Science Reaffirmed

This was, from the public perspective, a difficult year for evolution. I am not saying this because it was challenged by a potentially new theory of biological diversity, nor because it made predictions that were contradicted in the lab or in nature. “In fact, scientifically this has been hailed as a remarkable year for this long-lived, time-tested theory of biological diversity”: Rather, this was a difficult social year for evolution. Evolution’s life is rather like that of a scientist: unmatched in prowess in the wide-world and the lab, but awkward and shunned at parties.

This year saw the first serious legal challenges mounted by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think-tank populated by lawyers and philosophers (and an occasional Ph.D. in a basic science, like biology). This year also saw the recurrance of legal victory in our democracy for science, as the federal judge in Pennsylvania found that “intelligent design” was just creationism in a cheap tuxedo. This year saw our own President saying that it was onlyfair to give equal time to thse ideas in the public school (note, he never said in the *science class*). This year saw Marburger, Bush’s science advisor, then forced to come out and remind us all that intelligent design is not science. This year saw the Catholic church get a little schitzophrenic over science, the Pope and his closest personal allies proclaiming the universe must be guided while the Church’s own astronomer proclaimed intelligent design a non-science, warning of the dangers of fundamentalism.

Scientists, doing good science, are shocked to see all this happen. The theory of evolution is the basis of all modern medicine. This theory helps us to understand the consequences of our industry and activity and appetite on the natural ecosystem. It teaches us about our humble role in the long chain of biodiversity, and gives us respect for our place in the universe. In a way, evolution gives us access to a deeper ethics of the natural world, allowing us to see the effects of all our causes, to make informed decisions about policy and industry, and teaches us to respect both our own diversity, while realizing our essential oneness.

Going into Christmas, a season when we are to reflect on the origins of Christianity, these are important realizations. Many in American society, including leading politicians such as Rick Santorum, fear scince because they think it somehow replaces God with something else. They fear this because they think that a nation without a God is a nation without ethics. I have always scoffed at this myopic view of humanity, and see in the lessons of biology, geology, physics, and chemistry a profound ethical tool, a means by which we can predict the risks of our decisions. If a religious ethical code is a tool by which we are supposed to make good decisions in our lives (be kind to others, give generously to those less fortunate, avoid murder and theft, etc.), then a scientific ethical code is really no different. The problem of cheating in biological systems teaches us about the role of the “cheater”, the person who benefits from the societal response but never contributes to it. An understanding of the food chain lets us make wise decisions about how we eat, as well as what we eat and whre it comes from. I find a great concordance between the messages in this season, and the messages we can take from a greater understanding of Nature.

A Candle in the Dark

The BaBar Collaboration meeting is over, and it was as exhausting and fulfilling as I had hoped. Despite the necessary shutdown to address the safety culture at SLAC (which occurred just over a year ago), we have bounced back with enthusiasm and science. The upcoming winter conferences will be a lot of fun for our membership, if stressful.

Jodi and I embarked Friday on the first leg of what will become our winter break. Two friends of ours, former members of the BaBar collaboration, are recently married and celebrating with their friends this weekend in Naperville, right next to Fermilab.

We took one of our favorite airlines, ATA, from San Francisco to Midway airport. This was one of the best plane rides I have ever taken, mainly because our flight attendant, Derek, was one of the most remarkable people I’ve met in quite a while. Derek, who clearly loved his job (he deeply lamented the coming financial hardships for the airline industry, and was worried about his own fate as an attendant), was also extremely bright and well-informed.

Our first meeting with him was when he was making some final stows on the aircraft. Jodi asked him if he could take her jacket and put it in the forward closet, if room were available. Thinking she was asking to stow luggage, he at first politely declined (and delivered the “I’m sorry ma’am, I’m not allowed to do that” speech). When he realized she was actually indicating a piece of clothing, he smiled and took the jacket. Just before take-off, he noticed that I was reading Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World, Science as a Candle in the Dark”. He beamed and enthusiastically asked, “Are you reading that book? I love that book! I read it, like, 10 years ago!”

At first, I thought this was a typical service-industry ploy to gain my confidence as a consumer. This is a typical strategy in the service industry that, when executed well (e.g. the person asking has real knowledge and can honestly engage) is persuasive. When asked by somebody who is just trying to gain your confidence without actual interest in the subject, this ploy is typically an embarrassing and uncomfortable failure on the part of the employee. However, a few minutes’ worth of chatting revealed that Derek not only had a wide interested in science, but a depth to his knowledge that many Americans don’t exhibit.

One thing that made Jodi and I blush was that when Derek learned we were both physicists, he exclaimed that we were like rock stars. It is ironic that he made this comparison, since Jodi has old me repeatedly that scientists are regarded in this way in placed like Japan (and South Korea, as we’ve seen with this recent stem cell scandal). America regards its athletes, its actors, lawyers, and doctors like heroes. But Americans tend to fall flat on educators and scientists, the very people upon whom our entire modern society is built.

