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A good friend once gave me a mighty compliment: in the midst of a discussion about something astrophysics-y or biology-y, he said to me “yeah, but you’re the scientist.”
As chuffed as I was to be bestowed with that title, I am in no way, shape or form cut out for the precision required for lab work. Or, for that matter, the hours of math grokking needed. I don’t doubt I could learn the math, but it’s just not a thing I want to devote that much of my life to. I love science, but the end result is all I’m after – my talents lie elsewhere.
So, why am I ‘the scientist’ if I’m not an actual scientist? I suppose I do hold a fairly impressive volume of scientific knowledge in my head, gleaned from sources written with laymen like myself in mind, and more importantly, written to at least be a teeny bit entertaining to keep the learning from feeling like work. I’m not talking about scientific papers here, I’m talking about woks that explain the mysteries of the universe without the weight (intellectually and physically) of a bio-chemistry textbook. This kind of reading falls on the ‘easier to digest’ side of things than Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I will finish my copy of that some day.
You too can be a scientist (not an actual scientist, though) and enjoy the learning along the way – here’s some source material to get you started:
The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA
Genetics and DNA explained – in graphic novel format! The Stuff of Life not only tackles the basics of life as we know it, but it also chronicles the history behind early genetic knowledge through to the Human Genome Project and modern applications of genetic science. In the book, we follow an alien scientist tasked with studying life on Earth as a means to discover a cure for his species’ own genetic failures. It’s a sneaky way to work all the basics into the story, giving a loose and entertaining narrative to what would otherwise be a dry chronicle of the field.
It’s a clever way to present the material, and the strengths of the genre are used well: the authors use the imagery to lend context and make some of the more difficult concepts easier to grok. It’s certainly easier to follow an explanation on RNA and DNA when I can follow through the panes that RNA is the one with the hat on backwards like a rap dude.
Einstein’s Relativity and the Quantum Revolution: Modern Physics for Non-Scientists
Relativity is one of those things that has always really nagged me. I’m clever enough to grapple most concepts into submission, but the whole ‘time and space being different depending on where you are and how fast you’re travelling’ thing has always really irked me because I just couldn’t wrap my stupid monkey-brain around it. Richard Wolfson to the rescue!
Professor Wolfson is energetic and excited about physics and about explaining physics. The analogies he brings to the table just make sense, which is all I ever wanted out of relativity (and it turns out, in the end, that my inability to make sense of things due to my very limited personal experience as a being never moving more than a teeny-tiny fraction of the speed of light; it’s all about perspective).
The audiobook of these lectures is hella expensive, but audio is the format I prefer as I like to listen in the family spacewagon. There are videos of this lecture series floating around the intertubes for the low low price of nothing, but I cringe at how 80s it looks. Wolfson’s enthusiasm is much better suited to words alone until the 2nd edition, which I presume would look a lot less like an episode of Head of the Class, finds its way onto Youtube.
(Oh, one more thing: tune out the start of each audio file, until the tacky, tacky stock music is over and done with. Please.)
The Nonfiction Works of Isaac Asimov
Okay, so not only did Asimov rock out at writing bad-ass science fiction, but he rocked the ever-living-FUCK out of writing about science.
If I do a quick count over at Wikipedia I tally up over fifty books of his dedicated to popularising and demystifying science. I’ve read but five of them, all collections of essays on particular topics often grouped together, and every one of them has been mind-staggeringly enlightening. Even the oldest I’ve read, 1968’s Science, Numbers and I still has much knowledge to pass on forty years later.
Asimov writes his non-fiction like a wise uncle sitting at the table after dinner, regaling the family with insight into the inner workings of any topic the gathered children can throw at him. His ability to lend a sense of scale to the majesty of science and bring it into our own realm of understanding is unparalleled (sorry, Richard Wolfson).
These books are also well easy to get your hands on – I’ve yet to walk into a second-hand bookstore that didn’t sport a few of these books on the shelves, courtesy of the great volume of them he wrote.
I’ll sign off with the introduction from Asimov’s Only a Trillion, but stay tuned, there’s a children’s edition of this post to follow!
