Project: Evolution in Action

Project: Evolution in Action | RocketHub

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Turing Centennial Year

For my Science Sunday post this week I’d like to point out that June 23, 2012 marks 100 years since the birth of one of the most important scientists or mathematicians of the last or any other century. Alan Turing is the father of Computer Science, was pivotal to the defeat of the Nazis in WWII and was tragically persecuted and punished for his homosexuality. This year has been declared Alan Turing year in commemoration and Computer Science conferences and around the world will be running special sessions to honour Turing and Computer Science departments everywhere will also be holding events. The museum at Bletchley Park where Turing worked in WWII to break Nazi codes has received special funding from software companies and others to build up the museum and run events.

Some of the core ideas that Turing considered were: What does it mean to compute something? Can computation ever be used to mimic or reproduce intelligence, and would be able to tell the difference?

You can find out about all the events on at http://www.turingcentenary.eu/

If you want to go one step further and learn more about what CS is about and how Turing’s ideas changed the world you may still be able to sign up for one of the courses being offered free and online by Stanford University.  The Computer Science 101 course is a good way to start understanding how the computers that make our modern world possible function, a world Alan Turing contributed so pivotally to making possible. For a bit more of a challenge the course on cryptography should address the same issues Turing and his team at Bletchley Park worried about trying break Nazi codes. Turing’s other popularly known contribution was about the relation between computation and intelligence. This would have been best addressed by the course on AI offerred last term which thousands of people registered for. That course is not offered this term, but some related courses this term are offered on machine learning and graphical models which are at the forefront of modern research into artificial intelligence.

Happy  ScienceSunday

Sure science is great, but how does it make you feel?

A new study indicates that high school teachers in the US overwhelmingly softsell evolution in biology class. Beyond the 13% of teachers that actively teach creationism, apparently around 60% of teachers encourage students to treat this foundation of modern science as a moral belief.  The ‘controversy’ around evolution has been exaggerated to such an extent that teachers who aren’t confident about their grounding in science back off on this essential concept in order to avoid controversy.

This does a real disservice to America’s youth and is one more reason that I just can’t see America continuing to dominate the world for a another generation. Every other schoolkid coming out of highschool and university around the world won’t have any doubts about the effectiveness of science and how to apply it.

Anyways, I hope that at least these teachers at least have the sense of fairness to ensure that their doubt filled, “its-not-true-unless-I-feel-comfortable-with-it” generation of students are aware of these other well known scientific ‘controversies’ which were, in their time, sometimes even more vitriolic. Suggest other controversies in the comments section:

  • Where is the centre of the solar system? Kepler and Gallileo say it’s the Sun. But his infallible eminence the Holy Father says it’s the Earth just like the Bible never mentions anywhere. What do you think? It is a little strange to imagine us going around the Sun when it clearly goes around us in the sky everyday isn’t it? Especially since the Moon does go around us. Ha ha ha, well, isn’t the world funny? You need to decide for yourself what you believe.
  • How do we ‘see’ the world around us? Why is it that we only see when our eyes are open? Is it because light is bouncing around the world off of every object and flows into our eyes? Can the thin layer of skin over our eyes really stop electromagnetic radiation that scientists say travelling at 300,000,000 metres for second? Some people, like Isaac Newton, thought that we actually emit light out of our eyes which instantly bounces off the world around us and lets us see. It seems to work right? And just imagine, if we all closed our eyes, then the room would go completely dark. That’s funny isn’t it. Well…maybe its true.  Isaac Newton was kinda smart.
  • Where does heat come from? Some scientists say that heat is the result of the vibration of tiny particles inside all matter. This motion is different than general movement. So this ruler doesn’t heat up just because I wave it in the air but because its ‘atoms’ are vibrating in tiny,tiny,tiny,tiny motions back and forth. Sounds a little complicated, huh? Well, there’s another theory that lots of people believe, who are now all dead. They thought heat is actually caused by an invisible liquid that is all around us called caloric. When more caloric flows into something it heats up and when the caloric flows out the object cools down. That’s why your hot cup of coffee will cool down over time as the caloric flows out into the room. That’s makes sense doesn’t it? Well, this theory has some problems explaining why water boils but hey, you need to make up your own minds. Why not try building your own calorimeter and spending your whole life trying to recreate established experiments so you can see it with your own eyes. That’s the only way you’ll know for sure.

And remember kids, there is no right answer here. The world is whatever you think it is or what your parents drill into your head it is since you were born. As long as they don’t sue me, I frankly don’t care.

Alright class, that’s all for today, tomorrow’s class will be the science of candy, “How do they get the caramel into the Caramilk bar?” Can Science provide an answer?

A nod is as good as a wink to a blind bat

Another day, another justification for dropping the mandatory long-form census by the Conservative government.  Today’s argument comes from Finance Minister Jim Flaherty; he basically argues that because a bunch of policy wonks came voluntarily to a meeting when invited by the Federal Finance Minister that most Canadians will fill out a 40 page census form if they receive one, as long as we ask them nicely.  Flawless little bit of logic, that.  Because, you know, most Canadians are very similar to those people he met this week.

