Saturday, July 28, 2012

Tom Paine and the Ironies of Social Democracy

The 2011-12 Dewey Lecture in Law and Philosophy, recorded on February 29, 2012, was presented by Elizabeth Anderson, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Rawls Collegiate Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies, University of Michigan.

To skip the introductions start the video to 6:55.

Professor Anderson begins speaking of Thomas Paine in detail around 16:30.

Friday, July 27, 2012

What is a Sweat Lodge? Rick Two Dogs explains

The August 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine is dedicated to telling the story of the Oglala Lakota who live on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

The reports from the reservation are both tragic and uplifting.

It is of special significance to me as my father tells me I am 1/16th Oglala Lakota myself. My great-great grandmother lived near Fort Wayne Indiana in the late 1800s. She was named Pamela Caldwell and was full-blooded Oglala Lakota. I have confirmed this through the census records.  As a severely diluted mixed-blood mostly European-American I feel a strange mix of guilt and pride as I observe the living conditions of distant relatives.

Find many more contemporary Lakota stories here.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Age Gap - a solution from Buckminster Fuller

“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.” ~ Buckminster Fuller

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Miscreant Mimicry Among Creationists

For four long days my colleague Carl Zimmer has been wielding the battle axe for sound science education, fighting the good fight for evidence and evolution. In the aftermath of this battle I have noticed a disturbing trend among the current generation of evolution denialists - they are shape-shifting!

First, a brief history of the debate.

Since the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859 a sub-group of stubborn Christians have been in a perpetual war with reality. Over the years the deniers of evolution have changed their name in order to re-frame their rhetorical attack on the mounting evidence supporting evolution. For the better part of the twentieth century they went by the title "creationists." They sincerely believe an imaginary sky-father "created" all living things six thousand years ago and just plopped them all down on earth in their present form before taking the next day off for a nap.

All was good from their perspective and they were allowed to tacitly poison science education in the United States for more than a century.

But alas, that pesky establishment clause in the US constitution caught up with them. In a 1987 Supreme Court decision six of the nine justices came down squarely on the side of science. Edwards v. Aguillard established that teaching creationism along with evolution in science classrooms is unconstitutional.

The stubborn creationists were undaunted. They knew what any good snake-oil salesmen knows. When your name gets smeared, just change your name. So began the rise of the "intelligent design" proponents. The idea being that the overtly Christian feel of the word "creation" would be remedied with a switch to the more scientific sounding "intelligent-design."  With this new name came new propaganda. Well, not really, as writing is tough work! So they just took an old creationist text-book and changed some words around a little bit so they could slip it into science classrooms without calling it creationism. The book was called "Of Pandas and People." 

The problem with this book was that the editors were lazy and left bits of the old "creationist" language behind in textual fossils. Where the text once read "creationist" it then read "cdesign proponentists."

In 2005 a group of nosy lawyers and science educators took issue with the use of this book in a science classroom in Dover, Pennsylvania. As a result the book and the faith-based science education it promoted was banned from science classrooms. It was deemed by a federal appeals court to violate the precedent set by the 1987 Supreme Court decision mentioned earlier.  

What's a creationists to do?

Here we are seven years later in a scary place where the intelligent design movement has dispensed with identifying themselves altogether and are now just publishing propoganda with scientific-sounding names.  

Enter the copy-cats.

In evolutionary biology some species copy the shape, color, smell, or sound of unrelated species. They do this to protect themselves in order to survive. This is called mimicry. Remember the scene in the Wizard of Oz when the scarecrow, tin man, and lion dress as the wicked witch's guards to enter her fortress unharmed? That is what I'm talking about.

Guess what? Evolution deniers are doing this like crazy! They are cloaking themselves in scientific sounding names so they can slip through the cracks and deliver their propaganda to students of biology caught unaware.

 Listen to these names.  Biologic Institute, Evolution News & Views, and Science and Human Origins.

These are a facebook page, a website, and a printed book respectively.

