EssentialstheDiagonal is a personal blog by Mike Gerra, skeptic, technologist, psychologist, artist, humanist, collector of grand, eclectic ideas.theDiagonal blog connects the dots across multiple disciplines for inquisitive, objective and critical thinkers, exploring the vertices of big science, disruptive innovation, global sustainability, illuminating literature and leftfield art. It is on this diagonal that creativity thrives, big ideas take flight and reason triumphs.
Tag Archives: science
Saturday, April 20, 2013
Nobel laureate and professor of brain science Eric Kandel describes how our perception of art can help us define a better functional map of the mind.
From the New York Times:
This month, President Obama unveiled a breathtakingly ambitious initiative to map the human brain, the ultimate goal of which is to understand the workings of the human mind in biological terms.
Many of the insights that have brought us to this point arose from the merger over the past 50 years of cognitive psychology, the science of mind, and neuroscience, the science of the brain. The discipline that has emerged now seeks to understand the human mind as a set of functions carried out by the brain.
This new approach to the science of mind not only promises to offer a deeper understanding of what makes us who we are, but also opens dialogues with other areas of study — conversations that may help make science part of our common cultural experience....read more
Thursday, April 11, 2013
Pseudoscience can be fun — for comedic purposes only of course. But when it is taken seriously and dogmatically, as it often is by a significant number of people, it imperils rational dialogue and threatens real scientific and cultural progress. There is no end to the lengthy list of fake scientific claims and theories — some of our favorites include: the moon “landing” conspiracy, hollow Earth, Bermuda triangle, crop circles, psychic surgery, body earthing, room temperature fusion, perpetual and motion machines.
Fun aside, pseudoscience can also be harmful and dangerous particularly when those duped by the dubious practice are harmed physically, medically or financially. Which brings us to a recent, related development aimed at duping academics. Welcome to the world of pseudo-academia.
From the New York Times:...read more
Saturday, March 16, 2013
It wasn’t too long ago that astronomers found the first indirect evidence of a planet beyond our solar system. They inferred the presence of an exoplanet (extrasolar planet) from the periodic dimming or wiggle of its parental star, rather than much more difficult direct observation. Since the first confirmed exoplanet was discovered in 1995 (51 Pegasi b), researchers have definitively catalogued around 800, and identified another 18,000 candidates. And, the list seems to now grow daily.
If that wasn’t amazing enough researchers now have directly observed several exoplanets and even measured their atmospheric composition.
From ars technica:
Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Naysayers would say that government, and hence taxpayer dollars, should not be used to fund science initiatives. After all academia and business seem to do a fairly good job of discovery and innovation without a helping hand pilfering from the public purse. And, without a doubt, and money aside, government funded projects do raise a number of thorny questions: On what should our hard-earned income tax be spent? Who decides on the priorities? How is progress to be measured? Do taxpayers get any benefit in return? After many of us cringe at the thought of an unelected bureaucrat or a committee of such spending millions if not billions of our dollars. Why not just spend the money on fixing our national potholes?...read more
Friday, February 15, 2013
Hot on the heels of recent successes by the Texas School Board of Education (SBOE) to revise history and science curricula, legislators in Missouri are planning to redefine commonly accepted scientific principles. Much like the situation in Texas the Missouri House is mandating that intelligent design be taught alongside evolution, in equal measure, in all the state’s schools. But, in a bid to take the lead in reversing thousands of years of scientific progress Missouri plans to redefine the actual scientific framework. So, if you can’t make “intelligent design” fit the principles of accepted science, then just change the principles themselves — first up, change the meanings of the terms “scientific hypothesis” and “scientific theory”.
We suspect that a couple of years from now, in Missouri, 2+2 will be redefined to equal 5, and that logic, deductive reasoning and experimentation will be replaced with mushy green peas....read more
Friday, February 8, 2013
There is a certain school of thought that asserts that scientific genius is a thing of the past. After all, we haven’t seen the recent emergence of pivotal talents such as Galileo, Newton, Darwin or Einstein. Is it possible that fundamentally new ways to look at our world — that a new mathematics or a new physics is no longer possible?
In a recent essay in Nature, Dean Keith Simonton, professor of psychology at UC Davis, argues that such fundamental and singular originality is a thing of the past.