One of the stories my mother likes to tell about me as a child is that once, when I was nearly five, she found me standing rapt in thought at the curbing in front of the house in which we lived. She said, ‘What are you doing, Isaac?’ and I answered, ‘Counting cars as they pass.’
I have no personal memory of this incident but it must have happened, for I have been counting things ever since. At the age of five I couldn’t have known many numbers and, even allowing for the relatively few cars roaming the streets thirty years ago, I must have quickly reached my limit. Perhaps it was this sense of frustration I then experienced that has made me seek ever sense for countable things that demand higher and higher numbers.
With time I grew old enough to calculate the number of snowflakes it would take to bury Greater New York under ten feet of snow and the number of raindrops it would take to fill the Pacific Ocean. There is even a chance that I was subconsciously driven to make chemistry my life-work out of a sense of gratitude to that science for having made it possible for me to penetrate beyond such things and take – at last – to counting atoms.
There is a fascination in large numbers which catches at most people, I think, even those who are easily made dizzy.
For instance, take the number one million; a 1 followed by six zeroes; or, as expressed by physical scientists, 106, which means 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10.
Now consider what ‘one million’ means.
How much time must pass in order that a million seconds may elapse? Answer: just over 11½ days.
What about a million minutes? Answer: just under 2 years.
How long a distance is a million inches? Answer: just under 16 miles.
Assuming that every time you take a step your body moves forward about a foot and a half, how far have you gone when you take a million steps? Answer: 284 miles.
In other words:
The secretary who goes off for a week to the mountains has less than a million seconds to enjoy herself.
The professor who takes a year’s Sabbatical leave to write a book has just about half a million minutes to do it in.
Manhattan Island from end to end is less than a million inches long.
And, finally, you can walk from New York to Boston in less than a million steps.
Even so, you may not be impressed. After all, a plane can cover a million inches in less than a minute. At the height of World War II, the United States was spending a million dollars every six minutes.
So–let’s consider a trillion. A trillion is a million million¹: a 1 followed by 12 zeros; 1,000,000,000,000; 1012.
A trillion seconds is equal to 31,700 years.
A trillion inches is equal to 15,8000,000 miles.
In other words, a trillion seconds ago, Stone age man lived in caves, and mastodons roamed Europe and North America.
Or, a trillion-inch journey will carry you 600 times around the Earth, and leave more than enough distance to carry you to the moon and back.
And yet a good part of the chapters that follow ought to show you quite plainly that even a trillion can become a laughably small figure in the proper circumstances.
After considerable computation one day recently I said to my long-suffering wife: ‘Do you know how rare astanine-215 is? If you inspected all of North and South America to a depth of ten miles, atom by atom, do you know how many atoms of astanine-215 you would find?
My wife said, ‘No, how many?’
To which I replied, ‘Practically none. Only a trillion.’
¹That is, according to American and French usage. In England, a billion is 1012 and a trillion is 1018, that is, zeros are counted in groups of six, not in groups of three as in America and France.
I’m so time-poor at the moment. I can barely scrape together the time to polish off the decks to get ready for my next gig, let alone bang a few words together. So, I’ll be cheap and use someone else’s words.
Following are some words put in an order far greater than mine have ever been arranged in, a transcript of the speech delivered by Richard Dawkins at the Protest the Pope March in London earlier this month.
I was, at first, as outraged as everybody else by the Pope’s opening remarks, as soon as he landed in Edinboro, blaming atheists for the atrocities of Hitler and the others of the 20th century. But then I took comfort from it because it seemed to me that, in a way, it was showing that we have rattled them so much that he was forced to the ignominious expedient of attacking us so as to divert attention from the real crimes that had been committed in the name of the Catholic church. I can just imagine the discussions in the corridors of Vatican power: “How are we going to distract them from buggering boys? And the answer came: “Why don’t we attack secularists? Why don’t we attack atheists? Why don’t we blame them for Hitlerism?”
