"Tivo-ifies the web" Paul Kedrosky

What Darwin didn’t Know

The BBC iPlayer link is here.

[Note this is not the creationist nonsense of the same name]

What Darwin didn’t know was exactly how right about natural selection he was.

This is a great documentary, not so much in terms of production, but solid content. It looks at the evolution of the concept of natural selection, from Darwin to evolutionary developmental biology, where the correspondence between the fossil and DNA records are exactly what prove the theory beyond all doubt.

The history of natural selection is the opposite of its popular perception, it is a story of slow acceptance in the scientific community culminating in total validation and proof rather than an antique concept which has raised recent doubts. Vapid but noisy objections emanating from the current rise of religious extremism are an irrelevance in terms of the time-line of evolution by natural selection as an idea and reasonable debate about it.

Who knew that without knowledge of genetics, Darwin’s humility in absence of absolute proof of his ideas, would allow him to insert in his last edition of the Origin of Species a nod to the possibility of Lamarckian evolution; that de Vries’ (false) idea of the origin of species as coming out of nowhere through single mutations almost replaced Darwin’s gradual selection after he died; or that for the 50th anniversary of his death, the Natural History Museum in London put on a show of Darwinian evolution that ignored the very idea of natural selection that makes it Darwinian in the first place?

Exotically named and unplaceable accented Dutch-Kiwi-Canadian-South-African biologist, Armand Marie Leroi, leads us through this history with the eventual triumph of natural selection. This culminates in the Neo Darwinian synthesis of evolution and genetics and the ‘evo-devo’ combination of evolutionary and developmental biology, which create an accurate view of the tree of life and realize the full grandeur of the mechanism that describes its growth – natural selection.

3 comments science

Full Richard Feynman Messenger Lecture Series

My hobby is Physics, specifically information theory. Not a popular pastime to have, perhaps, but my Dad is a physicist and the interest rubs off.

One thing I’ve learned is that to get simple explanations for things, counter to popular belief it’s better to get the view of the best physicists than the best communicators. Richard Feynman was both.

There are many Feynman clips around, but Bill Gates has spent significant time and some of his fortune tracking down rights for a famous series of 7 lectures by Feynman at Cornell University in 1964, called the Messenger lectures. They have been put up for free at the Microsoft Research Web site, as part of project Tuva, with full transcripts and interactive features.

The extras are thorough and useful for this type of subject matter, but the format is very like an old school interactive CD-ROM, where the interface re-invents the wheel and omits standard functionality such as the ability to embed.

[ BTW - these Microsoft Silverlight powered videos were almost impossible to watch for me, due to stopping and starting. Like the bad old days before Youtube used flash embeds and web based video suddenly seemed good enough. Silverlight is, in theory solid, so what's up here? Is it just me? ]

Watch them here.

6 comments science, smashing telly top 10 documentaries

CERN for children – and Chicago Daily Herald Readers

We’ve just been through a period of historic excess and debauchery, based on the financial miscalculation that the world had nearly twice as much wealth as it has now, where celebrities where famous for nothing other than fame itself and where the robbers were running the banks (an altogether more systemic societal risk than lunatics running asylums). Nothing like the here and now, after this monstrous, toxic, asset-zit has exploded, cries out for meaning and purpose.

In this existential vacuum, the Daily Herald, ‘Suburban Chicago’s Information Source ‘, prints a reader’s letter by Patricia Grabowicz which complains about money going to Fermilab to spend on mere particles, with what I would argue is a cheap shot saying the money would be better spent on education.

While showering money on places that served no higher purpose than profit, places like Fermilab, which probe the very essence of our existence on this spec of sand in an intergalactic ocean and carry the meaning and purpose that inspire people to educate themselves in the first place, are surely the very things we need to invest in.

But that is not where Grabowitz is wrong. The single, devastating, reader comment by Larry Jankowski at the end of the letter is worth quoting in its entirety:

The Tevatron is being shut down as soon as CERN super-collider goes on-line. No experiments using it for pure science are in the future budget. But the ancillary services provided by the LINAC, and booster rings, like protons and synchrotron light, for treating cancers and materials manufacturing research, is what the budgeted money is for. The search for Higgs is being moved to the EU and CERN.

Fermilab money to save people from dying of otherwise untreatable cancer is not such a bad thing, and a better use of that money than special education classes for a handful of politicians, and keeps scientists and medical researchers here, rather than brain-draining their talent to the EU.

As Fermilab gets ready to pass off to CERN, it is just possible that it may find the particle that gives mass that CERN was built for, the Higgs Boson. This week the scope of where it may exist was further narrowed and a mysterious particle called Y(4140) was discovered. If Fermilab doesn’t find the Higgs, CERN will certainly either find it, or perhaps more excitingly prove that it doesn’t exist, bringing into question the core of our current understanding of reality.

This all sounds abstract, and unfortunately, real things are not always simple, but the challenge of discovery is as thrilling as and more important than the Apollo missions.

CERN have put together a great website for children, where the playlist at the top comes from. Make this your information source, Daily Herald readers.

