Friday, September 17, 2010

Some Great Video Debunkings

One of my personal heroes, James Randi, debunks a mineral dowser.




The thing I find the most disappointing about mineral dowsing is that it doesn't work, actually. For a rockhound like me, I'd be the first to sign up for classes if it did! I've been rockhunting for some time and I've yet to find some natural New York State gemstones like flourite and sphalerite.

The depressing part here is that despite the fact that it was all well and truly debunked, this English fellow nonetheless finds work to this day as a mineral dowser despite being told his power just doesn't work. He seems like a nice older English "chappie." I strongly suspect he actually believes he has a power and isn't aware of the "ideomotor effect."

Another YouTube poster devotes himself to explaining the truth behind so-called "true" supernatural tales like the Bell Witch of Tennessee and the Philadelphia Experiment, stories that have long since been shown to be false but still remain in circulation for whatever reason. They're fun to watch.

This one is my personal favorite, the story of the Bell Witch:



In general, stories of this type don't do any harm (unlike, say, creationism, which is poisonous to scientific understanding). However, while fantasy and ghost stories are normal, healthy and lots of fun, it is vital to distinguish between the real world and fantasy and not confuse the two.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Wizard Did It: Creationism's Trojan Horse


If you're at all curious about the discussions of Intelligent Design vs. Creationism, check out "Creationism's Trojan Horse" by Barbara Forrest.

The main points of the book are as follows:

  1. "Intelligent Design" is a public relations movement as opposed to a scientific one.
  2. "Intelligent Design" is a fundamentally religious and philisophical position, not a scientific one;
  3. ...and that's the point. It is aimed at bamboozling and convincing non-specialists, designed to sabotage the teaching of evolution for religious reasons.
  4. The research isn't enough to change the mind or convince a single scientist or create new fields of research or testable hypothesis, but rather, is all designed to use public relations to sabotage and subvert the normal process of science.
  5. When having a dialogue with science, creationists and IDers create a "heads-I-win/tails-you-lose" scenario. If they are ignored by scientists, they yell about how science is unable to respond to their "A Wizard Did It" claims, and when scientists give their books criticism, they trumpet that science is finally giving them some attention.


The book often trotted out as Intelligent Design playing science with the big boys, their heaviest hitter, would be Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box. For those that haven't read it, the jist of his book is that there are some biological structures so complicated that if you remove one part, it stops working and thus, according to Behe, couldn't have evolved, like the bacterial flagellum "motor." It's essentially a rehash of the old rejected creationist argument that something like the eye couldn't have evolved on its own because it needs to be in its current form to work.

Behe in particular I always found especially silly. Consider that his book was written in 1996. I entered college in 2004, where I took Molecular Biology and Organic Chemistry. Since 1996, Genomics (the science of protein structure) has made wild contributions to evolutionary biology. Almost all the points Behe brings up in his 1996 book have since been explained (with satisfactory and more importantly, testable explanations), like the development of blood clotting and yes, even the flagellum motor.



That seems to be the Creationist/ID response to science: seize on an area that nobody knows much about and then say "A Wizard Did It." This is what happened when Creationists seized on the so-called "Cambrian Fossil Explosion," about the "sudden" and "unexplained" development of life in the early Cambrian. Since very few fossils exist from that period, there were a lot of gaps in our knowledge. Since the Creationists made that claim, new fossils have revealed what truly happened: slow leaps instead of a sudden explosion. But that's no big deal to these guys: move on to the next gap, which can easily be explained by A Wizard Did It. The genius here is that there will always be huge gaps in knowledge, which is the whole point of science. Let's be honest here: these folk don't really care about science. Not really.

The point of the book is this: "Intelligent Design" is creationism rebranded and not a true scientific position. There is zero real scientific controversy about evolution and natural selection, and the aim of the Intelligent Design movement is an end-run around science to directly influence public opinion among non-scientists and non-specialists by creating an ambiguity as to which theory is correct among laymen, an ambiguity that just doesn't exist. This, incidentally, is the tactic of choice among global warming deniers: insist that scientists aren't sure so you can just pick any theory you like. Tragically, it takes some extra type of self-deleusion to deny physical reality.

Incidentally, here's Kenneth Miller, a deeply religious Christian as well as a cellular biologist, and his instructive lecture that takes down Intelligent Design. The video is a little long but worth watching in its entirety as a companion to the book.

Politicians telling scientists what to do: the Deutsche Physik movement



My favorite moment in the entire tragicomic saga of the Nazi-era "Deutsche Physik" movement was this: Heinrich Himmler was a grade school friend of Germany's greatest quantum and particle physicist, Werner Heisenberg. Yes, that Heisenberg.

So, Heisenberg's Mom called Himmler's Mom on the telephone and politely but firmly asked if she would please tell her son to leave Heisenberg alone! Not bad from someone that, because of his concern for his nation's loss of talented scientists, was labeled a "White Jew" that ought to be made to "disappear."

"Aryan Physics" was a movement in Germany to create a muscular breed of physics that eliminated the "Jewish" influence of Albert Einstein and his paradigm-shifting work with relativity. The thing I find shocking about all this is that it began with old-guard, reactionary old scientists that were outraged by Einstein's theory of relativity and quantum mechanics (in other words, what today we'd call modern physics), paradigm shifters that did away with many darling and pet theories, like the Luminferous Aether, that many old-guard scientists were outraged by in a way that mirrors old geologists of the 1960s opposed to plate tectonics and continental drift. Quantum Mechanics, in particular, was a theory less than a decade old that explained that within an atom, the laws of classical physics don't apply but their behavior can only be described with probabilities.

Under the Nazis, old guard physicists found an ally, because science could play into the sort of political tropes the Nazis liked. The effect was astounding: out of the 26 known German nuclear physicists, almost half left Germany and defected. Many were Jewish, as under Nazi laws Jews were forbidden from holding posts in Higher Education, a position that echoes the paranoid, conspiratorial fears of anti-intellectuals on the right, who see centers of learning as hives of indoctrination. At the risk of Godwinning myself and thus failing the internet, the parallels just write themselves.

The American Operation: Paperclip, as well as the Soviet efforts to recruit disenfranchised German scientists, meant that Germany's loss was ultimately the Manhattan Project's gain. Otto Robert Frisch, for instance, was a Jewish refugee that after leaving Germany calculated the exact amount of Uranium needed to reach critical mass.




In the end of course, the Nazis eventually came around and realized they scared away an entire generation by putting political loyalty and ideology over the independent conclusions of science, but the damage was done: they suffered a colossal brain drain that cost them the atomic bomb.

Suddenly, the necessity for tenure becomes clearer: part of the reason it exists is that the only environment that honest science can be practiced is one with academic freedom and the ability to reach conclusions that are occasionally inconvenient to government and industry alike.