Coming to these titles cold one would assume they are legitimate organizations for teaching biology and evolution.  Not so. All three are propaganda outlets for the notorious "Discovery Institute."  (*)

You may know about this Seattle based outfit by their incessant call to "teach the controversy." Their goal being to have intelligent design taught along side Darwinian natural selection in biology classrooms around the country. This is total bullocks as there is no controversy. The physical evidence of evolution is overwhelming and grows with each new discovery in biology. This idea of being fair and balanced regarding every single topic discussed often confuses speculation and facts. Lawrence Krauss describes this dilemma well.
Too often in the media, speculative ideas are treated on the same footing as well-tested ones. As a result, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between them. This is particularly unfortunate when firmly grounded ideas that are known to accurately describe the physical world (such as evolution and the big bang) are passed off as mere theoretical whims of a group of partisan scientists.

As a scientist, writer, and educator it is highly disturbing to see this kind of re-branding by the intelligent design community. By conflating scientific ideas with assumptions of faith and slapping a sciency-sounding name on their front page these groups further damage an already crippled science education program in the United States. Shame on them!

Back to Carl Zimmer.

Intelligent design proponents have been goading Carl with snarky ad hominem attacks on a combination of online forums including Facebook, his Discover Magazine blog - the Loom, and their own comment-free web space - "Evolution News & Views." He has been gracious with the amount of attention he has paid this group of pseudo-academics. Carl has responded at length to a series of games they have been playing with him over the past four days. Read all about it here

My advice to Carl is the same advice being given all over the web lately - Don't Feed the Trolls! That being said, I think he has done a great job of staving them off so far and keeping his talents where they belong, on HIS blog. As I walk away from these ceaseless trolls I keep in mind the perennial duty to play the role of a catcher in the rye. For as long as my words last I will attempt to catch those who have fallen into fuzzy-logic and irrational faith-based thought and bring them back to reason. I want to thank Carl for reaffirming my dedication to this goal and for exposing the harmful mimicry going on in the intelligent design community.  

(*) ~ in a previous version of this post I had incorrectly stated that the Discovery Institute and the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY were of the same ilk. I was informed via a facebook friend that those organizations had cuts ties when the Dover descision came down in 2005. So as not to offend I have deleted mention of the creation museum. That batch of crazy is brought to you by Ken Ham. Apologies for the error and I hope this paragraph is sufficiently transparent.

Eugenie Scott - science and spirituality

Friday, July 20, 2012

James Holmes - Dark Knight Shooter

A 24-year-old graduate student in the neuroscience department at the University of Colorado Denver Aschutz Medical Campus in Aurora has been identified as the shooter in last night's deadly attack.

James Holmes killed 14 people and injured scores more firing several guns into a crowded theater at the premiere of the new Batman movie - Dark Knight Rises.

The University of Colorado confirms Holmes was in the process of withdrawing from the program in neuroscience.

"Mr. James Holmes was in the process of withdrawing from the University of Colorado Denver's graduate program in neurosciences," the univesity statement said. "Mr. Holmes enrolled at the university in June 2011."

The University of Colorado website reports the Biological Basis of Psychiatric and Neurological Disorders as one of his courses while in attendence.

Holmes also made a presentation on MicroRNA biomarkers while enrolled.

The Shaman and the Scientist

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Lawrence Krauss - words of wisdom

"Too often in the media, speculative ideas are treated on the same footing as well-tested ones. As a result, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between them. This is particularly unfortunate when firmly grounded ideas that are known to accurately describe the physical world (such as evolution and the big bang) are passed off as mere theoretical whims of a group of partisan scientists.  One of the most useful tasks a popular exposition of science at the forefront can achieve, it seems to me, is clearly differentiate that which we know yields an accurate description of nature on some scale from those things we have reason to suspect one day might do so. And the worst thing such an exposition can do is confuse the two."

                                                   ~Lawrence M. Krauss
                                                        from Hiding in the Mirror

I had the good fortune of meeting Lawrence Krauss last Friday as he recorded the radio show "On Being" with Krista Tippett at Chautauqua Institution here in Western New York.  He was happy and irascible in front of a large crowd of religious people in the open-air "Hall of Philosophy." 

Throughout his interview he drove home his point over and over that God and science do not mix, that science is the best method for learning and religion is a collection of childish myths and we all need to grow up. The gasps from the crowd were priceless. 

Krauss took the opportunity to explain how the discovery of the Higgs boson affects our understanding of the universe. A subtle point not covered by many popular outlets is that the Higgs field barely interects with photons. This accident of our existence explains how photons can travel at the speed of light while the rest of matter is slowed by the strong nuclear force and the newly verified Higgs field.  

