Science

Finding 300 Years of Free Labor Annually

I thought this was an interesting passage from an article by Rudy Baum in C&E News titled "Sustainable Growth Is An Oxymoron"  in which he highlights a point made by Bill McKibben:

The fact is that, eventually, we have to learn to live off the sun in real time. That’s not going to be easy. Fossil fuels aren’t just fossilized sunshine; they’re concentrated fossilized sunshine. As McKibben points out in “Eaarth,” 1 barrel of oil yields as much energy as 25,000 hours of human manual labor—more than a decade of human labor per barrel. The average American uses 25 bbl per year (some estimates are quite a bit higher), which, he writes, is like finding 300 years of free labor annually.

Teaching Evolutionary Science in a Christian College Context

Three professors from Christian colleges (including Jim Nichols of church-of-Christ-affiliated Abilene Christian)  discuss teaching evolutionary science to Christian undergraduates in a video at The BioLogos Forum (link):

2020 Visions

In Nature's January 7, 2010, issue (in an opinion section called 2020 Visions):

...Nature asked a selection of leading researchers and policy-makers where their fields will be ten years from now. [Nature] invited them to identify the key questions their disciplines face, the major roadblocks and the pressing next steps.

Several of the items caught my attention.  The first was the section on demographics by Joshua R. Goldstein.  Recently I'd already been thinking about how demographic changes are on track to create an explosion of debt via health care costs in the coming decades (link).  In Nature, Goldstein writes:

As population growth marked the twentieth century, population ageing will mark the twenty-first. By 2020, the average European will have fewer years of life expectancy remaining than years he or she has already lived. East Asians will soon follow. Humankind will spend much of the coming decade grappling with questions about how to organize and pay for the care of an increasing elderly population and about who will produce what the elderly consume.

In the longer term, a return to moderate fertility rates in those countries with very low fertility, and increases in immigration can do much to moderate population ageing. Sweden and Japan face quite different demographic futures, because fertility in Sweden is closer to replacement and a small but steady stream of immigrants will make up the difference. In Japan — the world's leader in longevity — fertility remains low, and immigration a major social challenge.

We need demographic research on four fronts addressing population ageing. Low birth rates can perhaps be increased by measures that reconcile work and family, enabling people to have the children they say they want. Fostering the social and economic integration of immigrants is another priority. Health research, helping people to stay younger longer, is already a priority of ageing societies; indeed, so far, the healthy period of life has been lengthening as fast or faster than life expectancy itself. But now — as the first 65-year-old baby-boomers prepare to blow out their birthday candles — we must address the larger question of rescheduling life's turning points, so that people can remain active and productive. The societies that respond to ageing successfully will be those that take advantage of longer life.

The last line of the first paragraph ("Humankind will spend much of the coming decade grappling with questions about how to organize and pay for the care of an increasing elderly population and about who will produce what the elderly consume.") reminded me of references to Atlas Shrugged.  Although I still haven't read it, in the wake of the US government's response to the current economic crisis I see it frequently invoked by pundits (link) and common-man political conservatives as a prophecy that the "producers" will eventually rebel against being taxed to support the "poor" and "lazy."  It's ironic that the big crisis that is coming is not whether or not the "producers" will be willing and able to support the poor and the immigrants (another common target of conservative scorn) but rather whether they will be willing and able to support the elderly (who, coincidentally, have recently been flocking to the Republican party: link)...and that our ability to successfully attract and integrate young immigrants will be crucial to facing this challenge.

Another item that caught my attention was soil.  David R. Montgomery writes:

To avoid the mistakes of past societies, as 2020 approaches, the world must address global soil degradation, one of this century's most insidious and under-acknowledged challenges. Humanity has already degraded or eroded the topsoil off more than a third of all arable land. We continue to lose farmland at about 0.5% a year — yet expect to feed more than 9 billion people later this century.

