Feb 232013

Forkhead box protein P2 is a protein expressed by the FOXP2 gene, located on human chromosome 7. First discovered by scientists at Oxford University in 2001, damage to the FOXP2 gene is linked to severe speech and language impairment. Research in the past decade has only begun to unravel the complex role of FOXP2 in human language acqui­si­tion. Ed Yong provides an accessible discussion of parts of this research.

Last week, a study in The Journal of Neuroscience reported that the ex­pres­sion of the FOXP2 protein, in humans, differs between the sexes. In an area of the left frontal cortex associated with language use, girls have about 30% more of this protein than boys. The researchers write, “Our results implicate FOXP2 as a component of the neuro­biological basis of sex differences in vocal communication in mammals.” Here is a brief summary of the study. The sample size was small, but the di­rection the study points does not sur­prise me.


Oct 082011

According to Charles Krauthammer — here — this joke is circulating the internet:

“We don’t allow any faster-than-light neutrinos in here,” says the bartender.

A neutrino walks into a bar.

The CERN Press Release describes the result as an anomoly — which indeed it is if the neutrinos arrived in Gran Sasso 60 ns. before leaving Geneva. Perhaps the most per­ti­nent observation in the press release is that “the potential impact on science is too large to draw imme­diate conclusions or attempt physics inter­pre­tations.”


Mar 192011

Over a year ago I wrote a post on Thorium Reactors, noting the “miniscule” amount of radioactive waste produced by such reactors. A recent article by Robert Hargraves and Ralph Moir, Liquid Fuel Nuclear Reactors, in the Physics and Society forum of the American Physical Society, contains an excellent discussion of the safety advantages of this technology. Since I had been thinking about the situation at Fukushima-Daiichi, I was especially struck by their description of the early testing of liquid reactors: “the in­trinsic reac­tivity control was so effective that shutdown was accomplished simply by turning off the steam tur­bine generator.”

Liquid flouride thorium reactors (LFTRs) operate at atmospheric pressures, providing immunity against the risks of explosion in pressurized designs (and enabling simpler construction and a smaller foot­print). But the increased margin of safety for LFTRs is primar­ily due to the underlying physics:

A molten salt reactor cannot melt down because the normal operating state of the core is already molten. The salts are solid at room temperature, so if a reactor vessel, pump, or pipe ruptured they would spill out and solidify. If the temperature rises, stability is intrinsic due to salt expansion. In an emergency an actively cooled solid plug of salt in a drain pipe melts and the fuel flows to a critically safe dump tank. The Oak Ridge MSRE researchers turned the reactor off this way on weekends.

Hargraves and Moir also explore the cost advantages of LFTRs and the difficulties that LFTRs would pose to prolifera­tion and weaponization.

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Jan 232011

A previous post on Sherry Turkle discussed her views on the ‘subjective’ aspect of our relation to technology. Her most recent writing expresses misgivings about the health of this relationship. This is noticeable in Programmed for Love, an interview from the Chronicle Review, in which Turkle describes how internet usage and social networks can mask the need to cultivate real human relation­ships and real human com­mun­ity. “Be­cause we grew up with the Net,” she says, “we assume that the Net is grown up.”

The occasion for the Chronicle interview is Sherry Turkle’s new book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, which remarks that “we talk about ‘spending’ hours on e-mail, but we too are being spent.” I also enjoyed the observation by Turkle’s daughter, that instead of a robot caretaker the professor “would rather have the com­plete works of Jane Austen played continu­ously.”  Me too.


Apr 202010

The name “positivism” comes from the writing of Auguste Comte, the 19th century philosopher of science and founder of sociology.  In his Course of Positive Philosophy, published from 1830 through 1842, Comte de­scribed human history as progressing through three distinct stages which he called the theological, the meta­physical, and the positive — the final stage corresponding to the ordering of society by modern science. Comte’s positive philosophy was quite influential in the nineteenth century. According to Michel Bourdeau:

It is difficult today to appreciate the interest Comte’s thought enjoyed a century ago, for it has received almost no notice during the last five decades. Before the First World War, Comte’s movement was active nearly everywhere in the world. The best known case is that of Latin America: Brazil, which owes the motto on its flag ‘Ordem e Progresso’ (Order and Progress) to Comte and Mexico are two prominent examples. The positivists, i.e., the followers of Comte, were equally active in England, the United States and India. And in the case of Turkey, its modern secular character can be traced to Comte’s influence on the Young Turks.[1]

Like Marxism, Comtean positivism heralded a new age — an age in which the super­stition and religion of the past would be replaced by a society organized entirely upon scientific principles. Comte’s philosophy was less a philosophy of science than a social and poli­tical movement with a program for human progress. Un­sur­prisingly, it gra­du­ally turned itself into a sort of religion — with public wor­ship ser­vices, a liturgy derived from Ca­tholicism, and a calendar of posi­tivist saints.[2] The Comtean move­ment survived the century but was eventually extin­guished by the First World War.

