Alibris Secondhand Books Standard

Thursday, April 08, 2010

bill gates as climate change spokesman

Bill Gates wants to talk about Energy and Climate:

I think Gates makes a good evangelist for the issue of climate change, a much better spokesperson than Al Gore. I say this, despite the fact that as a Democrat I like Al Gore, and as a Linux user for the past decade I'm no fan of Bill Gates.

But I think Bill Gates would make a better climate change evangelist than Al Gore for two reasons:

  1. This issue has been too politicized for too long, and having a politician as the nation's top evangelist for action on climate change actually helps obscure the science behind the issue.

  2. Both men bring their own unique backgrounds to the issue. Gore, the politician, speaks of political solutions; Gates, the technologist, speaks of technological solutions. And frankly, the problems caused by climate change will only be solved with technology. The world's politicians are not likely find the will to make the tough decisions that will be necessary to confront climate change, and are even less likely to craft policies that will make a real difference.

If Bill Gates is willing to put his foundation's money into research for climate change solutions, we just might find a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions before it's too late.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

how was stonehenge built?

Wally Wallington thinks he has the answer. To demonstrate, he's building a life-sized replica of Stonehenge in his back yard:

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Friday, January 29, 2010

if the earth had rings like saturn

An animation by Roy Prol:

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

science tricks for parties

These are really cool effects, and the tricks all are self-working:

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Monday, November 16, 2009

dolphin intelligence

Humans have known for a long time that dolphins are intelligent creatures. But the more we study them, the more intelligent we find they are.

At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi, dolphins are trained to clean their own pools; if they bring trash to the trainers, they will receive a reward of fish.

One dolphin named Kelly has figured out how to maximize her payoff:

When people drop paper into the water she hides it under a rock at the bottom of the pool. The next time a trainer passes, she goes down to the rock and tears off a piece of paper to give to the trainer. After a fish reward, she goes back down, tears off another piece of paper, gets another fish, and so on.

Kelly has learned how to save for the future. And that's not all:

One day, when a gull flew into her pool, she grabbed it, waited for the trainers and then gave it to them. It was a large bird and so the trainers gave her lots of fish. This seemed to give Kelly a new idea. The next time she was fed, instead of eating the last fish, she took it to the bottom of the pool and hid it under the rock where she had been hiding the paper. When no trainers were present, she brought the fish to the surface and used it to lure the gulls, which she would catch to get even more fish.

After mastering this technique, Kelly taught it to other dolphins. The dolphins have learned how to make wise, high-yield investments.

But there's more. In a famous experiment by Karen Pryor, dolphins demonstrated the ability to think creatively:

Two rough-toothed dolphins were rewarded whenever they came up with a new behaviour. It took just a few trials for both dolphins to realise what was required. A similar trial was set up with humans. The humans took about as long to realise what they were being trained to do as did the dolphins. For both the dolphins and the humans, there was a period of frustration (even anger, in the humans) before they "caught on". Once they figured it out, the humans expressed great relief, whereas the dolphins raced around the tank excitedly, displaying more and more novel behaviours.

Wild dolphins have even been observed using tools:

Scientists have observed a dolphin coaxing a reluctant moray eel out of its crevice by killing a scorpion fish and using its spiny body to poke at the eel. Off the western coast of Australia, bottlenose dolphins place sponges over their snouts, which protects them from the spines of stonefish and stingrays as they forage over shallow seabeds.

And now they've evolved opposable thumbs:

[M]arine biologists at the Hawaii Oceanographic Institute reported Monday that dolphins, or family Delphinidae, have evolved opposable thumbs on their pectoral fins.

OK, that last one isn't real; it's from the Onion. For the rest, see this article from The Guardian. And here is Karen Pryor's research paper on dolphin creativity.

Dolphins truly are a fascinating species.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

where does evolution leave god?

Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins offer their answers to this question.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

exelon severs ties with chamber of commerce

Exelon, the United States' largest public utility, has announced that it will sever ties with United States Chamber of Commerce because of the Chamber's opposition to climate change legislation.

Last year Exelon launched its Exelon 2020 strategy to reduce its carbon footprint by 15 million metric tons by the year 2020.

