Science & Society

Science and Society and how they get along.

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Location: Santa Barbara, California, United States

I'm a physicist and science consultant specialized in optics, lasers and optical engineering. This blog, StarkFX, looks at what applications physics is finding today. Or, if you are looking at my StarkEffects blog, it displays my views about and interest in the interface between society and science.

Monday, June 14, 2010

MOJO in a Wristband

I was walking through a mall this weekend and saw a cute little kiosk with a pretty little sales clerk. Of course, I had to read the sign. I assumed it was a simple jewelry kiosk, some fasion trend I hadn't seen before. But, no. This kiosk claimed the ability to immediately improve my balance, strength and energy just by putting a wristband on my arm. Being "just a little skeptical" I walked up to the kiosk to get the pitch. She explained that the wristbands had a special hologram embedded into them that "worked with my body's natural frequencies" to improve blood flow, my energy, balance and strength. Wow! Who could possibly believe such nonsense. Oh wait, maybe the people that just wouldn't believe in the magical powers of magnets will fall for this instead (more likely the same people would fall for both).

This tendency for people to simply accept that something they don't really understand, like holograms, will have some power that borders on magical is mind boggling to me. I would be better off just accepting that people will believe magical claims to any or all of the "mysteries" I studied in quantum physics classes, electro-optics courses or even just religious history courses and I could make a fortune selling all this magic.... if only I had no conscience.

T. Troy Stark

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Gaians Vs Medeans

Peter D. Ward has a new book in stores "The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive?" (Princeton University Press, 2009). Ward is a rare polymath but is usually referred to as a paleontologist. In his new book he presents the Medea hypothesis (named after the murderous mother in greek mythology) which is in direct contrast to the Gaia hypothesis put forth by scientist and futurist James Lovelock, which asserts that life constantly adjusts Earth's control systems to keep the planet in a habitable homeostasis.

Ward claims that most mass extinctions were caused by microorganisms rather than asteroids or comets. According to Ward, when Earth warms up enough that there is a reduced temperature differential between the poles and the tropic, we lose the driver behind ocean mixing. Without mixing, only the uppermost layer of the ocean remains oxygenated, and anaerobic bacteria that producing poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas thrive. The levels of hydrogen sulfide in the atmosphere eventually become lethal poisoning living creatures and shredding the ozone layer. "This is life killing itself off," Ward says.

Carbon dioxide, the cause of this catastrophic warming, has been supplied by volcanic floods that churned out enough CO2 to shut down ocean mixing. But thanks to the actions of humankind, the delicate balance that keeps Earth habitable is once again in danger. "All you need is enough [warming] to reduce the temperature difference between the poles and the equator, and the whole system goes down," Ward says.

Volcanic floods were better than we are at putting out the carbon dioxide (and they'll likely prove quite proficient at it again sometime in the future). Experts set 350 parts per million as the maximum acceptable level for atmospheric CO2 while we are already at 390ppm. Geologic events that wiped out life in the past raised the levels to 1,000 ppm. Of course, we are slower, but still effective since things are likely to get very ugly for human life along the way even at our slow pace. Most of us are unlikely to see the near complete anihilation of life by the hydrogen sulfide producing micro-organisms. Instead we will see the more near term and obviously anthropomorphic misery such as displacement, war and famine unless we can learn to cooperate on a global scale with common goals. If we do survive our own political self destructive behaviors and attitudes we will still have to deal with the loss of arable land and the rising sea changing the world's maps, but we will probably have air to breathe.

It is fairly clear to me that the earth's feedback systems do self-adjust to some extent, but extreme Gaianism is nonsense. Unless, you consider that the earth's systems are doing just fine even if one of the adjustments was to eliminate us. It is also fairly clear that living systems do tend to cycle with a self destructive phase as part of that cycle. Again, when the cycle starts over something thrives, even if we aren't there to observe.

Are there any real solutions: Probably not, but there are things that will make life better while it lasts. Nuclear energy production (fusion, if possible, but there are difficult waste issues in either type of nuclear power production), efficient solar energy, better use of microbes to produce food and fuel are a few potential improvements. All of these are currently untenable technologies. Hope is the driver that will make these technologies a reality. Sharing scientific know-how and cooperative research just might make them possible.

If we are complete Medeans and we don't have long term hope for improving this world, we won't do anything. If we are complete Gaians and expect the world will just take care of us, we won't do anything. We only remember the people who did something.

Troy Stark

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

What Qualifies as Medicine?

