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Basic science

November 27, 2018

When I was a child, the way to get really high magnification under a microscope involved drops of oil on the slide cover glass, and using the fine gear knob to be careful not to break that. Now, electron microscopy can image individual atoms ever more finely.

Biological collections are a kind of historical record, laden with data we still don’t fully understand, that once lost never can be restored. It takes money and will to sustain them. (Hat tip to my brother-in-law, the botanist.)

Both microscopy and biological collections go back to the rebirth of science at the start of the modern era. If ever you are near Cape Lookout in North Carolina, be sure to visit Fort Macon, where Elliot Coues did bird research while stationed there as a surgeon. They have some of his collection.


Break on through

November 26, 2018

Sabine Hossenfelder characterizes the stagnation she sees at the core of physics:

The current theories are incomplete. We know this both because dark matter is merely a placeholder for something we don’t understand, and because the mathematical formulation of particle physics is incompatible with the math we use for gravity. Physicists knew about these two problems already in 1930s. And until the 1970s, they made great progress. But since then, theory development in the foundations of physics has stalled. If experiments find anything new now, that will be despite, not because of, some ten-thousands of wrong predictions.

I agree with Hossenfelder “that a theory isn’t pretty is not a problem.” That said, the situation she describes seems one where some key insights are lacking. Not necessarily pretty ones. A poster on Not Even Wrong offers a more bleak view.

Someone might try to point to quantum computing as an area of advance. And it is, but not in the foundation of physics. So it is interesting to read Mikhail Dyakonov’s skeptical look at what it might achieve.

I want to be more optimistic about that. The first computer I ever programmed was an analog computer. Those quickly gave way to digital computer, despite the fact that they can solve certain kinds of problems faster. I’ve long thought we should investigate and build some analog engines precisely for those problem classes where they execute faster. Quantum computers are a kind of that. There is the problem of achieving minimum known precision. That seems to me tractable, if restricted to certain kind of problems.

Turning to biology, I think Sean Parker hits the nail on the head when he says:

Tech people coming from tech to biology dramatically underestimate the complexity of the human body. It’s not designed by us. It doesn’t work in ways that make sense.

Biological systems are the result of billions of years of kludge after kludge, yielding systems that at first glance seem so tailored, and so Rube Goldbergesque and interconnected and path dependent as you dig deeper and deeper. That is the beauty of it. For the sake of medicine, we want to engineer biology. But it will be a hard kind of reverse engineering and careful, partial refactoring, rather than traditional forward engineering.

Breakthroughs may come more and more from abroad. Part of that is the natural effect of world development as we leave the American century. Alas, part of that is this nation’s inward turn, and consequent reduction in its attractiveness to young scientists.

You live in a neighborhood

November 20, 2018

The New York Times takes a look at the research on how important neighborhoods are to the future of children who grow up in them. Living just a couple of blocks one way or another influences the likelihood that a child from a poor background will succeed later in life:

The researchers believe much of this variation is driven by the neighborhoods themselves, not by differences in what brings people to live in them. The more years children spend in a good neighborhood, the greater the benefits they receive. And what matters, the researchers find, is a hyper-local setting: the environment within about half a mile of a child’s home.

CC_NeighborhoodsIt is not entirely a matter of schools. The effect remains for children who attend the same school. It’s not clear what the main causes are. As with so much social research, the problem is that there are so many possible ones. Maybe a particular park influences social interaction?

It’s interesting that when we ask where someone is from, we often want to here what city. But you don’t live in a city. You travel through it. It’s residents travel to many common destinations. Where they each live, though, is a neighborhood. Each of which has its own flavor and personality.

Social blindness

November 19, 2018

Christopher Blair invents political memes for a living. He doesn’t even hide the fact that his stories are just that. While a curious thing in its own right, the more interesting part of that article may be the profile of those who believe and propagate Blair’s creations, such as Shirley Chapian:

For years she had watched network TV news, but increasingly Chapian wondered about the widening gap between what she read online and what she heard on the networks. “What else aren’t they telling us?” she wrote once, on Facebook, and if she believed the mainstream media was becoming insufficient or biased, it was her responsibility to seek out alternatives. She signed up for a dozen conservative newsletters and began to watch Alex Jones on Infowars. One far right Facebook group eventually led her to the next with targeted advertising, and soon Chapian was following more than 2,500 conservative pages, an ideological echo chamber that often trafficked in skepticism. Climate change was a hoax. The mainstream media was censored or scripted. Political Washington was under control of a “deep state.”

Chapian didn’t believe everything she read online, but she was also distrustful of mainstream fact-checkers and reported news. It sometimes felt to her like real facts had become indiscernible — that the truth was often somewhere in between. What she trusted most was her own ability to think critically and discern the truth, and increasingly her instincts aligned with the online community where she spent most of her time. … “I’m not a conspiracy-theory-type person, but . . .” she wrote, before sharing a link to an unsourced story suggesting that Democratic donor George Soros had been a committed Nazi, or that a Parkland shooting survivor was actually a paid actor.