Throughout the flight, Derek returned to us when he had time (and when he didn’t – I think we got him in trouble with his boss . . . ) and discussed particle physics, string theory (and how it’s really a hypothesis, with no evidence to back it up – I was stunned at his depth of reasoning and understanding), religion and science, politics and science. This young man (maybe a little older than Jodi and me), was truly a remarkable individual. I extended an invitation for him to join me at SLAC for a tour, when he has a layover in San Francisco in the new year. I honestly hope he takes me up on this offer, as there is nothing that would please me more than for him to actually come and see all the great things about which he has only read.

Derek is, perhaps, exactly the American that founders like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin dreamed about. Well-educated, with a mind capable of attaining depth as well as breadth, but following his own path while having this knowledge. I have never believed that all Americans should be scientists or teachers. But I have always believed that Americans must embrace education, and understand what science is and what it is not, in order to better manage the decision-making inherent in a democracy.

We are daily deluged with decisions, with statements from authority, with alleged facts and figures. The scientific mind learns to treat all such things with skepticism, and only by rigorous and repeatable demonstration determine truth. As Sagan puts it, scientists express the limits of their knowledge with error bars; what if every political statement came with an error bar? How great would it be to admit in life, as in science, that there are always limits on current knowledge?

Celebrating the 201st Entry

When I hit the 190s for the number of blog entries I’d made so far, I really had it in my mind to make some notable remarks at entry 200. However, I was so excited about the Alaska cyclotron story I totally missed 200. So, here’s to entry number 201, and to the 862 visitors (you know who you are, you blog aggregators and family members!) I’ve had to this page since I started my rantings and ravings. OK, that’s enough lauding – back to getting ready for tonight’s SF Ballet performance of The Nutcracker!

Passing Thanksgiving

I’ve been silent the last week, but that was primarily due to the intervention of the Thanksgiving holiday. Those three days right before the holiday’s start were filled with meetings to finalize or start reviews of several projects, a code freeze for the Braidwood experiment, and my initiation of an analysis framework for the B+ → τ+ ν. Yes, it’s winter-time for particle physics, the second of the two busiest times of the year for my field (the other is summer). With many changes occurring in the world around me, I was refreshed by the prospect of a vacation from physics, time spent with Jodi and our friends.

Jodi returned from the Soudan Mine last Sunday, very late at night. Needless to say, we were both happy to be back together again and looking forward to Thanksgiving and the subsequent Christmas decorating, a tradition in both our families. Jodi had a wonderful menu ready for this holiday, and several of our friends joined us at our cottage for an evening of good food and good conversation. We had another dinner on Saturday night with several more friends, this time centered on a delightful marinated steak that Jodi has made on several occasions.

Tonight, I decided to finished the vacation by closing out the last DVD of the “Evolution” series I’ve been renting from Netflix. This last disc explored the evidence of humanity’s evolution and spread throughout the world, our control over our own evolutionary process through toolmaking and self-awareness, and finally the role God has left to play in a world governed by evolution through natural selection. This last topic was the one that made me the most concerned, as it discussed the social role of evolution by centering on two groups: students at Wheaton college coming to their first personal confrontation with belief and science, and high-school students seeking to get “creation science” taught alongside evolution in biology class. For me, the most personal moments were the interviews with science teachers at that high school. They expressed all that frustration and failure that I feel whenever people confuse science and faith. In particular, they expressed that fundamental disappointment when they realized that these kids, so bright among all their peers, clearly did not understand what science is, and what it is not. This personal failure they expressed was really the focus for me.

To take the edge off these matters, I wanted to go out for tea and conversation with Jodi. We hit Borders in San Mateo, and while browsing the science section waiting for Jodi to come back from the restroom I ran across the new book “The Politically Incorrect Guide To Science”:, written by anything-but-a-chemist,-physicist,-or-biologist Tom Bethell. Bethell, who has argued that the danger posed by AIDS is something of a myth, puts forth arguments against global warming, evolution, and stem cell research. From a man who is not trained in basic science by any of his degrees, this is bold: to claim that all of these topics are somehow a leftist agenda. I decided to flip through the section on Evolution, only to be confronts by the hollow grange hall of typical arguments: gaps, testimony by scientists who suddenly woke up one day and decided they didn’t believe in Evolution, etc.

There aren’t words for how annoying it is to see this claptrap in print.

Sigh. What perked me up after all this misleading bollox from non-scientists was an article by buddy Mandeep sent out to me, arguing the President can’t have it two ways. He can’t say evolution and intelligent design need equal time, while at the same time insisting we must invest to fight bird flu before it evolves into a human-to-human transmittable disease. When you argue that non-science must be taught alongside science, then you ought to at least get up in front of America and say, “If you can’t get Tamiflu, get on your knees and ask for forgiveness from the Lord.” At least he wouldn’t be a flip-flopper if he said things like that.