2010: FTSOS in review, October to December

This is the fourth and final installment in the 2010 review of FTSOS. See the other three here and here and here.

October:
The most important post I think I have ever made was the one about Tyler Clementi. He was the Rutgers student who was outed as gay by his roommate. As a result – and as a result of a bigoted society – he killed himself. His death was an unnecessary tragedy that ought to bring shame to anyone who has ever voted against civil rights for gays or anyone who has ever made one moment of a gay person’s life more difficult directly because that person was gay.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so it was disconcerting to read that a few high school refs were being threatened with punishment for trying to support breast cancer research. They wore some pink whistles during football playoff games in order to raise awareness; they were later told they were in violation of some petty dress code and therefore may be facing suspension – including suspension of the pay they had planned to donate to the Susan G. Komen Foundation. After the blogosphere erupted, the organization that oversees refs in that area (Washington state) backed down.

I also went to some length to explain a few basic things about religion that conflict with science. Miracles, directed evolution, intercessory prayer, and the belief that faith is a virtue are all things which science rejects. It simply isn’t possible for someone to hold belief in any of those things and also logically claim he has no conflict with science.

November:
This was the month the board which oversees local quack Christopher Maloney agreed with me that by not referring to himself as a naturopathic doctor, he was creating confusion; people might think of him as a real doctor. Except for when he insists on putting himself in the spotlight or when there is a special occasion (such as this), I consider the issue he created to be done. He lost.

In this month I used the Socratic Method to explain our likely basis for morality. I largely pointed to our common ancestry and the obvious survival benefits that cooperation offers. I also talked about why we ought to act certain ways. We all use ultimately subjective reasoning, and that’s okay: Most of us share a number of values inherent in our nature. We use these values as our common basis for saying what is right or wrong. It’s sort of like a stand-in for objectivity. And we all have it.

I also used Edwin Hubble’s calculations for the age of the Universe to demonstrate a key point about science. One of the most enduring and annoying criticisms of science by people poorly versed in the sciences is that the practice has a history of being wrong. If it has been wrong about so many things in the past, why should anyone believe it now? Except science really doesn’t have the history everyone seems to think it does. The issue is with poor or limited data (such as what Hubble had). The scientific method actually has no limitations in and of itself. The limits come from our own minds.

I also discussed a paper from Nature which a number of creationists butchered. My focus was a particular creationist familiar to FTSOS readers, but a quick search at the time showed that a whole slew of creationists had fundamentally misunderstood the paper. This is understandable since it is unlikely any of them even read the paper (not that they would be able to understand most of it anyway), merely taking their cues from other creationists. In short, the paper was a study of how alleles become fixed in asexual populations versus sexually reproducing populations . In the former, alleles, if they are particularly advantageous, tend to spread through populations rapidly, quickly becoming fixed. But in drosophila, researchers found that for alleles to spread and become important, fixation was not necessarily required. Alleles act in much more complicated systems in sexually reproducing populations than in asexual organisms, so the way their frequency rises or falls is also more complicated.

December:
Since I mentioned FTSOS hitting the arbitrary number of 100,000 hits in an earlier installment of this review, I suppose I will also mention that it hit 200,000 hits in December. There isn’t much more to add to this, though, is there?

In a more significant post, I pointed out that the Catholic Church thinks (probably without realizing it) that Double Effect is wrong. The Church stripped a hospital in Arizona of its affiliation because the hospital made the correct choice to save a woman’s life at the expense of the not-a-human-being fetus she was carrying. This is pretty much the example textbooks give in order to illustrate the very concept of Double Effect.

I also wrote about a local (real) doctor who supports some quackery. Dustin Sulak is from Hallowell, Maine and he has been making a living making out marijuana prescriptions. That’s all fine and dandy (and I’m sure he is being responsible with his power), but he also supports Reiki. That whole ‘field’ is just a bunch of malarkey that has no place in medicine. I find it unfortunate that a perfectly qualified medical professional would lend credence to something so obviously made-up like that.

Finally, I lamented the fact that Republicans were holding up three extremely important bills this month. All three – the repeal of DADT, the New START treaty, and the 9/11 First Responders health care bill – were eventually passed or ratified. The whole hub-bub was a political creation: the Republicans want to embarrass the President, not get anything done. I don’t think the Democrats are by any means wonderful, but at least they tend to be at least half-way pragmatic. And they want 9/11 First Responders to have fucking health care.

So this concludes my review of FTSOS for 2010. Hopefully the next dozen months will be even better.

Following the evidence

When Edwin Hubble first discovered that the Universe was expanding and all the galaxies (except those in our local cluster) were moving away from us, he found that distance was proportional to velocity. That is, those galaxies moving two times as fast from us as closer galaxies were twice as far away. If they were moving three times as fast, they were three times as far. This was all great – and correct – but there came a problem from this. And that problem can be seen in Hubble’s data.

