Urrgh, physicists.

I actually have a lot of respect for physicists doing physics, but sometimes some of their most prominent practitioners are really good at getting everything else wrong. Like Stephen Hawking, for instance.

“Six years ago, I was warning about pollution and overcrowding, they have gotten worse since then,” he said. “More than 80 percent of inhabitants of urban areas are exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution.”

Oh. Six years ago, huh? That’s not very impressive, Mr Prophet, when Rachel Carson was warning everyone about environmental pollutants almost sixty years ago, when the filth and disease of major cities like London have been the subject of concern for centuries, and Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population was published in 1798. But I’m glad you’re finally catching on to what everyone else already knew.

But after citing those real problems, guess what Hawking thinks we ought to be worried about?

Hawking warned about artificial intelligence and the fact there is no way to predict what will happen when machines reach the ability to self-determine.

“Once machines reach the critical stage of being able to evolve themselves, we cannot predict whether their goals will be the same as ours,” he said.

Jebus. We do not have self-aware, conscious robots, and their production is not imminent. We do not have an artificial intelligence. We don’t know how to build an artificial intelligence. Skynet is science fiction. The Matrix is not real (and is actually rather hokey). If I had to make a list of real problems we ought to be worried about, it would start with overpopulation, over-exploitation of resources, environmental destruction, and global climate change. It would include the rise of a new fascism, oppression, poverty, growing disparity in wealth, emerging diseases, and a host of other genuine concerns. The sentient robot uprising wouldn’t even make the top 100; it would be somewhere down in the bottom 100, along with the zombie apocalypse, Kardashians taking over the planet, Nazis emerging from their secret base at the center of the hollow earth, and sharknadoes.

But, I know, Stephen Hawking! It takes a world class physicist to make malarkey about nonexistent problems important to the media, I guess.

My panels at #CVG2016


I’m leaving for Minneapolis later today, and I’ve been planning out my panels, like a responsible participant. Here’s what I’m doing:

The Reproducibility Problem: How Serious is it?
Thurs 12:30 Atrium 2

There’s been a lot of discussion about the ability to reproduce experiments, especially in the social sciences. How serious is the problem? What can be done? Panelists: PZ Myers, Vernon McIntosh, Laura Okagaki-Vraspir, Peter Larsen, Topher Hunter (mod)

This one could get heavy: it’s all about statistics. Contrary to the description, I’m going to focus on the cancer reproducibility project, because this isn’t just about those fuzzy social sciences — it’s about any field with an extremely complex data set and a fair amount of individual variability.

What Does God Need With a Starship?
Thurs 2:00 Atrium 4

From the Christ-like figure of Superman to the metaphysical adventures of the Enterprise, fantasy and science fiction have long explored religious and philosophical questions. What is it about SFF that touches our spirituality? Panelists: Amanda Larsen, Cetius d’Raven (mod), PZ Myers, phillip andrew bennett low, Kristina Halseth

My role on this panel is to cross my eyes and make gagging noises every time someone says “spirituality”. No, not really, I’ll be nice. My points will be a) science fiction celebrates naturalism, and effectively undermines religious myths, because every time a supernatural being is invoked, they’re treated as a complex material phenomenon rather than magic, and b) SFF doesn’t touch our spirituality, it touches our humanity. Humanism FTW.

Twin Connection: Myth, Science and Confirmation Bias
Thurs 3:30 Atrium 3

Cultures worldwide have different myths and legends about twins. How much can science explain? Do twins share a special connection that transcends scientific understanding? This panel will explore myths and facts about twins. Panelists: PZ Myers, Kathryn Sullivan, Windy Bowlsby

The answer to the first question: all of it. Twins are a simple, entirely comprehensible phenomenon. The answer to the second question: NO. Won’t this be fun?

The mention of confirmation bias in the title suggests to me that we’ll all be resonating on the same wavelength (like twins!), so really, it might be fun.