The key element of this conspiratorial thinking is not that it is about conspiracies — often, it isn’t — but that it conjures notions about how the social world works divorced from facts, and often from what even is plausible. Those engaged in it don’t much alter their views when the memes that form them are refuted. Instead, they work around contrary facts to retain the conspiratorial thinking. Consider as example the excuses and work-arounds that Trump supporters make when confronted by his lies. Even when a complex and intricate conspiracy theory blows up in its believers’ faces — as QAnon now has done — those influenced by it will continue to trust in their “own ability to think critically and discern the truth.” Even as they spread the next set of memes invented from broadcloth. We should expect some successor conspiracy theory to QAnon, just as it evolved from Pizzagate. If those who imagine you can rake a forest are nature blind, should we say those who propagate conspiracy theories like QAnon and Pizzagate suffer a form of social blindness?

The portion of the population who do that, now empowered by social media, are a tremendous resource for some. Not just for those merely out to make a living, like Christopher Blair. Also for propagandists. Propaganda needs no disguise, and works even when you know its purpose. As a PBS reporter discovered when he immersed himself in RT and Sputnik, just as an experiment. Those outlets also want their memes spread for them and beyond them, through Facebook and other social media.

People who are blind to nature, or to how the social world works, don’t therefore recognize their ignorance. Instead, they fantasize. And they understand those fantasies perhaps better than those who see. Disney illustrators may not know nature. But they know how their audience “sees” nature. Alex Jones may not know the world. But he knows his audience, and what fantasies catch them.

That kind of fantasy played a large role in pushing Brexit, also.

Election surprises and not

November 16, 2018

It surprises me that O’Rourke received more support from native Texans than from more recent arrivals. I would have expected the reverse. In this case, good on the old guard!

It is not at all surprising that women vote against Republicans ever more than before.

It is surprising that Arizona elected a Democratic Senator. Congratulations, Arizona!

It is, alas, not surprising that the Republicans were again successful in suppressing the minority vote.

It is surprising and exciting that Maine rolled out ranked choice voting this year. Let’s hope that is the start of a trend. Everything that stands between actual voter preference and election results is a foil to the purpose of voting.

And, it is not surprising that Florida again is an electoral mess.

Geometry and politics

November 15, 2018

There is a straightforward reason that North Ireland has been the stumbling block to Brexit. If the UK is to have its own customs arrangement independent of the EU’s, then North Ireland gets a new customs border, either the land border between it and Ireland, or at the Irish sea, between it and the rest of the UK. That is almost a geometrical certainty, all the political entities concerned having exclusive territories that are the finite union of compact, connected subsets of the surface of the sphere. And customs areas likewise.

If Dominic Raab thinks that May’s plan is “a very real threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom,” wait until he sees the consequences of a hard Brexit. It took some people a year to learn geometry. They still are not fully accepting that Brexit means that North Ireland has to choose between sticking with the Queen and sticking with the rest of Ireland. Which will they want more? Let’s hope they can resolve that question peacefully.

Theresa May didn’t want to face that geometric fact, and spent a year pretending there was some political route around it. You cannot wish away the math.

Update: David Frum points out Trump’s role in this mess.

Sex and science and promiscuity

November 14, 2018

Most bad-mouthing of the millennials is no more than the trite complaints made about every new generation by those from generations past, especially by those who simply haven’t adapted to new times. But I worry a bit when I read that young adults are not having sex. Come, my millennial friends, what is wrong with fuck?

Betsy Mason writes a cute summary on the fuzziness in how scientists label animals promiscuous. Those my age learned the rule as undergrads: someone is promiscuous when they are having more sex than you. Like those uninhibited bonobos shown. Shown for the sake of my millennial friends who perhaps need example.

I would be more worried about millennials allegedly falling behind on that if I were more confident of that data. I’m a bit leery that scientists are much better at measuring the sex lives of people than they are of birds. What they likely are seeing, if anything, is just a shift in pattern of the sort that often occurs with this kind of social data. It always looks dire when it first shows up in the young, from all sorts of extrapolations for their entire future, not yet known and measured, and amplified from failing to see other changes in pattern that might make that one seem less worrisome. Despite the ribbing of my millennial friends, I am not yet panicked that they have given up on sex.

Maybe scientists will be more free to explore sticky topics if they could publish academic papers under pseudonym? Some academics are proposing a new, peer-reviewed journal for that. I suspect they will find that the social inhibitions it will skirt are not necessarily the political ones they expect. Still, it is a good idea. It will be interesting to see the results.