Why I Do Not Fear Death
To me, the dozen billion years
(a time scale we can’t comprehend)
that passed before my day of birth
give comfort for the coming end.
To know that not one atom in
my body at the age of five
remains within me still today
changes the meaning of “alive.”
And all the billions yet to pass
after my carcass has decayed
are bookends for a single life
so precious, by their vastness, made.
150 years ago today, on November 24, 1959, the most important book in the history of biology was published. Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species was, and still is, the foundation upon which all of modern biology rests, with its myriad applications in medicine, ecology, philosophy, and beyond. I’ve sort of let blogging take a back seat now that I’m busy with school in the evenings and working to get my foot in the door of the academic world, so even at the momentous anniversary I will probably be content to just remind everyone how important biological science is, and ask that you consider making a charitable donation to an organization that supports scientific research and/or education. Perhaps there’s a cancer research foundation whose work saved the life of a loved one, or a college scholarship fund that helps low-income students in your community pursue higher education in biology. I am personally a fan of the National Center for Science Education, which is constantly waging the legal battles to protect our public school science cirricula from an ongoing, organized assault by creationist groups who seek to replace the discipline of biology with their dishonest and ignorant religious agenda. You can contribute to NCSE here. Lastly, I’ll mention that the National Science Foundation has put together an excellent resource in celebration of the Origin of Species anniversary, which can be found here. I highly recommend checking it out!
I’m leaving on a business trip to Dubai on Saturday, which will be my first real adventure outside of the United States (except for the 51st state, aka Canada)*. I hope to have some cool pictures and stories to share from the UAE next week, so stay tuned.
* Just kidding, ay? I love you, Canucks.
Last night, President Barack Obama delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress with a boldness and clarity that I think has been lacking since the end of his campaign. His address laid out his proposals for health care reform in clear, concise language. He clobbered the atrocious lies and distortions that have been spread in the media lately as well as the anti-reform ideologues that started them. He also achieved the important goal of framing health care reform as a moral issue, and as a fundamental economic security issue:
“Put simply, our health care problem is our deficit problem. Nothing else even comes close.”
-President Barack Obama
The address was also masterful political theater, clearly crafted to assert the President’s authority before the assembled chambers of Congress on the issue which may define his presidency. Even reform opponents played their part in the spectacle: at a moment in his speech when Obama clearly asserted that his health care proposals would explicitly exclude coverage for undocumented immigrants, the traditionally quiet decorum of the event was punctuated by South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson, who loudly shouted “You lie!” at the president. President Obama could not have illustrated the vapid thoughtlessness of health care reform’s enemies any better than that.
Now, while I certainly found much to commend in the president’s speech, it wasn’t all rainbows and whiskey. As a progressive who favors a single-payer health care system, I can’t say that I agree with all of President Obama’s proposals. In particular, I feel that private, for-profit health insurance companies represent a fundamental conflict of interest between investors’ expectation of profit and patients’ need for medical care. Obama is pushing for new laws that will limit insurance companies’ strategies to maximize their profit, which appears to be a nuanced, measured compromise — but in practice, it will be the federal government that bears the burden of enforcing these laws, and that means it will take time for insurance companies to comply with the new laws. We can nearly rest assured that their compliance will be grudging and constantly in search of loopholes. Put simply, the new laws Obama proposed would not fully resolve that fundamental conflict of interest. I realize that Obama’s proposals are a political and practical solution rather than an ideal one, and I encourage everyone to support any legislation that accomplishes the goals he set. My criticism is only meant to serve as a reminder that the fight for equity, fairness, compassion, and justice in the U.S. health system will not end with the passage of health care reform. I think that Bad Astronomer Phil Plait expressed a similar point regarding Obama’s education speech on Tuesday very well, and with all due tribute, I will repost the image here that he used to do so:
Today marks another landmark scientific anniversary – the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first telescope. It was on this day in 1609 that Galileo presented his prototype 8x-magnification telescope to the assembled Senate of Venice. It was not the first telescope—that forgotten honor belongs to Dutch astronomer Hans Lipperhey who built a simple telescope just one year earlier, in 1608—but it was the one that captured the attention of the Venetian merchants (who were most interested in its practical applications for shipping and navigation) and lit the candle of modern astronomy. Galileo’s telescope allowed him to make precise observations that confirmed Copernicus’ heliocentric hypothesis and dispatched the notion of an Earth-centered universe. Galileo’s published defense of this view in 1632 led directly to a papal trial in 1633, in which he was declared “vehemently suspect of heresy” and, after recanting his scientific views under threat of torture, his imprisonment sentence was commuted to house arrest. Galileo remained in home near Florence (he was allowed one trip to seek medical advice near the end of his life) and was closely watched by church authorities until his death in 1642. For a laugh, you can read the Catholic Church’s position on the Galileo controversy.