Exelon CEO John Rowe explained in a speech at the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) that a cap-and-trade system is the most efficient way to transform the world's energy supply:

The carbon-based free lunch is over. But while we can’t fix our climate problems for free, the price signal sent through a cap-and-trade system will drive low-carbon investments in the most inexpensive and efficient way possible. Putting a price on carbon is essential, because it will force us to do the cheapest things, like energy efficiency, first.

Exelon joins California utility PG&E and New Mexico utility PNM in severing ties with the Chamber of Commerce.

As more energy companies get on board with cap and trade, deniers like the Chamber of Commerce will be increasingly isolated. The United States just might join the rest of the world in tackling climate change before it's too late.

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

has the world's temperature data really gone missing?

The climate change deniers are raising another stink. Global Warming ate my data, frets Andrew Orlowski in the Register. The Dog Ate Global Warming, pines Patrick J. Michaels in the National Review.

What exactly has been eaten here?

Michaels asks us to:

Imagine if there were no reliable records of global surface temperature. Raucous policy debates such as cap-and-trade would have no scientific basis, Al Gore would at this point be little more than a historical footnote, and President Obama would not be spending this U.N. session talking up a (likely unattainable) international climate deal in Copenhagen in December.

Orlowski, on the other hand, gets right to the point:

The world's source for global temperature record admits it's lost or destroyed all the original data that would allow a third party to construct a global temperature record. The destruction (or loss) of the data comes at a convenient time for the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in East Anglia - permitting it to snub FoIA requests to see the data.

On the face of it, this sounds preposterous. Could it really be true that all the world's historical temperature records from thousands of measurement sites were stored in one location only, and have suddenly been destroyed in one fell swoop?

Michaels is a little more careful; he's not making such absolute statements without some hedging:

Steel yourself for the new reality, because the data needed to verify the gloom-and-doom warming forecasts have disappeared.

Or so it seems. Apparently, they were either lost or purged from some discarded computer. Only a very few people know what really happened, and they aren’t talking much. And what little they are saying makes no sense.

What data are they talking about, and where did it go?

Much of what we know about climate change is due to the efforts of two organizations that have spent decades collecting and aggregating temperature measurements from around the world. The Climate Research Unit, headed by Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, has been collecting climate data from around the world since 1978. The Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), a division of NASA headed by James Hansen, has been gathering climate data since 1961.

Apparently the data controversy began in 2004 (per Orlowski) or 2005 (per Michaels), when one Warwick Hughes — a "free lance earth scientist" (his own description) — requested raw climate data from Phil Jones. According to Michaels:

Jones’s response to a fellow scientist attempting to replicate his work was, “We have 25 years or so invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?”

If the question sounds harsh, it's perhaps because Warwick Hughes has a long history of antagonism toward Phil Jones. On his website and his blog, Hughes devotes numerous pages to criticism of Jones. For example, in an Ongoing review of 1986 Jones et al papers compiling global temperature trends that now define "IPCC global warming", Hughes calls on Jones to "measure global temperature trends using data that does not include many hundreds of temperature records contaminated by local urban heat islands."

The underlying issue here is that buildings, roads, and other human-built structures trap heat during the daytime. At night, these structures release the heat back into the air. The result is nighttime temperatures that are warmer than the surrounding countryside. A true picture of global temperatures must either measure both urban and rural temperatures, or adjust the urban temperatures to account for the urban heat island (UHI) effect.

Hughes's website also includes an open letter to all authors of the Jones et al 1986 papers and DoE documentation books. In this one, Hughes objects to the inclusion of temperature data from a station in Atlanta:

Personally, I would have thought there was an abundance of evidence in the early 1980's that Atlanta was UHI affected and that evidence has compounded since with NASA web pages portraying satellite thermal imagery defining the Atlanta UHI which they characterise as Hotlanta.

Hughes includes the reply he received from Phil Jones. Dr Jones states, in part:

The Atlanta station you refer to is one of 22 sites within the grid box (30-35N, 80-85W) where Atlanta is located. So even if the data have become more urban affected through time, the effect on the grid-box average would be minor. For the 1985/1986 papers/reports you refer to all the stations were assessed for homogeneity problems.

