AAAS Respectfully Declines to Attend at Hearings on Intelligent Design

There’s a lot going on in our nation right now regarding the pushing of faith into the science classroom. As a scientist, I am watching this issue with great concern. Although the struggle over the content of science class challenges primarily my colleagues in biology and medicine (i.e. those who use the theory of evolution to make daily breakthoughs), I see this as a struggle much like the early days of World War II. If you appease the advocates of intelligent design by giving them the battle in the biology classroom and textbooks, what’s to prevent them from taking the fight to the big bang or modern cosmology? I see this as a struggle that could spill over into all science education.

Anyway, if you’ve been reading this blog you know how I feel. Science is a methodological process by which a hypothesis is made, an experiment is proposed to test it, that experiment is executed and the results are used to uphold or challenge the theory. This simple and yet rigorous process gave us the theory of planetary motion, classical mechanics and thus modern engineering, the theory of electromagnetism and the first unification of two forces, quantum mechanics and relativity, and thus all of our society today. That process is taught in science class, and any attempt to push opinion into the classroom as if it were fact is wrong. It is morally wrong. Science is not about opinion. We teach what we know, and we teach the process by which we can know more.

It is important to teach where the theories fail, but we cannot teach everybody’s untested (and potentially crackpot) idea about how to fill or patch those gaps. It is also important to teach kids that when a theory fails, you must never fill the void with mysticism. If Einstein had looked at the conflict between Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism and Newton’s classical theory of motion and said, “Well, that must be the creator a work in this disagreement, and who am I to tangle with the creator?”, we would have been long delayed in the theory of relativity. No advance in our society has ever been gained by shrugging and saying, “I don’t know, so it must be the will of a superbeing and who am I to deny that will?”

Whew. There I go again. I get really serious about this issue. I really do. When I think of all the mysticism that I learned in church, and how screwed up that made my view of the world as I got older, it frustrates me that the first thing I learned was religion and the second was the truth. Imagine a teenager trying to reconcile what a holy book says about the age of the world with the true age based on geologic evidence, carbon dating, and other rigorous and reproducible methodology. Imagine how messed up that is. Imagine trying to reconcile the notion of a creator with that of a hot, dense seed of this universe which inflated and expanded rapidly, cooling and eventually birthing the stars, the galaxies, and our solar system.

What I have to remind myself of constantly is that there are a thousand creation myths. Almost every culture had its own, with several roughly in common. But for all their similarities, these cultures and religions have always struggled to get everybody else to see their viewpoint by argument and inference and finally, moral superiority. In contrast, the big bang theory, the theory of planetary evolution, of species evolution and natural selection, were arrived at by careful, multiple observations and experiments carried out by countless people from innumerable backgrounds. And yet, somehow they have all arrived at the same conclusions about the usefulness, and the gaps in, these theories. No moral superiority was needed at all to force another to see their point of view, merely the strength of rational investigation.

All of this, to point out that the “American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)”:http://www.aaas.org has “politely declined an invite to participate in hearings in Kansas about teaching hypotheses, such as intelligent design, as an alternative to the theory of evolution”:http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2005/0412kansas.shtml.
The decline was made on the basis that AAAS is a scientific organization and does not get involved in matters of faith, which (I thought) was an excellent way of framing this issue. Hypothesis and faith are really almost the same things. They differ in that a hypothesis cries to be proven or disproven with experimentation. Faith, on the other hand, is something that you hold onto even when confronted with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. One could interpret the AAAS’ statement to mean that intelligent design doesn’t even value at the level of a hypothesis.

I’m willing to give these “ID” folks the benefit of the doubt. They need to stop all their talking and start all their research. All they have to do is prove that there is evidence for the hand of a creator in all life, from humans down to phytoplankton, and I’ll be convinced. It doesn’t have to be a supernatural being, I’ll also agree to that. It could be a race of aliens that did it. But then I have to ask the question, “Who intelligently designed them?” Or, perhaps, they evolved to be intelligent and decided to create us for fun. We must look like a hoot from outer space.

More Substance Abuse by Athletes

The Dope on Runners

Athletics in the U.S. has recently been put under a microscope, and why not? Olympic runners accused of doping, baseball superstars telling all about their steroid use. Let’s face it, U.S. athletics has become as disgraceful as English football. Now, according to a study published in the reputable New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), that jogger on your street may be the next bad role model for your kids. That’s because medical researchers have determined that 13% of all runners may be abusing a popular substance amongst athletes, called di-hydrogen monoxide.