PAHs and the development of life


If you've ever been curious about the origin of life and how it arose from nonliving molecules, for the past few years there's a mindblowing new scenario on how that could have happened centered around Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons as an intermediate "starter" stage that leads to life. Not because of PAH's complexity, but because of how durable they are, how simple they are.

PAHs, in short, are polycyclic because they are typically carbon atoms that form into extremely durable ring structures, connected to each other. As anyone that's ever played with a molecular model kit knows, carbon atoms connect at angles that result in a cyclic shape. Because the carbon atoms double-bond to each other over and over, they have a real toughness by sharing bonds, a property in chemistry known as "aromatic."

PAHs are found over and over on earth, and in fact are even one polycyclic aromatic molecule (though not a hydrocarbon), C60, was the first soccer-ball shaped buckminsterfullerine ever discovered in nature, a sexy kind of molecule that gets a lot of attention because of unique properties. Flatten a buckyball out into a sheet of graphene (well, more or less), curl it up and you get carbon nanotubes, a molecule with the primary property of creating tons and tons of work for sensationalist science writers prone to jumping the gun.




Amusingly enough, one PAH is Naphthaline, C10H8, which is the primary ingredient of mothballs.

Not only is C60 as well as PAHs found in interstellar space where the primary components of life are believed to be found, the strong bonded structure means it can tolerate resistance and survive untouched in space, surrounded by UV light that would break up and destroy more fragile components of organic chemistry, like amino acids. Likewise, they're far simpler, just basic ring-shaped hydrocarbons that because the cyclic shape repeats over and over, it remains intact even if blown apart. It is believed they could have formed primitive membranes that protected life, helped in metabolism, and can even hold genetic information...the only material known in the interstellar medium that meets all three criteria for life.

Because of their stability and resistance to temperature and radiation, if PAHs played a role in the development of life on earth, it would change the conditions that are required for life to form, which may mean that life can develop in environments more deadly and dangerous than previously thought.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Futurama's Math Jokes




Those that love math will probably get a kick out of Futurama and their blink and you miss it math jokes.

Aleph-Null Plex as a theater name instead of a "multiplex." Now that's good. For those that don't know, Aleph-Null is a part of Set Theory, a mathematical concept described in the 1870s by Georg Cantor, a concept that is taught even at simple levels by the use of Venn diagrams (remember those?). According to him there are various types of infinities, and because Cantor was Jewish, he described by the Hebrew letter Aleph.

Aleph-Null (or Aleph-Zero) is used to describe the set with the smallest cardinality (or size of the elements in a set). It measures an infinity according to natural, ordinary counting numbers (excluding zero, negative numbers, and irrational numbers). Cantor made a distinction between transfinite and absolute infinity, in the sense that transfinite numbers are sets bigger than any finite set, yet they fall far short of absolute infinity. In fact, it's been demonstrated at least in classical cardinal mathematics that the sum of all ordinal numbers can't possibly exist, something called the Burali-Forti Paradox.

Think of the Burali-Forti Paradox like this. Take something that is meant to represent the sum of all ordinal numbers. Cantor was partial to the Omega symbol for religious reasons. Now, the concept you just created has all the properties of a number that can be listed in a set! There are some interesting ways to resolve this paradox, notably through use of different principles of set theory.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The cranks were right!

Well, it doesn’t happen that often, but there are occasions where crackpot science is right on the money...or perhaps a better way of putting it is there are occasions here and there that crackpot science coincides with what real science discovers.

I find it amusing when this happens. It’s like when paranoia turns out to be correct. I’m pretty young, but most of these went from crackpot pipe dream to real substantiated fact within my lifetime.


The King Cheetah – a Cryptozoologist actually caught something real

It’s like if Charlie Brown finally kicked that football. Good work, guys!

The first time I ever heard of the King Cheetah was on A&E reruns of “Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World,” a documentary series hosted by Arthur C. Clarke, who took time off to perform series duty from his primary career as an author of autistic hard-SF novels, and his secondary career as a loathsome, lecherous pederast. It was on a show about weird and mysterious animals that have been sighted all over the world, and what made it special is not just the usual emphasis on giant ape-men and tourist-magnet lake monsters, but on weirder, less famous and more interesting creatures like the King Cheetah.

A cheetah with stripes along the spine and a giant black mane have been spotted in Africa since 1925, and one was even caught on a grainy home movie in the 1970s. Were they a figment of the imagination or an undiscovered species?

Eventually the conflict was resolved when a pair of Cryptozoologists, Lena and Paul Bottriell managed to photograph one in the 1970s.

In 1981, a cheetah in captivity in South Africa gave live birth to a pair of King Cheetahs. This resolved the species status of the King Cheetah: they weren’t a separate species, but some unusual mutation within the Cheetah family. Since then, a handful of King Cheetahs have been found (tragically, most were in the form of pelts).

Now, be honest: would you have expected something you first heard about on an Unsolved Mystery show turn out to be a star zoo show attraction? What next? Unicycle-riding Bigfoots?





The Vikings Were in America

Theories about how (insert culture here) reached America before Columbus are a dime a dozen and worth that, too…wispy and insubstantiated. The first time I ever read about Vikings in America was in an unsolved mystery casebook, and the cases right next to it wondered if there might be some truth to the Curse of Tutankhamun and if the Tunguska blast was from a crashed UFO. Considering the context, the idea that the Vikings might have been in America didn’t inspire confidence.

Then at some point in my middle school or high school years, it went from a crank theory to something “everyone knows,” that’s in every single textbook. New waves of artifacts at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland suggested to even the most hardened cynic that the Vikings reached America, including sod-buildings identical to those in Denmark and remains of shops for blacksmithing iron, something that was never practiced by Native Americans. And even more, scholarship for the Norse sagas improved and are being actively reread and taken seriously as historical documents instead of just as literature.



Zombies do exist!

I’m getting advising for it now, and man, I sure wish Wes Craven would turn my Masters Thesis into an awesome horror movie the way he did for Wade Davis when Wes made “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” one of the most terrifying films ever made.



Anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis discovered there was a truth to all the stories of the Zombie in Haiti: Houngan witch doctors in Haiti created a powder where the primary ingredient is from a fugu fish, a muscle relaxant that makes a person fall into a deathlike coma state. While in this state where they felt no pain, body functions were slowed and they could be mislabeled as dead by non-trained observers, the victim was buried alive. Later on the person exposed to the poison is dug up, and the witch doctor convinces them they died and were brought back from the dead. With other pharmaceuticals, witch doctors in Haiti often kept people as their “zombie” slaves for years and years, a combination of trance drugs, suggestion and cultural beliefs that created true mind control.

The fundamental conservatism of anti-science cranks (or, how we know for a fact the earth isn’t hollow)

Never underestimate the power of projection!

The most insufferable and sanctimonious thing about crackpot and fringe theorists is the insistence that they are new, daring, revolutionary, and rebellious, opposing the stodgy authority of science…when in reality it's pretty startling how downright traditionalist and conservative fringe theories are, and how little they change.

