Reacting to the State of the Union

The President’s State of the Union address [StateOfTheUnionEarly] was pretty boilerplate, at least for this President. He emphasized all the things we expect him to these days: war on terrror, exporting democracy, domestic security, etc. There were a few notable things that jumped out at me as a scientist, and I’ll comment on them.

The first was the mention of fighting AIDS, malaria, and poor education in impoverished nations. I know that many people have been unhappy in the ways that the President chooses to fight these things (promoting abstinence over education when fighting AIDS, for instance), but at least it gets mention when he talks about our global interests. Certainly an excellent way to fight the roots of terrorism while natually promoting the core principles of America is to eradicate crippling disease and eliminate ignorance about language, science, and civics.

The things that jumped out at me the most were the “American Competativeness Initiative” and the way in which the President attempted to define scientific ethics with religion. These two messages, when mixed, are very confusing.

The President proposed several bold ideas to maintain U.S. leadership:

* Double physical sciences basic research budget over next 10 years

* Make permanent the Federal R&D tax credit that allows companies to make long-term, risky investments in research

* Get more qualified teachers into K-12 math and science, including AP courses

These are all basically a repackaging of ideas promoted by the National Academy of Science’s “Rising Above The Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future”:http://www.nap.edu/catalog/11463.html, and two other proposals, one non-partisan [NationalSummit] and one by Democrats [InnovationAgenda]. However, it’s clear that the urging of the President’s own party [AIPFYI200613] has not fallen on deaf ears. There is already bipartisan Congressional sentiment to make this initiative happen, and I am very glad to see the President highlight this proposal in his budget request. While it’s better in the long term for science budgets to achieve steady, slow growth, starting with a doubling isn’t all bad.

Said the President:

First: I propose to double the federal commitment to the most critical basic research programs in the physical sciences over the next 10 years. This funding will support the work of America’s most creative minds as they explore promising areas such as nanotechnology, supercomputing, and alternative energy sources.

Second: I propose to make permanent the research and development tax credit, to encourage bolder private-sector investment in technology. With more research in both the public and private sectors, we will improve our quality of life – and ensure that America will lead the world in opportunity and innovation for decades to come.

Third: We need to encourage children to take more math and science, and make sure those courses are rigorous enough to compete with other nations. We have made a good start in the early grades with the No Child Left Behind Act, which is raising standards and lifting test scores across our country. Tonight I propose to train 70,000 high school teachers, to lead advanced-placement courses in math and science . . . bring 30,000 math and science professionals to teach in classrooms . . . and give early help to students who struggle with math, so they have a better chance at good, high-wage jobs. If we ensure that America’s children succeed in life, they will ensure that America succeeds in the world.” (Text from copy prior to actual speech)

To contrast with this optimistic proposal, I was troubled by a later admonishment the President gave regarding biological research, centering on ethics and referring to stem cells.

A hopeful society has institutions of science and medicine that do not cut ethical corners, and that recognize the matchless value of every life. Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research – human cloning in all its forms . . . creating or implanting embryos for experiments . . . creating human-animal hybrids . . . and buying, selling, or patenting human embryos. Human life is a gift from our creator – and that gift should never be discarded, devalued, or put up for sale.

So in one breath, the President calls for a huge investment in basic research, the kind of curiosity driven research that answers both the deepest and the quirkiest questions. In the next breath, the President defines a Christian ethics that must guide science and medicine and calls on Congress to pass laws to restrict how science can make breakthroughs. I wouldn’t mind this if he’d been more specific: for instance, if he’d specifically noted that researchers involved in the science should be barred legally from donating their own embryos, as that creates a deep ethical quandry as to whether coercion was involved. However, he was dangerously vague – “creating or implanting embryos for experiment” bars all research on human embryos, and does so because “Human life is a gift from our creator”.

I can think of many ethical principles that guide scientists when they work on the forefront of human health research, including Christian philosophy. However, to stand there and dictate that all legislation defining scientific ethics stems from a perspective wherein a creator endows us with a special place in the universe is a dangerous painting of science with religion. Not only that, but in one swoop the President reiterates the non-scientific claim that human life is the same whether it’s fully formed or an embryo. He couples religious beliefs with gaps in scientific understanding, and forms a policy from this shaky combination. It’s just these kinds of statements from a public policymaker that sow clashes in science and religion that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.


.. [StateOfTheUnionEarly] “http://edition.cnn.com/2006/POLITICS/01/31/sotu.transcript/”:http://edition.cnn.com/2006/POLITICS/01/31/sotu.transcript/

.. [NationalSummit] “The National Summit on Competativeness: Investing in U.S. Innovation”

.. [InnovationAgenda] “The Innovation Agenda: A Commitment to Competativeness to Keep America #1”

.. [AIPFYI200613] “http://www.aip.org/fyi/2006/013.html”:http://www.aip.org/fyi/2006/013.html

When Hypotheses Collide

Toward the late afternoon, I left my office and went down to Stanford’s main campus from SLAC. I had been at SLAC since 7:30 that morning, with a morning spent in meetings and my afternoon spent doing actual, honest-to-God research. Jodi’s book club met tonight, so I decided to just go to Stanford early and work from her office until she was ready to leave.

