Saturday, March 27, 2010

Mystery animal

Critter on bridge
Originally uploaded by Kristjan Wager
I encountered this animal on my way to work yesterday (in Malmö, Sweden) - I think it's related to a ferret as it moves and looks the same way, but I am not sure what sort of animal it is. Can anyone identify it?

There are two more images at it here and here.

Update: Some of facebook friends identified it as a mink. It doesn't appear to be native to Sweden, so it has probably been released at some stage.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ada Lovelace Day - Professor Lene Hau

Today is Ada Lovelace day, a day dedicated to blogging to draw attention to the achievements of women in technology and science.

In the spirit of this day, I'd like to blog a bit about someone who is probably the most prominent Danish scientist at the moment, professor Lene Vestergaard Hau. She is the scientist who lead the team that in 1999 managed to slow down light to 17 meters per second (for you Americans, that's 38 miles per hour), and who two years later lead the team which managed to stop light, and restart it again. I repeat, they managed to freaking stop light and restart it.

How cool is that?

These things are only possible under very specific conditions, and is not something with an obvious daily use - still a lot of people see a lot of potential in this research, and hope that great things will come out of it. As a matter of fact, the US Department of Defense seems among those, as they have named professor Hau among the 11 people in the 2010 class of its National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellowship Program.

What's really fascinating about professor Hau is the fact that she is a theoretical physicist by training, but went into this research because it seemed more interesting, and by doing that, she pretty much turned our understanding of light upside-down.

Occasionally one comes across a neanderthal who claims that women can't grok math, and definitely can't grok physics. Had female physics in the past not already put an lie to that stupid claim, professor Hau would certainly do so.

It is of course hard to predict such things, but I think that it's very likely that professor Hau is a future recipient of the Nobel prize.

For more reading:
Scientific American has a portrait of professor Hau

The Boston Globe has a Q & A with her, where they touches the subject of women in physics.

For more about her research, see the website of her lab at Harvard.

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Monday, March 22, 2010

Is perfect the enemy of the barely good enough?

So, it seems that the US finally got its health care reform - and as Obama said, “This isn’t radical reform, but it is major reform.” The problem is of course, that many felt (myself included) that the US needed a radical reform, not a major reform.

The health care system in the US is broke - it's the most expensive health care system in the world, yet the US patients seem to be getting sub-par health care for all that money - perhaps because of the amount of money spent on administration of insurances. On top of that, a large portion of the US population is uncovered, and the no 1 cause of bankruptcies in the US is still related to health care costs.

Taking all these things into consideration, it's hard to be too happy about the health care reform, which barely addresses these issues. Yes, there are some very good things in the reform (e.g. not allowing the insurance companies to refuse coverage to people with pre-existing conditions from childhood, and not allow them to drop coverage of people who become sick), but there are also some really horrible things in it (the dependency on insurance companies, the anti-abortion provision).

Even having stated all my reservations, I am glad that it finally looks like some kind of health care bill will pass. Yes, it's barely good enough for it to be considered any kind of improvement on the current situation, but that's because we wanted so much more. Any bill which extends health care coverages for tens of millions is definitely a step in the right direction.

And with the danger of going all real-politic on you, it's important to take the current political situation into consideration. Currently the Republicans are the party of No, refusing any kind of bi-partisanship. This means that the Democrats have to find the votes within their own ranks, which means convincing some of the DINOs to vote for the bill. This will unfortunately compromise the progressiveness of the bill, allowing things like the anti-abortion provision to be included. Hopefully these deficiencies can be corrected at a later stage.

So, to answer this post's title - yes, waiting for the perfect would have been a bad move. This was what caused the health care reform to fail during Nixon. A health care reform which would have been much more progressive than the current reform in the works.

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

How far we have come - James Randi comes out

I think I can safely say that today's bombshell in the skeptic sphere is James Randi coming out as gay. Not that the majority of skeptics will have any problem with Randi being gay, but because at 81 years old, it is a fairly long kept secret.

I cannot even begin to fathom how it would be to have had to keep your sexuality hidden for such a long time.

Randi explains more about why he kept it a secret for so long on a podcast interview with D.J. Grothe (who is openly gay).

Randi is a major figure in the skeptic sphere, and his coming out will certainly not diminish his standing among skeptics. On the contrary, I think most of us will have even more respect for him than we had before.

Interestingly, Randi writes that his coming out was inspired by him watching Milk.

It is probably important to mention that Randi has not been denying his sexuality, but he has just kept his sexuality private.

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Saturday, March 06, 2010

Why science blogs matter

Over at The Intersection Sheril has a blogpost on the value of science blogs, and more specifically if the positive aspects of science blogs and science blogging out-weight the negative.