While speaking of the Higgs Krauss urged the audience to embrace the ecstatic awe discoveries like these can provide without the need for faith. He stressed the satisfaction that comes from a secular humanist view of the universe.

Krauss pointed out that faith leaves humanity helpless in making policy decisions. He proposed policy be decided based on evidence. A strangely novel suggestion in the current political atmosphere. He said it bothered him greatly that McCain and Obama choose to have a presidential debate on faith rather than issues that actually matter like approaches to human health and disease, energy, and the environment. What did we learn from the faith debate in 2008? That both candidates had it. So what?!?!
When you do not base you moral and ethical decisions on evidence you end up with the republican party!
One of the best moments of the day was when an elderly woman asked Dr. Krauss "what can science tell us about love?" He responded with a wonderfully humanist answer I will paraphrase from memory.
Science can tell us a lot about love starting with chemistry and physiology. From a scientific world-view a person can approach love honestly. I can tell you that I am deeply in love right now. When I feel love I am seeing and sensing shared values in another human being. Of course I am sexually attracted to the  person but on a deeper level I see myself in her. I see the ideals, the things I aspire to most in her. That reflection can easily come from a scientific approach to love.

After the interview I picked up a copy of his book Hiding in the Mirror and was pleased to see him described as a "writer-scientist" on the back cover. From now on I aspire to be a "writer-scientist" myself. Too often I think people who go from doing science to writing about science feel the need to re-label themselves "science-writers." I see no need for this re-branding. We are all scientists!

Though I did want to ask him many different questions I choose the one most important to me. I asked him if he supports Open Access. He replied with gusto.
"Yes, of course. In fact astrophysics pioneered open access with the invention of the ArXiv. I see journal articles as for archival purposes. I don't even read journals anymore, just the ArXiv."

As a biochemist I had not heard of this resource and was happy to look it up and experience it first hand.  With this awareness fresh in my mind I was shocked to see the ArXiv all over science news this week. A law newly passed in the UK requires all research publications made possible with tax-payer funds be made openly available to the whole world online. The astrophysics ArXiv was used as an archetype for how to make this happen.  Brilliant!

While I do look forward to a world with wider and wider open access I approach this world with Lawrence Krauss and his words of caution in mind. Carl Sagan had something to say about this as well.
"We wish to find the truth, no matter where it lies. But to find the truth we need imagination and skepticism both. We will not be afraid to speculate, but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact.
For our collective understanding of the universe to mature we need to have a lot of ideas. This means there will be countless bad ideas. The trick, I think, will be not to get caught in an eddy in the river of knowledge. Dogma, fear, and superstition have proved themselves sure paths into those stagnant waters. 

I applaud Lawrence Krauss for encouraging us to grow up.

Hypatia - Carl Sagan and Stephen Greenblatt

I am currently reading The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt and it is fantastic in my humble opinion. Many thanks to Jack for the high recommendation. 

I have just finished the section of the book where Greenblatt tells the story of the great library at Alexandria and the demise of its last librarian, Hypatia in 415 C.E. I was reminded of the above video from Carl Sagan's Cosmos series. There are a few differing details in the two accounts; Sagan says the mob used abalone shells, Greenblatt says they used broken pottery. Either way the scene painted marks a terrible inflection point in history. 

A woman of legendary beauty and intellect, Hypatia's death epitomized the decay of natural philosophy in the wake of spreading Christian fundamentalism. In the moment of her death as a mob of zealous Christians carved her flesh the pendulum of history began a millennium of descent into fear and superstition. 

I can not help but think of the current state of natural philosophy here in the United States. It scares me that people I run into on a daily basis probably are not aware that the inclusion of "under God" in our national pledge of allegiance, the inscription "In God we Trust" on our currency, and the adoption of the same phrase as our national motto all happened in the year 1952! 

These tacitly Christian phrases were injected into our national identity as a result of McCarthy era fear-mongering. A perceived spread of communism pushed the US government to pass reactionary legislation echoed by the Patriot Act.

The founding fathers were more like thinkers in the great library of Alexandria when they adopted the inclusive motto "E Pluribus Unim." 

My question is, when did our Hypatia die? 

