Saturday, June 30, 2012

Fantastic Global Discussion with Richard Dawkins

I was extremely impressed with this wonderfully well organized discussion with Richard Dawkins. Watching this makes me feel like a true citizen of the world. The video implements the new technology of Google+ Hangout On Air seamlessly. A tip of the hat to Al Jazeera English for putting this together.  I wrote about this exciting new tool earlier this week. After watching the video read more about Google+ Hangouts here.

New Atheism's most polarizing figure?

Rebecca Watson on Homeopathy and the FDA

Rebecca Watson has been at the center of a lot of heated debates lately over at Pharyngula as well as the recent subject of a famous you-tuber named Thunderf00t. This dust-up stems from her suggestion that something ought be done about sexual harassment at various free-thinking conferences like The Amazing Meeting (TAM) and so on.  All this controversy coupled to me finally listening to the skeptics guide to the universe podcast on a regular basis, brought me to Rebecca Watson's Blog - Skepchick. On the sidebar I found this wonderful video (above). Though it is old by web standards (posted 8 months ago) I want to share it today to give anyone with even a passive interest in the whole current controversy a view of Rebecca Watson unfettered by the kerfuffle. I stand in solidarity with her as I think she is a force to be reckoned with in the world skeptical thinkers. I have dealt with a constant barrage of alternative medicine hocus pocus thrown at me my entire life. Read about my experience with this here. From my perspective I appreciate her concise description of of the shortcomings of homeopathy and also the suggestions of how to participate in raising awareness about this perennial scam.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Jack Andraka - Health Care Superman

As the United States Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act today we can hope health care will become more cost effective. The following videos make me think improvements in efficiency and performance have a head start. Jack Andraka, a high school freshman has implemented a carbon nano-tube paper to develop an unprecedented method for early cancer detection. This method will likely bring the cost of cancer screening down dramatically. Worthy of highest praise he has been awarded a $75,000 prize from the Intel Corporation at an international science fair held May 2012.

In the first video Jack explains the mechanism of his invention.  In the second video you see his acceptance of the first place award.  It is epic and has gone viral. I hope I help it spread.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

EO Wilson responds in NYTimes

In an opinion piece published online EO Wilson responds directly to his critics regarding his recent rethink of a long held tenet of evolutionary biology.  Wilson officially abandoned his long-held belief that cooperative and altruistic behavior among some organisms can be simply explained as a veiled selfishness (kin selection) in 2010. This came after a lifetime promoting the opposing view. In a controversial peer-reviewed Nature paper titled "the evolution of eusociality" Wilson explains why he thinks kin selection theory is insufficient to explain altruistic behavior and ought to be replaced with multi-level selection theory. With the publication of this paper Wilson and coauthors ignited a massive debate that has recently unfurled in popular media. Wilson explains.

A strong reaction from supporters of kin selection not surprisingly ensued, and soon afterward more than 130 of them famously signed on to protest our replacement of kin selection by multilevel selection, and most emphatically the key role given to group selection. But at no time have our mathematical and empirical arguments been refuted or even seriously challenged. Since that protest, the number of supporters of the multilevel selection approach has grown, to the extent that a similarly long list of signatories could be obtained. But such exercises are futile: science is not advanced by polling. If it were, we would still be releasing phlogiston to burn logs and navigating the sky with geocentric maps.

Though I may not accept multi-level selection theory currently I do like Wilson's point that "science is not advanced by polling."  As a citizen of a post-enlightenment democracy my hope is that all politics will eventually die at the hand of science. Politics is subject to rhetoric. Science in an idealized sense is immune to rhetoric. Science can be spun in all kinds of directions but at its core really is not subject to opinion. The existence of seasonal Antarctic ice layers measurable for nearly 740,000 years is indisputable. The existence of fossilized trilobites in Cambrian geologic formation is indisputable, the fact that you and I have nearly identical genetic code for hemoglobin molecules is indisputable. And so I am undaunted by this new debate in evolutionary theory. In the new version of the group selection vs. kin selection debate no one person's opinion will affect the validity of one over the other. 

Read EO Wilson's entire opinion piece here. See my previous coverage of this topic here and here. So far IMHO Steven Pinker has given the most complete analysis of the debate particularly the short comings of group selection theory.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Paul Otlet predicts internet and iPad in 1934!

In this bit of historical futurism we can all be amazed at the eerie accuracy with which Paul Otlet predicted how people would access information in the year 2012.