Extrapolating from this data, the age of the Universe was about 1.7 or 1.8 billion years old. Whoops, right? Yes, but for an interesting reason. Hubble didn’t have a reliable light source to measure distance. He relied on the Doppler Effect to determine the speed at which the galaxies were moving, but he didn’t know how far they were in the first place. He had chosen a particular type of star for his measurements, but there were complications in knowing consistent luminosity due to the fact that the stars could be of different sizes. This video explains it all.

The point I want to make is that when Hubble’s calculations gave a wildly inaccurate age for the Universe – around the same time, we were coming to a conclusion as to the age of Earth at 4.6 billion years – it wasn’t based upon bad science. In fact, the scientific method worked wonderfully. The issue was with figuring out just what was needed to obtain more accurate observations. That is, the science was never weak – and, in fact, science never is weak – instead the problem was merely one of needing better evidence. Once we were able to find standard candles, we were able to better utilize Hubble’s observations. In essence, that is what science does. It relies upon interpreting observations according to a methodology; the reason why it changes is due to better observations, not a change in general methodology. Can religion say anything remotely similar?

Greatest Scientific Events of the 20th Century

I’ve recently been kicking around my personal list of what might constitute the greatest scientific achievements of the 20th century. There are so many things to consider and the list is necessarily so subjective that I’m not going to pretend to be giving a highly considered, thoroughly vetted list. I have put thought into this, but there will surely be dozens of examples I could easily find myself reconsidering if brought to my attention.

5) The Expanding Universe

In 1929 Edwin Hubble made the discovery that the Universe is actually expanding. This had direct implications throughout physics and astronomy. It was the reason Einstein called his cosmological constant “the biggest blunder” of his life.

Hubble used Cepheids, commonly known as “standard candles”, to get the relative distances of various galaxies. He then plotted this against their known redshifts. What he discovered was that these redshifts increased as a linear function of distance. That is, the Universe was uniformly expanding. In 1998 it would be discovered that this expansion was actually increasing in speed, contrary to expectations.

4) Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation

In the early 60’s, Robert Dickie was searching for the radiation that should have been left over if the Big Bang model was correct. He had assembled a team to look for what science had predicted, but he was beaten to the punch by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson. And they weren’t even looking for the CMB.

Using a Dickie radiometer (designed by Dickie himself), Penzias and Wilson happened upon an interfering sort of fuzz while doing other research in 1965. They assumed it was coming from some nearby source, perhaps New York. After ruling out all the obvious possibilities (including pigeons), they were unable to conclude precisely what it was. They published a paper describing their results, which Dickie then used to correctly interpret as the discovery of the CMB. Penzias and Wilson won Nobel Prizes in 1978.

3) The Structure of DNA

There’s the saying that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. This is crucially true, but the essence of the saying can be broaden to another area in biology: nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of the structure of DNA as discovered by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. I dare say, aside from Darwin’s discovery of how evolution happens, the discovery of the molecular shape of DNA has been the most significant event in all of biology. Interestingly, it shouldn’t have happened the way it did. Watson and Crick were one of several teams studying the structure. One member of another team, Rosalind Franklin, had actually produced accurate images of the molecule on her own, but determined she wasn’t ready to present her findings quite yet. Her teammate, Maurice Wilkins, would have none of that and decided to show her images – covertly – to Watson and Crick. They almost immediately recognized its significance (and to an extent Franklin hadn’t quite grasped): DNA formed as a double-helix with a uniform width all the way up its length.

Franklin’s work has unfortunately been drowned in history because of Wilkins’ betrayal, not to mention the fact that she is a woman in science – and that’s no easy task (especially in 1953).

Watson, Crick, and Wilkins received their Nobel Prizes in 1962 – Franklin got nothing.

2) General Theory of Relativity

Albert Einstein described his general theory of relativity in 1915, updating Newton’s ideas on gravity. He presented one of the most brilliant ideas man has ever had, fundamentally changing our understanding of how the Universe works. His science knocked down the notion of absolutes within spacetime, indeed, even helping to define the term. (Credit does not go directly to him, but his theory of special relativity was key in the development of the concept, and general relativity is an expansion of special relativity.)

Einstein received his Nobel Prize in 1922 (for 1921). (It was given for work as it specifically pertained to his special theory of relativity, not his theory of general relativity.)

1) Life on Mars

For the life of me, I don’t understand why no one seems to care about this. NASA recently announced it had reexamined a meteorite discovered in 1984 and confirmed that it contained within it microbial life which did not originate on Earth. While that may seem unfitting for a post about 20th century discoveries and events, the meteorite was originally described in 1996 to much fanfare. Over time a quiet consensus grew that the shapes in the rock could be formed via geological processes. The recent analysis blew those concerns out of the water.