Two of the major fringe theories about the structure of the earth are very, very old theories that have since been superseded...yet cranks earnestly strive to keep them in circulation. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to find a crank science theory that isn’t some old, recycled idea from science’s past.



Example #1: The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis

Cranks aren’t experts. They don’t keep up with the literature, with changing scientific ideas and trends. Check out this TED talk by this extra-cute old lady about the Aquatic Ape Theory. The basics of the Aquatic Ape theory is that the reason human ancestors are so different from the other apes is that we went through a stage that involved life extremely close to water.



…did you get all that? It’s a trippy theory, but it’s not scientific, because how can it be tested? Falsafiability is the single most important attribute in determining whether something is scientific or not. Every major theory in science has a way in which it can be proven untrue. Even something as central and bedrock to the biological sciences as the theory of evolution: as Neil “Tiktaalik” Schubin once put it, the one thing that can throw evolution out the window is finding “bunny rabbits running around in the Precambrian.”

But the single most revealing comment in her entire analysis is that scientists are still treating the Savannah Model of human evolution as if it’s still gospel. I’m surprised no one called her out on that. The Savannah Model was taken down as we learned more about Oligocene paleoclimate...way back in the 1960s.

The point is, since the 1960s, paleoanthropologists have come up with totally different models for human evolution that don’t involve the drying out of the Savannah at all. But the Aquatic Ape hypothesis exists because of flaws in the Savannah model, which science doesn’t use at all anymore. In other words, the field had moved on since the 1960s but the fringe theory hadn’t.



Example #2: The Hollow Earth


The absolute apotheosis of how traditionalist and resistant to change crank theories are, has to be the Hollow Earth . This is exactly what I mean when I say how clingy and unsinkable crank theories are, since the Hollow Earth model was more or less abandoned by real science as early as the 18th Century. At one point, it was a real scientific theory, created by none other than Sir Edmund Halley. Yes, that Sir Edmund Halley. He was so proud of his Hollow Earth theory that when it came time to take his portrait at age 80, the diagram in his hand was that of his theory of planetary concentric circles.



In brief, the Hollow Earth theory is one that claims the earth is an empty shell, with living things on the inside. There have been tons of great novels dealing with fanciful subterranean worlds (which usually have dinosaurs and lost civilizations), which makes this one of my favorites. This theory is sweetly endearing just because of how fanciful and over the top it is; in order to make sense of it one has to pretend the 20th Century didn’t happen. Just because it’s cool doesn’t mean it’s true, though.

With theories of this type, it is true that science and science education take some of the blame. (I said SOME of the blame, because the responsibility and onus for education falls on the individual.) Science isn’t some kind of magic, and while kids are shown the sliced apple core diagram of the earth from a very early age, it’s not explained how it is that we actually know the structure of the earth. Science, like math, is a process, and it’s more important to “show your work.”

Hollow Earth supporters are quick to point out that we haven’t gotten very far into the earth at all, a mere 7.6 miles. This does not however, mean that the structure of the deep earth is a mystery at all. Since lots of people show up to this place for professional wrestling style debunking of crackpots, here’s how we know that the earth is solid:

Seismic Evidence. Earthquakes are essentially kinetic energy, and like all forms of kinetic energy, they travel in waves through the earth. There are two major types of seismic waves: P-waves and S-waves. P-waves, or primary waves, are produced by the alternation between expansion and compression and travel the fastest from an earthquake. P-waves travel out the fastest, can move through solid, liquid and gas, and their shape is changed as they move through heterogeneous substances. By analyzing the velocity of primary waves, it’s possible to learn about the density and composition of substances by the reflections and refractions of p-waves within the earth, without having to drill miles and miles into the earth at all. Sweet, eh?

Now, take S-waves, or secondary or shear waves, another, more slower-moving type of wave transmitted only through solids. If you’ve ever grabbed a rope and yanked it, you’ve seen how an s-wave propagates. Obviously, these only move through matter in the solid state; through liquids and gases, they attenuate, which means they lose intensity very quickly.

Check out the visual aid to the right. It is possible to receive primary waves from an earthquake. If the earth was a shell instead of a sphere, transverse p-waves would not move in direct polarity from the point of origin THROUGH the earth, would it? Likewise, the fact there is a shadow zone where no secondary s-waves can be received was the first clue that there was a level of the inner earth that was entirely molten and liquid.


The observable operation of gravity and centrifugal motion. Why are objects of sufficient mass in the universe round, anyway? Planets and stars and so on. Carl Sagan put it best when he explained that roundness is a property of gravity distributing matter evenly, because it pulls matter with more or less equal strength in one direction; because of this, planets and stars are more or less spherical. In fact, the more extreme heights are only possible on smaller, lighter worlds with lower gravity. Mars has an extinct volcano, Olympus Mons, the size of the state of Missouri that is five times taller than Mt. Everest. On earth, gravity would have flattened a mountain like that out and spread it evenly.

What’s more, gravity pulls things toward a center of mass. There’s no way a person could walk on the “inside” of a shell. Isaac Newton proved this way back when, when he demonstrated that a shell can’t exert force pushing something to the inner mass of a shell. If you love math and physics, check out this explanation of the Newtonian shell theorem.

As any high school geometry student can tell you, a sphere is the shape with the highest ratio of surface area to volume. It’s for this reason that hot air balloons are round, for instance. Compression due to internal gravity acting evenly would by necessity turn a world spherical because of hydrostatic equilibrium. A hollow-shell earth would simply collapse.

And then there’s the property of centrifugal motion. Earth’s outer crust is composed principally of lighter elements, like silicon and aluminum, whereas the heavier elements like iron and nickel are mainly drawn to the center, as in a centrifuge, swirling as in the early earth, while the mantle remains silicate-poor. This real world observable phenomenon is consistent with p-wave readings. Why would gravity turn the earth into a shell when it doesn’t work that way?



The earth’s mass is consistent with it being solid-through and not a shell. Try to imagine this: the force of gravity is a constant 9.8 m/s, and the force of acceleration due to gravity is 9.8 m/s^2. The entire mass of the earth is required to pull down a ping-pong ball, and everything on earth falls at the same rate. If we know the force of gravity something exerts it’s possible to calculate the mass. Visit this link for an explanation on how the mass of the earth is calculated. In fact, visit it anyway, as it is one of the more extraordinary calculations in the history of science.



Example #3: The Expanding Earth

The landmasses of the earth fit perfectly together? Gee whiz, thanks for telling us, Neal Adams! Oh, if only there was theory in geology that would explain why that is…!

Did I say that the Hollow Earth was my favorite crank theory? I change my mind, this one is, because its most visible defender is a comic book artist best known for his work on Batman, Neal Adams. Visiting Neal Adams’s website is great because the “amateur geology” stuff is placed side by side with great Batman concept art.


