My Life In Neon

Sci Fi / Fantasy writer Autumn Nicole Bradley – Dream in digital, live in neon

Archive for the category “Science”

The Early 1900s Were Cooler Than You Thought (My trip to the Museum of Science and Industry)

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I went to the Museum of Science and Industry in downtown Chicago. The highlights:

  • A working Foucalt’s Pendulum (Two, in fact. Read the article if you don’t understand why something so incredibly simple can demonstrate something so profound about our world.)
  • Jim Henson’s Fantastic World with a whole section devoted to The Dark Crystal
  • Fast Forward, kind of a Popular Science/Popular Mechanics exhibit where I got to play with a Reactable! (See it in action) Needless to say, I would love to have one of these to use in live performance.
  • The U-505 Submarine. A German U-boat captured in WWII. It’s an amazing piece of engineering and war history. Not to get all war-ranty, but I’m not one that is typically prone to romantic idealizing about war being a noble venture. But there are parts of it that are truly awe inspiring. This view actually moved me to tears. It’s impossible to convey the feeling you get when you see this thing and understand what it means that our grandfathers and uncles built and used these things to kill each other.

I will admit, I was actually moved to tears multiple times inside the museum. There are a handful of things that will make me cry, and amazing and humbling feats of human achievement are one of them. For those keeping score at home, I have also readily admitted to weeping at the sight of The Millennium Clock Tower during my visit to the UK.

But in the upstairs of the Science Storms exhibit, they have a collection of what can best be described as early electrical odds and ends.

They have one of the (if not the) largest Wimshurst Machines ever built on display.
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Leyden Jars, an early electrical capacitor:
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An early Tesla coil. (They had a modern Tesla coil mounted on the ceiling creating artificial lightning above a circle of couches. I admit that Tesla coils are Fucking Cool, but not exactly the best atmosphere for a tea party. Unless it is the coolest tea party ever.)
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Big Daddy’s little brother? (It’s actually a fire fighter’s helmet.)
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The Decline Effect and why it’s a good thing

In Jonah Lehrer’s recent New Yorker piece, The Truth Wears Off, he discusses Jonathan Schooler’s idea that science is troubled by a disturbing trend of publication bias that has resulted in statistical noise being reported as significant new findings. When repetition accounts for that noise, the “Decline Effect” as Schooler calls it, makes those initial significant findings disappear into the ether.

Lehrer writes:

For many scientists, the effect is especially troubling because of what it exposes about the scientific process. If replication is what separates the rigor of science from the squishiness of pseudoscience, where do we put all these rigorously validated findings that can no longer be proved? Which results should we believe?

“For many scientists, the effect is especially troubling.” Is it? This regression toward the mean is exactly why scientists perform follow up studies in the first place. This is the raison d’etre for the scientific process as we know it today. If repetition shows an earlier conclusion is in error, then it was not so “rigorously validated” now was it? The truth will out. Time makes fools of us all. (E.T. Bell)

No scientist should be disturbed by the trend. If anything, it should reaffirm their faith in the process, and Lehrer never returns to admit that, even in the piece’s conclusion.

The decline effect is troubling because it reminds us how difficult it is to prove anything.

This is not news to anyone. (Also, be careful of how you use that word prove when discussing science. This isn’t a court room.) In fact, that difficulty is why people trust the results that have been rigorously tested. The Decline Effect does not indict the scientific process, Mr. Lehrer. It indicts the scientific publication process, and scientific journalism that reports the hype. (Just look at the recent “life on other planets” press conference nonsense.)

There is a bigger problem that cuts to the heart of this issue that neither Schooler nor Lehrer addresses here: Short term gain vs long term viability. Science with a capital S, proper noun, is obsessively fixated on the long term. Time, repetition, confirmation or refutation: these are the things that make it what it is. The process removes human error through repetition and regression toward the truth.

The fact that a great deal of research is done by corporations, in particular pharmaceutical companies, is no surprise. Companies need to prove their products and processes, and the scientific process is the best way to do it. The corporate-backed science regime is a double edged sword, though. The profit motive and long term economics actually reinforces the objectives of good science. Measured over time, accurate information is simply more valuable than misleading information. Companies behaving responsibly should want good information.

The problem arises when short term gain is elevated above long term viability. The U.S.S.R.’s crises were worsened because they were systematically reporting bad information. It wasn’t communism that failed, it was institutionalized lying.

The political structures governing medical treatment in the U.S. are similarly rewarding for companies who think in the short term. The sooner they get approval, the longer they can exploit their patent before generic sales begin. In the long term, generic sales will be lackluster if the drug is ineffective, but by the time those studies confirm that the drug is ineffective, the company has already gotten a decade’s worth of hyped-up brand name sales and is effectively “done” with that drug.

The same trend exists in energy (dirty vs clean energy), stock, bond, and currency markets (sub-prime lending and credit default swaps are mathematically impossible to make viable in the long term), and many other things.

When immediate survival is threatened, short term survival is prioritized appropriately. But when long term success is clearly achievable, but short term gain is rewarded, a depressing number of people still opt for short term gain.

The trouble with corporate science in the U.S. actually extends beyond the lab, and even beyond the company. The problem is that the current tax structure makes a stock’s closing price more important than the actual underlying asset: the company’s profitability and long-term viability. As a result, business decisions affect how science is reported, and the selection bias toward statistical noise.

This is short term vs long term problem is not unique to science. But science at least has a mechanism for dealing with it. What we, as a society, do with unconfirmed scientific results is not to be blamed on the scientists themselves.

Huffington Post Science Fail

Robert Lanza at Huffington Post attempts to inject science into philosophy yet again:

But according to biocentrism, reality is a process that involves our consciousness. In contrast to dreams, we assume the everyday world is just “out there” and that we play no role in its appearance. We think they’re different. Yet experiments show just the opposite: day-to-day reality is no more objective or observer-independent than dreams. The most vivid illustration of this is the famous two-hole experiment. When you watch a particle go through the holes, it behaves like a bullet, passing through one hole or the other. But if no one observes the particle, it exhibits the behavior of a wave and can pass through both holes at the same time. This and other experiments tell us that unobserved particles exist only as waves of probability.

Science Fail. Like Deepak Chopra and his absurd quantum healing ideas, the author intentionally or unintentionally misunderstands the concept of “observation” as it relates to quantum physics, and, like Chopra, uses that misunderstanding to shoehorn quantum physics’ legitimacy into his pseudoscience. While there may be yet-unknown relationships between our conscious experience and the laws of space-time, we don’t need feel-good, self-centered philosophy polluting the questions.

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