On Air Hangouts - Google Game Changer

Kristopher Hite - New York

In the last several weeks I have watched various online companies scramble to get in on a new game changing technology - live On Air web video conferencing. The winner by a mile is Google. 

The newish free service is the ability to watch or participate in live video conferences with the greatest minds of our time. The inherent transparency is worthy of high praise as the service is now available to any person with a Gmail account. It is just a matter of time before the masses start coming online as I feel the service has come to a tipping point of sorts.

As it is currently set up there can be up to ten people participating in a live video conference. The speaker on the main stage is put there automatically when the sound of their voice is detected via their microphone. The whole set up takes about 5 minutes to get used to but quickly feels very natural.  

I predict the ubiquity of these conferences will grow exponentially in the coming weeks and soon change, once again, the way we interact with the world. Before this innovation most content on the web followed the old publishing paradigm. Content was static and came to us in distinct consumable packages. Now ideas are more malleable and participatory than ever. Anyone with an interest in a topic can weigh in if they have a good internet connection. 

Meritocracy rising. 

Though the web (blogs especially) have been an extremely dynamic medium of permissionless innovation, this new tweak of technology will usher in a new era. Now thought-casters will have more of their phenotype up on the web to work with. Mind, voice, smile, eyes. Those people who are good communicators will rise according to their talents more than just their luck at getting in the game early or knowing the right people in the publishing business.  I am so utterly enthused to see a new meritocracy unfurl.

From a publisher's perspective it will be the people who bring you the most timely lists of the upcoming On Air Google hangouts. Say a discussion of the Personal Genome Project (which I recently signed up for) with Jonathan Eisen, George Church, and Steven Pinker, or a discussion of the meaning of "Free Will" with Dan Dennet, Sam Harris, and Harold Varmus. These are fictitious live discussions I just made up but would be unbelievable to see happen.  I hope Tom Paine's Ghost can be a resource for you to find portals to these discussions and a forum for follow up discussions.

I am going to try and get in on the second-ever Pharyngula On Air Hangout this Saturday June 30th at 11 AM Eastern time. Bully to PZ Myers for embracing and popularizing this new feature of Google+.  If I am not a participant I can at least watch and comment and so can you. I do hope this sets a precedent and that these events become publicized! If you know any good resources out there already alerting us to the URLs and times of said events please leave links in the comments.

May the dialogue continue!

"Plato is right; thought is dialogue, people in lively discussion, not Rodin’s isolated Cartesian." 
     ~Bernard Rollin PhD


Eugenie Scott on Climate Change

Whenever I am asked what I think about global climate change I immediately try to understand the perspective of my questioner. I do not respond to the question until I find out how old they think the earth is. If their response in anything less than 4 billion years I can not begin a conversation about climate change.

Why not?

Well because if a person does not comprehend geologic time then I can safely assume they do not trust the scientific method in general and they are not going to pay attention or care about any climate change data I might present to them.  So this brings me to the following video. In order to begin a global conversation about climate change we need a more wide-spread acceptance of the scientific method.  The history of the evolution vs intelligent design debate is a great model for this campaign of public awareness.  It is my opinion that it ought to be used as a template for beginning the climate change conversation.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Steven Pinker on Group Selection

"I am often asked whether I agree with the new group selectionists, and the questioners are always surprised when I say I do not. After all, group selection sounds like a reasonable extension of evolutionary theory and a plausible explanation of the social nature of humans. Also, the group selectionists tend to declare victory, and write as if their theory has already superseded a narrow, reductionist dogma that selection acts only at the level of genes. In this essay, I'll explain why I think that this reasonableness is an illusion. The more carefully you think about group selection, the less sense it makes, and the more poorly it fits the facts of human psychology and history." 

                  ~Steven Pinker

In an article published at The Edge Steven Pinker addresses the recent dust-up in the debate between "new group selectionists" and "gene-selectionists." The former being spearheaded by biologists and social scientists like E.O. Wilson and Jonathan Hiadt, the later group lead by evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne. 

I have covered this emerging debate here at Tom Paine's Ghost and at the World Science Festival blog.

You can read Steven Pinker's essay here.