Today, it is the height of irony to pull out a nickel and see this!
Ed Brayton, fellow freethinker and blogger posted this on Facebook a few days ago and it has been resonating in my head ever since. Ed writes the blog Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Open Access: what memes may come

Jason Silva takes us on a journey imagining future possibilities where radical openness reigns supreme. In the wake of this week's decision by the UK to mandate all research funded by the public be made open access this seems an apt celebration of speculation.

Community Supported Publishing

 Wolverine Farm Publishing, a fledgling publishing house in Fort Collins, CO is testing a new strategy for staying afloat in the publishing bussiness - Community Supported Publishing.

You may ask, ummm isn't this the same as a subscription?  Well yes, however I do think re-branding to CSP is apt for this outfit as Wolverine Farm is a family run affair, epically conscious of its place in the community and its unique position to provide for the community of northern Colorado.

Much like the pioneering Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs in the neighborhood Wolverine Farm cultivates a cohesive community through literacy outreach, and various intellectual forums. Not the least of which are a series of discussions at the Bean Cycle coffee shop in downtown Fort Collins.

I should say as a disclaimer, I have written for Wolverine Farm Publishing in the past and they have written about me :) A symbiotic relationship of the highest caliber. They have been good to me so I'd like to return the favor.

From WFP ~

“The best way to support Wolverine Farm Publishing is to sign up for our Community Supported Publishing program. There are different levels of support depending on your desired selection of books and publications. While we are based in Fort Collins, Colorado and some of our work focuses on our actual geographical community, our wider community includes readers from coast-to-coast and around the world, the businesses who support us, and also the businesses, people, and issues we involve ourselves with. Find the level that is right for you and sign up today!

All CSP levels include the upcoming issues of our publications – Matter 15: East Coast and/or Boneshaker BA 43-300 — unless you specify otherwise.   If you would like to pick up your CSP share instead of us mailing it to you, please let us know.”

Please take a moment and learn what Wolverine Farm Publishing is all about at their web page.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Holy Shit!

Last weekend I attended the Great Blue Heron Music Festival held in the woods of Chautauqua County here in Western New York State. As far as music festivals go this one is small to mid-sized with 5-8,000 attendees showing up over three days. The festival features a mix of bluegrass, zydeco, and rock-n-roll. Positive vibes flourished as the perennial motto "Happy Heron" echoed all around.

Fireflies lit the misty paths between our campsite and the main stage as the speaker systems carried both new and familiar melodies through the hemlocks and sugar maples into our ears. 

Today I want to tell you about something at the festival that left an impression on me other than the music - the toilets. 

Eating a gigantic lamb gyro with fresh lettuce and tomatoes covered with creamy tzatziki dressing, coupled with a full night of dancing until my toes blistered left me standing in front of a dimly lit blue plastic door to a Port-o-John at about 3 AM. 

As I waited in line to use the "facility" my face grimaced for the heinous cloud of shit-stench in which I was surely about to enclose myself. 

Upon entry I was shocked to find something entirely unexpected. A robust scent of cinnamon over-powered my nostrils. 

Apparently a group of volunteers had been keeping the whole line of high-traffic toilets tolerable by some organic addition of the holiday spice periodically throughout the night. This simple unexpected change in perception flipped the experience to the positive and I went right back to the dance tent. This experience started my thinking once again on the concept of sustainability, specifically the utilization of "humanure." 

I was reminded of contemporary heroes of sustainability. A friend and colleague - Heather Flores - gave the keynote speech at the the Rocky Mountain Sustainable Living Fair in 2010. In her speech she proclaimed...
Unless you are willing to "shit in a bucket" you are not taking permaculture as far as you can.  

Even for the liberal greenies in attendance this was a bit much as could be seen in the faces of earth-mommas swaddling their babies scrunching their noses at the thought.

If only they could experience human waste managed in a pleasant way. 

In his book Holy Shit Gene Logsdon explains the practice of cultivating human waste for garden fertilizer. He reminds us that in the golden age of Japanese agriculture the highest compliment a guest could pay a host farmer would be to leave behind a "gift" in the form of feces on the host's compost pile. The compost plies of the time were so valuable that they were kept under lock and key!

Hard to imagine in this day and age. But how did we come to this? The guttural response many of us have toward the very word - SHIT - goes a long way to explain the cultural taboos we have all agreed to place on even mentioning human feces in the current zeitgeist. From a public health stand point this makes sense as poop is by nature filthy and spreads disease if improperly managed. But what if we had some protocols minimizing germ exposure in the whole experience of humanure composting?