UHI appears to be a major issue for Hughes. He seems not to be satisfied with the adjustments to the climate aggregations to account for the UHI factor. In fact, Hughes gives his game away in his "ongoing review," where he insists that CRU not adjust, but eliminate, any measurements "contaminated by local urban heat islands".

Perhaps it is the UHI issue that drove Hughes to request the raw data from Jones, or perhaps it was something else. Either way, Jones was unable to supply it.

The problem is, the raw data does not belong to Jones. What Jones and CRU have produced over the last quarter century are a series of aggregates of monthly temperatures collected from more than 3000 sites around the world. The most current dataset is known as CRUTEM3, and is available for download from the CRU website. CRU has obtained these temperature readings from a variety of sources, some of whom are happy to share their data with anyone who asks, and some of whom have strict policies concerning its reuse.

There is nothing sinister about either the agreements CRU signed to obtain the data from disparate sources, or the way CRU has built their aggregation of the measurements. And certainly CRU is being open in sharing its own data.

But the spark lit by Hughes was kindled in 2007 when statistician and mineral exploration expert Stephen McIntyre filed a Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) request for the raw source data. Jones again refused; his curt explanation for not having to supply the data was, as Orlowski's article notes:

Information accessible to applicant via other means. Some information is publicly available on external websites.

In plain English, the data does not belong to CRU, but can be obtained from the original sources. Some of it is quite easy to obtain; just go to the appropriate websites. What Jones leaves unsaid is that some of the data may be difficult to obtain from the sources. But he has gone to great lengths to gather as much data as he possibly could, and anybody else who wants to put forth the effort can obtain the same data.

Jones alludes to some of the difficulty in his later remarks, also reported in Orlowski's Register article:

We are not in a position to supply data for a particular country not covered by the example agreements referred to earlier, as we have never had sufficient resources to keep track of the exact source of each individual monthly value. Since the 1980s, we have merged the data we have received into existing series or begun new ones, so it is impossible to say if all stations within a particular country or if all of an individual record should be freely available. Data storage availability in the 1980s meant that we were not able to keep the multiple sources for some sites, only the station series after adjustment for homogeneity issues.

This is in no way inconsistent with his reply to the FoIA request. Again, all the data should be retrievable from the sources, and some of the sources make it quite easy to do so. Some don't, and obtaining their data could be difficult.

Michaels grouses in his National Review article that keeping the data shouldn't have been that difficult for CRU, even with the limited storage available in the 1980s.

The statement about “data storage” is balderdash. They got the records from somewhere. The files went onto a computer. All of the original data could easily fit on the 9-inch tape drives common in the mid-1980s. I had all of the world’s surface barometric pressure data on one such tape in 1979.

But Michaels misses the point. CRU, in fact, did merge the records to fit everything into the available storage. But in merging, CRU lost the distinctions among the original sources. It's not, as Michaels insinuates, that the temperature data has been lost or destroyed. CRU has processed the data and kept the results. The original data can still be obtained from the original sources.

Furthermore, Jones and CRU are not the only ones who have collected and aggregated all this data. In the United States, GISS has been keeping independent climate records since before CRU was established. GISS also makes their data available from their website, so even if CRU had destroyed their data, we would still have global temperature datasets for review. And if GISS and CRU can do it, others can build their own data collections if they are willing to put forth the effort.

The problem is, the climate change deniers don't want to do the work. They simply want to criticize and complain. Because they are too lazy to go to all the sources of temperature measurements around the world, they question whether the measurements even exist. And because organizations like the Register and the National Review give them a free platform for making allegations, they just might confuse a lot of people into thinking there is still some controversy over the reality of global warming.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

first image of atomic bonds

Scientists at IBM have built an atomic force microscope powerful enough to photograph an atom of pentacene:

Like the venerable electron microscope, but more powerful and with an eye for the third dimension, the AFM is able to make the nano world something we humans can appreciate visually. Using a silicon microscale cantilever coated in carbon dioxide (tiny, tiny needle), lasers, an "ultrahigh vacuum" and temperatures that hovered around 5 Kelvin, the AFM imaged the pentacene in nanometers. It did this while sitting a mere 0.5 nanometers above the surface and its previously invisible bonds for 20 long, unmoving hours.

