missing link?

June 16, 2009 at 7:20 am | | science and the public, science community, scientific integrity

I read this interesting editorial in Science about the media hyping of a recent archeological find. Just look at Jørn Hurum, the team leader:


The report of finding the intact skeleton of a monkey-thing was reported in PLOS One, but not before the media hype started. There is a TV documentary of the find and the research on the fossil, and the group is touting the find as the next Rosetta Stone and the “missing link” between apes and humans. For instance, here are a few quotes from the team that reported the find:

“This specimen is like finding the lost ark for archaeologists. It is the scientific equivalent of the Holy Grail.” –Jørn Hurum

“[It is] like the eighth wonder of the world.” –Jens Franzen

What douchebags. This kind of bullshit is seriously likely to undermine the credibility of science in the public eye. Going around claiming that you’ve found the missing link—not to fellow scientist but to the public at large—is very dangerous: when it turns out that your monkey-thing is not a little human, the incident will only add gasoline to the anti-evolution fire. If it really is the missing link, let your fellow paleontologists make those statements.

I find this type of grandstanding by the authors scary, and very reminiscent of the Fleischmann and Pons cold fusion debacle. In fact, I recently watched a 60 Minutes episode about cold fusion, in which Fleischmann stated that his only regrets were naming the effect he saw “fusion” and holding a press conference. In other words, if he and Pons had not overhyped their results directly to the media, then maybe they wouldn’t have been run out of science when their science turned out to have fatal flaws.

Hurum claims that he’s only hyping in this fashion in order to help get children intersted in science. But clearly, his base motivation is to make himself rich and famous. Yes, we should get children excited about real science, but not at the expense of scientific integrity.

Or maybe this little monkey-thing will end up being seen as a great scientific discovery for generations. But I doubt it.

looking forward to wolfram|alpha

May 15, 2009 at 12:35 pm | | news, science and the public, science@home, wild web

Wolfram|alpha search engine goes live on Monday. I can’t wait. Here’s a demo. I’m sure they selected the queries very carefully. But for the queries they ran, Wolfram|alpha looks awesome!

There will be a live broadcast of them trying to go online, starting at 8 PM EST (5 PM Pacific).

UPDATE: Try using the site for chemistry.

Space Storms, 2012, and End of the World?

March 24, 2009 at 4:39 pm | | everyday science, literature, science and the public

A recent article in New Science magazine suggests that a severe solar storm may destroy the electrical infrastructure of the Western World (source).

Apparently from time to time, giant plasma fireballs known as coronal mass ejections escape the sun’s surface on a solar wind.  If one of those ejections should hit the Earth’s magnetic shield, it would cause rapid short-lived changes in the configuration of the Earth’s magnetic field which would induce DC currents in the long wires of modern power grids.  This increased DC current in turn would induce strong magnetic fields that would saturate a transformer’s magnetic core, which would result in a runaway current that would cause the transformer’s wiring to heat up and actually melt.

Read more of this post…

Dr. Chu goes to Washington

March 23, 2009 at 11:28 am | | science and the public

I was reading the New York Times’ write-up of Steve Chu’s adjustment to DC culture when I came across this quote:

Yet as he takes on one of the toughest policy and management challenges in government, Dr. Chu brings certain assets that none of his peers or predecessors have had: a Nobel Prize, a YouTube following (for his lectures on climate change) and an unofficial theme song (“Dr. Wu” by Steely Dan).

So I had to go look up that theme song and I don’t get it.  Anybody know what the connection is (other than the name of the song)?

Mea Culpa

February 8, 2009 at 6:51 pm | | science and the public

Dear Internet,

Recently, I published two posts concerning an e-mail I received from a rather confused individual regarding his theories on evolution.  Shortly after the threads went up on this blog, I received a very frank message from a reader who knows the author.  Out of respect, I’ve taken down my previous posts.

And now, for a geeky unicorn chaser:

Look Around You: Germs (YouTube)

make your science sexy

January 7, 2009 at 7:15 pm | | crazy figure contest, hardware, literature, science and the public, science@home

This machine is the closest some graduate students get to the Real Thing:


“Finally, theories proposed for the mechanism of breakage were investigated on a laboratory coital model.”