Debates about the proposed Health Reform bill usually center on the costs or savings anticipated. sometimes they center on the expected changes in performance of the medical community. But Sen. Tom Harkin (D, Iowa) added a provision to ensure that alternative medicine providers get their share. Why do we even have to consider this? If a medical procedure can be shown to be effective it won't be "alternative" anymore. Sen. Harkin is the guy who forced Harold Varmus to resign as head of NIH by creating the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). That institution has done at least one thing to aid medicine: They have done a good job of using rigorous placebo-controlled double-blind studies to prove the total lack of efficacy for a long list of herbal "cures". Why don't we just use taxpayer's money to support Kevin Trudeau and his "Cures They Don't Want You to Know About". Oh wait, we did support that millionaire for a while -we gave him room and board and then made sure he couldn't sell actual cures -just the information.

T. Troy Stark

Friday, December 11, 2009

God Believes What You Believe.

The study of psychology can reveal a lot about us. It often gives us a mirror to help us realize what we are doing from the point of view of others. It can also show us the faults in our own thinking, something god is unlikely to do according to this new study.

" News Office Homepage:
Study: Believers’ inferences about God’s beliefs are uniquely egocentricNovember 30, 2009
Religious people tend to use their own beliefs as a guide in thinking about what God believes, but are less constrained when reasoning about other people’s beliefs, according to new study published in the Nov. 30 early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Nicholas Epley, professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, led the research, which included a series of survey and neuroimaging studies to examine the extent to which people’s own beliefs guide their predictions about God’s beliefs. The findings of Epley and his co-authors at Australia’s Monash University and UChicago extend existing work in psychology showing that people are often egocentric when they infer other people’s beliefs.
The PNAS paper reports the results of seven separate studies. The first four include surveys of Boston rail commuters, UChicago undergraduate students and a nationally representative database of online respondents in the United States. In these surveys, participants reported their own belief about an issue and their estimation of God’s belief, along with their assessment of beliefs held by others, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Major League Baseball’s Barry Bonds, President George W. Bush, and an average American.
Two other studies directly manipulated people’s own beliefs and found that inferences about God’s beliefs tracked their own beliefs. Study participants were asked, for example, to write and deliver a speech that supported or opposed the death penalty in front of a video camera – an exercise known to affect people’s reported beliefs. Their beliefs were surveyed both before and after the speech.
The final study involved functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure the neural activity of test subjects as they reasoned about their own beliefs versus those of God or another person. The data demonstrated that reasoning about God’s beliefs activated many of the same regions that become active when people reasoned about their own beliefs.
The researchers noted that people often set their moral compasses according to what they presume to be God’s standards. “The central feature of a compass, however, is that it points north no matter what direction a person is facing,” they conclude. “This research suggests that, unlike an actual compass, inferences about God’s beliefs may instead point people further in whatever direction they are already facing.”
But the research in no way denies the possibility that God’s presumed beliefs also may provide guidance in situations where people are uncertain of their own beliefs, the co-authors noted.
Citation: “Believers’ estimates of God’s beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people’s beliefs,” Nov. 30, 2009, early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, by Nicholas Epley, Benjamin A. Converse, Alexa Delbosc, George A. Monteleone and John T. Cacioppo.”
Funding: University of Chicago Booth School of Business, the Templeton Foundation, and the National Science Foundation."

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Sunday, December 06, 2009

Full Potential

I'm absolutely amazed at how many people still argue that intelligence is not a valid description of human behavior. Anyone with more than a dozen acquaintances can tell you which of them are the more intelligent. On first meeting someone, most of us quickly evaluate their intelligence, so I'd be very surprised if intelligence is not something that can be objectively measured, with at least as much accuracy and meaning as how good looking someone is. (OK, I actually think IQ can be evaluated a bit more objectively.)

It has been my experience that neither social background nor education has any real impact on intelligence. One's occupation does not seem to predict their intelligence either, though performance in any occupation does. Of course, how long a particular occupation will retain someone of high IQ definitely depends on how interesting that person finds the work and that is quite unpredictable. And, some occupations will be quite limiting for someone without a high enough IQ to perform. For example, you don't find many theoretical physicists with an IQ below 120 though they do come in a wide range of social skill.

Since education, social class and most other environmental factors seem not to have any real effect on IQ, an assertion based only on personal experience, it seems quite reasonable to look for genetic markers. And, since no race is excluded from producing brilliant people those genetic markers must be more basic to humans than are the markers for race. I think the search for such genes is well worth the effort. Note however, that being born with particular traits cannot be blamed entirely on genes. It seems that a great deal of what we are born with is a matter of chance. I'm not even implying environment during development, but rather just chance. I suspect you are born with a particular IQ or g for the same reasons you are born with particular fingerprints.

If I'm right, then a more important question is how to educate people so that we, and they, get the most from what they are born with. I think "no child left behind" should be replaced with "no child's potential left underdeveloped".