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  1. Michel Bourdeau, “Auguste Comte”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010). []
  2. Bourdeau notes that Comte’s founding of the Religion of Humanity, in 1849, accomplished “a tour de force by uniting both believers and non-believers against him.”  The theoretical justification for this direction was the “complete positivism” of the System of Positive Polity in 1851-1854, in which Comte argued that the claims of science should become subservient to “the continuous domination of the heart.” []
Jan 242010

turkle2Sherry Turkle is the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, and is the director of the MIT Initiative on Tech­nology and Self. She earned her doctorate in sociology and per­son­ality psychology from Harvard University, and is a licensed clinical psycho­logist. She writes about the “subjective side” of the relationship between people and technology.

I first read The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit nearly twenty years ago and have often assigned it to students. Turkle describes how children use com­puters as evocative objects — “things to think with” — which assist them in understanding their own capa­ci­ties and limi­tations. Thus, the sense of self that emerges in children who have grown up with computers can differ from that in children who have grown up with, say, animals and pets — the experience of the former suggesting the spe­ci­fic difference and genus feeling machine, rather than the traditional Aristotelian rational animal. This kind of revision in our understanding of who we are, it seems to me, marks a profound cultural transition — and it is important that we con­sider the pos­si­bility that our technology can induce deep changes.

I found equally provocative Turkle’s next book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. It is a perceptive look at how the roles that we assume on-line affect us in real life. Dr. Turkle is also the author of Psychoanalytic Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud’s French Revolution, and MIT Press has recently published four sets of essays edited by Turkle:

Evocative Objects: Things We Think With
Falling for Science: Objects in Mind
The Inner History of Devices
Simulation and Its Discontents.

Every year Edge poses its annual question. For 2010 it is this: How has the internet changed the way you think? In her response, Turkle talks about our need to protect a zone of private action and reflection. “To me,” she says, “opening up a conversation about rethinking the Net, privacy, and civil society is not backward-looking nostalgia or Luddite in the least. It seems like part of a healthy process of democracy defining its sacred spaces.”


Jan 032010

In an article for Wired, Uranium is So Last Century, Richard Martin touts the promise of thorium fueled nuclear fission. Unlike uranium, thorium is plentiful in nature and produces a “miniscule” amount of radioactive waste. It is also an effective breeder and lacks the weaponization potential of uranium. The tech­nology is called LFTR — for Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactor — and seems to be fairly well understood. There is a blog called Energy from Thorium, by Kirk Sorensen, which keeps up with the latest news and has useful links and discussion.

LFTR in 16 minutes

Like Polywell fusion, the development of thorium reactors could be funded at a small fraction of the anticipated cost of cap and trade. If we are serious about the threat of carbon-induced warming, then we ought to explore serious energy alter­natives.


Nov 262009

Last week an unknown hacker — or inside whistleblower — distributed on the internet emails and documents apparently taken from the computers of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in England. The CRU and its director, Phil Jones, have been central players in promoting the theory of anthro­pocentric global warming that is endorsed by the IPCC. In conjunction with the Hadley Centre of the U.K. Met Office, they maintain HadCRUTv3, one of the main datasets of global temperature.

By now the purloined files have been disseminated throughout the internet, and have created quite a stir. The original zip file (62 MB) is here; when unzipped it contains about 160 MB of information, with over 1000 emails and 2000 other documents. The blogosphere has primarily focused on the emails, which include exchanges between Phil Jones and many leading climate scientists. There is now a searchable database of the emails and Bishop Hill provides a synopsis of some of the more interesting cases. The other documents — with data, code, and financial records — will probably have a greater impact over the long run. There are questions, for instance, about coding practice — see here. Evidence so far seems to indicate that all of this material is genuine; many recipients have confirmed the accuracy of emails, and as yet nothing has been disputed.