See the full story, along with the soon-to-be-famous photo, at Gizmodo.

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Saturday, August 08, 2009

the pentatonic scale: fundamental to all humans?

Bobby McFerrin gives a demonstration showing how an audience will naturally sing the pentatonic scale:

Or do they? Certainly, the scale they sing is the pentatonic. But McFerrin gives his audience three of the five tones, and the other two are merely whole steps from the previous tone. If he had let the audience continue up the scale on their own after he gave the first two notes, would they have sung the pentatonic, or would they have sung a diatonic scale? I don't think it's clear that the pentatonic would have naturally emerged without McFerrin's guidance.

But on another level, perhaps McFerrin has a point. Everywhere he goes, he says, people "get" the pentatonic scale. No other scale is globally recognized. Is the pentatonic hardwired into the human brain?

Hat tip to Good Math, Bad Math, which has a great discussion in the comments.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

proving the virgin birth?

Peter Kirk has a post with the intriguing title A proof of the Virgin Birth? in which he discusses a post from the Anglican Curmudgeon reviewing Frank Tipler's book The Physics of Christianity.

Tipler is, by all accounts, a first-class physicist who happens to hold the belief that science can prove the truth of Christianity. Evidently, among the things Tipler discusses in this book is the unusual phenomenon of parthenogenesis. According to a quote I've lifted from the Anglican Curmudgeon, Tipler makes this startling claim about Jesus:

I propose that Jesus was a special type of XX male, a type that is quite rare in humans but extensively studied [footnote omitted]. Approximately 1 out of every 20,000 human males is an XX male. . . . An XX male results when a single key gene for maleness on the Y chromosome (the SRY gene) is inserted into an X chromosome. One possibility is that all (or at least many) of the Y chromosome genes were inserted into one of Mary's X chromosomes and that, in her, one of the standard mechanisms used to turn off genes was active on these inserted Y genes. (There is an RNA process that can turn off an entire X chromosome. This is the most elegant turnoff mechanism.) Jesus would then have resulted when one of Mary's eggs started to divide before it became haploid and with the Y genes activated (and, of course, with the extra X genes deactivated). . . .

To be honest, I had never heard of XX male syndrome before this. But here's what Wikipedia has to say about this condition:

Symptoms include small testes, gynecomastia and sterility. Many individuals with this condition also have effeminate characteristics.

Is this really Tipler's image of Jesus? I'm not sure whether to laugh or to just shake my head. But if nothing else, this provides a nice counterpoint for the hyper-masculine Jesus preached by Mark Driscoll.

It would also explain why Jesus had no children.

Regardless, such an extraordinary claim would require extraordinary evidence. And Tipler claims to have it. Evidently, analysis of blood stains on the Shroud of Turin and a lesser-known relic, the Sudarium of Oviedo, indicate…well, here are Tipler's own words, again quoted by the Anglican Curmudgeon:

The standard DNA test for sex is the amelogenin test I mentioned earlier. The Italians performed this test, which gave 106 base pairs for the X form of amelogenin and 112 base pairs for the Y form. There is a phenomenon called sputtering, which can cause the actual value obtained to differ by 1 base pair from the expected value.

The Turin Shroud data show 107 (106 +1) but no trace of a 112 base pair gene. The Oviedo Cloth data show 105 (106 - 1) but no trace of a 112 base pair. The X chromosome is present, but there is no evidence of a Y chromosome. This is the expected signature of the simplest virgin birth, the XX male generated by an SRY inserted into an X chromosome. It is not what would be expected of a standard male.

So what can we conclude from this? Nothing, really. Tipler backs his speculation with more speculation. In the 1980s a radiocarbon test dated the Shroud of Turin to the 13th or 14th century. A number of Turin enthusiasts have argued that the test was botched, but thus far no one has taken a second sample for dating. Without any positive evidence that the shroud is ancient, I see no reason to accept that the DNA from blood stains on the cloth belonged to Jesus.

And if I don't accept it, it's probably safe to say that non-Christians won't accept it either. So just who is Tipler trying to convince? Himself?

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