Hitler — Adolf Hitler — was a Roman Catholic. He was baptized. He never renounced his baptism. The figure of 5 million Catholics is presumably obtained from baptismal figures. I don’t believe a word of it. I don’t believe there are 5 or 6 million British Catholics. There may be 5 or 6 million who have been baptized but if the church wants to claim them as Catholics, then they have to claim Hitler as a Catholic.
At the very least, Hitler believed in a personified providence. He often spoke of it and it was, presumably, the same providence that was invoked by the Cardinal Archbishop of Munich in 1939 when Hitler escaped assassination and the Cardinal ordered a special te deum in Munich Cathedral, quote, “to thank divine providence, in the name of the archdiocese, that The Furor, fortunately, escaped.”
I’m going to read a speech made in Munich, the heart of Catholic Bavaria, in 1922, and I leave you, as a guess, who’s speech it is . . .
. . . “My feeling, as a Christian, points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once, in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them. And who God’s truth was greatest, not as a sufferer, but as a fighter. In boundless love, as a Christian and as a man, I read through the passage which tells how the Lord, at last, rose in his might and seized the scourge(?) to drive out of the temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was his fight against the Jewish poison. Today, after 2000 years, with deepest emotion, I recognize more profoundly than ever before that it was for this that he had to shed his blood upon the cross.”
That was one of numerous speeches by Adolf Hitler and passages in Mein Kampf, where Adolf Hitler invoked his own Roman Catholic Christianity. No wonder he received such warm support from within the Catholic hierarchy of Germany.
Even if Hitler had been an atheist, as Stalin surely was, how dare Ratzinger suggest that atheism has any connection whatsoever with their horrific deeds . . . any more than Hitler’s or Stalin’s nonbelief in leprechauns or unicorns . . . any more than their sporting a mustache, along with Franco and Saddam Hussein. There is no logical pathway from atheism to wickedness unless, that is, you are steeped in the vile obscenity at the heart of Catholic theology. I refer to the doctrine of original sin. These people believe – and they teach this to tiny children – at the same time that they teach them the terrifying forces of hell – that every baby is born in sin. That would be Adam’s sin, by the way: Adam, who they themselves now admit never actually existed.
Original sin means that, from the moment we are born, we are wicked, corrupt, damned; unless we believe in their God or unless we fall for the carrot of heaven and the stick of hell. That, ladies and gentleman, is the disgusting theory that leads them to presume that it was godlessness that made Hitler and Stalin the monsters that they were. We are all monsters unless redeemed by Jesus. What a revolting, depraved, inhuman theory to base your life on!
Joseph Ratzinger is an enemy of humanity. He’s an enemy of children whose bodies he’s allowed to be raped and whose minds he has encouraged to be infected with guilt. It’s embarrassingly clear that the church is less concerned with saving children’s bodies from rapists than from saving priestly souls from hell: and most concerned with saving the long-term reputation of the church itself. He’s the enemy of gay people: bestowing on them the sort of bigotry his church used to reserve for Jews before 1962. He’s an enemy of women; barring them from the priesthood, as if a penis were an essential tool for pastoral duties. He’s an enemy of truth; promoting bare-faced lies about condoms not protecting against AIDS, especially in Africa. He’s an enemy of the poorest people on the planet, condemning them to inflated families that they can not feed and so keeping them in the bondage of perpetual poverty. A poverty which sits ill beside the obscene wealth of the Vatican. He’s an enemy of science; obstructing vital stem-cell research on grounds not of true morality but of pre-scientific superstition. Ratzinger is even an enemy of the Queen’s own church. Arrogantly dissing Anglican orders as quote, “Absolutely null and utterly void” – while, at the same time, shameless trying to poach Anglican vicars to shore up his own pitifully declining priesthood.
Finally, perhaps of most personal concern to me, Ratzinger is an enemy of education. Quite apart from the lifelong psychological damage caused by the guilt and fear that has made Catholic education infamous throughout the world, he and his church foster the educationally malicious doctrine that evidence is a less reliable basis for belief than faith, tradition, revelation and authority . . . HIS authority.