.

For the most of us, we seem content to largely ignore the formidable case for evolution by concentrating on the fringe dissent that is ID, that is if we think about the evolution at all.   But is this really an honest treatment of the issue or is it a case where the religious community has subconsciously (or consciously for that matter) predetermined which research it will back based who is arguing for God?  If intelligent design is shown to be untenable, what are the responsible implications for our faith?

cdesign proponentsists January 29, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Article Review, Politics, science.
Tags: , , , , ,

The evolution ‘debate’ is certainly a can of worms but, with Darwin’s 200th birthday coming up next month and recent creationist battles in Louisiana on the news wire, it’s a can that’s due to be opened here at Valence.

Before we go too far, let me just be clear, evolution kicks ass.  Since Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859 evidence ranging from such diverse disciplines as paleontology to genetics has consistently poured in to show that evolution is a robust natural explanation for the diversity of life on our planet.  I’ve paired the word ‘debate’ with evolution in quotes above because there is actually no scientific controversy over whether evolution is true.  (For a brief further explanation of my position you can read here and for a less brief but considerably more reputable discussion please check this out.)


That being said, there is certainly a debate between religious creationists (lately, thinly veiled as “Intelligent Design, ID, Proponents”) and reputable science.  Unfortunately, because ID proponents have little to contribute to the actual scientific community this debate is often waged over high school and middle school curricula instead of with actual research.  For IDers it’s much easier to slip creationism past the politics of school boards and state legislators than it is to deal honestly with scientific criticism.  A great summary of creationism’s tactics was in the January issue of Scientific American.

The effort to sneak religious overtones into the public school system by barring or seriously skewing the teaching of evolution is nothing new and has, as of yet, been unsuccessful thanks to our handy-dandy Establishment Clause (see Epperson v. Arkansas and Edwards v. Aguillard).  In fact, the entire ID movement was born out of the need to mask the religious overtones of creationism in order to side step the separation of church and state.  Luckily, even efforts as recent as 2005 to provide “alternative textbooks” in schools promoting ID have proven unsuccessful as the promotion of ID was equated with the promotion of religion (see Kitzmiller v. Dover).  After being so soundly thumped at Dover the ID community has been forced to retreat to their fallback strategy of lobbying for schools to simply “teach the controversy” about evolution by couching their arguments in the vocabulary of “academic freedom.”

It is this plea to academic freedom that I am most interested in discussing this week.  The strategy is so interesting because it appeals to an inherent sense of fairplay and debate that Americans go crazy for.  As soon as any argument seeks to silence its critics in order to remain valid all of our alarm bells go ringing.  One could ask, “If evolution is so secure than why try to shield our students from learning its pitfalls?  Why not teach the controversy and let the students decide?”  On the surface these appear to be strong and valid questions but ultimately I think they’re misrepresenting the science and twisting the purpose of education.

Here’s an example.  Louisiana took a small but important step back towards the dark ages last year with the unfortunate passing of the Louisiana Science Education Act.

On its face, the law looks innocuous: it directs the state board of education to “allow and assist teachers, principals, and other school administrators to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied,” which includes providing “support and guidance for teachers regarding effective ways to help students understand, analyze, critique, and objectively review scientific theories being studied.” What’s not to like? Aren’t critical thinking, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion exactly what science education aims to promote? (SciAm Jan 09)

The bill is aimed at supporting and protecting teachers who want to teach ‘supplemental’ material about ‘controversial’ subjects.  Doesn’t sound too bad, right?  Wrong. Tellingly, the only ‘controversial’ subjects highlighted by the bill are “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning”.  Also, “…the bill was introduced at the behest of the Louisiana Family Forum, which seeks to “persuasively present biblical principles in the centers of influence on issues affecting the family through research, communication and networking.” (SciAm Jan 09)”

Further, shouldn’t science teachers already be fostering critical thinking skills and logical analysis?  Is there really a need for the Louisiana legislature to suddenly step in and encourage them to continue do so?  I don’t think so.  This bill is simply seeking a loophole to sneak creationism back into schools.

…it is clear why the Louisiana Science Education Act is pernicious: it tacitly encourages teachers and local school districts to miseducate students about evolution, whether by teaching creationism as a scientifically credible alternative or merely by misrepresenting evolution as scientifically controversial… Telling students that evolution is a theory in crisis is-to be blunt-a lie. (SciAm Jan 09)

But what of academic freedom?  Yes, teaching is about equipping your students with critical thinking skills but it’s also about pointing them to the best and most reliable sources of information available. Helping them up onto the proverbial shoulders of those giants they are supposed to be seeing from, if you will.

