We don’t know everything, but we know enough

Sean Carroll explains the sufficiency of physics. Magic disproven with Feynman diagrams!

Wait, I saw this talk at Skepticon, and I think it was close to an hour long. They’ve edited down to 10 minutes? And it still makes sense? This bodes ill. I fear they’re going to take my talks now and distill them down to 30 seconds.

By the way, Skepticon 6 has been announced: 15-17 November in lovely Springfield, Missouri. Will I see you all there?

They’ve also created a Skepticon blog in which they promise to reveal the dark, hidden secrets behind running a free conference, and I hope embarrassing stories about JT (maybe they’re waiting for more donations before they unveil the juicy stuff). Everything has a dinosaur theme, too, which is good, because I’d like to go to Skepticon this year and talk about fossils.

Animal-rights activists are the danger to animals

It is possible to have a conscientious opposition to research on animals, and every university has channels by which activists can register their dissent, and by which they can also influence ethical decisions made by institutional animal research review committees. There is a right way and a wrong way to protest. And the wrong way is charge into a lab, disrupt experiments in progress, and “liberate” highly inbred, specialized animals that are dependent on laboratory care for their health and survival. Protesters in Milan chose the wrong way.

Activists occupied an animal facility at the University of Milan, Italy, at the weekend, releasing mice and rabbits and mixing up cage labels to confuse experimental protocols. Researchers at the university say that it will take years to recover their work.

Many of the animals at the facility are genetic models for psychiatric disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.

I don’t even understand the mindset here. Where are you going to release lab animals to? They may require special diets and care, they most likely have been raised in a very specific environment and have no ability to cope with a different place, and they may have genetic diseases that make them completely unable to compete with wild forms. Years ago at the University of Oregon, ALF pulled a stunt like this; they released lab-bred animals along the side of I5. The only animals to benefit in the area were the red-tailed hawks who saw a sudden bounty of terrified white rodents.

And further, scrambling the data for research into human neurological disorders accomplishes nothing other than slowing research. Why? This is nothing but hatred of science.

There’s not much one can do in the face of determined stupidity other than to show a united front. Sign the Call for Solidarity with the scientists in Milan.

Dawkins & Krauss in a new movie

I’m looking forward to The Unbelievers, too…although I suspect there is no way in hell it will ever be shown at the Morris theater. When I can get it on DVD we’ll have to have a screening for the godless folk around here.

Is every CNN announcer now required to bring up the Boston bombing at every occasion? My wife had it on yesterday while she was working out, and it was intolerable — everything was Boston, Boston, Boston, with talking heads yammering about the horrible Mooslims. I think Dawkins addressed it well here, though.

End-of-term madness descends

The next few days are going to be horrible. Today, I’ve got Cafe Scientifique (6pm, Common Cup Coffeehouse in Morris), in which I’m giving a talk on junk DNA. In addition, though, I’m also scrambling to get a lot of grading done — I’ve got to be all caught up before we roll into finals week. Just to add to the stress, I’m also going off to give talks at the Orange County Freethought Alliance annual meeting on Saturday, and at the University of California Riverside on Sunday. Why do I do this to myself? I don’t know. Probably because I’ll enjoy myself at these events, meet lots of interesting people, and learn new stuff.

But, aaargh, papers, exams, responsibilities and obligations!

What I taught in the development lab today

After our disastrous chick lab — it turns out that getting fertilized chicken eggs shipped to remote Morris, Minnesota during a blizzard is a formula for generating dead embryos — the final developmental biology lab for the semester is an easy one. I lectured the students on structuralism and how there are more to cells then genes (there’s also cytoplasm and membranes and environment) earlier today. This afternnon I’ve given them recipes for soap bubble solution and told them to play. They’re supposedly making little model multicellular organisms by chaining soap bubbles together, and observing how the membranes follow rules of organization just like the ones we see in living tissue.

In case you’re wondering what the recipe is so you can do it too, here’s my bubble soap formula:

  • 5ml Dawn dishwashing soap

  • 100ml DI water

  • 1ml glycerine

It gets better as it ages — there are perfumes and a small amount of alcohol solvent in the dishwashing liquid which evaporate off with time. The students are playing with concentrations, and if you’re making it up fresh and don’t want to wait until tomorrow, you can increase the concentrations of soap and glycerine.

