Archive for the ‘Science and Edumacation’ Category
As an astronomer, I’m always hit with the “what’s the practical use of this” question. My general response is, “Well, what’s the practical use of the Sistine Chapel?” Life can’t all be about practical down to earth things. There has to be beauty and art and discovery and awe. All our practicality has to be oriented toward something beyond ourselves.
But there’s also this. Sometimes just monkeying around with science produces unexpected insight. So research into jellyfish produces an AIDS treatment; screwing around with microwaves produces lasers and going to the moon produces remote sensors to monitor patients.
It’s a big universe out there and we’ve uncovered only a tiny fraction of its secrets. We should keep digging because we never know what’s going to turn up.
I’ll pop up from vacation just to headdesk over people’s discomfort over the recent revelation that cats kill a lot of little creatures.
Um, they’re cats. Cats are predators. They have an instinct to kill. That instinct is impossible to surpress and shouldn’t be suppressed. Even the most domesticated cat can never be sure that their next meal is going to show up. Killing prey, even if they abandon it, keeps their skills sharp in case they ever need them. If they didn’t have this instinct, they would have gone extinct millions of years ago.
As I said on Twitter, if you want a small furry critter without a killer instinct, get a hamster.
I have to agree with this article on how people are using their televisions wrong. It’s distressing to think that a generation of Americans may grow up not knowing how movies are supposed to look. Oh, well, I guess they’re already growing up not knowing how an action scene is supposed to be filmed.
I’m doing more long-form posting of links I care to comment on. But here’s a few I don’t have time for.
I’ve actually thought for some time that the only way to colonize Mars would be to send people there on a one-way trip. Of course, you have to face the brutal reality that those who go are very likely to die in the attempt. Mars is not where we evolved and its environment is almost certain to have unknown hazards. But the back-and-forth business is simply not going to work.
In the end, I think Heinlein was right: space will be colonized by people we decide we’d rather dump off on another planet and let survive on their own. That’s how the Western World colonized the Americas and Australia. You combine some eccentric billionaires and an opportunity to get rid of political/racial/religious undesirables and we’ll spread through the Solar System in no time.
Via the Bad Astronomer, I found this video talking about the ALMA array and the need for exploration that drives my profession.
It’s worth watching, especially because it interviews scientists from one of best institutions of higher learning in the known universe: Mr. Jefferson’s. (Of which I might happen to be a graduate). Funny thing: I started out my career in radio astronomy and intended to pursue a career in it. Now I work in the gamma-ray regime, about as far away from radio as you can get and still be on the electromagnetic spectrum. But I still love the epic scale of radio telescopes. I’ve been to Arecibo. I would dearly love to see ALMA some day.
I don’t know what annoys me more: that 21 people were burned fire walking in some confidence building bullshit; or that the organizers are blaming the burns on a lack of faith and concentration rather than a failure to either properly set or properly supervise this parlor trick.
More from Penn and Teller here.
The WaPo has an article Looking at the current drought and wondering/speculating what will happen if and when such droughts become more common due to global warming.
A lot of the hype for this is keying off a study that claims Texas’ 2011 drought was twenty times more likely because of global warming. This study has been loudly trumpeted around the punditsphere but needs to be taken with several helpings of salt water. The analysis is based on climactic modeling, a notoriously tricky discipline. It wouldn’t take much to make the 20 times go down a lot. Second, the 2011 Texas drought was an extreme event, on the tail of the probability distribution. If you shift the probability distribution just a little bit, the probability of an unlikely even shoots up dramatically. For example, if the likelihood of an event happening was one in a million and your analysis made it one in fifty thousand, that would be “20 times more likely”. But it is still an unlikely event and still at point where small assumptions can dramatically alter the results. Looking at their plots, 2011 was still an outlier. While there’s a great deal of research supporting the idea that global warming will produce a drier world (or at leas a drier USA), it’s sketchy to build policy on it.
More importantly, the warming is inevitable. Even if we accept the current models; even we stopped all greenhouse gas emission today; the planet would continue to warm for another half century. We are long past the point of prevention; we are now at the point of adaptation, something the WaPo article only brushes against.
There is hope in adaptation. The current drought has been more extensive than past droughts that caused food shortages and famine. But drought-resistant crops and better land management have prevented the catastrophe of the Dust Bowl. We have not even begun to tap the potential for adaptation. And it’s a potential we’re going to have to tap if the next century is to be as plentiful as the last.
Apart from my Y-chromosome issues, I find this subject interesting because of the discussions about precisely why men are attracted to women with large breasts. It’s simply amazing to read all the debates in evolutionary psychology which pass themselves off as science but are often little more than speculation (check out this baby for an example). I’ve heard all the “theories”, few of which are actually falsifiable. And all of them sound like rubbish to me.
To be honest, this debate tends to fill me with anger. All of these theories are presented with an incredible certainty, as though something had been proven. But none are supported by scientific evidence. They are mere conjecture and bad conjecture at that. Among other things, none allow for the fact that some men are not attracted to busty women. In fact, some men have a particular preference for women with small chests. Many cultures have a far less intense breast fetish than our own. And some men — like me — are attracted to a variety of physical types. So these explanation that big boobs appeal to something deep in our psyches or our genes leave me a little cold.