The simple fact is that evolution is not contested in any reputable scientific circles.  All of modern biology is built upon the stoutness of evolutionary theory.  Does academic freedom extend to lying to our students about the validity of scientific theories in order to be ‘fair’ to opposing views?  I think not, especially when those views are largely contrived and long ago debunked.  Why handicap our students with this kind of garbage?  ID’s request to teach creationism, or at least cast doubt on evolution, is tantamount to giving equal time to the Flat Earth Society in the physics classroom because they disagree with Newton.

Additionally, the appeal to ‘teach the controversy’ betrays a serious misunderstanding on the side of creationists as to how science actually works.  Science thrives on argument.  The strength of evolutionary theory (and any other well established scientific theory for that matter) is the tangible ways that it meets and answers questioners with actual evidence.  It’s the controversy and skeptical questions which keep us looking for evidence and which have ultimately strengthened evolution over the years.

The problem with the ID movement is not that they contest the validity of evolution but instead that once their theories have been refuted by evidence they consistently refuse to revise their ideas.  Dishonesty.  When they are no longer able to proffer their arguments in scientific circles they decide to take their case directly to high school students.  Talk about preying on the vulnerable.  A plea to academic freedom is used to excuse a lack of academic integrity.  Is this the educational standard we should be holding to?

Science 2008 – Part 2 December 31, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Article Review, science.

Everybody have their water wings on?  It’s time to continue our swim through Valence’s Top 10 Science Stories of the Year!

5. Pica Pica Perception


This year researchers in Germany showed that the European Magpie (Pica pica) deserves to join the elite class of animals we consider to be self-aware.

A rudimentary “sense of self” is usually judged by testing if an animal can make the cognitive leap from seeing its reflection in a mirror as another animal to seeing its reflection as himself.  This mirror test is a simple but profound one.  Typically a small mark will be made on an animal in a spot that can only be seen in the mirror.  If the animal tries to remove the mark from itself purely by seeing its mirror image then this shows that it has constructed an abstract sense of self that can encompass an external image into its identity.  It’s much more tricky than it sounds and up till now only humans, great apes, bottle-nose dolphins and elephants have been shown to have this level of awareness.

That is, until we decided to test the Magpie.  This is the first non-mammal found showing signs of self-recognition.  Considering that the human evolutionary lineage diverged from birds roughly 300 million years ago this means that the ability to be self-aware has evolved separately in corvids and primates.  That is, drastically different brain structures are being evolved to serve very similar functions of self-awareness and social interaction.  Very cool stuff.

4. Smile, You’re an Exoplanet


In 2008 NASA verified that Hubble has taken its first ever picture of a planet outside of our solar system!  No that’s not the all seeing Sauron Eye of Mordor.  See that little non-descript blip in the square? That’s a picture of what has been dubbed planet Fomalhaut B after its parent star Fomalhaut.  It may not look like much but this picture is a huge leap forward in our ability to detect planets around other stars.

A short explanation of what exactly it is we’re looking at is probably in order:  since the star is millions of times brighter than the planet itself, Hubble had to mask the light of the star itself, which is why there is a big black spot in the middle of the picture.  Around the star is a ring of ‘protoplanetary debris‘ 21.5 billion miles across, and because of a gravitational anomaly in the ring, NASA scientists hypothesized back in 2004 that there may be a planet warping the ring’s shape.  And so they watched and waited.

Sure enough, exactly as hypothesized between 2004 and 2006 they observed an object moving with and orbiting Fomalhaut.  This year NASA has confirmed that this object is in fact a planet. Fomalhaut B is about the mass of Jupiter and is about 10 times the distance from its star as Saturn is from ours, orbiting Fomalhaut every 872-years.  This is such a incredible advance because up until now we only had evidence that exoplanets existed by watching the light from stars ‘wobble‘ as objects passed in front of them but we had never actually seen a planet itself.  While we already had a pretty good hunch that exoplanets were there this picture is incontrovertible evidence that our solar system is not alone.

3. Goodbye Bush, Welcome Obama!


What!? Number 3 is political?  How is this a science story?!? Well, before you get your chonies in a bunch, let’s not forget that science isn’t just obscure experiments where geeks like me get their jollies.  Science actually has real world implications for our safety, health, the environment, etc.  The way our society receives, interprets and reacts to scientific discoveries (i.e. public policy) has significant impacts for the future of both our nation and the world.  Unfortunately, the Bush administration couldn’t have been worse when it comes to scientific literacy and leadership.

Bush’s treatment of science was dismal beyond party lines.  Seth Shulman’s book Undermining Science outlines Bush’s war on science, “…the Bush administration has systematically misled Americans on a wide range of scientific issues affecting public health, foreign policy, and the environment by ignoring, suppressing, manipulating, or even distorting scientific research.”  He has prioritized political ideology over scientific facts in a dangerous trend that will set America back decades in the global market.  For a short list, he has been unwaveringly wrong on stem cell research, evolution, global warming and environmental protection.  Unfortunately, this looks like it may be a right-wing trend: the McCain/Palin ticket wasn’t much friendlier to science.