From ars technica:
Einstein, Darwin, Galileo, Mendeleev: the names of the great scientific minds throughout history inspire awe in those of us who love science. However, according to Dean Keith Simonton, a psychology professor at UC Davis, the era of the scientific genius may be over. In a comment paper published in Nature last week, he explains why....read more
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
“Someone has to stand up to experts!”. This is what Don McLeroy would have you believe about scientists. We all espouse senseless rants once in a while, so we should give McLeroy the benefit of the doubt – perhaps he had slept poorly the night before this impassioned, irrational plea. On the other hand, when you learn that McLeroy’s statement came as chairman of the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) in 2010, then you may wish to think again, especially if you have children in the school system of the Lone Star State....read more
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Big data keeps getting bigger and computers keep getting faster. Some theorists believe that the universe is a giant computer or a computer simulation; that principles of information science govern the cosmos. While this notion is one of the most recent radical ideas to explain our existence, there is no doubt that information is our future. Data surrounds us, we are becoming data-points and our cities are our information-rich databases.
From the Economist:
IN 1995 GEORGE GILDER, an American writer, declared that “cities are leftover baggage from the industrial era.” Electronic communications would become so easy and universal that people and businesses would have no need to be near one another. Humanity, Mr Gilder thought, was “headed for the death of cities”....read more
Friday, January 18, 2013
Imagine a nation, or even a world, where political decisions and policy are driven by science rather than emotion. Well, small experiments are underway, so this may not be as far off as many would believe, or even dare to hope.
From the New Scientist:
In your wildest dreams, could you imagine a government that builds its policies on carefully gathered scientific evidence? One that publishes the rationale behind its decisions, complete with data, analysis and supporting arguments? Well, dream no longer: that’s where the UK is heading....read more
Monday, December 31, 2012
As the year comes to a close it’s fascinating to look back at some of the most breathtaking science of 2012.
The image above is of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Evidence from Cassini spacecraft, which took this remarkable image, suggests a deep salty ocean beneath the frozen surface that periodically spews out icy particles into the space. Many scientists believe that Enceladus is the best place to look for signs of life beyond Earth within our Solar System.
Read the entire article following the jump.
Image courtesy of Cassini Imaging Team/SSI/JPL/ESA/NASA.
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Sunday, November 25, 2012
From ars technica:
The House Committee on Space, Science, and Technology hears testimony on climate change in March 2011.[/ars_img]If you had the chance to ask questions of one of the world’s leading climatologists, would you select a set of topics that would be at home in the heated discussions that take place in the Ars forums? If you watch the video below, you’d find that’s precisely what Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) chose to do when Penn State’s Richard Alley (a fellow Republican) was called before the House Science Committee, which has already had issues with its grasp of science. Rohrabacher took Alley on a tour of some of the least convincing arguments about climate change, all trying to convince him changes in the Sun were to blame for a changing climate. (Alley, for his part, noted that we have actually measured the Sun, and we’ve seen no such changes.)...read more
Tuesday, October 16, 2012
There is no doubting the ever expanding reach of science and the acceleration of scientific discovery. Yet the accumulation, and for that matter the acceleration in the accumulation, of ever more knowledge does come with a price — many historical facts that we learned as kids are no longer true. This is especially important in areas such as medical research where new discoveries are constantly making obsolete our previous notions of disease and treatment.
Author Samuel Arbesman, tells us why facts should have an expiration date in his new book, A review of The Half-Life of Facts.
Friday, September 7, 2012
Regardless of how flawed old scientific concepts may be researchers have found that it is remarkably difficult for people to give these up and accept sound, new reasoning. Even scientists are creatures of habit.
From Scientific American:
In one sense, science educators have it easy. The things they describe are so intrinsically odd and interesting — invisible fields, molecular machines, principles explaining the unity of life and origins of the cosmos — that much of the pedagogical attention-getting is built right in. Where they have it tough, though, is in having to combat an especially resilient form of higher ed’s nemesis: the aptly named (if irredeemably clichéd) ‘preconceived idea.’ Worse than simple ignorance, naïve ideas about science lead people to make bad decisions with confidence. And in a world where many high-stakes issues fundamentally boil down to science, this is clearly a problem....read more
Tuesday, August 7, 2012
NASA pulled off another tremendous and daring feat of engineering when it successfully landed the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) to the surface of Mars on August 5, 2012, 10:32 PM Pacific Time.