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Oct 212009

Several weeks ago I went on a binge reading about Polywell fusion. The brainchild of Dr. Robert Bussard, Polywell fusion is a variety of inertial electrostatic confinement, a combination of the inertial confine­ment (IFE) and magnetic confine­ment (MFE) ap­proaches to plasma con­tainment. The idea is to use a polyhedron of electromag­netic coils into which electrons are intro­duced. The electrons become concen­trated by the mag­ne­tic and electrical fields at the center of the device, creating a well of electro­static potential that confines the ions for fusion. Advantages claimed for this approach are that it does not release any radioactive byproducts, and that it is highly scalable. One conse­quence of the latter is that the time and expense required for development is considerably less than with, e.g., the Tokamak design. For more information, see the Wikipedia entry on Polywell fusion and the Talk-Polywell discussion forum.

In 2006, Dr. Bussard gave a talk at Google — primarily to solicit funding. This talk is interesting not only as an introduction to the idea of Polywell fusion, but also for Dr. Bussard’s remarks on aspects of the institutional culture of science.

Should Google Go Nuclear?

Low-level funding for Polywell fusion was provided to Dr. Bussard’s company, Energy Matter Conversion Cor­poration, by the Navy from 1992 to 2005. Funding was resumed in 2007, shortly prior to Dr. Bussard’s death. Last month, the Department of Defense announced a contract of $7,855,504 for “validation of basic physics,” to be completed by April, 2011.

We could fund thousands of such ideas for less than the cost of cap and trade.


Oct 152009

In the highly charged debate over climate change, overviews that are both balanced and informative can be hard to find.  Chip Knappenberger’s A Cherry-Picker’s Guide to Temper­ature Trends provides just such an overview of recent temperature trends. Knappenberger first charts all five main data sets*:


He then calculates trends from these data sets — using monthly data and going from September of each year through August 2009 — as simple linear least squares fits. He graphs each trend by starting year, with statistically significant trends (p < 0.05) being indicated by filled circles, and juxtaposes them to the average projected trend of the ensem­ble of climate models:


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Oct 012009

Steve McIntyre of Climate Audit seems to have broken the hockey stick for a second time. In Yamal: A “Divergence” Problem, he asks troubling questions about the Briffa tree ring chro­no­logies used in many recent reconstructions of temper­ature history. Here is Briffa’s response to McIntyre and McIntyre’s reply.


* For those new to this story, Bishop Hill’s The Yamal Implosion may be helpful.

Update, 11/09: Here is a Finnish TV program featuring McIntyre:

Jun 132009

It seems to me that cap and trade, as it is currently formulated, is probably a bad idea. Here are some of my concerns:

1) The benefit, as measured by the extent of the decrease in global warming, seems to be negli­gible. According to a recent analysis by Chip Knappenberger, reduction of U.S. CO2 emissions to 83% below 2005 levels by 2050 — which is the goal of the Waxman-Markey bill — would only reduce global temperature by 0.05° C. Even in the highly unlikely event that the entire world were to follow suit and reduce CO2 emissions by the same amount, the resulting reduction in global temper­ature by 2050 would still be less than 0.5° C. — see here. This analysis assumes the IPCC mid-range or high-range emis­sions scenarios; for low-range scenarios the temper­ature change would be even less. Knappenberger uses the so-called MAGICC simulator (the Model for the Assess­ment of Green­house-gas Induced Climate Change) which you can down­load in order to run the calculations for yourself.

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Mar 292009

An article on Freeman Dyson in The New York Times Magazine this week — The Civil Heretic by Nicholas Dawidoff — prominently featured Dyson’s skepticism about global warming:

IT WAS FOUR YEARS AGO that Dyson … announced that “all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated.” Since then he has only heated up his misgivings, declaring in a 2007 interview with Salon.com that “the fact that the climate is getting warmer doesn’t scare me at all” and writing in an essay for The New York Review of Books … that climate change has be­come an “obsession” — the primary article of faith for “a worldwide secular religion” known as environmentalism. Among those he considers true be­lievers, Dyson has been particularly dismissive of Al Gore … and James Hansen … Dyson accuses them of relying too heavily on computer-generated climate models that foresee a Grand Guignol of imminent world devastation as icecaps melt, oceans rise and storms and plagues sweep the earth, and he blames the pair’s “lousy science” for “distracting public attention” from “more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet.”

This was followed by an interesting column in today’s NYT by John Tierney, Tragedy is not Freeman Dyson’s Business, about the contrast between naturalistic and human­istic perspectives on climate change.  Tierney concludes with: “I find Mr. Dyson’s arguments compelling, but I have a feeling some Lab readers will disagree. Fire away.”

I think Freeman Dyson is a good scientist.  Last summer I sent various friends a link to his NYRB essay, The Question of Global Warming.  But I am somewhat surprised — and this may indicate my own bias — to see the doubts of a leading scien­tist displayed so visibly by the New York Times.  Is this perhaps a concession that the science is not yet settled?  Will we next see a discussion in the Times of, say, Roger J. Pielke, Sr. or the scientists at Climate Audit?  