I think this debate comes down to conceptual semantics.  The observations of science really should not be limited by language.  Whether thinkers decide to call a gene "selfish" or "altruistic" the author is still assigning a false personality to a physical thing. A gene alone does not have "will" in either case. This is hard to accept but after reading Sam Harris' Free Will I can accept that free will is an illusion more readily. Darwin himself struggled with false anthropomorphism when he decided to use the word "selection" - as in natural selection. He went to great pains to point out that the natural process does not have any will to select. 

This debate will not be settled with words. It ought be settled on an agreement on which equations describe genetic fitness most realistically. After reading the infamous Wilson, Tartinia, Nowak Nature paper (including the 45-page-long prose-heavy supplemental) I am not convinced of Nowak and his fancy equations. It appears to me he is intentionally complicating the math to the point of obscurity.  Carefully reading the new equations he proposes to describe an individual's fitness I am left confused. This is unnecessary confusion inside a supplemental text (usually overlooked) behind a paywall.  It pangs of academic secrecy and I can not stand it. I hope the debate continues and these equations are scrutinized in public view! Bully to Steven Pinker for jumping in the ring.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Swedish Midsummer: VIDEO guide

The Scale of the Universe 2.0

A new and improved version by Cary and Michael Huang. Brilliant!

If you would like to control the scale yourself click here

Monday, June 18, 2012

Will science colonize philosophy, the humanities, and the arts?

Last August I was standing in a church in a small village in Belgium. I was there with a good friend named Kristiaan. A retired elementary school headmaster, Kristiaan is an expert in Belgian history, especially art history. He had brought me to the church as it was one of many venues hosting pieces in a local art show. An older man with a round face and big yellow teeth met us in the entryway eagerly pointing at his large abstract works hanging all over the walls. He was explaining how the perfection of math made his stark depictions of hyperbolic shapes beautiful. Most of his canvases were two colors of acrylic paint, a bright background in yellow and a ribbon shaped hyperbola in purple.

To me this art was not good at all. The man had obvious enthusiasm but the art was just lifeless. He paid little attention to detail and it all looked like a 7th grade art project gone bad. I did not have the heart to tell the aging man I did not like his work but I had a long conversation with Kristiaan about such art after exiting the church. Kristiaan told me he did not fancy art where artists intentionally infuse scientific or mathematical ideas into their work. He thought art like this seemed forced or overly contrived. I had to agree with him in this instance. But I wonder if this was just an isolated case of a mediocre artist. Can there be scientifically informative art that is not aesthetically dead?

I think about daVinci's Vitruvian Man and his helicopter sketches, I think of the occulus in the dome of the pantheon in Rome or the myriad other instances I have seen artistic beauty and scientific enlightenment intersect. I can't help thinking these poorly painted lines I had seen on the walls of the church were just the result of misdirected talent. But do the examples I listed give the same emotional reaction to viewers as other more "artistic" art. Like Thomas Dewing's In the Garden (above) Picasso's Guernica, Gauguin's D'où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous?

These painted examples have nothing to do with scientific concepts. They do not attempt to educated the masses by hiding the golden ratio, the Fibonacci sequence, or the physical requirements for aerodynamic lift. These paintings speak to the audience through emotional recall. The works may affect the viewer in a physiological way. We could measure things like heart-rate, body temperature and breathing depth while viewers approach the paintings. However the paintings themselves were not produced for the advancement of scientific education. Yet they maintain tremendous value.

Where does this value come from? Is this a question science can answer?

An assertion was made by E.O. Wilson as I listened to his On the Shoulders of Giants address at the 2012 World Science Festival. He said that science would inevitably "colonize philosophy, the humanities, and the arts." I can see this happening as a great unifying event (an ongoing series of events is a better way to describe it) where artists and scientists communicate constantly, to a point where either could switch position any time.

The problems I foresee arising in this transition involve specialization and fractionation. All of humanity  as seen through the ages looks like vast branching tree. With each new generation there are a whole new set of buds on the tree. Throughout history the branches bifurcate. With each bifurcation comes new divisions (catholic/protestant, shiite/sunni, Eastern/Western, Mashed Potatoes and gravy/mac and cheese). With all the new bifurcations coming online you would think there ought be a shit-storm of sectarian violence at present. But that is not the case. Why not?

I think it is because of the transparency happening right now; the unprecedented level of cross-hierarchical communication going on. You, out there somewhere on earth are reading a blog written by a person you may have never met and you are empathizing. You are reading along with me and even if it is just for a fraction of a second your neurons are firing in some similar pattern to mine. We now live in an age of permissionless innovation where I can hit the publish button without any publisher, editor, mother, or father giving me the go ahead. More and more people are realizing this ability every day and that brings me great happiness.

