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.