Mar 172009

I am an admirer of Charles Murray, a good man whose extra­ordinary political cour­age captures what is best in the Quaker tradi­tion. His recent essay, The Europe Syn­drome and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism, makes a case for American ex­cep­tion­alism based upon the idea that the purpose of government is to faci­litate the pursuit of happiness — as understood in the Aristotelian sense:

My argument is drawn from Federalist Paper No. 62, probably written by James Madison: “A good government implies two things: first, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained.” Note the word: happiness. Not prosperity. Not security. Not equality. Happiness, which the Founders used in its Aristotelian sense of lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole.

Murray observes that there are only four “institutions” in society within which human beings can achieve this kind of deep satisfaction: family, community, vocation, and faith.

The stuff of life — the elemental events surrounding birth, death, raising children, fulfilling one’s personal potential, dealing with adversity, intimate relationships — coping with life as it exists around us in all its richness — occurs within those four institutions.

The goal of social policy, according to Murray, should be to ensure the robustness and vitality of these four institu­tions. He argues that the European model of the state does not do this — that despite its material successes, “it is not suited to the way that human beings flourish — it does not conduce to Aristotelian happi­ness.”  

Murray predicts that science in the 21st century will reinforce these observations.  He cites Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience in support of the idea that “social sciences are increasingly going to be shaped by the findings of biology; specifically, the find­ings of the neuroscientists and the geneticists.” 

Finally, Murray suggests that America needs another political Great Awakening, a re­discovery “in the gut” of what is most valuable in life.

There are some big ideas in this essay.  Read it for yourself.


Feb 282009

I found Steven F. Hayward’s All the Leaves are Brown quite absorbing.  It is a review of recent environ­mental writing, covering both tendencies toward authori­tarianism in the green move­ment and some promising new approaches from the left in the writing of Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger, Seymour Garte, Orrin H. Pilkey and Linda Pilkey-Jarvis.


Update, 11/09:  See Nordhaus and Shellenberger at The Breakthrough Institute.

Feb 262009

Peter Smith, of Logic Matters, has noticed a new Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, Set Theory: Constructive and Intuitionistic ZF.  Constructive and intuitionistic set theories result from the rejection of the law of excluded middle, and effectively restrict set theoretical ontology to poten­tially infinite sets:

The shift from classical to intuitionistic logic, as well as the requirement of predicativity, reflects a conflict between the classical and the constructive view of the universe of sets. This also relates to the time-honoured distinction between actual and potential infinity. According to one view often associated to classical set theory, our mathematical activity can be seen as a gradual disclosure of properties of the universe of sets, whose existence is independent of us. This tenet is bound up with the assumed validity of classical logic on that universe. Brouwer abandoned classical logic and embarked on an ambitious programme to renovate the whole mathematical landscape. He denounced that classical logic had wrongly been extrapolated from the mathematics of finite sets, had been made independent from mathematics, and illicitly applied to infinite totalities.

In a constructive context, where the rejection of classical logic meets the requirement of predicativity, the universe is an open concept, a universe “in fieri”. This coheres with the constructive rejection of actual infinity (Dummett 2000, Fletcher 2007). Intuitionism stressed the dependency of mathematical objects on the thinking subject. Following this line of thought, predicativity appears as a natural and fundamental component of the constructive view. If we construct mathematical objects, then resorting to impredicative definitions would produce an undesirable form of circularity. We can thus view the universe of constructive sets as built up in stages by our own mathematical activity and thus open-ended. [SEP]

This article might interest our BA Seminar students, as well as students in Programming Languages who have recently encountered Curry-Howard Isomorphism — the correspondence between intuitionistic logic and CLK.


Feb 102009

One of our most distinguished Senators recently remarked to his colleagues that “the science is screaming at us.”  The behavior of several (climate) scientists this past week certainly seems to lend credence to this obser­vation. Here is an exchange between Michael Mann of the University of Pennsylvania and a Canadian journalist named Lawrence Solomon:

Original Solomon article.

Mann reply.

Solomon response.

A fair summary of the North and Wegman Reports, in my opinion, is given by Steve McIntyre here

A second incident involved the behavior of NASA scientist Gavin Schmidt in regard to Harry, an Antarctic weather station. Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado became embroiled in this controversy and gives his summary here: 

A Formal Response to Gavin Schmidt   (also, see his comment #2).

Original sources on this latter dispute can be found at RealClimate and ClimateAudit.  

Altogether, it was not a great week for civility in science.