During the twentieth century, the Haber–Bosch process (allowing the mass production of nitrogen-based fertilizers) and the Green Revolution effectively divorced agriculture from soil stewardship. Increased yields were supported by intensive fertilizer inputs and mechanization that simplified and devastated soil life, reducing native soil fertility. For example, research in some conventional agricultural settings shows that other species such as bacteria have virtually replaced mycorrhizal fungi, which deliver soil nutrients to most plants. In a post-petroleum world, as the era of cheap fossil-fuel-produced fertilizers comes to an end, conventional, high-input agriculture is neither sustainable nor resilient. Ensuring future food security and environmental protection will require thoughtfully tailoring farming practices to the soils of individual landscapes and farms, rather than continuing to rely on erosive practices and fertilizer from a bag.

This sentence - "In a post-petroleum world, as the era of cheap fossil-fuel-produced fertilizers comes to an end, conventional, high-input agriculture is neither sustainable nor resilient." - really caught my attention.  It's not a question of if but when we will be operating in a "post-petroleum world"...and the arrival of that day will require a massive shift in our agricultural practices.

These two topics - demographics and agricultural practices - are examples of the huge problems we have before us.  There's no doubt that government will have to play a huge role in solving these problems.  However, there is little evidence that it's up to the task...our politics seem to be broken and incapable of producing bold and timely responses to our major problems.  The fact that half of us see government as being more of a  problem creator than a problem solver makes me wonder how we can possibly respond effectively to our changing world.

The third topic from the nature story that piqued my interest was lasers and their potential to be part of the solution to our energy problems.  Thomas M. Baer and Nicholas P. Bigelow write:

Next-generation lasers will allow the creation of new states of matter, compressing and heating materials to temperatures found only in the centres of massive stars, and at pressures that can squeeze hydrogen atoms together to a density 50 times greater than that of lead. The resulting fusion reactions may one day be harnessed to provide almost limitless carbon-free energy. Enough fusion fuel is present in the oceans to supply the current energy needs of the entire world for longer than the age of the Universe.

When so many of our pressing problems can be reduced to problems of energy supply, breakthroughs like this seem to be critical.  I realize that enormous sums of money are already devoted to research like this, but I wonder if we are making appropriately-large bets given the enormous payout of success...and if research funding can be sustained at appropriate levels in the coming decades.

Are Most Scientists Atheists or Agnostics Rather than Believers in God?

During last Friday night's episode of Real Time, Bill Maher made the comment that most scientists are atheists or agnostics.  That caught my attention, although it's the kind of statement that I probably wouldn't have questioned if my own personal observations weren't to the contrary.  Sure, I could buy that it's a true statement in the sense that any percentage greater than 50 is "most", but frankly I don't at all buy it in the sense that Maher was using it: to claim that science and faith are incompatible and that religion's credibility is diminished by the "fact" that it is rejected by "most" scientists.

For the last 8 years I've worked in R&D for a major chemical company surrounded by a whole gaggle of PhD engineers and other members of the "hard" sciences.  Time and again I've been surprised to find out that one of my colleagues is a church-goer.  With many of them that I haven't had deep conversations about faith, so admittedly some may be atheists or agnostics who happen to go to church for one reason or another.  However, there are also plenty that I do know well and know that they are strong believers.  As another anecdote, my own PhD advisor (who was and continues to be one of the most respected and influential professors in his field of science) is a Christian.  Somehow these sorts of surprises are reassuring to me in my own faith.

Prompted by Maher's statement, I did some googling.  A recent study pretty much fit my expectations, so I quit looking further.  ;-)

Based on a survey of scientists from 21 "elite" research universities, approximately 60 percent were either atheists or agnostics.  So, yes, ~60 is greater than 50 and is a larger number than the general public.  The study also suggested a bit of a surprise:

Scientists are less religious than the general population, a new study shows, but the reason has little to do with their study of science or academic pressures.

The findings challenge notions that science is responsible for a lack of faith among researchers, indicating that household upbringing carries the biggest weight in determining religiousness.

"Our study data do not strongly support the idea that scientists simply drop their religious identities upon professional training, due to an inherent conflict between science and faith, or to institutional pressure to conform," said Elaine Howard Ecklund, a sociologist at the University at Buffalo and co-author of the study.

That fits with my observations.  It's too simple to say that faith and science are incompatible and the scientific pursuits necessarily drive out faith.  Other factors are important, so I shouldn't be surprised that many of my scientist-pals in the mid-west, middle-America are people of faith despite the stereotype.