-Troy Stark

Monday, November 16, 2009

Intimidated by Experts!

Activity in some of your more important brain regions such as the anterior cingulate, a part of the prefrontal cortex involved in critical analysis of what you see and hear, is suppressed at exactly the time that it needs to be engaged. Brain imaging research shows that the areas of your brain that you rely on to “watch for mistakes” are calmed down by the voice of authority. When we perceive someone to be an expert or an authority our defenses against nonsense are lowered. We are much less critical of the advice we receive when it comes from someone we classify as an expert.

Such an automatic obedience response may serve a good purpose in situations where the authority has our best interest in mind but, that doesn’t happen often. Many, if not most, of the interactions we engage in involve authority figures experts. These people advise us on financial matters, fashions, relationships, careers and religious views. A great many of these people we see as experts for no other reason than they told us so. Yet, that is enough for us to dispense with the critical analysis of what they tell us and we end up doing silly things like pouring our money into mutual funds controlled by experts, listening to the critics about movies, taking the advice of political experts and even buying that product you saw on late night TV because the “scientific expert” told you all the benefits.
The reality is our society depends on experts. Unfortunately, the light side of that reality is that experts are less reliable than random chance when it comes to decisions we need to make. Just compare several years of any mutual fund to the S&P 500 or any predictions of political experts or futurists and you’ll see that a blind fold and a dart board would have done better. And, of course, there is the dark side where people masquerade as experts simply because we are more likely to buy what they are selling when they do.

Evidence based decision making is the only way around this problem. Scientific methods absolutely depend on real evidence, but you can’t assume the scientist (expert) really looked at the evidence until you analyze it yourself. Take into account what the experts, authorities and “leaders” tell you, but then wake up and put forth the effort critically analyze what you hear. Such reasoning is not easy and the majority of people in any society will never do it, but that doesn’t have to be you. Question authority. Reason about statements you hear and follow them to their logical consequences. Think –it isn’t illegal yet.

Troy Stark

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Positive Thinking and the Self Development Industry

I recently read a short book that laid out a more scientific approach to success than I have seen before. The book was Gladwell's "Outliers: The Story of Success". The thesis of the book is that we have been lied to about what creates success and that there is more chance and timing (timing we simply can't control) than we are ever led to believe. Invariably, the stories we hear about success emphasize the character of the person that achieved that success with a suggestion that we will be that successful too, just as soon as we conquer ourselves, but the truth is that success, and I mean really big success, depends on being the right age to accomplish something when the once in history situation arises. Simply put: you must be in the right place at the right time with the right set of skills and you had no way of knowing how to make that happen in advance.

Books on self development have predominently focused on a positive mental attitude telling you "You can achieve anything you believe strongly enough in." These have lead to some absolute nonsense like "The Secret" and others (I love the ones that claim a basis in Quantum Mechanics) proposing the view that you will recieve back from the infinite universe whatever you send by your thoughts to be amplified by that universe. Of course, if you fail, it is your fault for not having the right attitude -you must have held some doubt all along.

Well, reality is what it is and I'm afraid the PMA nonsense leads to the kind of "irrational exuberance" and "pathological hope" that characterises anyone that believes that reality depends on their thoughts (solopsists) and inconvenient physical truths can be overcome by the right attitude or belief -like those with schizophrenia or religious ferver. This PMA stuff also leads to real depression when you must blame yourself for all the failure that you have experienced and all the failure you will experience.

So, I'm going to give you the truth about success as succinctly as I can: If you are going to try to accomplish anything worth accomplishing you are going to fail. You are going to fail more times than you will succeed. Don't "blame" yourself for this, it is simply the way life is. You must make mistakes to learn and you must expect failures on your path. If you are ever going to succeed, you will simply have to learn to adjust and then keep trying. Perseverence is a necessity here. And there is a good use for PMA when it is done right. Your thoughts don't change the universe until you act on those thoughts -and your attitude is nothing more than how you deal with all the failures and struggles. The proper attitude puts things in proper perspective -you expect failure and you intend to keep adapting and trying until you learn how to accomplish your goal. Persistence will overcome many obstacles. Your attitude is a question of how you decide to feel about the things that happen. Oh, here is another important point. It isn't all about chance and timing either, as even Gladwell's book acknowledges that those who succeed are those that put in the time and effort to be ready when chance drops by. If you are not trying to do anything then no opportunity will ever show up. You must have put in the time and effort to develop your skills before opportunity will come along. Which skills you develop should depend on what you actually enjoy doing since there is no way to know in advance what the opportunity is going to look like and I guarantee that hindsight will show you that you developed the wrong skills for most of the opportunities that happen along, but that isn't the point. The point is that you enjoyed developing yourself.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Science & Tech priorities are set by the new admin.