Source: White, N.; Hill, D.; Bodemeier, S. Male condoms that break in use do so mostly by a “blunt puncture” mechanism. Contraception 2008, 77, 360-365. (Also reported in Nature’s news section here.)

No one buys a damn $8000 oscilloscope for Christmas

December 18, 2008 at 10:44 am | | hardware, science and the public

Why, I ask you, does it seem that every vendor I’ve even thought about soliciting a quote from has decided to flood my email with “Holiday Specials” on highly specialized scientific equipment? There’s a reason that O. Henry tells not of Jim selling his oscilloscope to buy Della a phototube cryocooler, while Della sells her monochromator to buy Jim a signal generator. That reason is because it’s moronic.

Why don't you love me?
A little subtle sexism, anyone?

steve chu as SOE

December 10, 2008 at 7:03 pm | | news, science and the public

So it looks like Obama has snagged Steve Chu for Secretary of Energy.

Officials familiar with the selections say Mr. Chu is likely to focus his attention on the Energy Department’s core missions: basic science, nuclear weapons and cleaning up a nuclear-weapons manufacturing complex contaminated since the Cold War.

Sounds good. Steve is a big name in my field, so I know his work well. In fact, I even worked in his lab for a summer REU. He’s a nice guy and a good scientist. I haven’t been following his policy work very closely, but I suspect that he’s got some good ideas. Regardless, I really like the idea of a real, live scientist as SOE!

UPDATE: Here’s a NYT summary of Steve. Also, here’s an interview he gave about his thoughts on policy at Berkeley.

political science: more anti-science from Reps

October 24, 2008 at 9:53 pm | | news, political science, science and the public

Sorta like McCain and the bears and the projector:

ThinkProgress had the story.

Prasher and the end of America

October 9, 2008 at 12:09 pm | | science and the public, science community

There’s a lot of buzz about Doug Prasher not winning the 2008 Nobel in Chemistry with Tsien, Chalfie, and Shimomura. Prasher was the first to discover and clone the gene for GFP, which made most of the subsequent work possible. Here’s an NPR story about Doug Prasher and his story.

In my view, the main story is not that Prasher didn’t win the prize (the Nobel committee had to make a decision), but that he is now a bus driver because he cannot get a job in science! What country is this!?! The country that funded great scientific and technological advances (from the atomic bomb to the internet, from the semiconductor transistor to the Hubble telescope).

Where is America going when we don’t fund our best scientists (to say nothing of the mediocre ones like me)?

reece roth

September 18, 2008 at 10:08 am | | news, science and the public, science community

Finally, the US is prosecuting the real terrorists: University professors!

Prof. Reece Roth of University of Tennessee was found guilty of exporting secret data to China and Iran because he had some Iranian grad student and he took his laptop to China when he went on a lecture series.

This is way worse than outing a CIA operative for political purposes. I hope he gets the death penalty.

Seriously though, this makes me sad. He looks like my grandfather. The one who was a spy for the Japanese during the war. jk.

yes, but i’m the expert

September 14, 2008 at 11:33 pm | | pseudoscience, science and the public

I’ve been getting comments on my post about how crazy an idea it is to run your car on water. I thought that I was more than fair: pointing out that the thermodynamics is obviously against the idea (splitting water in order to burn it is stupid), but I left some room for the possibility that adding lighter gases might change the combustion efficiency. Still, I was skeptical. I was made more skeptical by the deceptive advertising (e.g. water4gas scam revealed). Remember the seven warning signs of bogus science.

But, despite my requests for non-anecdotal references, I just received long, rambling, confusing, and criticizing comments. For instance:

I wish to correct part of your story, Obviously you must have race through when reading and watching the videos on youtube and elsewhere.

1st of all many people err and state that water is split into H2 and O2. Water is H20. Peroxide is H2O2, Water is actually split into H2 and O. When using the term HHO it is denoting two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule.

So here, I am accused of not studying the concept carefully enough. Huh? I am an expert on this: I am a chemist. I know what water splits into. I know stoichiometry. Monatomic oxygen is not bubbling out of water.

Then there’s the comment:

Your comments remind me of a story; As the first steamboat was readying for it’s maiden voyage, there was a man telling everyone who would listen: “That thing will never work”!

As the steamboat pulled out into the river, he started telling everyone: “They’ll never get that thing to stop”!!

Or, how about this expert: “Man won’t be able to breath at speeds greater than 20mph”!!

