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.

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).

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

NIH Directory Scares Me

President Obama nominated a new director for the NIH. Dr. Francis Collins. He comes with wonderful credentials and some troubling beliefs. Dr Collins is noted for his landmark discoveries of disease genes, and his leadership of the Human Genome Project (HGP). Much has been made of Collins’ oft-stated belief in evolution but, an op-ed in the New York Times gives a very different picture. Sam Harris, best-selling author of The End of Faith quotes from a series of slides Collins used in a lecture on science and belief at UC Berkeley. Slide 2: "God's plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most especially, that creative plan included human beings."

OMG. To quote Bob Park: "There is no plan! That is the beauty of Darwinian evolution!" No plan is needed.

Collins is a geneticist who has recently made his name by offering himself up as living proof that a rational person can also believe in God with his 2006 book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief which made him a celebrity in “faith versus reason” circles.

Admittedly I have reservations about a director of the NIH that believes in a divine plan. Such a hypothetical plan would not lend itself to research initiatives that question that plan. However, there is no hard evidence that Collins will be inclined to back away from research that other "born agains" would oppose, but the danger is there considering Collins' high profile in religious circles. It is just that I agree with Sam Harris on this point: "...few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion."