Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

The most depressing Discovery about the Brain, Ever

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

“It turns out that in the public realm, a lack of information isn’t the real problem.  The hurdle is how our minds work, no matter how smart we think we are.  We want to believe we’re rational, but reason turns out to be the ex post facto way we rationalize what our emotions already want to believe.”

– Makes sense to me.  So many decisions I see being made in our world seem so inexplicable.   As Paul Simon wrote in his song, “The Boxer”:

“A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

– dennis

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Educating monkeys

Say goodnight to the dream that education, journalism, scientific evidence, or reason can provide the tools that people need in order to make good decisions.

Yale law school professor Dan Kahan’s new research paper is called “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government,” but for me a better title is the headline on science writer Chris Mooney’s  piece about it in Grist:  “Science Confirms: Politics Wrecks Your Ability to Do Math.”

Kahan conducted some ingenious experiments about the impact of political passion on people’s ability to think clearly.  His conclusion, in Mooney’s words: partisanship “can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills…. [People] who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.”

In other words, say goodnight to the dream that education, journalism, scientific evidence, media literacy or reason can provide the tools and information that people need in order to make good decisions.  It turns out that in the public realm, a lack of information isn’t the real problem.  The hurdle is how our minds work, no matter how smart we think we are.  We want to believe we’re rational, but reason turns out to be the ex post facto way we rationalize what our emotions already want to believe.

For years my go-to source for downer studies of how our hard-wiring makes democracy hopeless has been  Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth.

Nyan and his collaborators have been running experiments trying to answer this terrifying question about American voters: Do facts matter?

The answer, basically,  is no.  When people are misinformed, giving them facts to correct those errors only makes them cling to their beliefs more tenaciously.

– More:
– Thanks to Gus H. for a correction to my Boxer quote.

A Jewel at the Heart of Quantum Physics

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013


– Highly interesting article making the rounds.   Could open up an entirely new Physics.   Space and time may no longer be prime-time players.

– dennis

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Beyond making calculations easier or possibly leading the way to quantum gravity, the discovery of the amplituhedron could cause an even more profound shift, Arkani-Hamed said. That is, giving up space and time as fundamental constituents of nature and figuring out how the Big Bang and cosmological evolution of the universe arose out of pure geometry.

“In a sense, we would see that change arises from the structure of the object,” he said. “But it’s not from the object changing. The object is basically timeless.”

– To the article:


Human irrationality

Friday, August 30th, 2013

I’ve cited three things that are illustrative of humanities irrationality:

1. Near vs far

2. Now vs. future

3. Concrete vs abstract

Humans irrationally favor near, now and concrete over far, then and abstract and because of this bias, they make bad decisions.

Now, add a fourth: Personal vs. Them as in me and mine and they and theirs.

But, the deep truth that shows the irrationality of all of these biases is the simple fact that everything in this world is ‘one’.


Paris notes: 5 August 2013

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

I have to say that sometimes the news brings me down so badly.

I’ve been thinking about and advocating the idea that until humanity decides that its highest priority is to maximize the quality of life for all, we will inevitably fall victim to the default alternative which is that every individual’s highest priority is to look out for themselves.

And, by themselves, I mean both individual people and corporations.

Today, I read the August 5th copy of the International Herald Tribune and there was this:

In need of a new hip, but priced out of the U.S.” – A man went to Belgium and had his hip replaced for $13,600 USD. You’ll have to read the article to see how much it would have cost him in the U.S., and why.

I warn you, it’s going to be all about profits over the welfare of people.

And then this:

Nuclear scandal snowballs in S. Korea” – A story about how many of the tests and inspections that were intended to ensure the safety of S. Korean nuclear plants has been discovered to have been faked by the testing companies and the nuclear plant designers.

I warn you, it’s going to be all about profits over the welfare of people.

And then this:

As cost of importing food soars, Jamaica turns to the earth” – a little story about how the Jamaican government is now strongly advising people to begin to grow their own food.

I wonder if any of you saw the documentary entitled, ‘Life and Debt’ 10 or 15 years ago? It was about Jamaica, Mon.