Why don’t you take your “Expert” B.S. and tell it to my 25+ very happy customers.

Again, disregarding my expert understanding of thermodynamics, replacing it with fantom customers with their anecdotal evidence.

I also had some attacks from military men:

Water can be used as a safe and powerful fuel, if it is done properly. I guess none of you were in the Navy. In boot camp we were warned not to use water on a jet fuel fire because it burns at the higher temperatures of those fires. That’s why they use foam on fires at airports.


Something I think you should know is that the AV8 Harrier jet utilizes this. Water is injected into the engine where it instataniously seperates and burns. As you surely have read, hydrogen puts out 3 time the energy as gasoline (jet fuel). The Harrier hovers many hundreds of feet in the air becuse of the hydrogen burning.

You may want to know that I was with the Marine fighter squadron VMFA-513 when it was at Beaufort, SC. and it was still manufacture by the British, before McDonnell Douglas joint up to partner in building the plane.

I presently work at Boeing in St Louis, MO. The facts I state about the Harrier is common knowledge by those of us who work for Boeing St Louis.

Weird. Kendall kindly debunked both these silly ideas (the Harrier jet uses water injection to cool the engine, and water can’t burn on a diesel fire). But where are these references to the military coming from? I think it is further anti-expert and anti-elite: If you had a little real-world experience, you’d know that … is true. All you schooling can’t help you here.

You know, I’d agree if we were talking about fixing a tank or welding an I-beam or leading groups of people or one of the many other important things in this world that require real-world experience. But this is not the case when it comes to thermodynamics! I’m sorry, but in this case, an expert’s opinion is important.

People hate experts and the “elite” until they actually need their expertise. What would the world be like if people who think free power comes from splitting water and reburning it ran automobile companies? Or where good folks who didn’t believe in the germ theory of disease were our surgeons? Or people with no interest in ever learning about international relations became President of the United States of America?

I don’t think everyone should get a PhD. (On the contrary.) I don’t think one needs an academic education to be intelligent or successful or respected. I think the “real world” gives lessons that cannot be learned in a classroom or lab. However, I also believe that experts have a place in this world, too.

This all reminds me of Richard Feynman’s story about the painter. Let’s all just throw in a little yellow…

political science: McCain wants to cut science funding

August 26, 2008 at 1:29 pm | | news, political science, science and the public

While his campaign claims he supports science, McCain is going around mocking ecology research, getting conservatives riled up about federal spending on science:

“My friends, we spent $3-million of your money to study the DNA of bears in Montana. Now I don’t know if that was a paternity issue or a criminal issue,” he said to laughter from the crowd gathered at Saddleback Church in Orange County, California on Aug. 16, 2008, “but the point is, it was $3-million of your money.” (source)

In truth, the USGS study uses DNA to track populations of the endangered Grizzly Bear.

Regardless of what he says, McCain is anti-science and will continue Bush’s attack on science and science funding. At least that’s the stench I smell from him. I don’t think I can take another four years of Republicans, with their misleadership, truth-twisting, and corruption.

political science: McCain vs. Obama

August 13, 2008 at 5:47 pm | | political science, science and the public, science community

NPR had a good piece yesterday about how the two candidates plan to heal the wounds science has suffered after 8 years of the Bush Administration. The good news: they’re both more pro-science than Bush. The main difference between candidates is that Obama backs up his support with promises of more money for science.

Here’s an excerpt:

Obama: He would reverse policy adopted by President George W. Bush that placed restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. Obama has also said that he would double the amount of federal money available for scientific research, in hopes of giving American high-tech companies a leg up. Obama has not said over what time period he would double funding, nor where the money would come from.

McCain: He has said that he would support legislation that would expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and place fewer restrictions on it. But in a nod to the anti-abortion community, his adviser also has said that he hopes to not have to rely on embryonic stem cells in the future. In terms of scientific funding, McCain is sympathetic for the need to fund basic research, but is not sure where the government would find that money.

I understand what McCain is saying: doubling the budget for science means less money for something else. However, I think that we do need to better fund science—in order to promote technological progress and American prosperity. Maybe Obama won’t be able to convince Congress to fully double science funding, but I’d prefer Obama’s breakable promise to McCain’s no-offer-at-all.

[Update: Nanoscale Views beat me to the punch!]

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