Like the Hollow Earth, this is another theory that was originally scientific but science discarded its usefulness and utility when it just moved past and beyond it. Once again, it is the fringe theorists that are the ones that are stodgy and resistant to change. The idea that the earth is expanding was first proposed way back in the 1950s by the Australian geologist S. Warren Carey as a pre-plate tectonics way of explaining some of the overwhelming evidence that would later be shown as proof of plate tectonics. S. Warren Carey, despite his stubborn insistence and clinginess to his pet theory, was not a crank: he was a real geologist and a real scientist at the University of Tasmania, a member of the last generation that could produce opposition to plate tectonics with any intellectual honesty, but science eventually moved past him and all the proofs he provided for his expanding earth eventually made the acceptance of continental drift over the static model that much easier.

Watch this video by Neal Adams where he makes the case for the expanding earth:



My favorite is the part where he explains that India just broke off and crashed into Asia but there was no explanation why. Neil even makes fun of this idea by asking if there were rocket motors placed on the end of the Indian subcontinent that jetted it up there. This is the best evidence yet for this theory as another conservative holdover from pre-plate tectonics days. One of the reasons it took so astonishingly long for the consensus in Geoscience to turn toward continental drift was that there was no sign of the mechanism by which drift took place. However, eventually the engine for it was discovered: seafloor spreading from the mid-oceanic ridge system. Saying that there’s no explanation for why India moved is a woefully out of date statement out of step with current geology. In fact, the Mid-Oceanic Ridge System that pushed India away is still there off the coast of Africa!

Neil goes in detail from his website, here:

“India, Geology says, tore itself off of Africa, rode up the Indian Ocean and crashed into Asia, against all laws, and Geologists show us this in books and on TV everywhere.

Tore itself off!! Just imagine. Took a trip like a plow goes from one side of a field to the other plowing up the Earth, and yet if you look at the oceanic plate there is no evidence of this happening. None! Then it crashed into Asia. Ah, crashed.”


Actually Neil, yeah it did, because there is evidence of deformation at collision boundaries for the Himalayas. By the way, there’s plenty of seafloor sediment that was upraised by the continental collision consistent with dating for the subcontinent’s movement.

The earth, is not in fact growing at all. No increase in the earth’s size has been reported through any geodesic technique. (Remember that?) On the other hand, the movement of continents have been measured by satellite observation. At no point in history has it ever been demonstrated that the earth is growing. What’s more, mass accretion produces heat, which has never been measured or found.

No other body in the universe is growing at a measurable rate. Have a look at this video from NASA Lunar Reconnaissance about how the Moon is actually shrinking.




Subduction is in fact, happening. Take the proof from satellites at points of subduction, which show often 60 miles or more of oceanic crust vanishing. Island chains form at (most) subduction points in arc-shapes, because of accretionary wedges where magma bubbles up only from subduction zones. Take the magmatic rock and date it if you like, and you’ll see that the source of magma that produces them is pretty consistent.






Example #4: Lemuria

Lemuria is an idea with a closely related history to the expanding earth, in that it began as a legitimate scientific hypothesis that ended when it was eventually superceded by continental drift…before it fell into the hands of crackpots.

One of the greatest proofs that living things were not created at a single point by a designer but instead are produced by modification and descent from other living things is that even in similar habitats, the living things there are more like the animals from the surrounding era. Take for instance, caves: there is no environment more similar than caverns. Two caves on other sides of the planet have more in common with each other than the environment outside. However, species of cave fish are more likely to be related to fish in streams near the caverns than the cave fish in more distant caverns.


When evolution first became accepted, it became necessary to explain similar fossils found in different regions of the world for the first time. Take lemurs, for instance. Though lemurs are only found alive in Madagascar, fossil lemurs were discovered in India and Africa. A provisional, tentative hypothesis was proposed in 1864 by Phillip L. Sclater, who said that a whole bunch of coincidences between wildlife between these areas could be explained by a long-lost land bridge that he called “Lemuria,” where presumably the lemurs crossed over. By the way, Philip Sclater was a great ornithologist and one of the first to advance a few models of ancient biogeography. In the end, the similarities between the ancient regions, including lemurs, were explained by continental drift.

That didn’t stop crackpot believers in Theosophy and other trendy 19th Century spiritualists from jumping to conclusions about Lemuria and making things up about it, though! All this from a barely-there bit of biogeography that was abandoned by real scientists as far back as the 1880s. Does anyone still think that crank science isn’t overly traditionalist?

Inventing a continent out of thin air to explain the absence of fossils is a time-tested tradition. To explain the (then) “abrupt” appearance of Cro-Magnon man, it was conjectured by crackpot supreme Lewis Spence in the 1920s that Cro-Magnon must have evolved on Atlantis. The Nazis liked this idea a little too much, and it’s possible to see it appear here and there on white power and racist websites.

The one guy inspired by the idea of Atlantis as the home of a stone age Cro-Magnon culture was Robert E. Howard, in my view the second-best Weird Tales writer after Clark Ashton Smith. He created his hero Kull the Conqueror as a stone age Atlantean!



Example #5: Michael Behe, the bacterial flagellum, and the evolution of blood clotting




It’s possible to write entire books to explain where Michael Behe’s “Darwin’s Black Box” went wrong…and some people have! Ken Miller, for instance. As the embarrassing and at times laughable “Darwin’s Black Box” is the closest thing to an actual scientific challenge that evolution has received in some time, it has been over-scrutinized out of a desire to set the record straight.

The book was written in 1993, and at the time, there had been absolutely no work done explaining the evolution of the blood clotting mechanism, which Behe explained was far too complex to naturally evolve and required a designer. Since that time, real, legitimate science has explained how something like that could have developed naturally. Check out Ken Miller’s website for an explanation. The point isn’t that this is how it happened though, the point is this is how it could have happened, which demolishes the entire idea of the necessity of a supernatural force.

And yet, despite the fact biology has changed, to date Michael Behe has never rewritten his 1993 book to take into account any new findings by science, including those spurred by his own criticisms of it. "Darwin's Black Box" is still published in more or less the same form now as it was in 1993 without retractions.



The next time someone talks about how stodgy and authoritarian and slow to change science is, that person should take a long look in the mirror. Science changes all the time. Crank science reuse the same ideas over and over.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

How might people keep time in the future?



As a student of geochronology, dating and timekeeping is something that I think about a lot.

Right now the scientifically accepted length of a second is defined by the rotation of an atom of Cesium-133 as read by an atomic clock. The reason that particular isotope is used is because all atoms release energy when heated or otherwise excited (often in the form of visual light, a phenomenon called incandescence) and Cesium-133 gives off energy in a very narrow range of frequencies: 9,192,631,770 Hz, which can accurately be detected by a very sensitive piezoelectric crystal oscillator that vibrates in tune with the energy released by an excited Cs-133. Therefore, the internationally accepted length of a second is a 9,192,631,770 rotations of a Cs-133 atom.