Our Place in Space
Fri 2:00 Atrium 4

What are the dreams and practicalities of colonizing space? How might humanity reach beyond our planet? We’ll discuss the science of human spaceflight in reality and fiction. Panelists: Emily Finke, Ryan Consell, Nicole Gugliucci (mod), PZ Myers

As the biologist on the panel, I’ll be there to bring everyone down to Earth. I don’t think “colonizing” is at all likely or practical — we’re not going to establish stable, self-sufficient human populations on other moons or planets in our solar system. We’re just not that adaptable, and the environments are just too hostile. The only possibility is radical genetic modification, in which case the ‘colonists’ won’t be human anymore, and they’ll probably reveal other defects in human potential.

But I still think we ought to be out there: exploration and temporary scientific colonies are a good idea. There is also the possibility of extracting useful resources, but the economics of that seem a little far-fetched.

If somebody suggests that we need colonies to ensure the future of the human race in case of catastrophe, I might just explode, which would be entertaining.

Look at that, though: I get all the work done on Thursday and Friday, leaving the weekend totally free for fun. I’d take credit for my genius, but I didn’t plan out any of the timing, so it’s all by chance.

It’s also science-heavy, which is great. I thought about signing up for some of the more bookish fiction panels, but man, there were a lot of people volunteering to get up on the stage for those (some had a dozen people vying to get up there, and that’s just too many for a good discussion).

See you there!

An abuse of stem cells

I’m a developmental biologist, so of course I’m enthusiastic about the potential for stem cell therapies. I’m also aware of the limitations and risks. I absolutely hated that heavy-handed, nonsensical satire of stem cell research that South Park aired several years ago, in which Christopher Reeve was shown eating fetuses for their stem cells, which enabled him to walk.

But then, that’s South Park: almost always great thudding ham-handed bullshit. No way people could believe that just gobbling down stem cells would cure diseases.

Unfortunately, as we’re fast learning in the political arena, there is no bullshit so rank that you can’t find someone won’t chow down on it. Science-Based Medicine discusses stem cell tourism — there is such a thing — where people with serious illnesses travel to countries with less restrictive medical practices to get shot up with stem cells. So here’s the story of Jim Gass, a wealthy man who had a stroke and wanted to be healed…so he did research “on the internet” and got the brilliant idea to repair the damage with stem cells. And then he got worse and needed a more conventional medical intervention.

The surgeon gasped when he opened up his patient and saw what was in his spine. It was a huge mass, filling the entire part of the man’s lower spinal column.

“The entire thing was filled with bloody tissue, and as I started to take pieces, it started to bleed,” said Dr. John Chi, the director of Neurosurgical Spine Cancer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “It was stuck to everything around it.”

He added, “I had never seen anything like it.”

Tests showed that the mass was made up of abnormal, primitive cells and that it was growing very aggressively. Then came the real shocker: The cells did not come from Jim Gass. They were someone else’s cells.

Mr. Gass, it turned out, had had stem cell therapy at clinics in Mexico, China and Argentina, paying tens of thousands of dollars each time for injections in a desperate attempt to recover from a stroke he had in 2009. The total cost with travel was close to $300,000.

Stem cells are not magic. They are plastic cells that are pluripotent — they can differentiate into a variety of different tissues. But they need instructions and signals in order to develop in a constructive way, and the hard part is reconstructing environmental cues to shape their actions. They’re like Lego building blocks — you can build model spaceships or submarines or houses with them, and they have a lot of creative potential, but it’s not enough to just throw the Lego blocks into a bag and shake them really hard. Basically, Jim Gass was getting the cellular equivalent of receiving massive injections of Legos, in the forlorn hope that they would spontaneously repair his nervous system.

Gorski also points out one of the warning signs that this is a quack therapy: the locations where it was done.

Ask yourself this: Why are so many of these clinics located in countries like Kazakhstan, China, Mexico, and Argentina? It’s not because the scientific facilities are so much more advanced there. It’s because regulatory oversight protecting patients is lax to nonexistent.

Con artists always seek out the most permissive environment.

