Thursday, March 29, 2012

Before Sagan came Bronowski

During my second year of graduate school I became obsessed with Carl Sagan. I read many of his books - Dragons of Eden being my favorite. I incessantly watched episodes of the Cosmos series. The more episodes I watched the more I fell in love with the history of science. It became clear to me that, contrary to popular belief, science is an extremely HUMAN endeavor. The series clearly demonstrated how concepts build on each other over time. Understanding how this process of accumulating concepts works is essential to understanding any one branch of science, no matter how tiny and frail that branch may be.

When I found out that Sagan had based his Cosmos on the earlier work of another I was immediately primed to go deeper into this rabbit hole. His name was Jacob Bronowski and he produced a 13 part series called the Ascent of Man. This series made its debut on the BBC in 1973. Tragically, Bronowski died a year later. Though the title might be a bit misogynistic for this age the messages within are timeless. 

Recently in the middle of dinner at a sushi restaurant here in southern Oregon I had an encounter with a creationist in his early 30s. I saw this as an opportunity to try and teach him the evidence for evolution and the geologic age of the earth in the most direct way possible. One question that many creationists ask is how could a person just come into existence randomly? How could all the atoms of a human being just pop into existence? 

Back at Umi-Sushi this very question was asked. I tried my best to explain that this is not what evolution suggests and that physical beings are the product of millions of years of accumulated chance. I tried my best to explain this and I hope my partner in conversation stayed with me. The fact that he continued to ask questions told me he was indeed open-minded. I caught him at a good time in his life as he was not totally entrenched in his beliefs as I suspect some people can be. Questions were sparked in his head and that was the first step. I wish I had memorized the unscripted monologue Jacob Brosowski launches into in the video below. Beginning at 30:30 in he explains a concept echoed by Carl Sagan - in essence we are made of star-stuff. As I have talked to people over the years who have had their own scientific epiphanies, the epiphany, in many cases begins with this beautiful notion that every human being began to exist in the center of a star somewhere out there. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Telling Turing's Story

If you hit play on this embedded radiolab widget you will hear Robert Krulwich, Janna Levin, and David Leavitt unravel an incredible story about the man who invented the digital computer - Alan Turing. The 1950s was an incredibly cruel era for gay atheists.

James Inhofe and Rachel Maddow

I love how Inhofe refuses to answer any of her questions. The lack of synthesis in his brain is baffling. It is as if republicans have shut off their ability to have fruitful discourse.

"Respect" is a fiction for those in power

Illinois congressman Bobby Rush shows us how stupid "respect for respect's sake" really is.

The parents of Trayvon Martin react to Bobby Rush being kicked-off the house floor.

Fruiting Bodies!

To do this video justice please crank the resolution up as high as your computer will allow. I think it tops out at 720p. Change it by clicking the gear-like shape at the bottom right of the you-tube window.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Illuminated Symbiosis

Bonnie Bassler, professor at Princeton University explains a truly phenomenal relationship between light-making bacteria (Vibrio fischeri) and a very wily little squid (Euprymna scolopes). This incredible observation gives us a glimpse into the magical logic of symbiotic relationships.

War of the Worldviews

Leonard Mlodinow and Deepak Chopra discuss the nature of the scientific method and the study of consciousness.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Deconstructing "Consciousness"

Kale vs. Chikin'

I first heard about this Vermonter named Bo about two years ago in Fort Collins, Colorado. I had been riding my bicycle through old-town and I noticed a bright green bumper-sticker that said in big stylized black letters "Eat More Kale." With a bunch of Kale sticking out of my backpack I just thought it was too awesome.  I rushed home and typed "Eat More Kale" into the Google. Up came Bo and his website There I found videos of this quarky Vermonter peddling his wares in various out-there scenarios such as blowing paint from his mouth to print the t-shirts.  My enthusiasm for this guy grew and grew and I actually started to evangelize the virtues of Kale and Bo's whole vibe on Facebook.  

A few months ago while I was unplugged from the world, Bo was asked by Chik Fil-A to "cease and desist" with his making of the "Eat More Kale" t-shirts and bumper stickers and turn over his website to them all because the good ol' boys at Chic-Fil-A corporate thought his slogan was a bit to similar to theirs - "Eat Mor Chikn'." Despite the fact that Chik-Fil-A did not manage to spell their slogan correctly they still felt compelled to squash the potential competition on the basis of owning the trademark to the words "eat" and "mor." I know I'm a bit late to this story as it has been featured on CNN and the New York Times did and article on the lawsuit, but I feel strongly about this and want to show my support and solidarity with Bo.  He's fighting this tooth-and-nail and is producing a documentary following the case as it unfolds.  Real-time justice is what we need now and this kind of public fight is a perfect example.  Regardless of the court decisions involved in this case Cik-Fil-A has assured that this blogger will never eat at one of their restaurants and will recommend that anyone reading this boycott Chik-Fil-A as well.  If you are able please support Bo in making this documentary and keeping up the good fight.  You may even get a t-shirt :)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Inoculation Against Charlatans

Listening to Rick Santorum rail against higher-education claiming that colleges drain young-adults of their faith by teaching the scientific method has left me fearing for the people of the United States.  Have we gone so far as to forget our country was founded on enlightenment-era ideas not the least of which being respect for and use of the scientific method?

Earlier today I read and reflected on this blog post by Chris Mooney in which he cautions scientists to be careful about their delivery when it comes to proposing new scientific ideas to tea party folk.  I left the post with a lot of unanswered questions.  How do you broach a topic such as, I don't now... THE AGE OF THE EARTH with people who start off thinking 6,000 years is the right answer?

How do you start a conversation politely with a person who sees you as a threat to their faith before you even open your mouth (or keyboard)?

Neil deGrasse Tyson has called scientific education an "inoculation against charlatans."
There's no greater sign of the failure of the American educational system than the extent to which Americans are distracted by the possibility that Earth might end on December 21, 2012. It's a profound absence of awareness of the laws of physics and how nature works. So they're missing some science classes in their training in high school or in college that would empower [them] to understand and to judge when someone else is basically just full of it. Science is like an inoculation against charlatans who would have you believe whatever it is they tell you.

The problem with this Dr. Tyson is that the people who need this inoculation most are the people who don't believe in vaccination.  At what age do you just give up on people?  How do you spread the vaccination to people who choose to be socially irresponsible?  I want to ask Chris Mooney and Neil deGrasse Tyson how these conversations ought to begin? One-on-one facebook conversations? Door-to-door visits by two young scientists in white lab coats and pocket-sized biology textbooks?  Perhaps large public lectures where an Erlenmeyer flask is passed around for donations?

How do you start fact-based scientific conversation with a religious adult?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Mitt Romney's Worldview

Do you think Mitt Romney believes the basic tenets of Mormonism? If so he accepts the story that Julia Sweeney presents below.

Colbert lays into Limbaugh

Though Stephen Colbert often impresses me with his unabashed satire this clip is particularly noteworthy. He really takes off his kid-gloves to call Rush out on his recent excursion into the depths of shock-radio.