I'm sure if I looked a little harder, I could find plenty of evidence to the contrary (for example, this site quotes from various sources to draw different conclusions), and I'm not at all surprised that scientists tend to be less religious than the general population.  But I'm also convinced that the science vs faith divide isn't as cut and dried as conventional wisdom might claim.

A Pot of Tea is Boiling

Last week my six-year-old asked me if there was ever a negative year.  I wasn't sure what he was asking.  He was wondering when the earth was made and if that was a negative year.  I explained that there were no negative years.  As you go back in time, you go from 1 A.D. to 1 B.C. and then keep counting upwards.  "So when was the world made?" he asked.  I had to wiggle a little but responded that we don't know exactly when the world was made.

Then today he asked, "Were Adam and Eve and the dinosaurs alive at the same time?"  I said that we don't really know because the Bible doesn't talk about dinosaurs.  Without any hesitation he suggested a solution to this lack of knowledge: "Just look it up on the internet."  I explained that scientists who study dinosaur fossils, etc. think that they lived millions of years ago.  "So that would be before Adam and Eve," he said.  I agreed and again emphasized the problem that the scientists who study dinosaurs can't really study anything about Adam and Eve and the Bible that tells us about Adam and Eve doesn't really address dinosaurs.  Then he said, "Wouldn't it be funny if they found Adam and Eve's bones?!?"

Both of those questions (year the earth was made and did dinosaurs live with Adam and Eve) were actually asked of Lisa, but her response is "Go ask you dad."

There's an interesting interview on Salon with John Haught, author of the forthcoming book "God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens".  He uses the metaphor of a boiling pot of tea to explain how he reconciles faith and science:

...I approach these issues by making a case for what I call "layered explanation." For example, if a pot of tea is boiling on the stove, and someone asks you why it's boiling, one answer is to say it's boiling because H2O molecules are moving around excitedly, making a transition from the liquid state to the gaseous state. And that's a very good answer. But you could also say it's boiling because my wife turned the gas on. Or you could say it's boiling because I want tea. Here you have three levels of explanation which are approaching phenomena from different points of view. This is how I see the relationship of theology to science. Of course I think theology is relevant to discussing the question, what is nature? What is the world? It would talk about it in terms of being a gift from the Creator, and having a promise built into it for the future. Science should not touch upon that level of understanding. But it doesn't contradict what evolutionary biology and the other sciences are telling us about nature. They're just different levels of understanding.

At the end of Haught's interview, he's asked whether or not as a Christian he believes the resurrection actually happened.  He doesn't give a straight answer.  Instead, he argues that science is not adequate for addressing questions of such importance.  When pushed, he admitted that he does not believe that a camera would have captured anything when Jesus visited his disciples after the resurrection.  That answer seems like one that would be unsatisfying to most Christians and atheists alike.

Haught is a big fan of Jesuit paleontologist named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  Coincidentally, I recently listened to a Science Friday segment featuring the author of a recent biography about Teilhard de Chardin.

4 Million Dollars

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That's what the city of London spends each year to remove chewing gum from subway trains and stations.  U.K.-based Revolymer is developing a new kind of chewing gum that will wash easily off of any surface.  From an article on TechnologyReview.com:

The gum easily comes off roads, shoes, and hair, and it barely sticks at all to some surfaces.

About 600,000 metric tons of chewing gum are manufactured in the world every year, Pettman says. A large percent of that ends up on streets and pavements, becoming a pollution issue.

The Dawkins Delusion

I thought this was cute (via Andrew Sullivan). It might be a bit obtuse if you haven't heard Dawkins or read anything from him.

Francis Collins on Colbert

Francis Collins, author of "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief," was on The Colbert Report last night. The director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, Collins considers DNA "the language of God," the means He used

He was profiled in the LA Times a while back. There was a debate of sorts between Collins and prominent atheist Richard Dawkins in a recent issue of Time. It was an interesting read. I'm going to read Collins' book. I certainly don't have all the answers, and I'm sure he doesn't either...but I'm interested in ways to synthesize what we observe in the world with with we observe in the Word.