These theories also ignore something very important: there may not be a reason. One of the things we’ve learned from evolutionary science is that we are not perfect creatures. We have many flaws which have been genetically selected over the generations. The reason we have these flaws is that they came along with something so useful that, on balance, we were better off. So intelligence may have come with bad eyesight. We are, and always have been, patchwork creatures. And the idea that evolution is a uniform process producing predictable results and that every aspect of our existence has some survival benefit is inconsistent with the known facts.
In sum, men may be attracted to big boobs because of some random bit of programming that came along for the ride with something else. Or it may be an unusual manifestation of something that is useful. Looking for a definitive explanation is, in my view, dangerous because it implies that all our traits, all our behavior, have to have an explanation. They don’t.
That having been said, I recently encountered a theory that makes some sense to me.
I recently heard an interview with one of the authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts, which applied the first objective analysis not to what people claim to consume on the internet, but to what they actually do. For example, far more men are attracted to women who are overweight than women who are anorexic. While the authors go too far in some of their conclusions, the interview did have one idea that resonated. The author was talking about why men fetishize things like dainty feet. He said, quite simply, that these are signs of femininity. They are things male brains — because of evolution, socialization or hormones — recognize as “this is a female; I can mate with her.” It is sexual signaling, no different from the bright feathers on a bird or the pheromones of an insect.
This is probably the most sensible explanation for the breast fetish I’ve heard. It’s straight-forward and explains much of what the other theories don’t. Under this paradigm, men are attracted to anything their brains have decided is feminine. And breasts are just one of the easiest things to fetishize because they are such an obvious secondary sex characteristic; something women have that men don’t. A man can see a busty women from far away and recognize that it’s a woman. There doesn’t have to be a rationality behind it. He doesn’t have to be thinking about her ability to lactate or anything. It’s just something that his brain has latched on to.
The real beauty of this theory, however, is that it does not have to be true of all men. If a man associates femininity with being small and petite, or having long hair and soft skin, or having a high-pitched voice — that’s what he finds attractive. He can be completely indifferent to mammary glands simply because his brain does not process that as a particularly feminine trait. Breast fetishism would simply be part of the larger paradigm that encloses all fetishes. Call it the General Theory of Ogling.
(I should note that women are not immune from this sexual signaling, hence the preferences for broad shoulders, deep voices, etc. However, women tend to be less visual and their sexuality is more oriented around mate selection than mate identification. So if wealth or self-confidence or humor or whatever is what they regard as a signal of masculinity, that’s what they find attractive. This may also explain why women are often attracted to men who are obnoxious or even violent, since these can be masculine characteristics.
I’ve often felt that natural selection, at least in humans, is something that women play a much larger role in than men. Men try to have sex with everything, superior or inferior. Women are the ones who are selective.)
Of course, I would be remiss if not noting that this conjecture makes me feel better about myself. While I have always been very physically attracted to women, I don’t really have a “type”. My wife is blonde and curvy. My previous girlfriend is tall, brunette and slender. Before that was short and petite. Before that was short and absurdly busty (and possible artificial). And so on. I’ve been attracted to blondes, brunette and redheads; to tall and short; to slender and curvy. But I would define all of them as physically attractive in some way. In fact, I would say that I find most women attractive in some way. But if you narrowed it down just to the women to whom I have felt a strong physical attraction, you would still find a wide physical variety.
That I am physically attracted to women of a wide variety of appearances used to bother me. But now it just means that my brain, for some reason, defines a broad spectrum of physical characteristics as female. Maybe it’s some subconscious “with your luck, you can’t be too picky” thought stream. But I suspect it’s just the way my brain works. I have broad interests in everything, hence the blog, hence the career in a massively interdisciplinary profession, hence the liberal arts education, hence the huge library. My interests tend to wander. And so does my eye.
We are animals. And we are fools when we forget this. We are double fools when we have degrees in scientific disciplines and deliberately forget this. Our rational thinking selves are just the placid surface of a broiling animalistic mix of desires, passions and fears. We can’t pretend that every aspect of our lives — and especially the most basic aspect of our lives: our need to reproduce — are the product of reason and rationality. Nietzsche said that the degree and kind of a man’s sexuality reach up into the ultimate pinnacle of his spirit. Our spirits are animals. And our attractions are no different than an animal’s attraction to a set of big antlers or a particularly shimmery coating of scales.
This post, from Phil Plait, is a must-read on the history of one of the most dangerous nuclear tests in history. I do have on quibble however, with the opening paragraph:
In 1958, the Soviet Union called for a ban on atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons, and went so far as to unilaterally stop such testing. Under external political pressure, the US acquiesced. However, in late 1961 political pressures internal to the USSR forced Khrushchev to break the moratorium, and the Soviets began testing once again. So, again under pressure, the US responded with tests of their own.
That’s a generous reading of the history. It could be argued, as Robert Heinlein said at the time, that the history was more like this: In 1958, the Soviet Union called for a ban on atmospheric test of nuclear weapons, and went so far as to unilaterally stop such testing. Of course, they had a massive country with closed borders where they could test weapons on the sly. The US eventually caved into to Soviet bullying and internal Communist sympathizers to join the ban. However, as Heinlein predicted, Khruschev later resumed testing when it suited him.