It takes a fool to deny the obvious

Neil Shubin reports that Bible tracts have begun appearing in copies of his book, Your Inner Fish, in bookstores. He even has photographic evidence.


This is remarkable news. We now know how bible tracts are made: they are degenerate forms descended from more complex and sophisticated texts, and they appear spontaneously when two pages, who love each other very much, are pressed together. They’re kind of like coke cans that way, arising without human intervention.


Oh, except that you’d have to be an idiot to think that.

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Google is not a synonym for knowledge

So you want to be a science communicator. You need to read this article on becoming a science writer. Here’s a short list of tips:

  • Obtain the highest education possible and dismiss the notion to not pursue formal schooling and, instead, “learn on the job.” The latter is damaging advice, usually given by people without specialized education, or by those who benefit from your unpreparedness. If you actually get the job, you will always “learn the praxis” while on it. But you will never compensate, “on the job,” for the formal education you missed. Science, math and technology are not taught in the streets.
  • Read by far more topics than you can write about; develop a sense for science.
  • Travel internationally to scientific meetings and try to understand the cultural contexts in which science is done elsewhere; this could be difficult since we all see the planet through parochial preconceptions. However, modern science is done collaboratively and international partnerships are ubiquitous. Writing from home will keep your mind at home.
  • Write about science itself, rather than people in science. Do not celebritize individuals, but grant credit to all who deserve it.
  • Do not become enticed by the ivory-tower institutions as the sole source of science stories to report; that will turn you into a snob writer.
  • And remember that a good science tale should be good by itself, no matter its origin, but only a good story teller would make it shine.

I had some reservations about that first point — the amateur or citizen scientist can be a good contributor. But the good ones have a lot of discipline and drive and focus, and get a specialized education unconventionally, so it’s actually an important point.

What is a total disaster, though, are all the people who think they can master a subject via a combination of Google and Wikipedia. You absolutely can not. You can get quick bits of information, but you don’t acquire this abstract thing called knowledge: you need the depth you get from reading books and soaking in the details of the literature, so that you can make connections and grasp the broader context.

The rest is good advice. I’m putting this on my list of things to hand out to the students in my fall term writing course.

Venom Hunters is a fraud

The Discovery Channel (their reputation is so bad, you’re probably already booing) has a ‘reality’ show called Venom Hunters. It is about teams of courageous reptile experts who make a living — and save lives — by capturing rare and deadly venomous animals in the wild, and milking them of toxins for use in antivenoms. Sounds cool, doesn’t it? It was probably snapped right up by the channel when the premise was presented to them.

Only a few problems with it, though: they’re mostly not experts, that’s not how venom is collected, nobody makes a living off this fictitious profession, it’s unlikely that any of the venom is being used for its stated purpose, and at least some of the animal captures are staged, using captive snakes.

Over on Science Sushi, you can read a very detailed exposé of the phony staff, the bogus stories, and their potentially illegal activities. It’s as phony as that mermaid ‘documentary’.

Man, the Discovery Channel must really hate Christie Wilcox. She’s filleting them.

Get out of our way, Elon Musk

We at UMM are having our yearly HHMI-sponsored summer research program. In addition to having undergraduates working away in our labs, we also have some more social activities — and yesterday we joined with the science students at the Morris public schools for a bottle rocket launch.

No, not that kind of bottle rocket. In this case, they using two liter plastic bottles, filling them up with some water, and then pumping them up with air pressure. Then…whoosh, off they go. The rockets were also assembled with fins and nose cones and those traditional bits. The elementary and middle school kids had to deal with various constraints — they had “budgets”, and had to “pay” for every bit of cardboard and duct tape they stuck on their bottles, and also for the water fuel and the amount of pressure they put in the bottles. They also had specific goals: distance traveled, time aloft, that sort of thing. Our HHMI students had no constraints, so it was a little unfair. They weren’t part of the competition, though, and the kids whose rockets outperformed the college students’ got extra points on their victory, so it was OK.

The UMM rockets did pretty well, but yeah, some of the kids’ rockets with their minimal approach did do better.

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