In his day Thomas Crapper had a great idea. Get poop under water and out of the house as fast as possible.  Once sealed under water away from air, bacteria and viruses can not aerosolize. That shit is "safe." 

But in this age, the age where fresh water is becoming more and more scarce and in turn more valuable it makes no sense to poop into several gallons of otherwise clean water. 

My experience with cinnamon masking the shit stench in the middle of the night last week at the Great Blue Heron Music Festival gives me hope that a smart and even pleasurable alternative to Crapper's technology awaits my community of resource-minded people. 


Spirit of Aldous Huxley

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Whoa! This is AMAZING!

Aside from neural implants I can not fathom a more intuitive web interface. Imagine what a Van Gogh of our age might do with this. Imagine designing recombinant proteins with this. Imagine sculpting in the cloud. My mind is running wild!

The gang's all here: a killer thread

Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Jerry Coyne, Stewart Brand.
These are just a few of the intellectual heavy-hitters you will find in one of the best conversations I have ever witnessed on the web. While most blog comment threads quickly degenerate into ad hominem mudslinging and and worthless tangential banter, the comment thread I speak of is a well curated invite-only debate about one of the most perplexing ideas in natural philosophy - the evolution of altruism. 

Here are some rousing excerpts from the conversation - 

In which philosopher Dan Dennett proposes using intellectual judo against intelligent design proponents by co-opting the very word "design" to explain the intricate molecular machines produced by natural selection.
I recently overheard a conversation among some young people in a bar about the marvels of the nano-machinery discovered inside all cells. "When you see all those fantastic little robots working away, how can you possibly believe in evolution!" one exclaimed, and another nodded wisely. Somehow these folks had gotten the impression that evolutionary biologists thought that the intricacies and ingenuities of life's processes weren't all that wonderful. These evolution-doubters were not rednecks; they were Harvard Medical students!  They hugely underestimated the power of natural selection because they had been told by evolutionary biologists, again and again, that there is no actual design in nature, only the appearance of design. This episode strongly suggested to me that one of the themes that has been gaining ground in "common knowledge" is that evolutionary biologists are reluctant to "admit" or "acknowledge" the manifest design in nature. I recommend instead the expository policy of calling nature's marvels design, as real as any design in the universe, but just not the products of an intelligent designer. There could be a good use for "designoid," to refer to the truly only apparent design manifest, for example, in all the complicated chemical apparatus that cartoonists draw when they need to illustrate a laboratory—it looks impressive to the na├»ve eye, but is just a nonsensical hodgepodge of tubes, bunsen burners, retorts and the like. That is apparent design; the design in nature, in contrast, is typically as good as, or even much better than, the designs we "intelligent" artificers have yet devised. They work really well, which is as good a criterion of design as any, in my opinion.
And in prophetic sweep Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, predicts horizontal gene transfer will be found to have broader influence on evolution than previously thought. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of horizontal gene transfer just think of updating your iPhone apps but on a genetic level.
My prediction is that new research in microbial ecology and evolution will change everything in how we think about genes and evolution. Because of the prevalence of "horizontal" gene transfer (by six different ways) in micro-organisms, they don't have Darwinian species, and their evolution looks Lamarckian—traits are acquired on the fly and passed on to offspring.
"Multi-level selection" is likely to extend downward below Darwinian species as well as upward into groups. Like everything in biology it will be messy and squishy. Simplistic Darwinian selection-by-mutation got pummeled by sexual recombination, chromosome doubling and tripling, kin selection, extended phenotype, endo-symbiosis (Margulis), regulatory genes, mitochondrial genomes, transgenic gene flow, and doubtless more to come.
The longer and closer you look, the gnarlier it gets, so far.

You can read the entire thread at The Edge where Steven Pinker started this particular conversation.

I have written about this debate here on Tom Paine's Ghost and for the World Science Festival.

One of the best summaries of the debate was written by my colleague Eric Michael Johnson for the Scientific American Blog Network. It is titled The Good Fight. Read it here

Thursday, July 12, 2012

What is Phenology?

Have you ever heard of PHENOLOGY? 

Phenology is the study of seasonal changes in plant and animal life. For example keeping a notebook of the date and location of daffodils blooming, or robins returning in the spring.