The more glycerine you add, the more long-lasting the bubbles are…and unfortunately, the heavier they are. If you want bubbles that will waft gently on the breeze, you’ll want less glycerine. It’s a very forgiving recipe, just play.

I’ve also provided the students with a couple of books: the classic Soap Bubbles: Their Colors and Forces Which Mold Them by C.V. Boys, and The Science of Soap Films and Soap Bubbles by Cyril Isenberg. They’re more about math and physics, but they have some nice illustrations. These are projects you can do at home with cheap ingredients bought at the grocery store, so those of you with kids might try playing with it this summer. There are simple rules about the angles of intersection between bubbles — if you’re mathematically inclined, take pictures and use a protractor and see if you can work them out. There’s also some really cool stuff going on with colors, since the bubbles have a gradient of thickness from top to bottom and you get wonderful colors caused by refraction and reflection and phase shifts across the membrane.

OK, if you don’t have kids, you have my permission to play with soap bubbles, too. Tell everyone who looks at you funny that you’re doing Science!

You don’t have pockets?

OK, OK, OK…I’m oblivious, but I never realized this before, or thought about the consequences: a lot of women’s clothes don’t have pockets. That would be an intolerable state of affairs for me. Don’t most boys grow up like me with a bunch of pockets that they’re constantly stuffing things into? Candy bars, interesting rocks, pocket knives, frogs, earthworms…until they grow up and replace the cool stuff with boring junk like keys and loose change and wallets. Even now I like a suit jacket with a couple of outside pockets and four in the lining, and I usually come home from a trip with all six stuffed with something or other.

I actually appraise my apparel for the number of pockets it has in it. If I’m wearing a shirt that doesn’t have a breast pocket (which I consider an abomination and a crime against utility already), I pick a coat that has an extra pocket to compensate.

Ladies, doesn’t it warp your brain to have grown up without built in stashing places to nurture your natural acquisitiveness? I’m going to have to have a conversation with my wife about this. I’ve noticed that every time we leave the house together, she always ask me if I have my keys, and I always thought it weird. Of course I have my keys! I always keep my keys right there in my pocket, and the only way I’d leave the house without them is if I forgot to put my pants on.

But now it’s sinking in. She’d only have her keys if she brought her purse with her. Hmmm. Teeny-tiny light bulb flickers and begins to glow dimly in my cranium…


For the doubters: this is a view of the inside lining of my suit coat, opened in classic flasher’s pose. The top pocket is big enough to stuff my whole hand in; it’s got a bunch of colored pens in there right now, but at meetings I’ll usually fold the program in half and put it in there, or when I’m traveling I’ll put my itinerary there. The bottom pocket is smaller, but still large enough for my cell phone and a bunch of business cards. And the right side lining has the same arrangement! Little do people realize as I stride through meetings that I’m like Batman, with all kinds of useful things tucked away in my clothing.

Bad laws for science and all growing things

Now it’s getting personal. When the Republicans were just dedicated to making the poor poorer and the rich richer, I could shrug it off. When they kept arguing for the righteousness of bombing foreigners (well, Democrats do that too), I could console myself that they weren’t bombing me, yet.

But now they’re aiming to destroy science in the US, and I have to complain.

The legislation, being worked up by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), represents the latest-and bluntest-attack on NSF by congressional Republicans seeking to halt what they believe is frivolous and wasteful research being funded in the social sciences. Last month Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) successfully attached language to a 2013 spending bill that prohibits NSF from funding any political science research for the rest of the fiscal year unless its director certifies that it pertains to economic development or national security. Smith’s draft bill, called the "High Quality Research Act," would apply similar language to NSF’s entire research portfolio across all the disciplines it supports.

Oh, the “High Quality Research Act”…given the Republican’s fondness for giving their bills the most misleading names possible, we already know this intends the opposite.

What they intend to do is write patriotism into the funding of science. Our work most promote AMERICA, and also must be of utmost importance, where importance is to be defined by Texas a-holes in shitkickers and big ol’ cowboy hats, who probably don’t care much for them fruit flies.

1) "…in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;

2) "… the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and

3) "…not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies."

If the Republicans really want to start a brain drain, pass that bill. Great way to poison science.

Oh, and yeah, I also hate what they’ve done to both domestic and foreign policy. Is there anything Republicans do that is less than soul-destroying evil?