Tag Archives: science

Sagan’s Cosmos on the Scientific Method and Uncomfortable Ideas

I’m currently watching Carl Sagan’s excellent Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. I feel compelled to post the following quote from episode four, Heaven and Hell, as it stood out for its elegant argument for the strength of scientific ideas and for not rejecting uncomfortable (if incorrect) ideas:

There are many hypotheses in science which are wrong. That’s all right. It’s the aperture to finding out what’s right. Science is a self-correcting process. To be accepted, new ideas must survive the most rigorous standards of evidence and scrutiny.

The worst aspect of the Velikovsky affair is not that many of his ideas were wrong or silly or in gross contradiction to the facts. Rather, the worst aspect is that some scientists attempted to suppress Velikovsky’s ideas.

The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or in politics, but it is not the path to knowledge. And there is no place for it in the endeavour of science.

We do not know beforehand where fundamental insights will arise from about our mysterious and lovely solar system. And the history of our study of the solar system shows clearly that accepted and conventional ideas are often wrong and that fundamental insights can arise from the most unexpected sources.

And if you think this only applies to wacky astronomical ideas or insights about our solar system… well, then you’re deluding yourself.

I can’t wait for the updated Cosmos presented by Neil deGrasse Tyson; it’ll be the best thing on TV since sliced bread.

Successful Science Article Pitches

Article and book pitches — both successful and unsuccessful — can give you a small insight into an editor’s selection process and the sales-side of a writer’s mind, as well as help you learn to write more effectively. As such I’ve started to collect sites featuring proposals and pitches.

A recent addition to this list is the pitch database from The Open Notebook; a collection of writer-submitted pitches for science articles that have been accepted for publishing in many of my favourite places, such as Ars Technica, Atlantic, Lapham’s Quarterly, This American Life and Wired.

Of particular note is a pitch from David Dobbs, writer of the Neuron Culture blog. Pitching Atlantic editor Don Peck, Dobbs wrote an extensive pitch for The Orchid Children that led to the publication of a fantastic article, The Science of Success. Those who follow Dobbs’ blog will know that this in turn led to a book deal for The Orchid and the Dandelion, Dobbs’ forthcoming book.

The History (and Future) of the Universe

Starting at 10-25 seconds after the start of the universe (inflation) and ending 1015 years later (with the ultimate fate of the universe), the timeline of the universe is an incomprehensibly long and fascinating one. To help understand the forces that led to life as we know it and to get an idea of what’s going to happen in the (distant) future, theoretical astrophysicist Ethan Siegel has broken down the details in a wonderfully accessible and enlightening complete history of the universe (with pictures!).

Those last couple of steps on the timeline are particularly humbling:

100 billion years: the Universe has expanded so much that our local group, having merged into a giant elliptical galaxy, is the only one left in the visible Universe!

We’ve got a long time left of stars going through the great cosmic life-cycle, burning their fuel, exploding, triggering star formation, and burning their new fuel. But this is limited; there’s only a finite amount of hydrogen and other elements to burn via nuclear fusion. The skies will eventually go completely dark, as the last of the dim, red dwarf stars (the longest-lived ones) exhaust their fuel.

1015 years: the last bit of hydrogen is burned up, and our entire Universe goes dark, being populated only by black holes, neutron stars, and degenerate dwarf stars, which eventually themselves cool, fade, and turn black.

And that’s the entire Universe, from the very beginning of what we can sensibly say about it to the far distant future!

via @Foomandoonian

Optimal Caffeine Consumption

Whether caffeine serves any purpose other than removing withdrawal symptoms is a topic of study with conflicting results, but if you’re an optimist as well as a fan of caffeine in any of it’s many forms you’re most likely consuming it sub-optimally.

Why not improve your caffeine knowledge and learning about the optimal way of consuming the world’s most-used stimulant; caffeine:

  • Consume in small, frequent amounts: Between 20-200mg per hour may be an optimal dose for cognitive function.
  • Play to your cognitive strengths: Caffeine may increase the speed with which you work, may decrease attentional lapses, and may even benefit recall – but is less likely to benefit more complex cognitive functions, and may even hurt others. Plan accordingly.
  • Play to caffeine’s strengths: Caffeine’s effects can be maximized or minimized depending on what else is in your system at the time.
  • Know when to stop – and when to start again: Although you may not grow strongly tolerant to caffeine, you can become dependent on it and suffer withdrawal symptoms. Balance these concerns with the cognitive and health benefits associated with caffeine consumption – and appropriately timed resumption.

So that’s one cup of regular coffee — with sugar and/or soy milk — every hour when performing relatively simple cognitive tasks.

The Brain on Food: Everyday Chemicals

Regarding all the foods that we consume as a drugs is a wondrous way to examine and comprehend the complex interactions and subtle forces behind how everything we put in our mouths affects “how our neurons behave and, subsequently, how we think and feel”.

In a compelling article that suggests our shared evolutionary history with the plants and animals that we eat is the root cause of them having an affect on our body’s behaviour, Gary Wenk, author of Your Brain on Food, briefly describes how some of the chemicals present in ‘drugs’ such as chocolate, bananas, alcohol and nutmeg affect us:

We have all experienced the consequences of our shared evolutionary history with the plants we eat. For example, unripe bananas contain the neurotransmitter serotonin. When you eat an unripe banana, its serotonin is free to act upon the serotonin neurons within your digestive tract. The consequence is likely to be increased activation of the muscles in the wall of your intestines, usually experienced as diarrhea.

Many plants contain compounds that should be able to enhance your brain’s performance. For example, potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants contain solanine and α-chaconine, substances that can enhance the action of acetylcholine, a chemical in your brain that is vital to memory formation. Your mood might be enhanced slightly by eating fava beans because they contain L-DOPA, a precursor to the production of dopamine, the reward chemical in your brain. Whether these food-borne compounds actually affect your brain depends upon how much you consume and your own personal physiology. This might explain why some people find it quite rewarding to eat potatoes or eggplants.

Morphine-like chemicals capable of acting upon the brain are produced in your intestines when you consume milk, eggs, cheese, spinach, mushrooms, pumpkin, and various fish and grains. Dairy products in particular contain a protein known as casein, which enzymes in your intestines can convert into beta-casomorphin. In newborns, that beta-casomorphin can easily pass out of the immature gut and into the developing brain to produce euphoria.

There’s much more like that in the article, concluded with Wenk arguing that this shared evolutionary history is why plants and animals from other planets will probably not harm or sustain us if we ever travel to distant, Earth-like bodies.