Friday, December 18, 2009

AAAS Podcasts the Top Science Advances of 2009

Ah, December -- when lots of different organizations give their "best of the year" lists. I'm always interested in the round-up of science discoveries, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science has a nicely done podcast which gives a full accounting of this year's top Science advances. It's free too, so that counts as a gift under the blog-o'-tree.



"Science Podcast" AAAS Dec. 18, 2009.

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Sunday, December 06, 2009

Why Religion Won't Go Away

In a book review of God is Back: How The Global Rise of Faith Is Changing The World by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, reviewer Mark Vernon gives an excellent overview of why the U.S. is such a religious nation and, more generally, why religion has hung on in the face of modern developments in science and advance commerce:
The more modernity undermines people's sense of identity, through the leveling forces of globalization, the more they seek a distinctive identity through religious commitment. The more turbulent people's work lives become, the more appealing a stable church life can seem. The more people suffer under a harsh capitalism, the more religious organizations offer welfare and help, thereby drawing folk in.[1]
This is probably the best, pithy analysis of religion's continued influence as I've seen. I have to admit, I utterly believe it. Importantly, it gives the reason why religion survives, and what it's proper function should be in society. Also, it tacitly acknowledges that even were market forces and goods distributed equitably among all people, the desires for identity would still make religion attractive. Next, Vernon goes onto talk about how religion functions specifically in U.S. culture:
But there are certain political conditions that have aided God's return too, or rather sustained his presence, for he never really went away. Top of the list, the two authors argue, is America's constitution, and its First Amendment: "that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The first part of that clause is the one that is commonly remembered, in effect, the separation of church and state. But the second part is equally important when it comes to creating the right conditions for religion to thrive. It forms what might be called a free market for religion, in which everyone can set out their stall, and moreover can do so in the public square. What America's modernity has not tried to do is force religion into the private sphere, a tendency that has characterised European reactions to belief. At the same time, though, it has ensured that there is at least a theoretical distance between religion and the exercise of political power.[1]
So when religious groups are allowed to exist, but not allowed to run each other out of the country (or worse), then this forces pluralism upon society, whereby "every day people rub up against belief systems and lifestyles different from their own."[1] I would also add that in a pluralistic, open environment, where religions have to compete with one another for advocates, the weak systems will die, and the stronger ones will morph and become even more attractive to its advocates. Of course, people's psychological profiles and regional preferences will differ, so there will always be a plurality of religions in a pluralistic socio-political environment.


[1] Mark Vernon "Why God is back", 18 May 2009 (Accessed 5 Dec. 2009)


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Saturday, December 05, 2009

"Life on Mars" Hypothesis Given New Life

It looks like the life on Mars hypothesis has been given new life.

Not a long time ago, in a universe not far away -- speaking in geological and astronomical terms, of course -- a meteorite, called ALH84001 was blasted from the surface of a dusty read planet, Mars, 16 million years ago. Then, after a really L-O-N-G side trip, it eventually lands on Earth at about 11,000 BC. Finally, one of those naked primates that wander about looking for trouble (a scientist) happened to stumble upon it while tooling around Antarctica in 1984.

Back in 1996 a formal announcement was made after extended study. But there was some debate whether what was claimed to be bacteria fossils could really be so for life forms on such a small scale. "The structures found on ALH 84001 are 20-100 nanometres in diameter, similar in size to the theoretical nanobacteria, but smaller than any known cellular life at the time of their discovery."[1] The worry was that something that small could not contain RNA, the most basic, albeit primitive structure required for life (as we know it). But this worry seems to have been alleviated, because microbiologists have since been able to produce such microorganisms in the laboratory.[2] Also, new developments in high-resolution scanning electron microscopes have allowed better imaging of the meteorite than was available back in 1996, and the images are even more convincing.

All of this is consistent with an announcement by NASA scientists in early 2009 that large quantities of Methane in the atmosphere were highly suggestive of some sort of on-going microbiological activity on that planet:
Their findings, published [...] in the journal Science, show that 19,000 tonnes of methane were released in high concentrations over three specific areas in Mars's western hemisphere. The emissions occurred over a short period in summer 2003. "This raises the probability substantially that life was there or still survives at the present," study author Michael Mumma of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center said. "We think the probability is much higher now based on this evidence[....] By 2006, most of the methane had disappeared from the Martian atmosphere, adding to the mystery of the gas"[3]
Although Methane can be produced by volcanoes working in conjunction with other geological phenomenon, there is no evidence of any active volcanoes on Mars.


[image] Recently released by NASA.

[1] "Allan Hills 84001" Wikipedia (Accesed Dec 5, 2009)

[2] Monica Bruckner "Nanobacteria and Nanobes- Are They Alive?" Carleton College Site (Accessed Dec 5, 2009)

[3] "Methane on Mars suggests possible life, NASA scientists say" CBC News (Acessed Dec 5, 2009)


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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

On Books and Popular Books

Lately I've taken on the task of finally organizing my library. I've been using LibraryThing[1] and have been very happy with it, even though I've only had time to enter a small portion of my books. Nevertheless, it's intoxicating to discover all the books I'd forgotten I owned, and even more so when I discover books I'd bought to read and then lost track of them in the shuffle of life. So I've been thinking a lot about books, the book, electronic books, and all that sort of stuff.

I came across this remark on book popularity in The Economist which struck me as worth repeating:
In “Formal Theories of Mass Behavior”, William McPhee noted that a disproportionate share of the audience for a hit was made up of people who consumed few products of that type. (Many other studies have since reached the same conclusion.) A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel, for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better. An American who read just one book this year was disproportionately likely to have read “The Lost Symbol”, by Dan Brown. He almost certainly liked it.[2]
No doubt book snobs get quite a thrill from such research.[3]



[image] Kevin Keenoo blogsite

[1] LibraryThing is nicely over-viewed here in Wikipedia. I can't recommend it too highly. I have deduced that if you have so many books that you need a cloud-based computer program to keep track of them all, then you have too many books. Of course there's strong counter: it's impossible to have too many books. I'm currently agnostic regarding this dichotomy. Perhaps its a paradox. At any rate, I've been initially entering books that are loose or weirdly located into my library database.

[2] "A world of hits" The Economist Nov. 26, 2009. (Accessed Dec. 2, 2009)

[3] I know I did.

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