As I walked through the woods today I wished I could have uploaded photos taken with my iphone to some online database where they would be mapped to a model of earth.  I envisioned a website where one could upload time-stamped geo-tagged photos of living things and people all over the world could see these photos and use them to watch temporal fluctuations in animal migrations and plants flowering or going to seed. 

July, 12th, 2012, 12:30 PM EDT,
Latitude: 42.06873434, Longitute:79.3502757
My attempt at phenological data collection is pictured at the right. Brownie points if you can identify the butterfly species.

There have been attempts at creating a global phenological network. Project BudBurst is probably the best example. Citizen scientists are invited to log when and where they see certain flowers blooming. It is great to see this but I want more! I want to see more plants an animals recorded by a larger group of citizen scientists in a totally open access setting. The other online data base of species is E.O. Wilson's brainchild - The Encyclopedia of Life. But that database is more about cataloging all life forms on earth. A noble and useful goal but not phenology.

When looking at Google Maps you can click on buttons in the upper right corner and add photos or Wikipedia articles as pieces of meta-information overlaid on the satellite images. Is it far-fetched to expect one day there will be an additional button to add phenological data including photos, dates, and precise coordinates? If people can visualize science I think they are more likely to accept it. If we can show the world how flowers are blooming earlier and earlier due to climate change maybe they will be more likely to accept bland graphs of temperature and CO2 levels.

I had not heard of phenology until I heard Nina Leopold (daughter of naturalist and author Aldo Leopold) mention it while talking about her father (see below).

Phenology | Climate Wisconsin from ECB on Vimeo.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Participate in Government!

Please join me in signing this petition to the White House urging congress to remove tax-exempt status from politically engaged churches. If churches want a say in government they'd better pay into it like the rest of us! I think we should go further and request that all churches relinquish their tax exempt status but this would be a big step anyway.  

Happy Birthday Tesla!

Nikola Tesla sculpture located at Queen Victoria Park near Niagara falls, unveiled on July 9, 2006. Tesla stands atop an AC motor, one of the 700 inventions he patented. The monument is the work of Canadian sculptor Les Dryzdale.

Nikola Tesla ushered in the age of alternating current, radio, and television with fanfare. Though his showmanship as a scientist often made skeptics of his colleagues his ideas were eons ahead of their time and are only now receiving the kind of consideration and awe they deserve.

When presenting his new concepts he insisted one of his coils (right) be spouting off the visual manifestations of electricity, popping and fizzling so loudly as to make his words inaudible. If his contemporaries could have heard his voice they would see he had an infectious obsession with progress and the idea that the hidden powers of electricity and magnetism could be unlocked to allow humanity to live more easily. 

He had a vision for free and equitable POWER (in all philosophical and practical definitions of the word) for every man woman and child on earth. His efforts to realize this were thwarted by J. P. Morgan and other financial backers who caught wind of Tesla's scheme to deliver free electricity wirelessly to the public through Tesla's giant telecommunications tower at Wardenclyffe on Long Island. There was no profit to be made by giving people what the needed freely. But presently, as the internet gains depth and gravity, this vision is being pieced together slowly and perhaps one day will be complete. The ghost of Nikola Tesla breathes life into the very medium in which I pass these keystrokes along. Happy Birthday Nikola!

 If you want to laugh for the rest of the day watch this summary of Tesla's life.
Read more about Tesla and enrapturing life story here here and here

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Infotainment for your pleasure

Science writer Carl Zimmer shared this video with me over the Google+ social network. I share it with you here on my blog hoping that you will remember it when you have an hour and a half to spend. The BBC production is a wonderfully put together explination of modern evolutionary theory. Glad to bring this video to Tom Paine's Ghost for your viewing pleasure.

Center for Inquiry - VIDEO

The use of video in the free-thought community is growing rapidly and I love it. Seeing video of bloggers I regularly read makes them more real. In the following video Chris Mooney hosts the Center for Inquiry's radio show Point of Inquiry. The video was recorded in Amherst, New York and focuses on maintaining a separation of church and state.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Why Higgs matters? Lawrence Krauss explains

Image courtesy of CERN.
By Lawrence Krauss - Slate

Who would have believed it? Every now and then theoretical speculation anticipates experimental observation in physics. It doesn’t happen often, in spite of the romantic notion of theorists sitting in their rooms alone at night thinking great thoughts. Nature usually surprises us. But today, two separate experiments at the Large Hadron Collider of the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva reported convincing evidence for the long sought-after “Higgs” particle, first proposed to exist almost 50 years ago and at the heart of the “standard model” of elementary particle physics—the theoretical formalism that describes three of the four known forces in nature, and which to date agrees with every experimental observation done to date.

