Tag Archives: science

Review: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not all three star reviews are the same. Most of the time, 3 stars means “yeah, it was good. I liked it.” The PB&J experience in book form, if you will. Enjoyable, satisfying, but not something you’re going to recommend to someone to impress them (“oh man, let me make lunch for you, I’ll put together this amazing sandwich!”)

However, every once in a while, you’ll get a book that clocks in at three stars that manages to be full of amazing moments, but is tied up with such tangled problems that the three stars is really more of an average between two metrics: 5 stars for content, 1 star for readability.

I started this book on December 22. Completely coincidentally, I finished it on April 22. It . . . is not a long book.

Science books always have to balance two categories: the level of scientific content and the level of their readability to the layperson (someone like me). In the case of “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are” (henceforth referred to as AWSETKHSAA), the science is good, and interesting, and fun . . . but the readability factor is all over the map.

It’s not that this is a difficult book, either. I’ve tried to read books that are basically trying to explain the physics of black holes to PhD students. AWSETKHSAA is . . . I guess the word I would use is “slippery.” Or “wandering.” I would start in on it, read ten or twenty pages, then my attention would meander off.

The author moves from one experiment to another, talking about this or that, various animals and experiments and results and discussions — and it’s interesting, it really is! — but it’s hard to follow him. If you asked me to briefly summarize each chapter of the book I just finished, I’d have a hard time doing it.

And that’s a shame, because there are great moments throughout. I read several sections aloud, both because they were interesting and fun! “In a recognition test, an octopus was exposed to two different persons, one of whom consistently fed it, whereas the other mildly poked it with a bristle on a stick.” How can you not love the mental image of a scientist poking an octopus with a stick FOR SCIENCE!

Ultimately, the question of recommendation comes down to how curious you are about the premise. There is a lot (a lot!) of great work being done in the field of animal cognition. It’s more complex than I personally had imagined and AWSETKHSAA will give you a great crash course in the work that’s being done across a variety of animal species. That said, this is the kind of book you’d seek out if you’re already interested in the topic. If you’re more of a dilettante with your reading habits (as I tend to be), this one might be too unwieldy.

On the other hand, a scientist does poke an octopus with a stick. So, there’s that.

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Review: Lab Girl

Lab GirlLab Girl by Hope Jahren
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Absolutely amazing; the perfect blend of heartfelt, passionate, thoughtful, and scientifically interesting. Although I love trees (having moved to the PNW specifically to be in forests again), I’ve never really thought particularly hard about them, about what they’re doing. Trees are scenery; beautiful scenery, no doubt, but certainly not the most important part of the story, right? Stories are about characters, not backgrounds.

Hope Jahren’s book convinced me how wrong I was to think of trees and plants as mere background. They are active characters engaged in their own lives and their own struggles, and though it doesn’t play out in a timeline that makes sense to most humans, the stories of trees are just as interesting as our own.

Jahren’s book alternates between brief (but fascinating) passages about the lives and science of various plants; how they grow, how they struggle, what they’re doing, and each section is relevant to a bit of the narrative of her own life. Resiliency, love, achievement; each part of Jahren’s own human existence is related and connected to the lives of trees and plants.

This is a hopeful, thoughtful book that invites you into a world you’ve seen every day but likely haven’t stopped to consider. I found myself reading entire passages aloud to my fiancee, eagerly sharing with her the latest fascinating thing I’d just read, even though she’d already agreed to read the book herself when I was finished with my copy. But the feeling of discovery of a new world was so exciting, so marvelous, that I couldn’t help but share whatever I found. In that way, I found myself relating to the author more than I ever thought possible.

If you’re a nature lover, this book deserves to be on your shelf. But even if you’re not, even if you’ve never thought of a tree beyond that time you pressed leaves as a kid in school, let Jahren show you her world. Share her triumphs and obsessions and enjoy her very personal, very deeply moving story of what it’s like to be a woman devoted to science. But most of all, let her show you how interesting it is to think about trees. She and her trees might just surprise you.

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Review: The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe

The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the UniverseThe Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe by Thomas Levenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A surprisingly trim and concise history on the period of time between Le Verrier’s discovery of Neptune and Einstein’s theory of general relativity. In that interim period, a planet named Vulcan was born, lived in the minds of many, and then faded into obscurity before finally being decisively put down by Einstein many years later.

Considering the heavy topics this book covers (Newton’s theories, the discovery of Neptune, Einstein’s work, etc.), you’ll get the feeling that author Thomas Levenson is moving through the subject at warp speed. Compared to “Chasing Venus,” a book by Andrea Wulf about the early efforts to measure the transit of Venus across the sun, the effort to identify a planet between Mercury and the sun seem almost benign in comparison to that other exhaustively detailed effort. And before we’ve even had more than a few moments to consider that observational evidence wasn’t coming in, we’re jumping ahead in history to Einstein and the coup de grace.