It was about the arrival of “Globalization’ and how the low price of imported grain had driven most of the small farmers off their land and into the cities since they could not complete with the price of the grain being dumped into their market.

But, at the time it was explained, ‘Globalization’ was all for the good of all of us long-term.

Now that the Jamaicans don’t grow much food, it’s the time to hike the prices and squeeze them. And so the circle turns.

I warn you, it’s going to be all about profits over the welfare of people.

And that was just one issue of the paper on an apparently normal day.

And then when I tell people that the corporations, looking out for their own best interests, are steadily taking over governments and their regulatory processes – and I see that they think I’m peddling conspiracy theories to them, I’m stunned.

It’s as if I’m watching a line of cows entering the slaughter house and I’m warning them about where they’re going and they all laugh; sure that they are off to a Caribbean vacation.

I haven’t posted much here for awhile since I’ve been traveling.  But, not much need.   Nothing’s changed.


Time on your hands?

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013



– Time is an interesting something.   Or, maybe not.  

– A recent issue of Scientific American, that focused the entire issue on the subject of Time, revealed that about 50% of the scientists who study time believe that time exists while the other 50% think it is an artificial construct that comforts our minds but that actually doesn’t exist.

– So here, for those of you who like to leaven your doom and gloom with a bit of science, are three articles that delve into the endlessly fascinating subject of something we’re not even sure if it exists.   Nice, eh?

– Enjoy

– dennis

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Time Crystals could upend Physicists’ Theory of Time

The Big Crunch; Physicists Make Time End


What is time? One Physicist Hunts for the Ultimate Theory

– research thanks to Kierin M.

No Rich Child Left Behind

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

– An excellent article.  I get discouraged at times by this world but there are still good people doing good work to try to improve our self-understanding and thus, the possibility that we can avoid shooting ourselves in the foot.

– dennis

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By SEAN F. REARDON in the New York Times Opinion Pages

Here’s a fact that may not surprise you: the children of the rich perform better in school, on average, than children from middle-class or poor families. Students growing up in richer families have better grades and higher standardized test scores, on average, than poorer students; they also have higher rates of participation in extracurricular activities and school leadership positions, higher graduation rates and higher rates of college enrollment and completion.

Whether you think it deeply unjust, lamentable but inevitable, or obvious and unproblematic, this is hardly news. It is true in most societies and has been true in the United States for at least as long as we have thought to ask the question and had sufficient data to verify the answer.

What is news is that in the United States over the last few decades these differences in educational success between high- and lower-income students have grown substantially.

– More…

– Research thanks to John P.


“endorsement of free-market economics predicted rejection of climate science”

Monday, April 29th, 2013


Although nearly all domain experts agree that carbon dioxide emissions are altering the world’s climate, segments of the public remain unconvinced by the scientific evidence. Internet blogs have become a platform for denial of climate change, and bloggers have taken a prominent role in questioning climate science. We report a survey of climate-blog visitors to identify the variables underlying acceptance and rejection of climate science. Our findings parallel those of previous work and show that endorsement of free-market economics predicted rejection of climate science. Endorsement of free markets also predicted the rejection of other established scientific findings, such as the facts that HIV causes AIDS and that smoking causes lung cancer. We additionally show that, above and beyond endorsement of free markets, endorsement of a cluster of conspiracy theories (e.g., that the Federal Bureau of Investigation killed Martin Luther King, Jr.) predicted rejection of climate science as well as other scientific findings. Our results provide empirical support for previous suggestions that conspiratorial thinking contributes to the rejection of science. Acceptance of science, by contrast, was strongly associated with the perception of a consensus among scientists.

– To the original:


Pentagon weapons-maker finds method for cheap, clean water

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

– A-hem.  Yes, it will be very nice if this is true.  And I’d like to believe it is.  But….

– Well, you knew there was going to be a ‘but‘ didn’t you?