(By the way, if you like science fiction with a heaping helping of science like I do, check out the Science of Superman, a book written by a scientist and baby-boomer that tries to explain how that old-school hero's powers work. Though the book is otherwise impeccable, the one real error I can see in the book is that it calls the universally agreed on length of time for a second to be arbitrary, when actually there is a really good reason why that specific number is used: the Cesium atom gives off energy in that narrow, near microwave frequency.)

Amusingly enough, though the definition of a second may be internationally accepted, the spelling of "Cesium" is not: UK scientists spell it "Caesium." This is why I love science, by the way: you can argue about stupid stuff like spelling but not about an immutable physical property of reality.



Anyone that doubts the absolute necessity of defining a supersmall unit of measurement in science like a second should be directed toward the field of particle physics. One of the more successful attempts at testing and proving Einstein's theory of relativity was made with a particle called a Muon, that only exists for several one-millionths of a second before breaking down. The time dilation effects of relativity are invisible at an everyday scale, but even a slight slowdown in the existence and breakdown of a Muon can be registered. Therefore, the effects of going faster can be seen in the breakdown of these tiny particles.

There are a few ways, though, that timekeeping can be kept in the future.


1) Pulsar rotation.

Pulsars are a type of superdense star that are all that remains after a supernova. This star that is too light to collapse and result in a black hole. Because the star still has the superhigh angular momentum left over, it turns superfast, functioning as something like an electric dynamo, with each rotation releasing a colossal amount of electromagnetic radiation that can be detected from earth. The energy given off by the rotation of a pulsar is done with such regularity and precision that it rivals and matches that of atomic clock. Pulsar rotation is so precise that when they were first discovered by astronomers they thought they might be artificial in origin!



One of the shortest rotational periods of a pulsar detected thus far has been 8 seconds. Sure, Pulsars eventually slow down as their angular momentum decreases, but that takes 10-100 million years so there's plenty of time a pulsar can be used reliably.

I firmly believe that it is human destiny to explore the universe, something only temporarily thwarted by shortsighted politicians that oppose our space program. Because pulsars can be detected over colossal distances, they can be detected in space and in space are a lot more meaningful a unit of measurement of time than terrestrial units based on earth's solar system like days, weeks or months. Because it's based on something cosmic and non-humanocentric, it is a system of measurement of time that can be shared with aliens. Yes, don't look at me like that, that's exactly what I said! I'm thinking big here, long term.

Hey, science fiction writers reading this! You can use this one if you want to, free of charge. Just invite me to your book-signing. It'd do wonders for my rep as a prestigious science genius!


2) Hexadecimal Clocks.



There was always something arbitrary about the 24 hour clock, with its 60 minute hours and 60 second minutes. This awkward system comes to us from the Babylonians, who did their mathematics in base-60.

Remember "metric time" from The Simpsons? Sure, we all thought it was a joke, but there was actually a real effort for a short time during the French Revolution to keep time in decimal units of 10, with 100 decimal seconds in 100 decimal minutes, and 10 decimal hours from noon to midnight. This lasted for a grand total of one year, from 1794-1795, when everyone forgot about the whole thing because it was a monster to convert, with a decimal second being .864 of a traditional second. Incidentally, I'm not a materialistic person, but if I was super-rich, the one place I'd indulge myself is in getting an antique post-Revolutionary decimal clock. Well, that and maybe getting William Defoe's Goblin Glider from the first Spider-Man movie...



Hexadecimal notation on the other hand, has advantages that French decimal time doesn't. For one thing it's a 24-hour clock, with the 24 hour day divided into 16 units, which also makes it a cinch to convert, making one hexhour about 90 traditional minutes and a hexminute around 90 seconds. The number is given as a fraction of the passage of a day in hexidecimal notation. Therefore, the moment before midnight is given as ,FFFF and midnight is ,0000. The hexhour can even be broken down into quarter-units too, at the 0,4,8, and C positions when slipped into the second digit.

Though something tells me this might not catch on among non-math majors...

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Visit "Vintage Science" on Flikr!



Science of the past is something best expressed in the visual arts, mostly because as William Gibson pointed out in his short story, "the Gernsback Continuum," the 1920s and up were the first era where visual artists were involved in defining science and technology. As Gibson put it:

"At the turn of the century, most pencil sharpeners looked like pencil sharpeners, a basic Victorian mechanism. After the 1920s many looked like they were designed in a wind tunnel."

I have the good fortune to live in New York City, which has a ton of buildings that look like Ming the Merciless designed them. This futurism was an art style that, like Film Noir, another American creation, that we didn't even know realized we had created until long after the fact.

Read the Gernsback Continuum here at American Heritage. I'd actually list it as one of the ten most important American short stories, actually. Gibson actually mentioned Frank R. Paul, an artist that was forgotten and then rediscovered two generations later, like Zora Neal Hurston.




And while you're at it, visit this gallery of vintage science illustrations and concepts on Flikr! Some of these are absolutely perfect for rainy days when you have nothing but a computer. I think I've found a new way to vaporize time online, other than Wikipedia, of course.




These designs have to be seen to be believed. Being a Masters student in Geoscience, my mind immediately went to the Victorian era diagram on minerals.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Hooray for Helium!




The single most extraordinary thing about helium is this: it was discovered on the sun before it was ever discovered on the earth, way back in 1868, when the lines on the emission spectrometer turned on it gave back a result that, at first, solar-observing scientists thought was sodium until they realized what it was they had. In fact, that's where the name for the element comes from: helium, like Helios, Greek god of the Sun.

(Incidentally, whatever happened to Helios, anyway? Come Roman times, Apollo was god of the Sun. The best answer ever came in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians young adult books: poor Helios was "downsized" by the efficient Romans and his job palmed off to an already overworked god.)

As point in fact, there is almost no helium on earth; it is light enough that it evaporated during the planet's formation, and any new helium tends to float off into space. The occasions where helium exists on earth, it's produced by the breakdown of radioactive elements like uranium and thorium and trapped in the earth.

This late discovery - Helium was only discovered on earth in 1895 - is all the more incredible because Helium is the second most common element in the universe. In fact, there is more helium than there is every heavier element put together.





More Helium facts:

Helium is one of the few elements to have no "solid" state, remaining a liquid even up to absolute zero.

Helium (and an isotope of Helium) are one of the few elements to be created by the Big Bang, along with hydrogen, lithium and beryllium. Most of the helium in the universe was created by the big bang, though many more from stellar processes.

The primary use of helium is, believe it or not, in cryogenics and supercold, especially the temperatures needed for powerful magnets. Helium is the second-most chemically inert, nonreactive element and in the column with the Noble Gases, so it makes a great purge gas as it doesn't bond with anything. In fact, there are no known compounds that exist that contain helium. The stability of helium is why it is often created by nuclear processes.

80% of the world's helium comes from refining natural gas in the United States. It was us Americans denying helium as a lifting gas to the Nazis that made them use the more dangerous and flammable gas hydrogen...and led to the Hindenburg disaster.