When I showed up, Jodi printed off a document, handed it to me quietly, and went back to her work. The article she printed appeared online in The New Scientist, and was entitled “Gravity theory dispenses with dark matter”:http://www.newscientistspace.com/article.ns?id=dn8631. I sighed. Such sensationalist headlines were sure to hide the facts, and I decided to read the short article and see what the *real* story was.

Here’s the gist. A suite of independent observations suggest that there is something that affects our original view that the universe is made or ordinary matter, and that its large structure is due to Newtonian/Einsteinian gravity (that is, good old 1/r^2 for the dependence ofthe gravitational force on distance at large distances). If you hypothesize that there is a *dark matter* component to the universe, something particulate in nature but not a component of ordinary matter, you made progress. If dark matter is gravitationally attracted to ordinary matter, this explains galactic rotation velocities. Dark matter would affect gravitational lensing, by lensing more light than ordinary matter itself can – this is born out by observation. Dark matter would play a critical role in the formation of structure in the very early universe – within the first 300,000 years. Observations of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) by such satellite-based experiments as COBE and WMAP demonstrate that the fine structure of the CMB is **extremely** well explained by a dark matter component to the universe, making up about 25% of the energy of the universe.

There are hypotheses that have been proposed that don’t require dark matter to explain the galactic rotation. MOND (Modified Newtonian Dynamics) is one such hypothesis, wherein gravity’s strength is modified when the acceleration is very, very small. This is successful in explaining the rotation curves of a limited number of galaxies. It fails, however, to explain the masses of clusters of galaxies. Therefore, that makes it less likely that it’s a correct description of Nature. Dark matter, however, passes this particular test.

Other ideas have been proposed. One among them is scalar-tensor-vector gravity (STVG) [gr-qc/0506021], wherein there are space- and time-varying scalar, tensor, and vector fields are able to generate effects that can explain some of the above observations. It has yet to demonstrate that it can explain the structure formation in the CMB, and this is apparently what the authors are intending to study next.

MOND, STVG, etc. are somewhat unsatisfying hypotheses because instead of being a mathematically rigorous framework, they are models. That is, they are mathematics built on top of observations, with their parameters fixed from existing data rather than bootstrapped from within the mathematical framework itself. The difference between a model and a mathematical theory is that a theory gives some clues as to “why”, where are a model simply describes “what is” with few, if any, statements about “why”. In the above examples, gravity is allowed to have a bunch of extra components, but no explanation is provided as to why this is allowed in Nature. The particle hypotheses is a bit more elegant in that everything we’ve ever observed as a fundamental component of Nature is a particle. It’s natural, then, to hypothesize that a particle is responsible for the observations of galaxies, the CMB, etc.

Now, arguements about who’s more natural or rigorous really all must bow to data. So far, the particle (dark matter) hypothesis has withstood all data, whereas MOND is not broadly applicable and STVG has to pass the most precise test: the CMB. What bothers me about the “The New Scientist” article is that the title suggests that just because STVG can describe a bit more than MOND, it’s giving the particle hypothesis a run for its money. It also implies that we should somehow abandon the particle hypothesis in favor of STVG.

The scientific thing to do is to follow the evidence to wherever it leads. Experiments now running, and soon to start running, will all test aspects of the dark matter particle hypothesis. The experiment Jodi works on, CDMS-II, is a direct test of the particle hypothesis which looks for galactic dark matter to collide with the CDMS detector. THe Fermilab Tevatron, and soon the Large Hadron Collider, directly search for the dark matter particle or particles by trying to produce them from proton collisions at tremendous energy. Even BaBar and Belle have something to say about dark matter – if it’s the result of supersymmetry, then precision measurements from the B-factories will constrain many parameters of that hypothesis.

MOND, STVG, and other non-particle theories have a lot of work to do. What’s more, they need to make predictions that would provide one answer for an observation, whereas the dark matter hypothesis would provide a different answer. Only by looking for questions that are differently addressed by these frameworks can we hope to narrow in on the real scientific theory that explains Nature, and weed out the dead-ends.


.. [gr-qc/0506021] “http://arxiv.org/abs/gr-qc?papernum=0506021”:http://arxiv.org/abs/gr-qc?papernum=0506021

Overheard at Dinner

This was a tiring weekend. Saturday was the day of the planning meeting for the annual SLAC and Fermilab Users’ trip to Washington D.C. I have a leadership role in the trip this year, and I got only about 10 hours of sleep between Thursday and Saturday. This trip is critical, and we all want to make certain that it’s well-organized and executed, to have maximal impact on the opinion Congress has about science and high-energy and astrophysics.