– On one hand, the conspiracy theorists (who generally are a bit light on their science education chops) are always telling us how it’s possible to run cars on water or to pull energy straight out of the air and that they know for a fact that a fellow named Bubba in Alabama or Colorado has got it all working in his garage and has showed hundreds of people … but that the government is doing its best to shut him down.  But Bubba’ll sell you a kit quietly for $39 in the mail if you’d like to get in on it all early before the rush.

– But there’s the other side of this phenomenon as well.  And that’s when we see these exciting new discovery announcements like the one I’m blogging about now in relatively reputable publications.


– Do I sound cynical?  

– Well, for me cynicism began all the way back in the early 80’s when I read an article in OMNI magazine that a Dr. Bussard down near San Diego in La Jolla had made a breakthrough in the theoretical physics of nuclear fusion.  Even then, we all knew that if fusion could be made real, it would be a world shaker.   This fellow had, apparently, started a small company, International Nuclear Energy Systems,  in preparation for taking all of this ‘live’.

– I took a day off from work and drove my motorcycle down from Long Beach (100km or so) to find these people.  I was going to beg and cajole my way into working with them – for free, if I had to.  

– I had an address for their company in an industrial park.  But Dr. Bussard wasn’t there when I called so I talked with a receptionist and looked at some flashy pamphlets.  After she said, ‘no’, the boss wasn’t in, I told her how far I’d come, she took pity on me and gave me a home address and told me I might try there.  So, I rode off again and eventually I found a very upscale looking house near the sea also in La Jolla, I think.  

– I knocked on the door and a young woman in her early 20’s answered.  ‘No’, her father, Dr. Bussard, wasn’t home.   I asked if she knew much about his work and told her how impressed I was with what I’d read and why I wanted to meet him.  ‘No’, she knew it was a big deal but she didn’t know a lot about it.

Truthfully, I think she found me of more interest than the fusion stuff and she asked me in to visit which rather amazed me.  But, I digress.

– I left my contact data and as much of my enthusiasm as I though I could convey through her and I departed back to Long Beach no wiser than I’d come.

– Well, nothing ever happened from any of this.  The world was not shaken by a new fusion technology and, other than that magazine article, I never heard of any of these folks again until I stopped this evening to do a bit of long-after-the-fact research.  

– You can read about some of what I found here and here. 

The fellow’s name was Robert Bussard and he was, in fact, quite a famous scientist and he was the inventor of the Bussard Ram Jet.  But his fusion ideas were, apparently not to be.

– Then, we can all remember the fiasco over cold fusion, yes?  

– And then, as well, a few months ago, I read that a new way of storing energy had been discovered and it was going to revolutionize the world.  Because now we could gather up sunlight power all day, store it and then release it at night.   All they needed was a few months to perfect the process.

– And look!  Here’s another.   In this one, we’re going to store the energy in a certain semi-magical molecule.  We’ll be able to just carry this chemical around quite safely and then, when we need the energy back, it’ll just ‘pop’ out in the form of heat.   Is that cool or what?  Yeah, right.   Just a few months or years away.


– So now, in this article, we have a new way to make cheap, clean water?   Well, maybe.  I mean I am hopeful but so many of these breakthroughs seem to, in the end, go pfffff to nowhere.

– I had a female friend years ago that loved to give me a bad time about things in general,  And she just loved to say to me that, “I was always patting the bed and telling folks how good it was going to be but that nothing ever happened.”   And then she’d laugh and laugh (smile).   Somehow, that anecdote seems appropriate.

– Anyway, please enjoy the article.  

– I’m going to go off now and see if they’ve found pieces of the Ark on top of Mount Ararat (again).  It’s an exciting quest.   You can follow along here:  ,   or  

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* Filter could sharply cut energy needed to remove salt from water

* Officials say firm has patented process, looking for partners

* Cheaper seawater purification could help ease water security fears

A defense contractor better known for building jet fighters and lethal missiles says it has found a way to slash the amount of energy needed to remove salt from seawater, potentially making it vastly cheaper to produce clean water at a time when scarcity has become a global security issue.