Why does inhaling helium make your voice higher? Well, here's an involved answer: sound is made by vibrating AIR, not by a vibrating object. Sound, like everything else is a wave, and the faster the number of peaks go by in the wave, the higher the frequency (the more frequent - get it?) and the higher the timbre of a noise. Frequency = Speed/Wavelength, or F = S/W. So, the faster something moves, the greater the number of waves and the "higher" a sound is. Since helium is less dense than air, sound goes through more quickly, and therefore the frequency is higher. Don't worry, helium is inert: the only danger comes from possible oxygen deprivation. There are some gases heavier than air that make vibrations travel more slowly, of course, like sulfur hexaflouride and krypton, but unlike helium these may be dangerous to try. They stay in your lungs as they "sink" in air.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Upcoming movie about the real Hypatia


Hypatia is my hero and it's not hard to see why. In the world of Hellenistic Greece, she stood out as a great thinker and teacher, a pagan in a time of mostly Christians, one of history's greatest mathematicians.

Rachel Weisz is going to be playing Hypatia, the single most obvious and appropriate casting choice in the history of Hollywood. I wait with eager anticipation to see "Agora," a movie about the life and challenges of Hypatia and the Library of Alexandria. It's not very often that Hollywood does a movie about a mathematician...the last one I can think of is A Beautiful Mind. It doesn't hurt that Hypatia was supposedly one of the world's most beautiful women, or is at least romanticized as being that way by poets. Carl Freidrich Gauss and Paul Erdos may be great mathematicians, but they definitely don't have much in the way of sex appeal.

I have no idea how it is that I didn't hear about this movie until today. It totally blindsided me, and I usually keep my pulse on movies about math and my hero, Hypatia.

Feast your eyes on the trailer, spuds:



By the way, after several years of text flying at the screen and quick cuts passed as movie trailers, isn't it great to hear an old-fashioned Voice of Doom trailer again? "In a world of conflict and torment...one woman will rise to lead a nation..." It's like the movie trailer was made in 1994!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

"New Horizons" Space Probe to Explore Pluto and the Kuiper Belt





Astronomers have more of a sense of humor than any other kind of scientist I know. Take for instance, the "New Horizons" space probe, which in five years will reach Pluto, the first manmade object to study the only truly unexplored region of the solar system, not to mention the Kuiper Belt, the distant and massive asteroid belt beyond Neptune where Pluto and at least several other dwarf planets of its type reside...including several that are much larger. By July, 2015, the probe will reach Pluto.


Not only was the space probe named after a Moody Blues song, the telescope and multispectral imager is named "Ralph," and the ultraviolet image spectrometer is named "Alice." What's even more amazing is that the Dust Counter used by the New Horizons was designed and built by graduate students...who I am colossally envious of to the point of murderous rage.




Words can't express my excitement at this visit to the only unexplored world in the solar system. THE HUMAN ADVENTURE IS ONLY BEGINNING. The only down side is they can't make a flyby past Eris, the recently discovered Trans-Neptunian Object...which is, in many ways, like Pluto's cooler sister. Amazingly, the probe will even leave our Solar System in 2029!

Friday, July 23, 2010

James Randi exposes a psychic

This clip is a bit long, but it is totally worth it to watch in its entirety.

James "The Amazing" Randi, a personal hero of mine, debunks a phony psychic with telekinetic powers. Like Houdini, James Randi is a stage magician and skeptic/rationalist that devotes his efforts to exposing phony psychics by using his expertise as a performer and sleight of hand artist to figure out how so-called "mentalist," "medium" and "telekinetic" feats are done. James Randi also uses experiments to put claims to the test. One of my favorite recent ones is, he debunked the claim that more expensive connection cords improve picture quality.




What's the harm in psychics, after all? After all, they're not encouraging people to not get their children vaccinated, which is negligent and dangerous to the point of evil. They're not making outrageous claims about infinite petroleum under the earth and discouraging development of alternative energy. They're not stunting the understanding of children with fraudulent and untrue non-science like creationism.

The harm that psychics pose is that they blur the line between the real world and the untrue. Whether something makes good showmanship has nothing to do with whether it is true or not, and thus far, no one has been able to demonstrate under controlled conditions any ability to talk to the dead or move objects with their minds. When we go to see a romantic comedy, we enjoy it because we can understand that real-world romance isn't like that.

By the way, the claim that the heated lights together with the polystyrene created static electricity that prevented his mind power from operating? That's such transparent bullshit that it almost isn't worth debunking...but to flex my chemist muscles, here's why that couldn't be true:

Static electricity increases the colder it gets, not the hotter.

Why? Because the colder air is, the less humidity it stores. The more dry the air, the more likely there can be static. The factor that determines the amount of moisture that can be held at a temperature is called "Relative humidity." The RH, the capacity for air to be saturated with water, drops by 50% for every 10 degrees Celsius the temperature rises or drops.

(Incidentally, this tends to be how dehumidifiers work: by cooling air off. Sure, it works, which is more than I can say for some products, but it's hardly a mysterious process and is pretty much a glorified mini air conditioner. Egad, what mysterious process has taken place here? Sometimes, human stupidity is a bottomless pit.)

Monday, July 12, 2010

How do Ouija boards work, really?




In a ton of movies, Ouija boards are used to contact evil powers from beyond, who give eerie advice and open the gateway for malevolent spirits to reach our cosmos. Generally, this is extremely unusual performance in a game made by Parker Brothers.

Personally, I think it's all misdirection, and the truly Satanic game is Monopoly. Think about it: have you ever played it with your family and not had it result in arguments, tension, and bad feelings? It's like that game was created by demons to spread anger and discord.

What exactly is, then, the scientific explanation for how Ouija and other spiritualist talking boards work? After all, they seem to result in intelligible data.

The answer is the phenomena called the "ideomotor effect." The ideomotor effect, in a nutshell, is that our bodies can move involuntarily without our being actively aware of it, that at times muscular impulses are made without any volition on our part, without any conscious desires or emotions. Breathing, for example, is a well-known example of an ideomotor impulse.

With a Ouija board, however, movement exists that is consistent with our subconscious impulses. Ideomotor effects have been shown to be extremely vulnerable to suggestion; in fact, a person with strong ideomotor activity can also easily enter a hypnotic state.


Ideomotor effects seem supernatural, and are the scientific basis behind not only Ouija boards but also "dowsing" and pendulum-swinging divination.

Here's the thing about everything on this blog: you don't have to take my word for it, look it up. But this time I actually encourage you to try this out for yourself. Wear a blindfold, hold a Ouija board, and have a partner read what you produce. It will produce unintelligible gibberish (or alternatively, like the infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters, you'll produce the greatest novel ever written).

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Altitude map of the planet Mars


Now for some good stuff - a topographical map of the planet Mars arranged by altitude. Notice the southern hemisphere is so much higher!