Despite all that, it’s a great pop sci book. The existence of hypothetical planets is a fascinating topic on its own (how many people have ever even heard of such a thing as a hypothetical planet, let alone one that orbited the sun closer than Mercury?) and it’s especially relevant given astronomer Mike Brown’s announcement that there is a true ninth planet out beyond Pluto. At the moment, the Ninth Planet exists only on paper and in equations, and this book is an object lesson on all that this means; for while Neptune was discovered via the power of math and logic, so too was Vulcan inferred. Which will the Ninth Planet be? I can’t wait to find out and that’s what makes this book a great read. It’s one thing to go back and look at an interesting bit of scientific history; it’s ever so much more thrilling when you realize that we’re living through our own period of intense astronomical discovery.

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We’re Going To Mars!

I actually can’t believe this story is from four days ago and I haven’t heard anyone talking about it yet: NASA recently unveiled its timeline for the (actual) human exploration of Mars. A permenant human presence on the Red Planet! How is that not awesome?

Here’s the basic timeline: It begins with phasing out the Earth Reliant aspect of space travel, which is where we are now. The International Space Station mission will be winding down in the next few years, which is somewhat sad, but the installation is certainly getting old (it was originally launched in 1998!) and ending the ISS mission will free up NASA’s resources to focus on Mars.

After the Earth Reliant phase ends, NASA will transition to the Deep Space, and, quote, “NASA will send a robotic mission to capture and redirect an asteroid to orbit the moon. Astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft will explore the asteroid in the 2020s, returning to Earth with samples.” Redirecting an asteroid is perhaps the most metal thing I’ve read all month.

And finally, in the 2030s, NASA should be ready to send humans to Mars. We’re really going. The Orion program will take us back to the stars. (Well, figuratively speaking; the actual stars are still a long ways away).

I’m excited. This news is exciting to me and not just because, holy shit, The Martian will only be science-fiction for a few more decades (and then it will just be regular fiction). I’m excited that I’ll (hopefully) be around to see the next great achievements in human exploration. I’m excited because this feels like a real investment in spreading human life beyond our planet, a mission which will hopefully provide us with the means to spread to the rest of our solar system. In short, it’s the future that science fiction has been tantalizing us with. We’re finally going there.

A lot could happen, of course. A complete conservative takeover of the government could see NASA’s budget gutted, which would scrub the mission. But my hope is that the desire to explore the stars transcends ideological barriers. Space exploration has produced some of the country’s greatest heroes. What conservative doesn’t respect the sheer bad-ass-itude of the astronauts of the Apollo program? What progressive doesn’t savor the idea of pushing our scientific understanding to a new limit? There’s so much for us to learn out there!

I hope people start talking about this more. I hope folks get excited. Because the technology is within our reach and will only get closer, so long as we maintain the desire and the collective willpower. In 1969, we went to the moon. Let’s do something cool like that again, and let’s do it together.

Personal aside: I am 100% certain that it’s not an accident this announcement was timed to come after the success of The Martian and the announcement of water being discovered on Mars. Space is cool again!

Quantum Black Magic

Because I write against religion a lot, it’s easy to assume that I’m not religious myself. This is not precisely accurate. It’s true that I don’t go to a church and I don’t believe that a supernatural being is watching me live my life. This naturally leads many people, especially believers, to conclude that I don’t really believe in anything. I don’t often help to dissuade this notion; I even wrote a series of posts about not believing.

The problem is: that’s not particularly accurate. Even in the original post, I still wrote about the things that I do believe in. It is very easy to spend too much time talking about the things that I don’t believe in. Because my view tends towards a minority position in this country, it’s far easier to define myself via opposition to the mainstream. If you’re keeping score at home, yes, I just admitted I have hipster tendencies. I hope you’ll forgive me and continue to read my blog.

I’m finishing up Carl Sagan’s book Contact and I’ve been struck by how, well, religious Sagan’s approach to the galaxy is. It’s a fiction novel, of course, but it’s a fiction novel in the tradition of didactic sci-fi that seems out of vogue these days: you have characters and a plot, but it’s all really just a vehicle for the author to express himself. It’s one of those things that is absolutely terrible when done poorly, but quite interesting if successful. Sagan, I think, pulls it off.

Anyway, I’ve started thinking about how little I express my feelings of wonder and awe, which are the feelings I believe are at the heart of the religious experience. The true believer feels wonder when he or she contemplates whatever deity or tradition makes up his or her respective beliefs. I think it’s that feeling of wonder that separates religions from, say, art (which is not to say that there is no religious art, of course, or any other permutation).