The LHC is the most complex (and largest) machine that humans have ever built, requiring thousands of physicists from dozens of countries, working full time for a decade to build and operate. And even with 26 kilometers of tunnel, accelerating two streams of protons in opposite directions at more than 99.9999 percent the speed of light and smashing them together in spectacular collisions billions of times each second, producing hundreds of particles in each collision; two detectors the size of office buildings to measure the particles; and a bank of more than 3,000 computers analyzing the events in real time in order to search for something interesting, the Higgs particle itself never directly appears.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Abound Solar - Colorado Company Goes Belly-Up

Abound Solar, a Colorado manufacturer of thin-film solar cells went under this week. Pressure from inexpensive Chinese products combined with poor management drove a promising company out of business in just two years.

The company spun-off research done at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO. Before re-branding itself as "Abound Solar" the company was called AVA Solar. AVA or air-vacuum-air, representing the unique assembly method used. 

The thin-film cadmium-tellurium photovoltaic cells produced by the company were the brainchild of Dr. W.S. Sampath. I wrote optimistically about Dr. Sampath and the company when they first announced their business plan. See this post for a more extensive background of the company.

I had hoped Abound...

Monday, July 2, 2012

What is the Higgs field?

Could it be that Healthcare in the United States is approved AND the Higgs boson is discovered in the same week? Maybe.

I am watching with great anticipation this week as my favorite physicists tweet their way all the way to Switzerland for a big announcement from CERN at the Large Hadron Collider.

Sean Carrol, physicist and blogger just tweeted he was boarding a plane bound for CERN and several prominent physicists notorious for not keeping their mouth's shut have been bursting at the seems awaiting the announcement expected this Wednesday July 4th.

UPDATE: Peter Higgs, the theoretical physicist who originally imagined his namesake particle is also en route to CERN!  

All this indicates some new data about the Higgs boson has been collected and is ready for public display.

If you are unfamiliar with this particle it is at the crux of all matter in the universe - hypothetically.

The following video is the least woo-woo explanation I can find out there describing what the Higgs field may be. High praise to the creators for not mentioning the "God Particle" once. Tough to resist the trendy pop-culture label.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Spirit and Sam Harris

Sam Harris has suggested the secular humanist movement reclaim the word "spirit." Though you may think otherwise, this word can have a secular definition. A definition unencumbered by the assumption of an afterlife or any notion of the supernatural at all. Harris would like to untangle the word spirit from "its association with medieval superstition."

I comprehend this word in a literal sense. This is known as the Epicurean definition. Spirit translates from the Latin for breathe. This conceptual syntax can be seen in words like "inspire" "aspire" and "perspire." Indeed, an alternate definition of "inspiration" is to "breath in." 

With this in mind I see the spirit not as metaphorical but as real. 

All people "breathe" their spirit into the world by their interactions with people around them. Someone can breathe their spirit into the world by writing a thousand page tome on moral philosophy, or simply smiling at a child. 

In any case these spiritual expressions I see as the path to immortality (not by living in some imaginary afterlife) but by actually influencing the world of the living after we have died. Living on through the "extra soma"  though this phrase has more to do with living on through writing more so than actions.

Many different forces have formed my own view of the word "spirit" most notably my own Swedish grandmother. We called her "Zsage" though her name was Doris. She still has a daily influence on my life. Not that I speak with her on some astral plain but I'm reminded of her wisdom, in the garden, the kitchen, and  in the studio by all kinds of memory ques. 

I hope this explains what I think "spirit" means. I have written these thoughts before in different ways. Read additional thoughts here.   

Also, the following videos have influenced my view on this topic. The fist is a segment from an interview with the writer Margaret Atwood, and second a speech by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Goodwin's speech is particularly poignant in explaining Abraham Lincoln's Epicurean perspective on the afterlife. Famed professor of animal sciences Temple Grandin speaks of the "extra soma" in the last chapter of her famous "thinking in pictures" book as well.

Read Sam Harris' essay "in defense of 'spiritual'" here.