Back to the art-science fusion project. I do not know if science will successfully "colonize" art because specialists do like to keep there sects pure and free of the passing fancier. But I also think our broader and more transparent view of the world, especially the talents and weaknesses of our fellow humans, will continue to help in creating the most beautiful art and the most beneficial science the world has ever known.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The difference between religion and science

Lawrence M. Krauss, particle physicist at Arizona State University explains how scientists can get excited about being wrong. This is a major difference between science and religion. Clearly explained by philosopher Karl Popper, the falsifiability of an idea in science makes the idea more rigorous while in religion falsifiability weakens the power of church authority. Bully for Lawrence Krauss slipping in this major point at the 2012 World Science Festival in New York City.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Launching Enlightenment

I have launched my first Kickstarter project! Please help me bring the illuminated tree of life to life :)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Town of McCloud Says ‘No’ to Nestle Water Plant Proposals

Special Guest Post by Lucy Faraday

With a population of just 1400 people, the small town of McCloud in Siskyou County, Northern California was a peaceful place. Located in the shadow of Mt Shasta, residents and visitors can enjoy trout fishing, mountain climbing and skiing in and around the area. But in the last ten years an altogether more industrial issue has affected the area, leaving residents furious.

Nestle Water North America (NWNA) is a strand within the multinational corporation of Nestle – the world’s largest food and beverage producing company. Unsurprisingly, NWNA specialise in the production of bottled mineral waters and in 2003 they set their sights on the water rights of the Mccloud River, along with plans to create a proposed 1 million square foot bottling plant near to the town. Being experts in the spring water field, the NWNA could appreciate that the McCloud River is uniquely pure; most of the water comes from springs and underground lava aquifers which act as superb natural water filters and would therefore be a lucrative source for their bottled water.

Collaborative Genes

By Kristopher Hite

The trait I admire most in a fellow thinker is the ability to entertain an idea without necessarily swallowing it whole. With that in mind, I eagerly listened to E.O. Wilson's On the Shoulders of Giants address at the World Science Festival in New York City last week.

I recently wrote about Wilson and his controversial rethink of altruism. Long story short, Wilson has created a ruckus by abandoning his long-held belief that cooperative and altruistic behavior among organisms can be simply explained as a veiled selfishness. When an organism appears to behave altruistically by sacrificing themselves or putting themselves in danger it is actually just the individual genes jockeying to survive by keeping identical copies of themselves alive in their relatives. This theory is known as inclusive fitness.

 In place of inclusive fitness E.O. Wilson now seems to embrace the controversial concept of “group selection.” This is the idea that genes for altruism persist by benefiting the entire group. The altruistic trait persists by helping groups themselves multiply; grow into larger and larger networks with more and more biomass. In group selection theory this all happens despite the fact that the altruistic trait is detrimental to the individual. Altruistic genes that band together and cooperate out compete groups of genes that act selfishly.

To me, both models seem like they could apply to different genes.

After the address, I had the rare opportunity to ask Wilson directly about his recent change of heart. I asked,
"If the gene is the basic unit of selection—the physical thing that makes it though the sieve of natural selection—then why do we need a 'group selection' model? And if a gene is not the basic unit of selection, then what is?" 

The question struck a chord. Wilson replied that he had been anticipating it, in fact, and quickly acknowledged that that his recent move away from the theory of inclusive fitness had rankled many people, including the famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins who has popularized the selfish-gene view of evolution and has been a vocal critic of group selection. But Wilson stuck to his guns, saying,

"Yes, the gene is the basic unit of selection, but the phenotype is the target. It is as simple as that." 

Wilson flashed a smile, and for a moment I was starstruck, caught up in the glow of Wilson's legendary charm. The spell broke when I began to really chew on his answer. I was still extremely confused about how the concept of "phenotype as target" was supposed to justify group-selection theory. As I rode the elevator downstairs, I felt a pang of guilt for not pressing harder. I imagined a tiny Richard Dawkins sitting on my shoulder, eyebrows in a scowl, chiding me, "Kristopher, don't you remember how beautifully I explained all this to you in my book, The Selfish Gene?? How could you turn on me? Hamilton had it right, the gene is the one ring to rule them all everything else is myth!"