On the bright side, 2008 was the year of Obama and of much needed change which will hopefully restore scientific integrity to the federal government.  The early signs are good.  Obama’s team has already demonstrated an understanding of the issues far outshining Bush and has nominated actual scientists to contribute to his cabinet.  His answers to Science Debate 2008 were encouraging.  We’ll see what the next 4 years bring.

2. Large Hadron Collider


The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was completed this year.  Straddling the border between Switzerland and France 300 feet underground and 16 miles around it’s the largest, and possibly most complex, piece of machinery ever built, ever.  Without even knowing what it does this fact by itself is just cool.  Luckily, what it does only makes the LHC sexier.

The LHC is a particle collider, not the first of its kind, but definitely the biggest.  With carefully orchestrated magnetic fields it will accelerate two strings of protons up to 99.99% the speed of light in opposite directions and then…whaamo!  They smash them together.  The theory is actually pretty simple here: if you want to know what’s inside a particle that’s too small to dissect, you need to smash it apart.  If we want to know what the universe is made of at the smallest of scales (remember quantum mechanics?) the LHC will get us closest to the answer.

Some of the discoveries the LHC team is hoping for include the illusive Higgs Boson (a theoretical particle that could explain why mass itself exists), the source of Dark matter (undiscovered material literally knitting the universe itself together), the physics of the Big Bang and possibly even hidden dimensions!  Is anyone else getting goose bumps right now!?

There is one reason and one reason only that the LHC is not #1 on my list:  in early testing this year it broke.   Not to worry, things like this happen, especially with a machine that is juggling the most extreme temperatures, vacuums and speeds known to man.  Luckily the LHC will be back up and running in 2009 so we might get to revisit it with next year’s list!

For more pics of the LHC check this out.

1. Phoenix Mars Lander


Pulling into the number one position (by a nose) for Valence’s Top Science Story of 2008 is the Phoenix Mars Lander.  In a hugely successful mission, this May NASA landed a remarkable science lab on the Mars northern polar cap.  Now, just the act of getting anything safely to the surface of Mars automatically quadruples your cool points, but this lander was then able to dig, analyze, film and even listen once it got there.

What were we looking for on Mars?  Well, life of course!  Now we don’t have any expectations that we’ll be digging up any critters but we can sure look for the evidence of past life.  That is, water and organic compounds. From geological formations we suspect that the Martian surface was once a very wet place.  The Phoenix Lander was placed at the north pole of Mars because there was almost guaranteed to be sheets of ice just below the Martian soil.

On a mission that lasted months longer than the NASA scientists had expected the equipment to hold out, Phoenix did in fact find ice below the Martian soil in addition to finding clay and calcium carbonate (compounds that only form in liquid water when here on Earth).  Phoenix also observed for the first time humidity and snow in the Martian atmosphere.

As the Martian winter set in, Phoenix’s solar panels did eventually give out in September and now the lab sits frozen at the pole with little hope of ever being revived.  However, Phoenix did gather a ton of information that is just now being analyzed and as we start to really sift through the data in 2009 perhaps we’ll be able to start answering questions like: Why did Mars go dry? or Was there ever life on our neighbor? 

In any case, even though the Phoenix Lander literally only scratched the surface of the red planet, it was still a huge leap forward in understanding Mars!


All right Valencers, thus concludes Valence’s Top 10 Science Stories of the Year! Vote below for what you think was the best story (I’ve included Enceladus from the 10-6 list since it won last week’s poll).

Have a Happy New Year everyone!

Science 2008 – Part 1 December 23, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Article Review, science.

So I’m a sucker for year end lists.  Top ten movies of 2008? Can’t live without it.  Top 15 albums of the year?  Yes.  Top 25 pictures of the year?  Of course.  Top 5 new influential blogs dedicated to wrestling with faith, science and big questions started this year?  You tell me.

Considering my arguably obsessive compulsive penchant for categorizing the year’s events into a tidy and prioritized package, I can’t see any better way to bid adieu to 2008 than to give you Valence’s Top 10 Science Stories of the Year!

So sit back and let your imagination wander a bit.  It’s time for us all to brush up on not only the fundamentals of how the world works but also take time to glimpse the horizon where human knowledge is just beginning to push.  Reality is fascinating stuff.

10. Mammoth Genome Sequenced


To kick things off it’s everyone’s favorite visitor from the last ice age. The Woolly Mammoth made headlines this year, luckily not because Ray Romano was making another movie, but because researchers from Penn State were able to sequence the DNA of a mammoth, a species extinct now for 10,000 years.

A quick reminder:  DNA is the long (very long) molecule held in each cell of every living organism which literally contains the instructions for how to build the complete organism.  To sequence an animal’s DNA means that we’ve written out the pattern of ‘base pairs’ or letters that enable us to read the instructions piece by piece.  This is a monumental task considering the complete mammoth genome contains over 3 billion base-pairs!

