Monthly Archives: January 2013

We have a duty to put our faith in science, not trample on it

Will Hutton, The Observer, 25 May 2012

The patron saint of the British Industrial Revolution was Francis Bacon, the great Elizabethan philosopher and crusading apostle for science. His passionate advocacy of the scientific method and belief in science’s ability to banish superstition – allowing nature to be harnessed for humankind’s betterment – was light years ahead of his time. The Royal Society was founded 34 years after his death as the scientific academy he wanted to create.

Almost every successful Anglo-Saxon inventor and industrialist during the next 250 years – from Benjamin Franklin to Michael Faraday – paid tribute to his inspiration. He was the Enlightenment man before the Enlightenment, and one important reason why the Industrial Revolution started in Britain.

Francis Bacon’s spirit will be sorely lacking in Harpenden today. Take the Flour Back is organising a day of “mass protest” around one small field where researchers from government-funded Rothamsted Research are growing a strain of wheat that resists being eaten by aphids. So far, so good – it could hugely boost wheat yields. The trouble is that this variety of wheat has been developed in a laboratory with scientists blending the seeds’ genes with a gene that gives the wheat a smell that frightens off the insects in a way that could never happen in nature. Take the Flour Back wants the wheat, now a foot tall, uprooted and the threat of its pollen contaminating the surrounding countryside removed. Continue reading

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Will science ever answer the Big Questions?

Unless the pursuit of dreadfulness results in a tie, each year will possess its own worst book. But identifying the winner in this dubious competition poses difficulties. Surely even a well-read literary editor of The New Republic must wonder whether among all those inevitably unturned pages lurks something even more atrocious than his favorite candidate. How then could Leon Wieseltier select THE ATHEIST’S GUIDE TO REALITY: Enjoying Life Without Illusions (Norton, $25.95), by Alex Rosenberg, as the “worst book” of 2011?

Although the award is almost certainly misplaced, what inspired it is readily understood. The book expands the campaign of militant modern atheism, the offensive launched against religion by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Rosenberg’s broadsides attack a wider horizon. Since atheism is thought to be territory already secured, the targets now in view are the Big Questions, questions about morality, purpose and consciousness that puzzle softheaded people who muddle over them. Science brings good news. The answers are now all in. This conviction that science can resolve all questions is known as “scientism” — a label typically used pejoratively (as by Wieseltier), but one Rosenberg seizes as a badge of honor. Continue reading

Stem-cell medicine: more hope than just hype?

Alice Park, The Economist 

THE unrelenting pace of scientific accomplishment often outstrips the progress of moral thought, leaving people struggling to make sense, initially at least, of whether heart transplants are ethical or test-tube babies desirable. Over the past three decades scientists have begun to investigate a branch of medicine that offers astonishing promise—the ability to repair the human body and even grow new organs—but which destroys early-stage embryos to do so. In “The Stem Cell Hope” Alice Park, a science writer at Timemagazine, chronicles the scientific, political, ethical and personal struggles of those involved in the work.

Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent: they have the ability to change into any one of the 200-odd types of cell that compose the human body; but they can do so only at a very early stage. Once the bundle has reached more than about 150 cells, they start to specialise. Research into repairing severed spinal cords or growing new hearts has thus needed a supply of stem cells that come from entities that, given a more favourable environment, could instead grow into a baby. Continue reading

Why scientists are smarter than politicians

TIME, Jeffrey Kluger, 30 Sept 2011

One of the best things about being an artist is that nobody can tell you you’re doing things wrong. There’s no true or false in a Picasso painting, no yes or no in a Mahler composition. That, of course, is how it should be. The opposite is true for science — and that’s how it should be too. The scientific method is defined by the search for the irreducible truth. The riddle of a disease isn’t solved till you’ve isolated the virus; no particle is fully understood till it’s been successfully smashed. It’s not for nothing that recent news of a neutrino that may have traveled .0025% faster than light is causing such a stir.  If that vanishingly tiny anomaly can’t be resolved and disproven, a century of physics could collapse.