Jodi returned from the Soudan Mine yesterday, and was also exhausted after her 10 hours of travel needed to get home. We decided to eat out last night, and wanted something a little lighter. Sushi was on the menu, so we headed to Akasaka in Menlo Park for a nice meal.

Dinner was great, as usual. However, the two people at the table next to us made dinner particularly interesting. The woman and the man were discussing science, faith, and presumeably intelligent design. She was arguing that science was just another religion, while he was trying to demonstrate that it isn’t. Among her many arguments were the classics: science has things that you just have to accept, and science can’t really explain the past because people weren’t there in the past.

These kinds of discussions always make me think about whether this is really true. Is science just another religion? What distinguishes religions is faith, faith that certain things are true or happened. They require no proof, and in fact tend to deny or defy proof. For instance, the existence of a god or gods, the tripartite nature of the Christian God, and the existence of purpose in human life are all things which really can’t be addressed with facts or evidence. You accept them, and from them draw a kind of guidance for your life.

What about science? Science makes claims, just like religion. What distinguishes science from religion is that science **demands** evidence. Claims – hypotheses – must be subjectable to experimental tests. If they cannot be so subjected, they are tossed aside from science because no progress can be made from them. Science is a method, a process, to drawing connections between seemingly disparate effects in the natural world. Without proof, you cannot make progress in science. That’s also fundamentally why there really cannot be a contradiction between religion and science.

As to the woman’s claims about knowledge, such as knowledge of the past, the man tried his best to explain. I think his arguments were good, but she was not to be swayed. She made the argument that we cannot *know* the past, since we were not there. In fact, we are never really certain of the past. However, if we have a theory that describes the past, such as the big bang theory, we can ask it to make predictions about what the universe should be like now. The Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation is such an example – the big bang didn’t have to be right, but it predicted this energy field and, in fact, such a field was discovered after the prediction was made.

If you carry the woman’s claims to their conclusion, then of course we can never make progress. What if God created us all 20 seconds ago, and placed the illusion of memory in our heads? You can’t prove or disprove it, so it’s not science – but this is basically where her arguments lead. If she denies prediction and experiment as a means to make sense of the past, she opens the door to all kinds of crazy philosophical arguments that cannot lead to understanding about the natural world.

Jodi was about to burst throughout this whole conversation. We don’t spy on people at dinner, but this conversation was so appealing to our brains that we couldn’t prevent our ears from listening. It was a blessing when the waitress finally brought the bill, because one or both of us were about to jump in and help this guy out.

That conversation was a stark contrast to one I had a few nights ago with some colleagues of mine over another dinner. This was a deep and intellectual discussion of faith and science. One of my friends said that science and its discoveries only serve to daily affirm his deep love for Jesus Christ, and constantly reaffirm his devotion to his beliefs and his love for the meaning of Biblical scripture. When people out there call all scientists godless atheists, they are not only insulting the diverse science community, but also their own religious siblings, many of whom are lovers of God’s word and his work.

I’m vastly more spiritual than religious, but I too entered into this study as a means to better understand the mind of God. I don’t know whether there is or isn’t such a mind, or even such a being, but what I do know is that the universe is beautiful and ordered, simple and yet diverse, and I am humble and proud to be able to contemplate it.

Vatican’s Game of Tennis Resumes

Over the past year, the Vatican has demonstrated a remarkable inability to keep its message straight. In a way, this is a refreshing contrast to the current monomanical executive branch of the U.S.. It’s clear that when it comes to evolution and science, the Vatican is capable of expressing not only a variety of opinions from all levels of its hierarchy, but also demonstrating an often hit-and-miss understanding of science.

Today is the next volley is in the ongoing tennis match that is the Vatican’s public opinion on the teaching of evolution and evolution as a means of achieving an understanding of the universe. The Vatican’s official newspaper contained an article which expressed support not only for evolution as science, but for the recent Dover, PA court ruling that set the record straight on the teaching of non-science in the science classroom [NYT20060118].

The article was written by Fiorenzo Facchini, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Bologna, in the most recent edition of the paper, L’Osservatore Romano. The New York Times article has a few reassuring quotes:

“…it is not correct from a methodological point of view to stray from the field of science while pretending to do science,” he wrote, calling intelligent design unscientific. “It only creates confusion between the scientific plane and those that are philosophical or religious.”

This is an excellent and short way of describing the underlying problem. I couldn’t hope to put it better. While *L’Osservatore Romano* is not the letter of official church policy, it is apparently understood that it basically represents the Church’s views. As the NYT article also points out, this is the latest in a developing series of somewhat contradictory opinions from all levels of the Church [TAOMPH192].


.. [NYT20060118] “In Design vs. Darwinism, Darwin Wins Point in Rome, New York Times, Jan. 18, 2006”:http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/19/science/sciencespecial2/19evolution.html?ex=1295326800&en=62dc61eb5d27673d&ei=5089&partner=rssyahoo&emc=rss

.. [TAOMPH192] http://steve.cooleysekula.net/blog/?p=706