Peter R. Orszag, Director of the Office of Management and Budget and John P. Holdren, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, released a joint memo on August 4th outlining the establishment of scientific priorities for the FY2011 budget.

In the memorandum scientific discovery and innovation are described as, “major engines for increasing productivity, promoting economic growth, safeguarding the environment, improving the health of the population and safeguarding our national security.”

Agencies are asked to redirect resources from, “lower-priority areas,” to scientific and technological activities that are designed to meet four identifiable,“practical challenges,” to administration priorities. Those challenges are described in the memorandum as follows:

  1. ·Applying science and technology strategies to drive economic recovery, job creation, and economic growth;

  2. ·Promoting innovative energy technologies to reduce dependence on energy imports and mitigate the impact of climate-change while creating green jobs and new businesses;

  3. ·Applying biomedical science and information technology to help Americans live longer, healthier lives while reducing health care costs;

  4. ·Assuring we have the technologies needed to protect our troops, citizens, and national interests, including those needed to verify arms control and nonproliferation agreements essential to our security

There are four strategic goals outlined to help public agencies meet the requirements:

  1. ·Increasing the productivity of our research institutions, including our research universities and major public and private laboratories and research centers;

  2. ·Strengthening science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education at every level, from pre-college to post-graduate to lifelong learning;

  3. ·Improving and protecting our information, communication, and transportation infrastructure, which is essential to our commerce, science, and security alike; and

  4. ·Enhancing our capabilities in space, which are essential for communications, geopositioning, intelligence gathering, Earth observation, and national defense, as well as for increasing our understanding of the universe and our place in it.

Agencies are to describe the expected outcomes of their budget proposals, ensure transparency in their requests and provide, “quantitative metrics,” where at all possible to support their proposals. It further directs federal agencies to clearly illustrate how federal, “science and technology investments contribute to increased economic productivity and progress,” and how these goals and initiatives outlined in the memo are conducted with the, “highest standards of ethical and scientific integrity.”

I'm looking forward to reading some of these proposals, especially the parts illustrating how science and tech investments contribute to increased economic productivity. I think it is very important that the public become aware of how much we depend on science, and also what we can expect science to contribute in the future. I wonder if there is anyway that the media can make scientists as exciting as they made lawyers in the last decade?

T. Troy Stark

Friday, August 14, 2009

Google remembered his B-Day, Hans Christian Ørsted

Hans Christian Øersted: Danish physicist's birthday is being celebrated with a Google Doodle. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

So, here is the question: Does a Google Doodle bring a science issue up to the status of having a real effect on society?

Of course it does. When google deems someone's birthday worthy of note on their home page, that gets noticed and brings even long forgotten scientists into today's coffee shop topics.

If you are a real physics geek like me, then you already know who Hans Christian Ørsted is. Google's Doodle logo is an illustration of his key discovery: If you run a current through a wire, the electricity creates a magnetic field, which deflects a compass needle. In Ørsted's time there was no field of study called electromagnetics. Now, every physics grad student suffers at least two years of hard calculations using Green's functions and geometry and even special relativity to do E/M experiments on paper or in the computer that would be impossible to do on your table top.

Hans Christian Ørsted discovered E/M just that way -on a table top. Like many discoveries, this one was an accident. But, again like many discoveries this accident happened because somebody was working in the lab fiddling with things he didn't fully understand. That's the life!.

Ørsted's discovery led to a great deal of modern life -electro-magnets, electric generators, transformers and even the mag strip on your credit card.

In 1820, Ørsted was a professor of natural philosophy at the University of Copenhagen. While preparing an evening lecture, he noticed that a compass needle moved away from magnetic north and pointed to the wire whenever current flowed from the battery. With enough playing around, he discovered that it pointed the opposite direction when the battery was reversed.

All of this made quite a stir in society at the time. Invisible currents affecting objects at some distance away with no visible connection between them. It created a whole new world for spiritulists eventually leading to today's proponents of "The Secret", but that is anothe story. In London, the Royal Society gave him a medal, and he was also made a knight of the Prussian Order of Merit, of the French Legion of Honor, and the Danish Order of the Dannebrog. On his death in Copenhagen in 1851, he was given a state funeral.

To honour Ørsted, the scientific community named the unit of magnetic induction after him, in what what is known as the CGS system of units. Of course, only a real physics geek would even know of the cgs system (very suitable for E/M calculations, since it uses a very natural set of constants) but most grad students in physics have done calculations in this system.

I'm thrilled to see that Google remembered his Birthday! (I know I forgot).