The Invention of Nature

I’m neck deep in Andrea Wulf‘s biography of Alexander von Humboldt, and it’s absolutely riveting.  Von Humboldt was some kind of scientific maniac, who caught the interest of everyone from Goethe to Thomas Jefferson to Simon Bolivar.  Von Humboldt was arguably the first naturalist to think ecologically, as well as one of the earliest abolitionists.  He didn’t get to go everywhere, and he didn’t get to meet everyone, but damn close. Continue reading The Invention of Nature

Are you a turtle?* Is this a fluke?

Just when you think science can’t get any more weird,  we get something like this A new species of blood fluke was found infecting the lungs of turtles in Malaysia. This parasitic flatworm has been dubbed Baracktrema obamai, in honor of the President of the United States (who is the fifth cousin twice removed of one of the discovering scientists). A parasitic flatworm? I thought this was a spoof until I followed the link to the Jounal of Parasitology.  For reals. Tip from the Drudge Report. * Classical reference: Welcome to the Turtle Society.  The only duty of membership is … Continue reading Are you a turtle?* Is this a fluke?

An Unasked Question, Answered

I’d never really thought about it before, but it’s true: my backyard swimming pool* doesn’t have a strong chlorine smell, and the water doesn’t sting my eyes.  Turns out that’s because folks at my house don’t pee in the pool. Tip from Sara Hoyt writing at the Instapundit.  Lots of links there about too many people peeing in our our pools. *LOTS of The Wrong Kind of White (and Black and Brown) People (like me) in South Texas have swimming pools.  And we hire independent contractors–even those without college degrees!–to keep them neat, clean, and non-smelly. Continue reading An Unasked Question, Answered

Blinded Me with “Science”

Writing in The New Atlantis, Daniel Sarewitz says “Science, pride of modernity, our one source of objective knowledge, is in deep trouble.”  The public has swallowed the myth of scientism and Vannevar Bush’s self-serving rationalization for federally-funded Big Science: Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown. Sarewitz quotes Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, who puts it like this: The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply … Continue reading Blinded Me with “Science”

The Doorway Effect

Ever have this happen?  Walk through a doorway and immediately lose focus, forgetting what you had just intended to do? This is an extreme example of the “doorway effect” which is a manifestation of our brain’s method of spatial processing.   This and more are the subject of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine won by John O’Keefe and May-Britt and Edvard Moser. My wife and I have a simple strategy to combat the doorway effect–we make lists.  Unfortunately, when we get in the car to go shopping, my wife frequently forgets to bring the list. Thanks to American … Continue reading The Doorway Effect

How many significant figures should I use?

That question gets asked dozens of times every semester in my statistics classes; it’s pretty clear that most of my students have no sense of scale or proportion about numbers. But now I have Dr Rhett Alain’s short answer in his Dot Physics Measurement and Uncertainty Smackdown, wherein he refers to the (extremely) long answer in John Denker’s excellent Uncertainty as Applied to Measurement and Calculation.  Why we’re not teaching this in our service courses for science majors, I have no idea.  The Monte Carlo approach described by Alain is a simple application of what statisticians call “bootstrapping,” so perhaps … Continue reading How many significant figures should I use?

Pathological Altruism

Add the term to your vocabulary. From James Taranto’s ever-amusing Best of the Web Today, read about the work of Barbara Oakley, an associate professor in engineering…defines pathological altruism as “altruism in which attempts to promote the welfare of others instead result in unanticipated harm.” A crucial qualification is that while the altruistic actor fails to anticipate the harm, “an external observer would conclude [that it] was reasonably foreseeable.” Dr Oakley has written extensively on the topic, and summarized it neatly in a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Taranto anticipates a Kuhnian “…revolution in … Continue reading Pathological Altruism

Egg yolks are bad for you. Oh, wait. No they’re not…

First some guy in a rush to publish a paper decides egg yolks are almost as bad for you as smoking, then some other guy reads the paper and declares it hogwash.  It’s a bunch of Canucks, so you gotta make allowances. Tips from Instapundit and BlissTree. Update  (18 August).  BlissTree reminds us that eggs were a key part of the wildly-successful Marilyn Monroe diet. Continue reading Egg yolks are bad for you. Oh, wait. No they’re not…