But the stone walls between art and science aren’t nearly as thick as they seem; indeed, in some ways they’re entirely permeable. That’s a lesson we badly need to learn if we’re going to make sound policy decisions in an era in which science and politics seem increasingly at odds.

In the Oct. 3 issue of TIME, theoretical physicist Lisa Randall of Harvard University made a plea for greater deference to reason in the still-young but already-ugly 2012 presidential campaign. Randall lamented “the fundamental disregard for rational and scientific thinking” in a political culture in which Texas governor Rick Perry can dismiss evolution as “merely a theory that’s out there,” and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann can traffic in poppycock about the HPV vaccine causing mental retardation. Continue reading

We are all Aaron Swartz

More information here: http://www.economist.com/news/obituary/21569674-aaron-swartz-computer-programmer-and-activist-committed-suicide-january-11th-aged-26-aaron

Aaron Swartz, the computer programmer and internet freedom activist,committed suicide on Friday in New York at the age of 26. As the incredibly moving remembrances from his friends such as Cory Doctorow and Larry Lessig attest, he was unquestionably brilliant but also – like most everyone – a complex human being plagued by demons and flaws. For many reasons, I don’t believe in whitewashing someone’s life or beatifying them upon death. But, to me, much of Swartz’s tragically short life was filled with acts that are genuinely and, in the most literal and noble sense, heroic. I think that’s really worth thinking about today.

At the age of 14, Swartz played a key role in developing the RSS software that is still widely used to enable people to manage what they read on the internet. As a teenager, he also played a vital role in the creation of Reddit, the wildly popular social networking news site. When Conde Nast purchased Reddit, Swartz received a substantial sum of money at a very young age. He became something of a legend in the internet and programming world before he was 18. His path to internet mogul status and the great riches it entails was clear, easy and virtually guaranteed: a path which so many other young internet entrepreneurs have found irresistible, monomaniacally devoting themselves to making more and more money long after they have more than they could ever hope to spend.

But rather obviously, Swartz had little interest in devoting his life to his own material enrichment, despite how easy it would have been for him. As Lessig wrote: “Aaron had literally done nothing in his life ‘to make money’ . . . Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good.” Continue reading

RIP Aaron Swartz

More information here: http://www.economist.com/news/obituary/21569674-aaron-swartz-computer-programmer-and-activist-committed-suicide-january-11th-aged-26-aaron

Aaron Swartz, the computer programmer and internet freedom activist,committed suicide on Friday in New York at the age of 26. As the incredibly moving remembrances from his friends such as Cory Doctorow and Larry Lessig attest, he was unquestionably brilliant but also – like most everyone – a complex human being plagued by demons and flaws. For many reasons, I don’t believe in whitewashing someone’s life or beatifying them upon death. But, to me, much of Swartz’s tragically short life was filled with acts that are genuinely and, in the most literal and noble sense, heroic. I think that’s really worth thinking about today.

At the age of 14, Swartz played a key role in developing the RSS software that is still widely used to enable people to manage what they read on the internet. As a teenager, he also played a vital role in the creation of Reddit, the wildly popular social networking news site. When Conde Nast purchased Reddit, Swartz received a substantial sum of money at a very young age. He became something of a legend in the internet and programming world before he was 18. His path to internet mogul status and the great riches it entails was clear, easy and virtually guaranteed: a path which so many other young internet entrepreneurs have found irresistible, monomaniacally devoting themselves to making more and more money long after they have more than they could ever hope to spend.

But rather obviously, Swartz had little interest in devoting his life to his own material enrichment, despite how easy it would have been for him. As Lessig wrote: “Aaron had literally done nothing in his life ‘to make money’ . . . Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good.” Continue reading

Technology is not a success in itself

In this TED presentation, Malcolm Gladwell argues that countless technological inventions are not the ends in themselves; technology is designed to solve a problem… but the problem is not always solved by technology. American drones may be 95% accurate, but it has only led to increased violence against Americans. Technology is not a success story by itself.