Known by its street names, “splash” or “dihnamo” (pronounced “dy-nuh-mo”), this highly controlled substance is known to induce choking or even drowning in casual amounts. According the the NEJM report, “13 percent [of distance runners] probably consumed so much … that their blood salt levels fell dangerously low – a condition known as hyponatremia” [1]. According to news reports, abuse of dihnamo has resulted in the death of athletes. “One of the runners [in the 2002 Boston marathon], 28-year-old Cynthia Lucero, died of hyponatremia four miles from the finish line.”

What can I do about di-hydrogen monoxide?

First, warn your kids. Dihnamo is easily obtained from household supplies, and is present in many food items. Mixed with substances like Coca-cola or orange juice, it is nearly undetectable. Don’t be afraid to sit down with your kids and “teach them the facts about di-hydrogen monoxide”:http://avogadro.chem.iastate.edu/MSDS/water.pdf. It’s colorless, odorless, and easily taken by inhalation or digestion. Many of its effects on the human body, such as organs which are most sensistive to it, are unknown. Education is the first step toward solving this societal problem.

Set a good example for your kids, and others. If you’re a runner, it’s safe to use dihnamo in small amounts, but don’t go crazy. For God’s sake, we’ve got enough trouble with big name sports – we don’t need wholesome joggers falling into the pit of taking the easy way out with substance abuse.

 


.. [1] “http://news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&u=/nm/20050413/hl_nm/health_marathon_dc_1”:http://news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&u=/nm/20050413/hl_nm/health_marathon_dc_1

Your Universe: Meet the Electron

In this first of a series of informational briefs about the fundamental nature of our universe, I want to discuss the electron. This is the first of the current set of building blocks which was discovered, and is a key player in the field of high-energy physics to this day. I hope that this short essay will help you to gain a little knowledge about the electron, and prepare you for the discussions about the siblings and cousins of the electron which are to come.

The name, *electron*, derives from the Greek word for the stone *amber*. This name, given by G. Johnstone Stoney in 1894 [Stoney], was done in honor of the ancient Greek philosopher Thales. Thales was the first to observe the then strange properties of amber when friction is applied to it. The electron was the name for the “atom”, or fundamental constituent, of electricity.

It was experimentation by J. J. Thompson [Thompson] in 1897 using electrical discharges that led to the discovery of the electron. Thompson hypothesized that the discharges of particles in these experiments were actually small pieces of the chemical atom being ejected. The experimental correspondence between the presence of atoms in the material and the corpuscular nature of the discharges established their relation through the electron.

Since its discovery, we’ve come to know a lot about the electron. Every atom is composed of a core nucleus, surrounded by at least one electron. It’s the number of electrons that define the chemical properties of an atom. If we consider hydrogen, the simplest atom (one electron, one proton forming the nucleus), we learn that the electron is a small fraction of the total mass of an atom. In hydrogen, for instance, the electron amounts to *one-half of one-tenth of one percent of the atomic mass*. In kilograms, the electron’s mass can be expressed as 0.00000000000000000000000000000091 kg (where a kilogram is the same as 2.2 pounds)!

Modern particle physicists don’t like to use the kilogram to talk about fundamental particles. It’s an inconvenient unit, suited more to daily life than the quantum world. Instead, we rewrite the mass of the electron in terms of units of quantum energy, electron-volts (eV), and the speed of light (c). In these units, the mass of the electron is 511keV/c2. This is a much better number to throw around than the one in kilograms! It also lets us take advantage of Einstein’s realization that solid mass and fluid energy are two faces of the same thing. Mass and energy anre related by the speed of light, a relationship born out every time we write the mass of the electron in this way.

The electron is, so far as we know, indivisible. Unlike the atom, of which it is a part, the electron has never been broken into smaller pieces. People are often confused when we talk about particle decay, and mistake the decay of a particle as indication that the stuff into which the particles decay must be like little bricks rattling around inside the parent particle. Not so. Particle decay is when the solid mass of a heavy particle is transformed into the small masses of other particles, as well as fluid kinetic energy. These smaller particles weren’t inside the parent before they appeared; rather, they manifested from the energy of the parent, which was transformed into the daughters. It sounds philosophical, but this is observed all the time in particle physics experiments and therefore becomes fact and not opinion.