I, for one, am overwhelmed with humility by the science that Galileo’s telescope revolutionized. It has brought us the likes of Carl Sagan, Maria Mitchell, Giovanni Cassini, and Stephen Hawking. It brought us NASA and the space program, which will launch the space shuttle Discovery (STS-128) tomorrow at 1:10 AM EDT on a mission to the International Space Station. There are no words that can, for the casual observer, capture the immensity of the expanding universe that telescopes have uncovered. There is, at least, an image that comes close. I am referring to the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, which is a composite image of a tiny region of space in the constellation Fornax, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope between 2003-2004. It looks back over approximately 13 billion years, showing in just a tiny speck of sky that appears dark to the human eye the multitude of galaxies that existed only 400-800 million years after the Big Bang. Every spot, blur, smudge, and speck on the image is an entire galaxy containing millions or billions of stars. I will say no more about it, for if you’ve never seen it, this image deserves quiet reflection. You can click on this small image to view the entire high-resolution version (18.1 MB). In honor of Galileo, and without further blabbering from this blogger:
I’ve decided I need to kick my reading into high gear, after realizing it’s been quite some time since I actually finished any new books. So for inspiration, I compiled a brief sample list of books that I want to either read or re-read. The ones followed by an asterisk I have already read at least partially. This list is in no particular order – seriously. I’d gladly welcome any comments, reviews, or recommendations. Thanks to C for suggesting Stiff and to mobius for suggesting Godel, Escher, Bach. If I actually complete this list, I’ll finally buy myself a telescope. That sounds like a good bargain, right?
Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter
The Evolution Of Compassion by Robert Axelrod*
Stiff by Mary Roach
The Lives To Come by Philip Kitcher*
The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond
An Anthropologist On Mars by Oliver Sacks*
In The Shadow Of Man by Jane Goodall
The Double Helix: A Personal Account Of The Discovery Of The Structure Of DNA by James Watson*
Monster Nation by David Wellington*
The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark by Carl Sagan*
The Red Queen: Sex And The Evolution Of Human Nature by Matt Ridley
Bad Astronomy by Philip Plait
I’ve been spending much of this evening brushing up on Pan troglodytes, or the common chimpanzee. Yesterday, a woman in Stamford, Connecticut was terribly mauled by Travis, her friend’s 14 year old, 200 pound pet chimpanzee. I feel terrible for the victims – including Travis, who was shot to death by police as he attacked an officer in his patrol car. The human victim, Charla Nash, remains in critical condition in a Stamford hospital; she suffered a number of broken bones and a badly decorticated face. Chimpanzees, while generally playful and good-natured, are still wild animals and therefore unpredictable. From press reports so far, it sounds as if the chimpanzee may have been infected with Lyme disease, which could have been the cause of Travis’ unusual anxiety and aggression. I don’t want to speculate about his living condition or treatment as I am not familiar with them, but I will say that handling great apes—especially Pan troglodytes—requires an excess of expertise and caution. They typically possess four to five times the upper body strength of an adult human and can demonstrate possessive or territorial behavior. In this incident, the human victim had recently made a significant change to her hair style which is being reported as a potential reason that Travis may not have recognized her (they were previously familiar) and identified her instead as an intruder. I’m a bit skeptical of that theory, given that chimpanzees show remarkable ability to recognize and differentiate both human and chimpanzee faces.