3 comments science

Slamming UK Anti-Science

Ben Goldacre rails against modern day fraudsters such as anti-vaccination extremists. What’s strange about anti-vaccination is that despite it being a provably fraudulent meme that is endangering lives, it is taken to be a viable stance and attacking it is seen as controversial. Even this Goldacre clip has a legal disclaimer at the end from the news anchor presenting it.

Current events help put this in perspective, its like saying Bernie Madoff was running a Ponzi scheme and being quoted with the disclaimer that its a matter of personal opinion and not of the news organization.

1 comment memes, science

The President’s Guide to Science

There is much less difference between the Democrats and the Republicans than the polarization of voters would suggest. They both sit to the right relative to most other Western economies, and both are hostage to jingoism and superstition which again registers higher than in other wealthy nations. My main beef with Bush Jnr. was that he showed no intellectual curiosity, a fundamental trait that differentiates us from beasts. But the Obama administration may be less hostile to knowledge, or science, as it is termed from the Latin.

This program imagines a briefing for the new president (it was made just before the election) and asks some well known scientists what they would teach the President.

Running time: 50 mins.

5 comments politics, science

Ben Goldacre Interview

I’ve just finished Reading Ben Goldacre’s book, ‘Bad Science’, that lambasts various forms of quackery and pseudo science. Here is a New Scientist interview with him. I have also embedded a clip of Gillian McKeith a well know TV presenter in the UK, who encourages people to eat healthily, but does so in a way that is wrong and deceptive. A whole chapter of Bad Science is devoted to her.

For example, McKeith calls herself (or used to call, before the Advertising Standards Authority had a draft adjudication against her) a doctor and refers to her patients. She is neither a medical doctor, nor does she have a PhD from an accredited university. She does have an accreditation from a Nutrition institute that Goldacre managed to obtain membership for his dead cat for $100. The award hangs in his toilet.

Gillian McKeith is our latest recipient of the Smashing Telly FEBL (Fucking Entertaining Big Lie) award, which consists of being tagged FEBL

3 comments FEBL, pseudo science, science

The Big Bang

Aired on Sept 4th on BBC to celebrate this weeks trial run of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, a history of the Big Bang, a story far more wonderful and imaginative than Biblical creation.

(For those of you that have noticed that I keep bashing religion at the moment – I’ve had enough, I’ve cracked. I am normally relatively nonpartisan about politics because I don’t like or trust any politicians from McCain to Obama, but I can normally see people’s points of view from both sides of the fence. However, I really, really am depressed about a certain intellectually incurious, beehive hairdoed, 50s throwback, living adjacent to Siberia without a Passport. Someone probably quite nice as a person and harmless, if her opinions aren’t inflicted on everyone. Someone who thinks that fairy stories should be taught as an alternative to science and that rape victims should be forced to have babies without a welfare state to support them. Palin is living proof that consent can be manufactured, and in 15 minutes, as junk food rather than a healthy product.)

3 comments science

The Inability of Humans to Understand Growth

Albert Bartlett is a modern day Malthusian on a mission. Bartlett is physicist who claims that “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function”. He points out what is undeniable: that at current growth rates the world population will have to decline within a period of historical rather than geological time (i.e. not that long), or we will not have enough room to stand up, let alone farm, and that this decline can only come about through a finite number of means: contraception, abortion, disease, war, famine.

With this knowledge, people who are against contraception, the item on this list which will cause the least suffering, are extremely dangerous.

If you believe that the exponential rise in population which coincides exactly with the use of fossil fuels has something to do with fossil fuels; if you believe that the geometric (i.e. non Malthusian) increase in the efficiency of farming through oil based products has something do with oil, then its even more imperative to start listening to people like Bartlett.

Unfortunately a large percentage of the population would rather believe that the cause of our prosperity is due to either the Dancing Wuli Masters, the ascendancy of Mars in Capricorn or the miracle of the image of Jesus Christ in a damp stain on a shit-house door in Ohio. Many of the same people think that we absolutely must breed like rabbits because a garbled, Greek translation of a late Bronze Age folk tale, called The Bible, modified through centuries of the game of Telephone, says so. Is it surprising that these people fail to understand the exponential function?

19 comments science

Richard Dawkins – The Genius of Darwin, Part 3

The last in the series, segment 1 of 5.

Segment 2
Segment 3
Segment 4
Segment 5

2 comments science

Richard Dawkins – The Genius of Darwin: 2

In this second part of the series Dawkins progresses from the origin of species to the descent of man and what we know today about its implications.

He points out that as a program for living Darwinism is usually abhorrent, but that from Social Darwinists to Libertarians, kin selection and the resultant emergence of altruism as a natural outcome, has been ignored.

His point about Enron is especially pertinent: by periodically culling the people who they believed were the bottom 15% of performers, they encouraged individual ruthlessness rather than team players who would benefit the company as a whole, at the expense of their individual performance. Enron’s selection methods were unnatural rather than natural, and open to error of judgment. Unnatural selection was well known to animal breeders, centuries before Darwinism, but Natural Selection is different, there is no purpose and therefore no possible ideological attachment.

(This is the first of 5 parts of the second program in the series)

1 comment science