There are some points that go way, way higher than 8km on Mars, but that's because this picture is what the scientist Gauss calls a Geoid - a crucial concept in planetary mapping and geodesy, a sort of surface model/figure of the earth (or other planets) that smooths out extremes by surface gravity. However, the use of 8km as a base shows it goes by earth gravity - which may result in a less useful model.

A geoid is very different from say, a reference ellipsoid, which is a smoothed out, idealized diagram of the earth. These two are used together in the field of Geodesy, which is scientific surveying, how maps are constructed and GPS works. It is the use of mathematics to determine altitudes and points on a map.

If you're like me, you're the sort that gets curious and asks questions, and one for me is this: how exactly is that they KNOW that Mt. Everest is the highest mountain on Earth? The answer is that it wasn't known. Until 1849, it was commonly believed that Kangchenjunga in North India was the highest mountain in the world (today, it is believed to be the 3rd tallest).

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

E.E. Smith, you fail science forever!


Science Fiction readers wish they were scientists the same way Tom Clancy readers wish they were Army Rangers and Navy SEALs.

In the early days of science fiction, to have someone that's an honest-to-goodness PhD in science the way most of those early science-obsessed fanboys (and some girls) wished they were, must have been a real treat, something that gave authenticity to the stories. Science Fiction and magazines were seen as a tawdry waste of time, and real-life PhDs in science had better things to do than to give material to Hugo Gernsback and other magazine editors.

Nowadays, a lot of science fiction writers are PhDs: Isaac Asimov, famously, had a PhD in both Physics and Biochemistry (back when it was still called that), Larry Niven has a Masters in Mathematics, and Timothy Zahn was a Physics PhD candidate. Back in the 1930s, though, you took what you could get, and E.E. Smith and his editors were extremely proud of his PhD. Just look at those covers: E.E. Smith...PHD. It's like the PhD is Gladys Knight, and the rest of him are the Pips.

Too bad Smith's degree was in Chemistry, specializing in donut mixes.

Smith had a prose style that could best be described as YELLING, and his technobabble is some of the most astounding I've ever seen (is that why they call it 'Astounding Stories?'), and I watched Star Trek: Voyager. I don't like nitpicking science errors in science fiction, because that's just disruptive to suspension of disbelief, and I'm a good sport when it comes to waiving it in the writer's benefit...but I judge an honest-to-God PhD like donut-boy here by a different standard.

There are some truly headscratching things even in the field of chemistry. Smith's tactic is to browbeat the reader with fifty buck words until they are forced to believe his scientific concepts to make the barrage stop. It's called "suspension of disbelief by intimidation." Or "may the power of bullshit repel thee!"

Take for instance, a real howler in his book Triplanetary. The villains are a weird rhino-squid race named the Nevians that have declared war on the human race. Their power source? Allotropic iron.

(An allotrope is a molecular structure with only one type of element. Depending on how the atoms are arranged, something can have different properties. For example, graphite and diamond are both allotropes that consist of nothing but carbon arranged differently.)


According to Smith, this allotrope of iron is radioactive...so much so that 10% of its mass is switched to energy over time. As it does so, the binding content of the atom is released. This sort-of makes sense, as Iron has more binding in its atoms than any other you care to name. But otherwise...

1) Why would an "iron allotrope" make iron easier to crack apart at the atomic binding level? Iron atoms are iron atoms even if you arrange them differently. That's like saying walnuts are easier to break because you've got them spelling out "I Love You."

2) And this is the big one. Iron is the worst source of radioactive fuel in the entire universe. Literally! Seriously, Smith could have picked an element at random by spinning the periodic table and it would have made a better radioactive fuel source than iron. Iron absorbs nuclear energy, and iron buildup at the core of stars causes supernovas!

Iron is such a good absorber of nuclear reactions that it is actually the heaviest type of element that can be created by stellar processes alone. Only hydrogen existed in the early universe after the Big Bang, where the universe was so hot that fusion reactions could take place. After the Big Bang, five elements existed as a result: Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium and Beryllium, not to mention two isotopes of Helium. As a result of stellar conditions, heavier elements are created up to iron. Helium, in stars larger than our earth, create elements like oxygen, silicon and iron.

Iron has the lowest binding energy of anything, except maybe nickel, and from there elements increase in required energy further away from iron in both directions. Iron will absorb any additional energy placed on it! That is why iron is pretty much useless to any nuclear reaction you care to name - fusion or fission.

Iron is such a good collector of energy, in fact, that the only process that can create heavier elements than iron in the universe are supernovas, which use a high-energy process called beta decay to create the remaining elements (beta decay is a process where beta particles, a proton and neutron - are bounced around from atom to atom).

Dr. Smith, I had two semesters of physics and two semesters of chemistry at the undergraduate university level and I know this.

Smith gave another shocking science error in his novel Skylark of Space. Like the previous error, it was a physics and chemistry mistake that a PhD in Chemistry should know. In Skylark, the crew of an early spaceship land on a planet where salt catalyzes a metal to create super-armor, so the nation that has the table salt in the ship's galley could take over the planet. It reminds me of Matt Groening's "The Nation that Controls Magnesium Controls the Universe."
Now, I can sort-of accept that salt functions as a catalyst, depending on the reaction. Salt turns water into a better electrolyte (conductor of electricity), and oxidation (rust) is an electrochemical process, for example.

But salt being super-rare on an earthlike planet? Of all the materials in the universe to make super-rare on an earthlike world...! Okay, I can accept something like Scandium being super-rare, or Iridium, because those metals are very dense and aren't often found in the crust because they "sink." But salt is made of sodium and chlorine. Sodium and chlorine have two properties that make them super-common that a chemist should know:

1) They are among the ten most common elements in the crust of an earthlike planet, and are so because of their lightness;

2) They instantly combine with each other, covalently, because of their mutual charges. Alkali metals have an single electron, and halogens like chlorine have a free slot for an electron. Zap! They bind together.

There's no scenario where salt wouldn't be common, except for maybe a planet without an ocean or indeed, any water at all, that couldn't function as a solvent to break up earth compounds with both elements.

E.E. Smith may throw a ton of words of greater than five syllables around, and I guess that might be pretty good at suckering the rubes that don't know science. But when it comes to Smith's technobabble...take it with a grain of NaCl.

Friday, July 2, 2010

National Geographic lied to me!



One of the great disappointments of my childhood was when I used to go to several Astronomy events at Columbia University, and we were invited to see a nebula through a telescope. I looked through the lens and saw a grayish blob! What an unbelievable buzzkill!

You see, I was, thanks to National Geographic’s multiple published pictorials from the Hubble Space Telescope, expecting something brilliant and beautifully colored. I expected something like the purple nebula where Captain Kirk had his final duel with the evil superman Khan. Or the pictures sold on mousepads or museum gift shop posters.