I hope that Ms. Nash recovers remarkably, and that Travis’ death serves as a warning to those who own or may consider adopting pet chimpanzees. They are best left to professionals running well-equipped sanctuaries. Consider donating to a sanctuary if you want to help. (Chimpanzees raised in captivity are almost never accepted by wild troops, and therefore cannot be released into the wild).
Edit: Apparently, the face-shredding is a common feature of chimp attacks. I’d forgotten that I wrote about this in one of my very first posts on Survival Machine.
Today is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, the British naturalist whose publication in 1859 of On the Origin of Species laid the foundation for virtually all subsequent discoveries in biology. He did for the Western world’s understanding of life what Galileo did for our understanding of the heavens, and what Newton did for our understanding of physical forces. Each year on February 12, those who appreciate the magnitude of Darwin’s contribution to human knowledge celebrate Darwin Day in his honor. You are probably aware also that today is Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday as well. Yes, Darwin and Lincoln were born on the exact same day in 1809. And Abraham Lincoln founded the United States National Academy of Science! There seems to be no shortage of scientific significance today.
This year is not only Darwin’s bicentennial, but also the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. It’s also the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first use of a telescope, and the 400th anniversary of the publication of Kepler’s Astronomia Nova (which described his first two Laws of Planetary Motion). Wow! These coinciding anniversaries are among a number of reasons that a grassroots coalition called COPUS has established 2009 as a national Year of Science (YoS). YoS 2009 is a national, yearlong celebration and campaign aimed at getting scientists out of the laboratory from time to time and into the public spotlight to share their research and raise public awareness and enthusiasm for science. Both amateur and professional scientists and science educators can get involved, and I intend to do my part by writing more actively this year and by beginning to apply to graduate schools. Here’s hoping that the latter turns into a lifelong, professional involvement on my part…
Today, you can do your part by refreshing your knowledge of evolution by natural selection in this brief synopsis at DarwinDay.net. If that’s all elementary to you, then challenge yourself by reading some evolutionary news at Science Daily. And lastly, I’ll be celebrating a belated Darwin Day with friends when I fly back to Baltimore tomorrow night, most likely at Joe² restaurant & bar on North Avenue and Howard Street. Leave a comment if you want to join me. Let’s raise a glass to evolution!
Edit: Also, check out this essay by Susan Jacoby in today’s Washington Post. It’s an excellent commentary on Darwin’s lasting impact.
The internet bandwidth at my hotel here in Georgia is having its own little recession. So, I don’t really have the patience to research and write a good entry tonight. I’m in Waycross for work through Friday, and I hope to catch a glimpse of some gators at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge while I’m here!
I’m looking into ways of boosting readership, since a limited audience is the main reason I don’t write prolifically. On the other hand, I’m less likely to post pointless drivel than I would someplace like Livejournal. I’m looking at crossposting plugins, and I will probably find a way to publish my new posts via email to willing friends and colleagues.
Hopefully they’ll have the broadband fixed tomorrow and I’ll be able to get something of substance up here. I’m considering a few good stories as topics. In the meantime, I hope you’re preparing for the most important Darwin Day in your lifetime – this Thursday, February 12, is Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday! Check out the Happy Birthday, Mr. Darwin! page at the Year Of Science 2009 website for lots of perspective on Darwin’s impact as viewed from his bicentennial. To find Darwin Day events near you, check out DarwinDay.net!
First, let me just say that Cornell University has a great open-access digital repository for e-prints called arXiv.org. E-prints are digital versions of research documents (research books, journal articles, theses, conference papers, et cetera) that are made available on the internet, typically by academic institutions or organizations. Open-access repositories such as arXiv.org, PLoS, and others are so important because they make cutting-edge science available for free public review. This is beneficial to the e-prints’ authors because they can receive more feedback on and citations of their research. More importantly, they make science more equitable and practicable for students and freelance or unfunded researchers.
