Category Archives: Science

The Purpose of Sleep

On the Purpose of Sleep:

Some have argued that it’s a way to save energy. Others have suggested that slumber provides an opportunity to clear away the brain’s cellular waste. Still others have proposed that sleep simply forces animals to lie still, letting them hide from predators.

Religion and Science War: That’s Not a War Either

Mano Singham’s The New War Between Science and Religion published in CHE is an odd duck. Here’s a portion of the set-up

The former group, known as accommodationists, seeks to carve out areas of knowledge that are off-limits to science, arguing that certain fundamental features of the world—such as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and the origin of the universe—allow for God to act in ways that cannot be detected using the methods of science. Some accommodationists, including Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, suggest that there are deeply mysterious, spiritual domains of human experience, such as morality, mind, and consciousness, for which only religion can provide deep insights.

This either misrepresents the accommodationist view or generalizes to a degree that the point is lost. Can “a group” seek to do something in the sense that Singham suggest. Maybe. But the position seems to me to be somewhat difficult to understand. Accommodationism as an ism is, bluntly speaking, a matter of attitude perhaps.

The question I ask is: so what?

Singham has a point to make:

Why have organizations like the National Academy of Sciences sided with the accommodationists even though there is no imperative to take a position? After all, it would be perfectly acceptable to simply advocate for good science and stay out of this particular fray.

One has to suspect that tactical considerations are at play here. The majority of Americans subscribe to some form of faith tradition. Some scientists may fear that if science is viewed as antithetical to religion, then even moderate believers may turn away from science and join the fundamentalists.

I doubt the last conclusion. Do people think that science is antithetical to religion? And what does that mean? Let’s say that I have a question that calls for experiment: how big is the solar system or is the solar system expanding? When does science become antithetical to religion in a real sense in this case?

What Copenhagen Might Mean

Alan Atkisson on Copenhagen

The world will never be the same.

But it’s the way that the world will never be the same that interests me, for the events of the past two weeks in Copenhagen signal not just a change in global climate politics, but a change in global politics, period. The primary outcome of these negotiations is not just the Copenhagen Accord, the relative merits and demerits of which will now be debated endlessly in the months and years ahead. The second, and likely more important, outcome is the global realization that the balance of things on this planet has shifted irrevocably. Copenhagen marks a phase shift in the way the world sees, understands, and governs itself.

Real Climate’s Data Page

Real Climate has posted a page for those looking for climate data.

Much of the discussion in recent days has been motivated by the idea that climate science is somehow unfairly restricting access to raw data upon which scientific conclusions are based. This is a powerful meme and one that has clear resonance far beyond the people who are actually interested in analysing data themselves. However, many of the people raising this issue are not aware of what and how much data is actually available.

Therefore, we have set up a page of data links to sources of temperature and other climate data, codes to process it, model outputs, model codes, reconstructions, paleo-records, the codes involved in reconstructions etc. We have made a start on this on a new Data Sources page, but if anyone has other links that we’ve missed, note them in the comments and we’ll update accordingly.

George Will and Science Writing

There’s a lot going on concerning George Will’s science writing. Two Letters to the Editor in the newspaper have responded by going to the source.

RealClimate has a list of links that readers can follow.

Much of this goes to citation technique and internal analysis of source material, much as we treat it in courses on argumentation: that one should always place their quotes into an analytical context.

Myself, I’m surprised by George Will’s childish response, but I’m not surprised by the politicized nature of the the whole business.


I’m deep into Maryanne Wolf at the moment. Her distillation of neuroscience and learning stages requires stepping back and pondering. I’ve been interested for many years in the physical/physiological apparatus of confusing, slippery things: memory, for example, consciousness. Much of memory is described in fiction and poetry, but what does the lamp inside the skull look like when we see a spider? How does the brain reproduce an old wound?

One idea that stands out in Wolf’s book is the idea of reading speed. This is not intended to mean “speed reading” but the amount of time required by the brain to process an encounter, with a spider or with a new word, its automaticity. “The fluent comprehender’s brain doesn’t need to expend as much effort, because its regions of specialization have learned to represent the important visual, phonological, and semantic information and to retrieve this information at lightning speed” (142). Wolf’s frame of reference focuses on young, learning readers, and how their brains operate during the course of learning. There are links between the time required to process a word and the brain’s ability to swiftly interpret the meaning of “footsteps in the dark” or “why that lion is drooling in my direction.”

The swifter the process of decoding and relational thinking, the more time the brain has for associative and creative thinking once the technical and physical ability have been mastered. In lots of ways, what Wolf identifies in brain processing matches pretty well with ancient and medieval views of the intellectual journey. Decoding equates to “literal or ‘implicit’ understanding” and so forth up the learning chain. Wolf’s technical description of the learning timeline and its saccades is an interesting generalization of the neuro-process and reminds me of Weinberg’s as applied to the big bang.

Staying with the text and mashing its implicit meaning is one stage in the process toward mastery or, what I would call, applied skill. Critical to fluency is attention, the amount of time we ponder over the text and the amount of time the brain function as an attending tool, blocking out the enemies of distraction. Wolf writes, “Our interpretive response to what we read has a depth that, as often as not, takes us in new directions from where the author’s thinking left us” (156). But this ability comes from, what Stafford called a “‘quality of attention.'” Interestingly enough, I began a series on reading hypertext with this very notion of attending to the surface, which takes immersive practice and, perhaps more, skill application because of the added layer of the link.

Wolf’s brain function timeline is an interesting generalization.

Information Sharing

This is interesting news, sent on by our Librarian, Lisa Lavoie. From Nature:

Wikipedia, meet RNA. Anyone submitting to a section of the journal RNA Biology will, in the future, be required to also submit a Wikipedia page that summarizes the work. The journal will then peer review the page before publishing it in Wikipedia.

The initiative is a collaboration between the journal and the RNA family database (Rfam) consortium led by the UK Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton. “The novelty is that for the first time it creates a link between Wikipedia and traditional journal publishing, with its peer-review element,” says Alex Bateman, who co-heads the Rfam database. The aim, Bateman says, is to boost the quality of the scientific content on Wikipedia while using the entries to update the Sanger database. (Links in original)

Interest and Effort

This NYT article on a test for athletic ability caught my interest:

In health-conscious, sports-oriented Boulder, Atlas Sports Genetics is playing into the obsessions of parents by offering a $149 test that aims to predict a child’s natural athletic strengths. The process is simple. Swab inside the child’s cheek and along the gums to collect DNA and return it to a lab for analysis of ACTN3, one gene among more than 20,000 in the human genome.

The test’s goal is to determine whether a person would be best at speed and power sports like sprinting or football, or endurance sports like distance running, or a combination of the two. A 2003 study discovered the link between ACTN3 and those athletic abilities.

I’m close to completing Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which is a thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis of certain types of success, athletic, intellectual, and professional. Why is it thought provoking? Because I work knee deep in a world where success, ability, and knowledge are systematized by human decisions and traditional frameworks. Gladwell’s conclusions basically come down to a few key success factors: hard work, an ecology of opportunity, interest, and attention. I might have the speed gene, in other words. But I wasn’t really sized right for wide receiver. A yellow front tooth is proof that the playing field wasn’t for me. But I did have parents who could see beyond the neighborhood and they had lots of interesting books on the shelves.