In truth, the brilliant colors of most nebulae are not visible to the normal human eye but are only apparent through astrophotography, a series of techniques to get information about stars that involves long-term exposure, where after 30 minutes or more of holding a single image on a plate, colors and even objects that are typically not visible become that way – astrophotography can usually be done with over the counter film, which makes it a great hobby (for people that aren’t as poor as me, that is). Images color-shift because some types of light wavelengths are more successfully absorbed by film, so it typically becomes necessary to take photographs at different wavelengths and combine them for a color-corrected image.



Actually, what “color” a nebula is typically tells us a lot about them. For instance, the majority of nebula are red, because of the presence of hydrogen, which as a result of ultraviolet light are stripped of electrons and produces the red color. Fun fact – 90% of the entire universe is Hydrogen, with the remaining 9% as Helium and less than 1% as heavier elements.

This goes back to an even more interesting field: emission spectroscopy. Using the light from distant stars, it is possible to determine exactly what it is they’re made of by the light that comes off when something is heated (the fact that things give off light when heated is a property called incandescence). Only photons with a certain energy type are emitted from atoms, giving us their emission spectrum. Therefore, by seeing what colors are absorbed by a specific atom, it is possible to determine what the composition of it is. In this way, the element of Helium was discovered on the sun before it was ever discovered on earth!



There was a great article in “Wired” about the recent photography of a rare blue nebula. Nowhere is it mentioned in the article, however, as to why blue nebulae are so much rarer, however: blue light scatters much more in the deep vacuum of space, so “blue” nebulae are only likely to be visible when something reflects light off of them, like for instance, the stars forming inside of them.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Indexes and Resources for Science Research


To do science, one has to play the game of science, and that involves a lot of responding to the literature, and a constant contact with new research and trends. One of the great and profound tragedies of college is how few people really know how to do a search and how professors expect students to already have academic research skills. The lack of decent research skills is the single greatest unspoken crisis in higher education. How many college kids have been in college for a very long time and barely know their way around the university library?

How “current” new research has to be depends on the field of science. With Geosciences, for example, materials are useful for longer, and it’s often necessary to view print-paper academic journals more than five years old (nothing short of astonishingly old, at least in scientific terms). For that reason, Geoscientists have perhaps an unfair reputation as conservative, stodgy, and most importantly, late technical adopters, despite the fact they get their journals online through university databases just like everybody else.

With Physics, however, there’s a thriving pre-publishing field where new research materials are shared extensively and informally between colleagues by mail and web abstracts as well as databases for unpublished manuscripts through FirstLook – something absolutely unthinkable in other sciences where placing research online or on a database is pretty much an automatic disqualification from publishing in most scientific peer review journals!

In any case, this is where your university library can be your best friend. In the past, most professors obtained their journals by personal subscription. Now, the majority get their journals from the university library, and the majority get their journals online. The real importance of science and engineering journals is on the online copies; copies of the print journals are(I suspect) just a tacked-on scam just to jack up the price of a journal subscription.

Something I didn’t discover until I was a grad student was how your science librarian is the most useful person in the world. They can cut down your search strategies from 2 or more hours to fifteen minutes. They are nothing short of miracle workers! Especially if they have content area knowledge (my university science librarian has a Masters in Biology).


Databases and indexes are your best tool, and you have to head to your university website to discover which ones they subscribe to and are available. With the crisis-level price gouging by those bloodsucking vampires in academic journals, not all are available; I was nothing short of gobsmacked to see that my college didn’t get (of all the basic reference sources) Encyclopedia Britannica!

As a mathematics undergrad, I eventually became entirely familiar with MathSciNet, an international bibliographic resource of the American Mathematical Society useful for both mathematics and statistics. Likewise, I found “GeoRef,” a database index created by the American Geological Institute, to be totally invaluable for Geoscience References.

There are other subject area databases that should be consulted, and the first one to consult would be “General Science Full Text,” which is typically for students and non-specialists. Other databases for students include the “General Science Index” and “Applied Science and Technology Index.” “Science Full Text Select” includes over 360 journals, and is mostly targeted at high schoolers and community colleges.

Other Databases to discover and consult:

  • “Oceanic Abstracts,” dealing with marine biology;
  • “Zoological Record Plus,” run by the English Zoological Society;
  • “Biological and Agricultural Index Plus,” which is exactly what it sounds like;
  • And last but certainly not least, it’s impossible to even try an academic search without at least consulting H.W. Wilson’s First Search, which sometimes includes full-text, or at least points someone in the right direction.

Finally, one piece of advice: always pay attention to a professor’s curricula vitae, and if possible look them up on “LIS Web of Science,” which tracks academics by name and lists the times their works have been cited. If you’re studying, say, nanodiamond formation and your professor is a foremost expert on the field, he’s going to be pretty miffed and think you’re a shallow researcher if at least you don’t even try to bring up their own work on the topic.

Finally, something has to be said about Wikipedia, the eighth most visited website on the internet. There are some things, like the growth of Wal-Mart esque giant stores and the discussion on why people don’t use public transportation in many cities, where the entire discussion revolves around asking the wrong questions. Few people ask themselves why many people in some cities refuse to use public transportation, and why many people prefer to shop at huge Wal-Mart esque megastores. The answer for both is usually convenience: it’s more convenient for people to not use public transportation, and the huge size of giant megastores means a greater selection – people go to stores because they hope the product they want is available. We can get as sanctimonious as we like, but the truth is convenience is important, and that’s something that critics are disingenuously not acknowledging.

Contrary to the popular belief of many information professionals and snotty librarians, Wikipedia does play a legitimate role in the information infrastructure. If you need the answer to a question fast and RIGHT NOW, Wikipedia can tell you. Want to know the difference between Centipedes and Millipedes? Need a quick look at the Gaussian Integral? Need a fast value for Planck’s Constant? Who was the 25th President of the United States? On what day is Yom Kippur starting in 2011? It’s possible to know these things within five seconds. Not everything requires a Lexis-Nexis search. It’s nothing short of incredible that we live in an age where that’s possible. The ability to know basic facts within five seconds should be the dream of any given information professional.

Sure, writing a paper based on a source that unauthoritative is a dumb idea, since Wikipedia is basically a reference source like an almanac or encyclopedia. However, I’m astounded at Information Professionals and librarians, the single most intransigent profession ever, dedicated to justifying their own existence at a time when it should be one of the most relevant field in our society. In library science, the emphasis is on standardization, something no user really cares about. The resistance to Wikipedia is the most pointless and unproductive fight imaginable. It’s already been lost, as more people use it than any database put together.

Librarians hate change. I have no idea why that statement is even contentious at all. Records for materials are still written in MARC, a code language created in the 1960s. If I’m not mistaken, in the 1960s, dinosaurs ruled the earth. Can you imagine IBM still using a format from the 1960s? What’s more, when library card catalogs were updated to the modern OPAC, they chose to just upload the traditional card catalog online, one of the greatest missed opportunities in the entire history of technology. And how long did it take even very advanced academic OPACs to introduce keyword searching? Images for products? And how many actually have reviews from other users or use Google-style algorithms for determining hit frequency? Many still don’t have these things.