On the other shoulder (the "giant shoulder," one might say), I pictured a miniature E.O. Wilson, still charming in his diminutive tweed blazer, reassuring me, "Kristopher, everything is going to be alright as long as we work together in this big happy peer-reviewing group of ours."

I was, and still am, torn. As I stepped out of the elevator, I serendipitously met Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus, former head of the NIH, and I took the opportunity to ask him what he thought E.O. Wilson meant when he said "phenotype is the target of selection." Dr. Varmus clarified—somewhat. Phenotype, he explained, is the vehicle genes ride inside the physical manifestation of the genes. Selective environmental pressure, like changing atmospheric oxygen levels, or changing local climates are not capable of acting directly on any single isolated gene.

After I directed Dr. Varmus and his wife to the Christopher Street subway station, I continued to replay his answer in my head. If natural selection happens at the level of the physical manifestation of the genes – the phenotype, and there is no organism in existence with only one gene inside, then all genes must be collaborative in a sense.

And this is where I am in my thought process. If you have any corrections or criticisms I welcome them. They will only add to my understanding.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Visions of an illuminated tree

The Phylogenetic Christmas Tree; Lighting the tree of life.

Hi, my name is Kristopher Hite and I am a science educator. Every time I learn something new about the natural world I want to climb the tallest structure I can find and shout it at the top of my lungs!

I did precisely that last week as I live-blogged the World Science Festival. After filling my brain to the brim with new and exciting ideas at the festival, I just kep going!  I walked into another deluge of inspiration at the American Museum of Natural History. Inside I witnessed the best special museum exhibit I had ever seen. It was called "creatures of light" and it had as many examples as it could pack into one space of all the plants, mushrooms, and animals that glow in nature.

Several light bulbs went off in my head and in front of my eyes that day.

The most exciting idea I had came when I stood staring at a glowing plastic model of  the species Pyrodinium bahamense whirling fire creature of the Bahamas. Mesmerized by the pulsating glow of the floating orb in front of me I could not stop thinking how I wanted this as a Christmas ornament for my mother.

Exiting the exhibit through the gift shop I saw a paucity of gifts available that really captured the excitement of the exhibit, no whirling fire creature ornaments, no glowing oyster mushroom figurines. After thinking about it overnight I had an a-Ha moment this morning.

What if I built a living-room sized model of the phylogenetic tree of life, and then put pulsating, glowing LED lights at each branch where we see a species has evolved bioluminescence? What if I went further and put model mycelium strands between the branches to highlight the possibility of horizontal gene transfer in nature? And what if this item then showed up in households around the world in December? I have chills just thinking about it. A way to turn householdss into science classrooms, turning a cherished holiday into a "teachable moment" in evolutionary biology. This is brilliant! Quite literally. 

How can I make this reality? How can I accomplish this? I need tools, materials and a work space but most of all I need you.

I am asking you to be Part of this, own a part of this twist on tradition. Come with me as I decorate the tree of life with lights! Donors can send their photographs to me and I will weave these still images to make you tube videos promoting the phylogenetic Christmas tree. Please visit the kickstarter page for this project and help me launch the Phylogenetic Christmas tree (I'll have it up tonight.

Carl Sagan envisioned science as a "candle in the dark" a candle lighting the shadows in a demon haunted world. My wish is that the phylogenetic Christmas tree becomes a torch for science in homes around the world. Please Kick-Start me.

Link to kickstarter page will appear here tonight after I record the promo using a prop I picked up at the Natural History Museum. Stay tuned.

Monday, June 4, 2012

On Internet Censorship

"When various members of congress become upset with the content they see on the net and want to suppress it, I feel compelled to remind them that they would not be sitting where they are sitting were it not for anonymous tracks published in the 18th century that incited the Americans to revolt against the British."
~Vinton Cerf - one of the fathers of the Internet

Quote from his appearance at the 2012 World Science Festival in New York City.
Speaks directly to the Origin Story of Tom Paine's Ghost!

Microbial Cloud, our inner ecostystem

Jonathan Eisen is a professor studying phylogenomics at UC Davis. He also happens to be an open access ROCK STAR. Here is a talk from the TEDMED conference in DC last month.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Gecko Footed Robot

Robert J. Full speaks during Radical Innovation; a free panel at the 2012 World Science Festival in New York City. He explains amazing gecko toe technology.

Biomimicy of the lung!

Don Ingber walks us through his synthetic lung. This talk was part of the free event -Radical Innovation- at the 2012 World Science Festival in New York City.