The previous record for sequencing the DNA of an extinct species was less than 1% of the genome.  2008 was a year when we jumped miles beyond that record to be able to read almost the entire instruction book for putting a mammoth together.  The implications here range from the really cool (i.e. learning tons about mammoth and elephant evolution) to the really, really, really cool.  Staggering actually, when we consider that it may be soon possible to bring the mammoth back to life armed with a complete genome.

9. Mind Reading


Researchers in Kyoto, Japan have actually shown that by using an fMRI scan of patients’ brains they can predict what the patient is looking at.  In the above picture you can see the test patterns the patients were presented and the resulting pattern the computer was able to reconstruct. Pretty good.

The computer imaging works because the part of your brain that processes information from your eyes, the visual cortex, directly maps whatever falls on your retina to the brain.  By using an fMRI scan to evaluate the blood flow in the visual cortex, the researchers were able read this map and determine what the eyes were perceiving.

Admittedly, most news reports of this research were a bit overstated, claiming that we will soon be reading dreams or peoples thoughts, which isn’t quite warranted.  These images aren’t really reading peoples’ thoughts per se but instead evaluating how the visual cortex processes information.  The next step in my mind is to have people ‘imagine’ an image and see if we can similarly read the pattern. However, even with these limitations I’m still blown away by the serious strides we are making in unlocking the workings of arguably the most complex piece of machinery in the known universe, your brain!

8. Quantum Entanglement


Okay, so this one is probably going to be the toughest for me to write about.  Quantum mechanics is confounding.  Apparently this means we’re on the right track though: Niels Bohr is quoted as saying that, “For those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.”  If you’re not familiar with this branch of physics, quantum mechanics is the study of atomic and subatomic particles and forces.  At this scale the universe is frankly wacky and counterintuitive for us big lumbering humans.

This year Swiss physicists have demonstrated a well-established phenomenon in quantum mechanics called entanglement in a new and stunning way.  By sending a pair of photons via fiber optic cable from Geneva to two villages separated by 11 miles they were able to show that when one photon was observed the other changed instantaneously.  This essentially means that the photons are linked (or entangled) and able to influence each other without regard for the distance they are separated by.

These findings are radical because they challenge our very understanding of space and time itself.  For those who think science is dogmatic or rigid they need look no further than the research being done with quantum mechanics to see a revolution in human understanding in the making.  Breathtaking!

7. And the Nobel goes to GFP!


The Nobel Prize for Chemistry this year was awarded jointly to researchers who developed “green fluorescent protein” or GFP over the past 20 years.  What the heck is GFP? Well I’m glad you asked.

Many animals (a la fire flies and jellyfish) are able to emit light through biological processes, bioluminescence.  These researchers were able to isolate the specific protein which enabled cells to glow green in a specific jellyfish and insert it at will into other cells of other organisms.  Essentially, they modify the DNA of a cell so that whenever a particular function of that cell occurs it lights up like a Christmas tree.

Harnessing GFP goes well beyond enabling us to produce dramatic pictures (even though this aspect is pretty cool).  By the way, the picture above is of a embryonic zebra-fish with its neurons lit up.  They call it a ‘brainbow’!  GFP has also become an essential tool in studying biological process by its ability to tag and track individual cells as they mature, function and die.

6. Enceladus Intrigue


In 1997 we launched a probe named Cassini to the system surrounding Saturn.  It took seven years to cross interplanetary space and in 2004 it arrived to start studying Saturn and its moons.  One of the most surprising finds has been from a previously nondescript small icy moon named Enceladus.  In 2008 Cassini returned fantastic evidence that may just point us to the first discovery of extraterrestrial life.

What we’ve found on Enceladus is evidence of tectonic activity attested to by the relative lack of craters and the existence of deep fissures and cracks on the surface.  On what should be a frozen solid piece of rock we’ve instead discovered enough heat to drive geological activity.  Jets of powdery snow and water vapor are spewed miles into space from massive surface geysers.  Some of them spewed so far as to be forming some of Saturn’s rings.  What’s more, these ejections are chock-full of organic compounds.  The current theory is that Enceladus has a surface of ice sheets similar to tectonic plates which float on a deep mantle of liquid water.

What do we get when we combine energy + organic compounds + liquid water?  A very freaking fertile environment for life!  The possibility that beneath massive sheets of ice there might be lurking microbial life in a liquid sea which has arisen 750 million miles from Earth is awesome.  I’m almost at a loss for words…but don’t worry just almost.  By the way for some additional pics that kick ass check out this link.


Well that wraps it up for the first 5 stories.  Keep an eye out next week for the remaining stories that round out Valence’s Top 10 Science Stories of the Year!

Before I let you go, vote below for the story that you found most interesting: