Debate about Evolution

I am shocked. Sickened and shocked. If you have a connection to the internet, or a TV, listen to the report on tonights “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer” (“http://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/index.html”:http://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/index.html) . This report by the News Hour’s science team has detailed interviews with students in rural America, proponents of Christian creationism and its pseudoscientific spinoff, intelligent design, and real scientists. I’ll put a link to the archived audio when it appears later.

I was first turned **green** by the audio clips of students. Kids who really believe that it’s easier to think humans were made from dust; easier to believe that we appeared fully formed 10,000 years ago; that the concept that the universe was created in a Big Bang is hard to swallow, but some unknowable all knowing prime-mover is more believable.

I guess what struck me most is that they kept using the work “believe” or “belief”. And that’s exactly what their misguided standpoint is: a pure belief, contradicting established facts about the origin and nature of this universe and our own species. The truth is that they are confusing belief with rigorous scientific investigation. For instance, I doubt that Hopi tribe native Americans believe that Man was created 10,000 years ago; I doubt that the ancient Chinese saw Adam and Eve as the first people, made from dust (or a rib); I doubt that the native inhabitants of Africa thought that humans inhabited a garden and were kicked out for listening to a snake. In fact, that’s just it: beliefs are different for all people at all times.

However, fact and truth are universal. Science provides a framework for eeking the truth out of the universe. It’s a fact that no matter where you come from or who you are, when empowered with the scientific method you can search for evidence of the creation of humans only 10,000 years ago in their present state; you can test the hypothesis that we were the first inhabitants of Earth (or nearly so, by a few days); you can test whether or not the universe is steady or expanding, whether it is consistent with creation 10,000 years ago or with a big bang that happened 13.7 billion years ago. People from all cultures and climates, all beliefs and faiths, can apply their brains to the universe and come up with the same answers as scientists in the 1700s, or 1800s, or 1900s.

That’s the point, I guess. Belief is not universal. Belief changes with the experience of a person, the character of their upbringing, their exposure to systems of faith. Fact and truth are universal.

The truth and fact of evolution is not in dispute, at least not by the largest majority of learned people who take the time to study the world and not just talk about it. The processes that select some traits in an environment, and suppress others, are well established from the smallest cells to the largest predators. The development of our own solar system is a result of a kind of natural evolution, thanks to the protective existence of Jupiter. It shielded the inner regions of the solar system from rogue planets and asteroids and comets, thus facilitating the formation of Earth, Mars, and Venus. Thank goodness for that. If Jupiter hadn’t protected this region of space, we wouldn’t have been able to evolve here, rise up and express creative thought, and then been able to concoct crazy explanations about how we believe the universe arose.

Damn you and bless you, Jupiter.

One last thought. In the course of this “News Hour” report, they interview a right honorable gentleman who was launching a creation science museum. He said that the problem with science is that it can’t talk about the past, since we weren’t witnesses to the past (the big bang, dinosaurs, etc.). Therefore, science should have nothing to say about the past because anything it uses to do so is based on beliefs about initial conditions. That would then imply that he thinks the Bible is an accurate record of the history of humans, and establishes the initial conditions. But isn’t that predicated on the much shakier belief that (a) nobody tampered with the record (i.e. though translations from one language to another) and that (b) it came straight from the mouth of God to the page of the book?

Seems to me given how unreliable people are in general, one is resting on pretty bad earth assuming nobody had an agenda with the Bible. I think it’s much easier to believe that Carbon-14 decays predicably at any epoch of time, or that the blackbody radiation of the universe can be used to estimate the age of the universe, just as the blackbody radiation from a hot oven can give you an accurate measure of when the heating element was turned off.

**UPDATE**

Here is the link to the “News Hour program on the debate about evolution”:http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/education/jan-june05/creation_3-28.html

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

It has been a VERY long time since my last entry. I have a lot to catch up on, so this will have to be brief.

First, I went to Washington D.C. two weeks ago to lobby for increased funding for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and the National Science Foundation. While my field, High-Energy Physics (HEP), and biology found themselves fully funded in the short-term, mid-term investments in all fields are being sacrificed for the needs of existing, as well as far-distant and yet unrealized, facilities and programs.

Our goal – that is, the goal of the SLAC and Fermilab User’s communities – was to discuss with legislators what we do, describe the strong outcry from academia and industry (“http://futureofinnovation.org/”:http://futureofinnovation.org/), and ask for their support to fund the DOE Office of Science at a “constant levek of effort”. This phrase means adjusting the budget to accomodate the consumer price index (~1.7%) and salary increases (~2%). This should be compared to the President’s request for a 3.8% **cut** to the Office of Science in the coming fiscal year.

I scheduled 6 appointments, one each with the offices of Senators Kohl, Lieberman, Sununu, and Kennedy and Representatives Obey and Capuano. I also joined my Fermilab and SLAC colleagues on some of their visits. I think that the majority of these visits were an overwhelming success; most of my appointments were positive, expressing support for the mission of federally funded science as well as an understanding of the trouble to the economy. They also expressed interest in dear colleague letters that were starting to circulate in the House and Senate calling for an increase for the Office of Science.

I spent a wonderful weekend with my Nana (grandmother), right after returning from D.C. I rarely get a chance to see her, so this was a real treat to be able to spend four days with her in Maryland. We went to church together, had a wonderful lunch at a crabcake place near her home, and spent the weekend cheering and jeering the college basketball teams heading into the “sweet sixteen”.

The week after D.C. was a chance top renew my research efforts. The first half of the week was a no-go, mostly due to catching up on my responsibilities to my working group and MIT colleagues. At the end of the week, my colleague Robert McElrath came down from Davis to attend a conference at SLAC. He stayed at my place, and we burned a lot of midnight oil discussing QED and two-photon backgrounds to this invisible bottomonium decays analysis. We also discussed new strategies for attacking the signal and the background; we discussed the need to generate a generic QED background simulation to develop suppression strategies; we setup a list of goals for the next few weeks, him on the theory and me on the analysis. So far, this is an extremely fruitful collaboration.

So as of tomorrow, I get to have a fresh look at my own analysis again.

Lounging with the Appletosh…

My wife has recently been given a work laptop for her research on the “CDMS”:http://cdms.berkeley.edu experiment. This laptop happens to be a gorgeous Apple PowerBook G4. It’s a great machine for work – nice and light-weight, solid processor, lots of disk space – and the first time I’ve ever seen MacOSX up-close.

I have to say that “Apple”:http://www.apple.com has really outdone itself with these machines and this operating system. It’s a perfect blend of robust UNIX core and a functional graphical user interface. Tonight I’m trying to get the e-mail program, “Sylpheed-Claws”:http://sylpheed-claws.sf.net, installed. This program depends on some external software which works just fine on Linux and UNIX in general, so they should work here. Wish me luck!

The BaBar Collaboration Meeting

This past week was what is usually called “BaBar Collaboration Week”. This is a week of morning to night meetings of the entire collaboration. This typically involves something like 1/3 – 1/2 of the collaboration all showing up at the same location (SLAC) and presenting their progress in research. The collaboration meeting is a mixture of two kinds of meetings (or “sessions”, as we call them): plenary and parallel. The plenary sessions are attended by all members of the collaboration, while the parallel sessions are topical and atttended by interested parties.

Collaboration meetings are growing more and more draining as I get older. This has less to do with age and more to do with involvement. As a convener of a BaBar analysis working group (AWG), I organize parallel sessions that center on the topic of my AWG: leptonic decays of the bottom or charm quark/mesons. I also have grown more interested in a wide variety of topics as I’ve spent more time in physics. For instance, I am interested in generic decays and physics of charm mesons; I enjoy the any topics worked on my me and my colleagues in what are called “radiative penguin decays”; and of course, I enjoy leptonics decays of b and c quarks IMMENSELY.

But a physics collaboration is so much more than just the research it produces. It’s also defined by how it does that research. That means equipment and computers. I am always attracted to the discussions of detector hardward developments and analysis computing topics, a huge part of modern particle physics. One of my pet peeves is the sheer number of my colleagues who avoid the computing plenary and parallel sessions as the meetings. For instance, one of the most important sessions dealt with the global distribution of computing resources by BaBar. This affects EVERYONE. However, less than 1/5 of the collaboration attended those meetings. Sad. Do they all think data just comes magically out of the ether and is handed to them polished and primed?

I’ve taken today to recover from the meeting. Like I said, it was draining. I was attending meetings from 8 in the morning to 8 at night for four days straight, with a closeout morning session on the fifth day. My wife just left for Minnesota at 5:30 this morning, leaving me alone on a very rainy Sunday. Not the best way to cap off the draining collaboration week…

I got a **lot** out of this meeting, however. I have three new ideas for developing my research topic: invisible decays of heavy quarkonium. I hope to use these decays to constrain models of physics that claim to tell us how nature operates outside the bounds of the Standard Model of Particle Physics. This could be a very powerful probe of nature.

So that’s BaBar collaboration meeting week. We do this about 4 times a year, with lots of little meetings in between. Whew. Time to regroup and head back into my research!