Now, on to the fun part. On January 19, an e-print was published to arXiv.org detailing the results of an analysis of the accretion and decay of black holes that could possibly be produced by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)¹. Casadio et al argue in their article against the possibility of catastrophic black hole growth—you can gather this simply by reading their abstract. But they also claim that tiny black holes might take >1 second to decay, far longer than most subatomic particles generated in supercolliders. Now, never mind that this only applies to the Randall-Sundrum 5-dimensional theoretical model of the universe, which is only one of numerous theoretical frameworks whose validity the LHC is designed to investigate. Let alone that the paper was an argument against catastrophic black hole formation. What the gelatinous mass of popular media hears is: longer decay time, thus a greater possibility that black hole accretion will outpace decay resulting in catastrophe. Or to FOX News, “Scientists Not So Sure ‘Doomsday Machine’ Won’t Destroy World“.
Now, perhaps you’re thinking that FOX News’ headline is just sensationalism to attract readers, and the content of the article will be a bit more sophisticated. But why the hell would you think that?
FoxNews.com can think of a few other things that didn’t seem possible once — the theory of continental drift, the fact that rocks fall from the sky, the notion that the Earth revolves around the sun, the idea that scientists could be horribly wrong.
I’m not pulling your leg. Check out the article. It’s not just that they making a mountain out of a molehill—an astronomical understatement!—I think FOX News paints itself as the journalistic equivalent of the torch-wielding mob outside Frankenstein’s castle. It’s a view that fuels an unwarranted distrust of science and indirectly promotes anti-intellectualism. Worse still, when public concern is aroused it pulls scientists (and funds) away from their research to form commissions and try to extinguish the hysteria. These kinds of media misrepresentations of scientific concepts or developments usually irritate me, but they also serve as reminders of what an monumental challenge we face in reshaping science education in the United States. Our culture needs to get to a point where media outlets like FOX News are laughed onto the tabloid shelves where they belong.
Fortunately, the new Obama administration has signaled that it is serious about promoting science with the appointment of the new Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu. Before his appointment, Chu was a professor of physics and molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley. He also shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1997 for using laser beams to trap supercooled atoms. In announcing Chu’s appointment, Obama stated, “his appointment should send a signal to all that my administration will value science. We will make decisions based on the facts, and we understand that facts demand bold action.” Obama understands that investment in research and science education is one of the crucial tools we must use to invigorate our sluggish economy and confront the ecological and health threats on our horizon. I hope he’s able to put that understanding into action.
Oh, and I’m sorry it’s been so long since I posted anything. I’d like to dedicate more time to writing this year, so we’ll see what that leads to. Stay tuned.
¹ arXiv:0901.2948v1, January 19, 2009. On the Possibility of Catastrophic Black Hole Growth in the Warped Brane-World Scenario at the LHC, by Robert Casadio, Sergio Fabi, and Benjamin Harms.
America’s annual day-after-Thanksgiving shopping binge, known perhaps foreshadowingly as ‘Black Friday’, reached a new low this year. Early this morning, Jdimytai Damour was trampled to death in a stampede of shoppers after he opened the door to the Valley Stream Wal Mart on Long Island. A temp agency employee, Damour was overwhelmed by the crowd of 2,000 shoppers which literally broke the door frame and pinned him underneath it as they surged into the store. Four other people were taken to a nearby hospital for injuries sustained in the stampede.
I don’t think that commentary on this story is necessary. I just want to make sure that everyone knows about it, and sees what despicable, self-absorbed cretins this celebration of crass consumerism can turn us into. This wasn’t a mob of rapists or murderers. They weren’t drunk or frightened. This was a crowd whose blind violence was motivated by low prices and marketing.
Here’s looking at you, America.