Without going into the detail's of Sheril's blogpost, which will just lead to a detour into the behavior of specific bloggers, I think it's an interesting question, but also a question which has a clear and simple answer: yes.

Why do I think so? Well, to explain that, I think it's worthwhile to consider what a science blog is. In Sheril's post, science blogs seems narrowed down to blogs by scientists and science writers. This seems like a common, but narrow, view of what a science blog is, and I think a case could be made for a broader definition (and I'll try to expand on this later).

First of all, let me look at the narrow definition. Here there focus seems to be on the blogger, rather than the blog subject. This seem wrong to me, and I am sure that Sheril didn't mean to ignore the subject matter of the blog.

There are some very great blogs run by scientists blogging on their field of expertise and subjects related to this (e.g. RealClimate and Science-Based Medicine). This is the sort of blog which back in the Koufax Award days were called expert blogs - blogs where someone blogs (at least to a large part) on their area of expertise, be that evolutionary biology, international criminal law, or climate science.

Expert blogs are excellent resources, I'd love if there were more of them out there.

Expert blogs are also somewhat narrow, and while the comments sections seems to attract people with similar expertise, they also seem to attract people diametrically opposed to the mainstream view (as can see in the comment sections of both RealClimate and Science-Based Medicine).

Then there are blogs run by scientists who also writes about stuff outside their official area of expertise. These blogs can be really excellent (e.g. Deltoid, where Tim Lambert often writes about stuff like anthropogenic climate change, though he is a computer scientist).

Are such blogs science blogs? I would say so, even by Sheril's standard, but they are not expert blogs like the ones I mentioned before, and their comment sections often tend to be the home of people who doesn't necessarily have the same level of expertise as the commenters over at the expert blogs, since such blogs often covers many different subjects.

Even if such blogs are not expert blogs, they are great resources for adding additional information on, often politicized, scientific subjects.

Blogs run by science writers, is another category covered by Sheril's definition, and there is no doubt that blogs like Carl Zimmer's The Loom are great sources for information about science. The writers there doesn't necessarily have a science background, but they make a living of communicating science to a broader audience. Such work is invaluable.

And now we come to the wider definition that I think is justified. The blogs that promote scientific thinking - here I am talking about blogs by rank amateurs (like mine) writing about scientific issues, and about blogs which promotes such healthy attitudes as skepticism, critical thinking, and understanding of the scientific method.

In other words, the multitude of blogs which are not dedicated to science as such, but which often serve as a gateway blog to more scientific blogs. Or which just make people stop up and think a little about science.

These are a much part of the science blogsphere as big blogs like Pharyngula (something I am sure PZ Myers would be the first person to agree with).

If just one person in one thousand gets convinced that vaccinations are a good thing, that anthropogenic climate change is real, that evolution happens, that homeopathy is expensive placebo, or that chiropractors can be dangerous for your health, then it's worth it.

This is something we forget in our endless navel-glazing and in-fighting. We are talking about real life issues, affecting real people.

When Phil Plait fights the anti-vaccinationists, it's not just because he dislikes their abuse of science and medicine, it's because their dangerous demagoguery cost lives. When Orac denounces another quack in one of his many tome-length posts, it's not just for the fun of it, but because their actions have real life consequences on people. When the crowd at The Panda's Thumb yet again rises to defense of teaching evolution in yet another school district, they are not in it for the women and the money, they do it to make sure that future generations of US schoolchildren learn proper science.

Yes, the big blogs (and the small blogs for that matter) often disagree on specific issues and strategies, and yes the comment sections of certain blogs might have the appearance of an echo-chamber, but in the big picture, this is irrelevant. What's important is that there are people out there trying to promote science and critical thinking, and stop the anti-scientists from winning more ground.

Science blogs, no matter if we use the narrow or broad definition, cannot stand alone, but they can offer another communication channel, and they can even sometime act as checks on more traditional science communication channels, such as newspapers and science journals. For an example of the later, think about the case of the paper in Proteomics by Warda and Han which was retracted due to the work of science blogs and their commenters.

Science and skeptic blogs can also work to check the harm done by anti-science and pseudo-science people outside science community. The most stunning example of this, is in the UK where the British Chiropractic Association's libel case against Simon Singh has resulted in a backlash (commonly called a "quacklash") from the skeptic community, causing one in four chiropractors to be investigated for allegedly making misleading claims in advertisements. This was made possible through the information broadcast through blogs,

So, to sum it up, science blogs and the many skeptical and critical thinking blogs out there are great resources in communicating science, but just as importantly, they are great resources in stopping anti-science both within and outside the science community. Is there room for improvement? Yes. But worthwhile? Definitely

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