Even beyond the astounding ignorance of this statement there was a more subtly offensive idea in his point.  He asks us to dismiss any rational attempt to use rigorous methods to analyse the state of our nation.  He implies that somehow, ‘Canadians being nice’ will compensate for the statistical bias they are adding to the census.  Can the Finance Minister quantify how ‘nice’ Canadians are and how willing they are to fill out 40 pages of questions if they don’t have to?  Even if he’s right, the census will be biased towards ‘nice people’ who do something just because they are asked, and who have the time and leisure to do so.

The Damage is Done

This brings up something I haven’t heard anyone mention yet.  The damage is now done.

You see, the original problem with dropping fines for not filling out the census (I never had any problem with dropping jail penalties, since this was never enforced it seems a non-issue issue) was that it would create a huge difference in returns from previous census’ and drop the number of people filling it out in an uneven and unpredictable way.  The new problem we face now, even if the government completely reverses their decision, which seems unlikely, is that the government who is collecting this data has been undermining it and badmouthing the very collection process all summer.  That’s going to influence a lot of people.  I would predict that even if the census were mandatory next year that the number of people not filling it out will actually skyrocket because the government is essentially handing it out to people while winking and whispering ‘nawww, don’t fill it out, it’s all a sham, we have to give it you, but we don’t really want to’.

So Flaherty’s assertion that Canadians will fill out the census if you ask them nicely doesn’t fly, because he’s not asking them at all.  No matter what happens, Statistics Canada is going to need years to rebuild their credibility with any Canadians who have believed the current government’s statements.

Called Out by Nature

In other news (well other census news, ok I’m obsessed) the Conservatives were called out by Nature itself this week.  Not Mother Nature, although I’m sure she’s upset at the Conservatives too, she’s just not very, you know, vocal.  No, the esteemed scientific journal Nature this week put out an unprecedented editorial slamming the Conservative government for scrapping the long form census and undermining statistical data that researchers in Canada and around the world rely on.  This isn’t Maclean’s calling them out, it’s not even some pop science magazine like Scientific American.  This is Nature. This, along with the journal Science, are the big scientific journals for general science.  Every scientist in the world of any stripe will hear about this very soon and shake their heads.  Now, scientists are usually a hard lot to pin down to agree on anything. Look how long it took them to definitively state that human’s were causing global warming. But there are just a few things they ALL will agree on if you ask them (in no particular order)

  1. The Earth goes around the Sun
  2. Human’s and Apes have common ancestors
  3. The entropy of any closed system will inevitably increase over time AND
  4. We always need more data, not less; and collecting data without controlling for relevant variables makes that data completely useless

Like asking Canadians, nicely

Please fill out these 40 pages of detailed information, but you know, we wish we didn’t have to, and its kind of intrusive don’t you think? Sorry,  so, try to return it whenever you can, if you feel like it. Thanks

The New Conservative Government of Canada
The Government of Canada
— Statistics Canada

A Concession

This week Prime Minister Harper did made a concession on the census but its one that indicates all their arguments are nothing more than diversions.  They added a couple of questions on Quebec language to the still mandatory short census.  This was only hours after a Quebec court agreed to hear a Quebec language group’s complaint that undermining the long-form census would violate laws meant to protect French language rights.  By caving in on this issue the Conservatives are indeed demonstrating that statistical somehow voluntary census collection is fine for most information unless it happens to relate to a voting group that the Conservatives are afraid of or want to get votes out of.

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A Dark Source for our Familiar Myths

Just a quick comment on this fascinating story up at the newscientist about the  possible dark matter original of our familar bright constellation stars. I’m quite interested in astronomy and I didn’t know that most of the bright stars that make up the most familiar constellations in our skies (Orion, canis major, the souther cross, perseus, scorpius etc) are part of an identifiable belt of large, young, hot stars (this is astronomy people not hollywood, calm down!) that are not part of the normal spiral structure of our galaxy.  They can be identified as a seperate line of stars formed at an odd angle to the plane of the galaxy, its called Gould’s belt, and astronomers are still not sure why its there.

So, that’s the first interesting thing.  The second thing is that there is a theory gaining more and more credibility that Gould’s belt was formed by a cloud of dark matter passing through our galaxy, get this, around 30 million years ago.  If that doesn’t blow you mind you need to go refresh you memory about the ages of planets, stars, galaxies etc.  Thirty million years is literally nothing in astronomical terms.  The dinosaurs died out twice as long ago as this.  Which means the dinosaurs wouldn’t have seen Orion in the sky.  (Of course, the stars also move, so the constellations would have been very different millions of years ago, but these bright stars weren’t even born at that time).  The thing that seems fascinating about it is the possibility that all of these stars were created at once due to the impact of a passing cloud of dark matter.

This is important culturally and scientifically.  Culturally, these bright stars form the backbone of the constellations that were incredibly influential in the formation of human culture.  The Egyptians and the Greeks (for example) would surely have found other things to look at if they were not there, but the sky would have been significantly less interesting without the stars of Gould’s belt.

Scientifically, it turn out that these bright stars may help us locate a nearby cloud of passing dark matter that can be studied because, oh yeah, we have absolutely no idea what dark matter actually is.

Anyways, I just thought it makes a good story, it ties together our modern attempts to understand the makeup of the universe with our ancient attempts to understand the makeup of the universe.  The great Orion  and Perseus may yet lead us to the ultimate Truths.

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