The MSL is housed aboard the Curiosity rover, a 2,000-pound, car-size robot. Not only did NASA land Curiosity a mere 1 second behind schedule following a journey of over 576 million kilometers (358 million miles) lasting around 8 months, it went one better. NASA had one of its Mars orbiters — Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter — snap an image of MSL from around 300 miles away as it descended through the Martian atmosphere, with its supersonic parachute unfurled.
Another historic day for science, engineering and exploration.
From NASA / JPL:
Friday, July 13, 2012
One would believe that the most affluent and open country on the planet would have one of the best, if not the best, education systems. Yet, the United States of America distinguishes itself by being thoroughly mediocre in a ranking of developed nations in science, mathematics and reading. How can we makes amends for our children?
Take the 2009 PISA test, which assessed the knowledge of students from 65 countries and economies—34 of which are members of the development organization the OECD, including the United States—in math, science, and reading. Of the OECD countries, the United States came in 17th place in science literacy; of all countries and economies surveyed, it came in 23rd place. The U.S. score of 502 practically matched the OECD average of 501. That puts us firmly in the middle. Where we don’t want to be....read more
Thursday, July 12, 2012
The debate over the theory of evolution continues into the 21st century particularly in societies with a religious bent, including the United States of America. Yet, while the theory and corresponding evidence comes under continuous attack from mostly religious apologists, we generally do not see scientists themselves persecuted for supporting evolution, or not.
This cannot be said for climate scientists in Western countries, who while not physically abused or tortured or imprisoned do continue to be targets of verbal abuse and threats from corporate interests or dogmatic politicians and their followers. But, as we know persecution of scientists for embodying new, and thus threatening, ideas has been with us since the dawn of the scientific age. In fact, this behavior probably has been with us since our tribal ancestors moved out of Africa.
So, it is useful to remind ourselves how far we have come and of the distance we still have to travel.
Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Legislators in North Carolina recently went one better than King C’Nut (Canute). The king of Denmark, England, Norway and parts of Sweden during various periods between 1018 and 1035, famously and unsuccessfully tried to hold back the incoming tide. The now mythic story tells of Canute’s arrogance. Not to be outdone, North Carolina’s state legislature recently passed a law that bans state agencies from reporting that sea-level rise is accelerating.
The bill From North Carolina states:
“… rates shall only be determined using historical data, and these data shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900. Rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated linearly to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise.”...read more
Monday, May 21, 2012
One of the original “great explainers” of our age, physicist Richard Feynman distills the essence of the science in 60 seconds.
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Thursday, April 12, 2012
The tension between science, religion and politics that began several millennia ago continues unabated.
From ars technica:
In the US, science has become a bit of a political punching bag, with a number of presidential candidates accusing climatologists of fraud, even as state legislators seek to inject phony controversies into science classrooms. It’s enough to make one long for the good old days when science was universally respected. But did those days ever actually exist?
A new look at decades of survey data suggests that there was never a time when science was universally respected, but one political group in particular—conservative voters—has seen its confidence in science decline dramatically over the last 30 years....read more
Friday, February 17, 2012
Each year for the past 15 years Edge has posed a weighty question to a group of scientists, researchers, philosophers, mathematicians and thinkers. For 2012, Edge asked the question, “What Is Your Favorite Deep, Elegant, or Beautiful Explanation?”, to 192 of our best and brightest. Back came 192 different and no-less wonderful answers. We can post but a snippet here, so please visit the Edge, and then make a note to buy the book (it’s not available yet).
Read the entire article here.
The Mysterious Coherence Between Fundamental Physics and Mathematics
Peter Woit, Mathematical Physicist, Columbia University; Author, Not Even Wrong
Wednesday, February 1, 2012
A peer-reviewed journal recently published a 100-page scientific paper describing a theory of everything that unifies quantum theory and relativity (a long sought-after goal) with the origin of life, evolution and cosmology. And, best of all the paper contains no mathematics.
