Category Archives: Science

David Keith and Geoengineering

Environmental scientist David Keith proposes a cheap, effective, shocking means to address climate change: What if we injected a huge cloud of ash into the atmosphere to deflect sunlight and heat?

Those of you who have read SuperFreakonomics are familiar with the argument, but David Keith, a professor at the University of Calgary, is one of the more respected voices in the climate change community who has addressed geoengineering, “deliberately manipulating the Earth’s climate to counteract the effects of global warming from greenhouse gas emissions.”

Only a 16-min video, but worth the time for those concerned about, or interested in, climate change. At the very least you’ll be convinced that geoengineering should be “moved out of the shadows.”

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The Holy Grail of Burn Surgery?

From National Geographic.

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Explaining the Obvious

In response to physicists at CERN reporting that neutrinos may be able to travel faster than the speed of light, thus surpassing Einstein’s theoretical cosmic speed limit, which is the basis for modern physics:

Physicists, in the meantime, have been flooding arXiv.org, the physics Internet archive, with papers debunking the Opera experiment and defending Einstein. In one paper, two professors from Boston University, Andrew G. Cohen and the Nobelist Sheldon L. Glashow, showed that if the neutrinos had been going faster than light en route to Gran Sasso, they would have lost energy at a fearsome rate by emitting other particles, causing distortions in the beam that were not seen by Opera.

Another paper — by Gian Giudice of CERN, Sergei Sibiryakov of the Institute for Nuclear Research in Moscow and Alessandro Strumia of the University of Pisa in Italy and the National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics in Tallinn, Estonia — argued that according to the Standard Model, the reigning theory in particle physics, if neutrinos could violate relativity, electrons should violate it also, something that has also not been observed.

Last week, in what sounded like the coup de grâce in some circles, Ronald A. J. van Elburg, an artificial intelligence researcher at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, suggested that the Opera group had failed to make a relativistic correction for the motions of the GPS satellites used in timing the neutrino beams. The resulting error, he said, amounted to 64 nanoseconds, almost exactly the universe-shaking discrepancy the Opera researchers were hoping to explain.

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Lisa Randall on the Value of Scientific Thinking

When Rick Perry, who defends teaching creationism in school, says evolution is merely “a theory that’s out there, it’s got some gaps in it,” he’s demonstrating a fundamental misunderstanding of scientific theory. And when he chooses to pray for the end of a drought rather than critically evaluate climate science, he is displaying the danger of replacing rational approaches with religion in matters of public policy. Logic tries to resolve paradoxes, whereas much of religious thought thrives on them. Adherents who want to accept both religious influences on the world and scientific explanations for its workings are obliged to confront the chasm between tangible effects and unseen, imperceptible influences that is unbridgeable by logical thought. They have no choice but to admit the inconsistency–or simply overlook the contradiction.

Read more here.

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“Science Still at Work”

So maybe Einstein was wrong. I remember being told by my high school physics professor that a famous physicist was asked what will the world be like in a hundred years. The questioner was expecting an answer that involved flying cars, teleportation, the colonization of space, etc. The physicist simply replied, “Our physics will be different.” He simply meant that our understanding of the world would be much greater, and some of what we know now to be true will be known to be false. He could say that with greater confidence than describing still-yet-unknown technologies. So maybe Einstein was wrong. A team of physicists at CERN have reportedly discovered that subatomic particles called neutrinos have surpassed “nature’s speed limit,” the speed of light.

A meeting at Cern, the world’s largest physics lab, has addressed results that suggest subatomic particles have gone faster than the speed of light.

The team presented its work so other scientists can determine if the approach contains any mistakes.

If it does not, one of the pillars of modern science will come tumbling down.

Antonio Ereditato added “words of caution” to his Cern presentation because of the “potentially great impact on physics” of the result.

The speed of light is widely held to be the Universe’s ultimate speed limit, and much of modern physics – as laid out in part by Albert Einstein in his theory of special relativity – depends on the idea that nothing can exceed it.

Whether it is true or not does not subtract from the educational value. It is a good reminder that all science is falsifiable, and that scientific laws can never be proven, but rather can never be disproven. When they are, they are no longer laws.

Second, science welcomes and is strengthened by debate. During a global warming debate, author Michael Crichton told the story of a team of 200 scientists assigned by the Nazis to disprove Einstein, who had left Germany and emigrated to the United States in 1933 after the rise of Hitler. When asked how he felt about the 200 scientists pitted again him, Einstein simply replied, it only takes one to prove me wrong. It is encouraging that CERN is in fact inviting scientists to challenge their results.

The researchers at Cern in Switzerland and Gran Sasso in Italy have tried really hard to find what they might be doing wrong – over three years and thousands of experiments – because they can hardly believe what they are seeing.

The publication of their results is a call for help to pick holes in their methods, and save physics as we now know it.

Third, dissenters should not be shunned, but welcomed based on the quality of their evidence. (Only those who offer non-falsifiable arguments should be shunned, as they can never be proven right or wrong.) A healthy debate can only strengthen scientific knowledge and understanding. In that same debate Crichton offered the story of Alfred Wegener:

The story of plate tectonics actually is the story of one person who had the right idea – Alfred Wegener.  He had it in 1912.  And it is the story of major scientists at Harvard and elsewhere opposing him for decade after decade until finally it was proven to be incorrect what they were believing.  So it is, in fact — when I was a kid I was told the continents didn’t move.  It is, in fact, perfectly possible for the consensus of scientists to be wrong and it is, in fact, perfectly possible for small numbers of people to be in opposition and they will be ultimately be proven true.

This does not mean that every belief that challenges consensus is serious much less true – whether it’s the current findings being debated at CERN or evidence proffered by global warming skeptics – but rather that they should be dismissed based on evidence, not emotion or self-interest. In the near future I’ll write about one such example: Gary Taubes has intelligently challenged the consensus of nutritionists and doctors on the question of why we get fat, and should be answered seriously. (I’ll give you a clue now. It’s not due to bacon.)

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Richard Dawkins on Science

“The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver.”

-Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, 1998

For additional quotations.

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