The process, officials and engineers at Lockheed Martin Corp say, would enable filter manufacturers to produce thin carbon membranes with regular holes about a nanometer in size that are large enough to allow water to pass through but small enough to block the molecules of salt in seawater. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter.

Because the sheets of pure carbon known as graphene are so thin – just one atom in thickness – it takes much less energy to push the seawater through the filter with the force required to separate the salt from the water, they said.

The development could spare underdeveloped countries from having to build exotic, expensive pumping stations needed in plants that use a desalination process called reverse osmosis.

“It’s 500 times thinner than the best filter on the market today and a thousand times stronger,” said John Stetson, the engineer who has been working on the idea. “The energy that’s required and the pressure that’s required to filter salt is approximately 100 times less.”

– More…  

– Research thanks to Tony H.


The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

– I rave a lot about the evil that multinational corporations are in our world.  The central complaint is that these hugely powerful entities (of the 100 largest economies in the world today, 53 are corporations) have only a single goal and that is to maximize the return on investment for their share-holders.  

– You’ll need to think about that for awhile to realize just how deeply dysfunctional that is for our world.  

– If you want to see how it works in detail in just one domain; food, then reading this will provide you with an excellent and sobering education.

– dennis

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On the evening of April 8, 1999, a long line of Town Cars and taxis pulled up to the Minneapolis headquarters of Pillsbury and discharged 11 men who controlled America’s largest food companies. Nestlé was in attendance, as were Kraft and Nabisco, General Mills and Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Mars. Rivals any other day, the C.E.O.’s and company presidents had come together for a rare, private meeting. On the agenda was one item: the emerging obesity epidemic and how to deal with it. While the atmosphere was cordial, the men assembled were hardly friends. Their stature was defined by their skill in fighting one another for what they called “stomach share” — the amount of digestive space that any one company’s brand can grab from the competition.

James Behnke, a 55-year-old executive at Pillsbury, greeted the men as they arrived. He was anxious but also hopeful about the plan that he and a few other food-company executives had devised to engage the C.E.O.’s on America’s growing weight problem. “We were very concerned, and rightfully so, that obesity was becoming a major issue,” Behnke recalled. “People were starting to talk about sugar taxes, and there was a lot of pressure on food companies.” Getting the company chiefs in the same room to talk about anything, much less a sensitive issue like this, was a tricky business, so Behnke and his fellow organizers had scripted the meeting carefully, honing the message to its barest essentials. “C.E.O.’s in the food industry are typically not technical guys, and they’re uncomfortable going to meetings where technical people talk in technical terms about technical things,” Behnke said. “They don’t want to be embarrassed. They don’t want to make commitments. They want to maintain their aloofness and autonomy.”

– to the original:

– research thanks to Rolf A.



Engineers Solve a Biological Mystery and Boost Artificial Intelligence

Monday, February 4th, 2013

Jan. 29, 2013 — By simulating 25,000 generations of evolution within computers, Cornell University engineering and robotics researchers have discovered why biological networks tend to be organized as modules — a finding that will lead to a deeper understanding of the evolution of complexity

The new insight also will help evolve artificial intelligence, so robot brains can acquire the grace and cunning of animals.

From brains to gene regulatory networks, many biological entities are organized into modules — dense clusters of interconnected parts within a complex network. For decades biologists have wanted to know why humans, bacteria and other organisms evolved in a modular fashion. Like engineers, nature builds things modularly by building and combining distinct parts, but that does not explain how such modularity evolved in the first place. Renowned biologists Richard Dawkins, Günter P. Wagner, and the late Stephen Jay Gould identified the question of modularity as central to the debate over “the evolution of complexity.”

For years, the prevailing assumption was simply that modules evolved because entities that were modular could respond to change more quickly, and therefore had an adaptive advantage over their non-modular competitors. But that may not be enough to explain the origin of the phenomena.

The team discovered that evolution produces modules not because they produce more adaptable designs, but because modular designs have fewer and shorter network connections, which are costly to build and maintain. As it turned out, it was enough to include a “cost of wiring” to make evolution favor modular architectures.

– More…

– Research thanks to Alan T.