With that in mind, let me show you something that I consider to be an inspiration for awe and wonder. Now, I’ll warn you: the visuals and voice work are pretty cheesy. Some of the explanations are “Physics for Dummies” level. But if you’ve never really thought about quantum physics before, I’ve never see a better video to explain just how close the whole thing is to actual magic. Thinking about this stuff is what fills me with wonder and awe. Quantum physics, the vastness of the universe, the nature of the infinite . . . these are things that create experiences for me that I believe are just as comparable to any other religious experience.

Why does the act of observing change the behavior of a particle? How does the electron “know” that it’s being observed? Why does it sometimes act like a particle and other times like a wave? There are so many questions; how can you not think about these things and marvel at just how much we don’t know?

If there is a deity, I am content with his or her apparent decision to sit back and let the universe run itself. It allows us to figure things out on our own. I think it’s a profound loss if we don’t allow ourselves to wonder at the intricate nature of our universe. If we assume we have all the answers, or worse, that the answers don’t matter because “insert-deity-name here” did it, how many opportunities for wonder have we lost?

Here’s the video. If you watch it, let me know what you think.

Science Is Agnostic When It Comes To Coffee

I understand that reading an article on the Daily Mail means I’m not reading a premier scholarly journal. In fact, I’m prepared to say that I’m probably not even reading facts half the time with this rag. However, I didn’t know it was going to be a Daily Mail article when I clicked the link through Fark and the headline sounded interesting, so I read it anyway. The headline in question is basically that coffee is bad for you and doesn’t really work.

Okay, fine, I understand that it might be bad. Almost everything that’s enjoyable is usually bad for us in some way; life is awesome like that. However, this is why reading an article about health is prone to driving one insane. From the coffee article:

The study, published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, showed that when mice were given high amounts of this compound, the equivalent of drinking five or six cups a day, their bodies struggled to control blood sugar and they developed insulin resistance. They were also less likely to lose weight.

Well, that doesn’t sound good! It sounds like I should stop drinking coffee. But wait. From the same damn article, indeed, the very next paragraph:

However, other research has shown that regular coffee and tea intake reduces the risk of stroke and heart disease, as well as neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s.

Indeed, one large study undertaken by Harvard researchers, and published last year in the journal Circulation, suggested that moderate coffee intake (four cups a day) reduced the risk of heart failure.

Well, shit, I don’t want to have a neurodegenerative disease, either! So now I should drink coffee? The article doesn’t tell us and instead merely notes that research is “conflicted.” Which is it? Tell me what I’m supposed to be doing, science!

I guess I’ll see for myself in forty years or so which study was correct. Can’t wait to find that out.

A Woman On Facebook Loves Science? It’s More Likely Than You Think

This is commentary on old news, but I missed it during its life cycle and I think it’s worth discussing. Do you love science? I love science. In fact, I’m prepared to say that I fucking love science. Based on the popularity of this page and the frequency of its images showing up in my Facebook feed, I’m willing to bet that there are many other people who also love science. That’s a good thing.

Less good is the reaction to the revelation that the “I fucking love science” page is run by *gasp* a woman.

If you read through the comments on that page (and good luck if you try, as of this writing the comments are up to about 1,400), you’ll see that a good number of people are surprised that this page is being run by a woman.

Now, there was something surprising to me about this revelation but it’s not that    the page is being run by a woman. I’m surprised that the page is being run by a single person. When you consider the volume of content that comes from that page, it seems like you’d need a staff of at least a few people. So that’s something noteworthy and if that’s what people were remarking on, there wouldn’t be an issue to discuss in the next few paragraphs.

I’m not going to comment on all the commenting on her physical appearance. I’ve made my case for why I think it’s better to just let those slide despite the sexism there.

However, all the comments that are expressing surprise that a woman is running a science page? That’s something worth commenting on, both because of the sexism inherent in the incredulity and what that incredulity says about our society.

First problem: why are you surprised by this fact? Is it because your assumption is that science-minded folk are male? White? Saying “I can’t believe a woman is running this science page” is the same thing as saying “only a man can run a science page like this” and “women can’t do science or like science or promote science” or whatever. That surprise you’re feeling? That’s the problem.

Second problem: the thing is, the surprise isn’t unjustified despite its sexism. It’s the result of living in a culture where science is still perceived as a boy’s only club. People think of scientists as white males because that’s the majority of people we see as scientists (although this is slowly changing). It’s sort of like how people think of US presidents as white males because, with one exception, that’s who’s been getting the job. We shouldn’t be surprised that’s what the perception is. We should be working to change the circumstances that cause the perception to exist.

The solution should be self-evident: more women involved with science fields and stop being so damned surprised when they do. Don’t be surprised when your daughter says, “I want to study physics.” Say “awesome,” “go for it,” or whatever form of encouragement you deem appropriate.