Here are the video clips from Colbert:

From the LA Times article:

He believes in evolution and in the resurrection. He wears a silver ring with a raised cross and works at a dining-room table painted with the double-helix of DNA...

Collins considers evolution irrefutable; he has no doubt that all life emerged from a common ancestor over millions of years. But he began to ask himself whether God could have set this amazing process in motion...

...perhaps evolution is a logical, even elegant, way to populate the planet. Maybe God intended mutations in DNA over the millennia to lead to the emergence of Homo sapiens. Once man arrived, maybe God set him apart from the other creatures by endowing him with knowledge of right and wrong, a sense of altruism and a yearning for spiritual nourishment....

Polls have found that 40% of scientists believe, as Collins does, in a God who actively communicates with man. Among elite biologists, however, the figure is much lower, about 5%...

Persistent Vegetative States

From an article by Ian Sample in The Guardian titled "For first time, doctors communicate with patient in persistent vegetative state":

A 23-year-old woman who has been in a vegetative state since suffering devastating brain damage in a traffic accident has stunned doctors by performing mental tasks for them. Brain scans revealed that the woman, who has shown no outward signs of awareness since the accident in July last year, could understand people talking to her and was able to imagine playing tennis or walking around her home when asked to by doctors.

The discovery has astounded neuroscientists who believe it could have dramatic implications for life and death decisions over other patients diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state (PVS)...

"This is extremely important. It's the difference between life and death. From cases in the UK and the US, we know that end-of-life decisions are of course extremely important and this will definitely change the way we deal with these patients. When you have signs of consciousness, you cannot decide to stop hydration and nutrition," said Steven Laureys, a neurologist at the University of Liege and co-author of the study which appears in the journal Science today...

Persistent vegetative state was first described in 1972 by Scottish and American neurologists and only came to medical attention because of extraordinary advances in keeping severely brain-damaged patients alive for longer.

Neurologically, the condition is a slight improvement on a coma. Patients diagnosed as PVS show no signs of consciousness or awareness, but unlike those in a coma, have periods of sleep and wakefulness and periodically open their eyes.

The condition is a source of huge controversy in medical and legal fields, largely because of the difficulty in proving a patient is unaware and the extreme difficulty in predicting whether a patient will ever recover.

Adults typically have a 50% chance of recovering from a persistent vegetative state within the first six months, but after a year, the chances of recovery drop dramatically. Those who recover after longer periods usually experience serious disabilities.

The mysterious condition continues to confound scientists. In May, a team of British and South African doctors announced they had given sleeping pills to a PVS patient to help calm restless movements at night. The patient woke up 15 minutes later and was able to speak and even tell jokes.

Doctors have kept the patient on the pills, and believe it works by acting on part of the brain that had been shut down in response to the patient's original trauma.

Critic Alleges Deceit in Study On Stem Cells

As a follow-up to recent reports regarding an embryonic stem cell research breakthrough touted to get around the ethical dilemma by leaving the embryo unharmed, from an article of the same title by Rick Weiss in The Washington Post:

A landmark scientific report that was supposed to bridge the gap between proponents and opponents of human embryonic stem cell research has become the focus of an escalating feud, with a prominent critic of the research alleging that scientists were deceptive in presenting their results.

At issue is a series of experiments described in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature, in which scientists at Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) in Worcester, Mass., described a method for making stem cells without harming a human embryo. The basic facts of the report remain unchallenged.

But in an unusual move yesterday, Nature corrected wording in a lay-language news release it had distributed in advance and posted clarifying data it had asked the scientists to provide.

At the core of the battle is a widely distributed e-mail from Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who raised three issues.

First, he said the scientists did not make it clear that no embryos survived their experiments. In fact, data in the paper do make that clear, but Nature's initial release said otherwise. It is well established that a single cell can be removed from an eight-cell human embryo without causing any apparent harm to the embryo, and the new report aimed only to show that such single cells can become stem cells, lead researcher Robert Lanza said yesterday. In the experiments, the scientists took as many cells as they could from each embryo, destroying them in the process, to make the most of the embryos donated for their study.

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