The paper written by a faculty member at Case Western Reserve University raises interesting issues about the peer review process and the viral spread of information, whether it’s correct or not.
From Ars Technica:
Physicists have been working for decades on a “theory of everything,” one that unites quantum mechanics and relativity. Apparently, they were being too modest. Yesterday saw publication of a press release claiming a biologist had just published a theory accounting for all of that—and handling the origin of life and the creation of the Moon in the bargain. Better yet, no math!...read more
Monday, November 28, 2011
Every couple of years a (hell)fire and brimstone preacher floats into the national consciousness and makes the headlines with certain predictions from the book regarding imminent destruction of our species and home. Most recently Harold Camping, the radio evangelist, predicted the apocalypse would begin on Saturday, May 21, 2011. His subsequent revision placed the “correct date” at October 21, 2011. Well, we’re still here, so the next apocalyptic date to prepare for, according to watchers of all things Mayan, is December 21, 2012.
So not to be outdone by prophesy from one particular religion or another, science has come out swinging with its own list of potential apocalyptic end-of-days. No surprise, many scenarios may well be at our own hands.
From the Guardian:
Thursday, November 3, 2011
An insightful article over at the Smithsonian ponders the national (U.S.) decline in the trust of science. Regardless of the topic in question — climate change, health supplements, vaccinations, air pollution, “fracking”, evolution — and regardless of the specific position on a particular topic, scientific evidence continues to be questioned, ignored, revised, and politicized. And perhaps it is in this last issue, that of politics, that we may see a possible cause for a growing national pandemic of denialism. The increasingly fractured, fractious and rancorous nature of the U.S. political system threatens to undermine all debate and true skepticism, whether based on personal opinion or scientific fact.
From the Smithsonian:
Monday, October 24, 2011
The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics was recently awarded to three scientists: Adam Riess, Saul Perlmutter and Brian Schmidt. Their computations and observations of a very specific type of exploding star upended decades of commonly accepted beliefs of our universe. Namely, that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.
Prior to their observations, first publicly articulated in 1998, general scientific consensus held that the universe would expand at a steady rate forever or slow, and eventually fold back in on itself in a cosmic Big Crunch.
The discovery by Riess, Perlmutter and Schmidt laid the groundwork for the idea that a mysterious force called “dark energy” is fueling the acceleration. This dark energy is now believed to make up 75 percent of the universe. Direct evidence of dark energy is lacking, but most cosmologists now accept that universal expansion is indeed accelerating....read more
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Some wacky ideas about our sun from not so long ago help us realize the importance of a healthy dose of skepticism combined with good science. In fact, as you’ll see from the timestamp on the image from NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) science can now bring us – the public – near realtime images of our nearest star.
The sun is hell.
The18th-century English clergyman Tobias Swinden argued that hell couldn’t lie below Earth’s surface: The fires would soon go out, he reasoned, due to lack of air. Not to mention that the Earth’s interior would be too small to accommodate all the damned, especially after making allowances for future generations of the damned-to-be. Instead, wrote Swinden, it’s obvious that hell stares us in the face every day: It’s the sun.
The sun is made of ice....read more
Thursday, September 8, 2011
From Project Syndicate:
It was recently discovered that the universe’s expansion is accelerating, not slowing, as was previously thought. Light from distant exploding stars revealed that an unknown force (dubbed “dark energy”) more than outweighs gravity on cosmological scales.
Unexpected by researchers, such a force had nevertheless been predicted in 1915 by a modification that Albert Einstein proposed to his own theory of gravity, the general theory of relativity. But he later dropped the modification, known as the “cosmological term,” calling it the “biggest blunder” of his life.
So the headlines proclaim: “Einstein was right after all,” as though scientists should be compared as one would clairvoyants: Who is distinguished from the common herd by knowing the unknowable – such as the outcome of experiments that have yet to be conceived, let alone conducted? Who, with hindsight, has prophesied correctly?...read more
Friday, September 2, 2011
Ask a hundred people how science can be used for the good and you’re likely to get a hundred different answers. Well, Edge Magazine did just that, posing the question: “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit”, to 159 critical thinkers. Below we excerpt some of our favorites. The thoroughly engrossing, novel length article can be found here in its entirety.
Richard H. Thaler. Father of behavioral economics.