The electron is an indispensable tool, and player, in modern frontier particle physics. We use it, and its antimatter counterpart, the positron, to produce new particles with much higher masses than that of the electron. How is this possible? It’s Einstein all over again! We collide the electron and the positron in huge bunches millions of times per second. Each collision of one positron and one electron takes their mass, and all their kinetic energy, and makes it available for quantum mechanics to do what it will. For instance, collide electrons and positrons at an energy of 3.1 GeV and you will, quite often, produce the J/psi particle. The “quite often” part of that sentence derives from the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics. I cannot tell you whether a single collision will make the J/psi, but with careful observation I can tell you how *likely* it is to happen with each collision. God does play dice, and he’s a high-roller.

The electron was the first of the known building blocks to be isolated. It, and the positron, will carry high-energy physics into the distant future. The “International Linear Collider”:http://www.interactions.org/linearcollider/ (ILC) is an advanced accelerator design concept that would bring electrons and positrons into collision at *unprecedented* energies. Doing this will allow particle physicists to probe, with high precision (thanks to the pointlike structure of the electron), the most minute and subtle of nature’s properties. From the identity of dark matter, to the matter/antimatter imbalance of the universe, to the origin of mass, the ILC will employ our trusted colleague, the electron, one more time in the ongoing quest to scrutinize our rationally intelligible universe.


.. [Thompson] “http://www.aip.org/history/electron/”:http://www.aip.org/history/electron/

.. [Stoney] “http://dbhs.wvusd.k12.ca.us/webdocs/Chem-History/Stoney-1894.html”:http://dbhs.wvusd.k12.ca.us/webdocs/Chem-History/Stoney-1894.html

A Personal Tale of Einstein in the World Year of Physics

This year is the “World Year of Physics”:http://www.physics2005.org/, as declared by the United Nations to honor the memory of Einstein’s “annus mirabilis” of 1905. That was the year that Einstein published his three ground-breaking papers on; (1) the photoelectric effect, establishing the particle or “quantum” nature of light; (2) the theory of heat and in particular the phenomenon called “Brownian Motion” whereby small particulate jiggle, as if bombarded by small particles, when suspended in liquid; (3) and last but not least, his paper on electromagnetism and motion which established the *special theory of relativity*.

I have been increasingly worried that the media isn’t all that concerned about this centennial of Einstein’s miraculous year. Physicists all over the world are using this year to contemplate the past, to recall the breakthroughs of the early 20th century, and to prepare for the great leap into the unknown that we have taken with the establishment of the dark matter, the discovery of dark energy, and the upcoming turn-on of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. But where is the media, with retrospectives of Einstein’s life, with short programs on the Standard Model (the single most successful theory of nature **in history**), with biographies of modern physicists and their quest to unravel nature at her most magnificent and miniscules scales?

Thank goodness for “National Public Radio”:http://www.npr.org. Today on their program, “All Things Considered”, was a brief essay by commentator Aaron Freeman about a treasured possession of his. “Please check out this wonderful short essay online”:http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4586243.

I was personally struck by this essay in a number of ways. First, I always get giddy when I hear mention of a physicist whom I know. Herman White is one of those, a man who has been a great inspiration to me in the past three years of my life. Herman is a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and I have had the pleasure of getting to know him in short flashes over the last three years during the SLUO/UEC (lab users’ communities) joint annual lobbying trip to Washington D.C. Herman is one of the most seasoned participants in this trip, a great communicator and a great listener, a joy to watch when he engages in the art of lobbying Congress.

I was also struck by the presentation of a part of physics culture that we don’t think about often: the presence in the field of certain races and genders. We all remember Larry Summers’ comments about why women perhaps don’t make great scientists (has he never heard the names of Marie Curie, Emmy Noether, or Maria Goeppert-Mayer!?). This opened a raw patch in society, about the promotion of science to girls and women as they grow up in U.S. culture and in the schools. But another area of science, I think in particular physics, that we don’t often think about is the participation of black or latino Americans in the field. I personally know very few American physicists who hail from these groups, and I wonder whether the correlations between the social conditions or situations of these groups, the conditions in the cities or population centers of these groups, and the societal attitudes in the U.S. have, as with the perceived roles of women, done harm to the future scientists of our nation.

It’s too late at night for such thoughts. I guess I’ll close with this: 100 years since a miraculous event in our field, perhaps we shouldn’t just think about the future of the science we do, but also the future of the scientists doing it. Let’s make this the century when we crossed the social gaps with science, as we’ve crossed international gaps, and brought women and certain underrepresented racial groups the same opportunities that the majority have been afforded for too long.