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Which web 2.0 services do scientists use?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Very interesting informal study:

Which web 2.0 services do scientists use?

Almost a third of Friendfeed scientists have delicious bookmarks. Don't discount non-academic bookmarking services as a source of paper metadata.
A similar number use the share functionality in Google Reader.

Despite rumors to the contrary not everybody is on Twitter.

A surprising (to me) number of people are uploading and favouriting items on Slideshare.

How to find interesting science blogs

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

I've just posted a rather extensive article on everything you've always wanted to know about finding interesting science blogs. It's here.

No stone (well, hardly any) is left unturned.

Comments, questions, and additional suggestions are welcome.

Science-less in Seattle

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Here's another sad tale about the decline of science journalism, along with the rest of investigative journalism in general. This one's from Chris Mooney, about fellow science journalist Tom Paulson:

Science-less in Seattle
Over time, however, Paulson noticed a change at the Post Intelligencer. His editors, he says, grew less interested in stories that were “too complicated or in depth.” Paulson wanted to really dig into covering the Seattle-based Gates Foundation and its work on global health, but he was instead pushed into writing what he labels “entertainment science” stories. The science of chocolate. Back-in-time research. That kind of thing.

And here's the punchline, at the end of the article:
In a science-centered age, we’re becoming a society that lacks a professional and impartial means of informing its citizenry about science—and it’s happening one journalist at a time.

Read some of the comments to the article also, such as:
So, the disenfranchisement of science is news to Center for American Progress? Certainly it isn’t to ex-science writers and editors, myself included. As a culture, we’ve gone back centuries already, with astrology columns a factor in newspaper sales and breathless, one-paragraph sound bites illustrated with file footage substituting for real journalism in broadcast news.

As I have hinted before, and I'll surely amplify as time goes on, I see the possibility of new channels for communicating about science to the public. That's part of what the Science and Reason Network is about. If this topic interests you (and why would you be reading this post if not?), please look into the network.

A leaflet from my friendly neighbourhood fascists

Here's more about a topic I've covered a number of times before, such as this, among others. Specifically, it's about the connection between the emotions of fear and anxiety, on the one hand, and religion and political conservatism, on the other.

A leaflet from my friendly neighbourhood fascists
The leaflet itself was pretty much what you'd expect. An obsession with warfare (it even includes a list of battles dating back to Trafalgar!) coupled with stoking up in-group loyalty and out-group fears.

It got me thinking, though, about why people turn to these kinds of parties when they feel anxious.

One of the leading researchers in this field is John Jost, at New York University. Back in 2003, he analysed all the published studies to show that fear of uncertainty and feelings of being threatened are higher in conservatives and extremists. But what he couldn't tell from the data was whether these factors lead to right wing extremism in particular, or just extremism in general.

The blog author (Tom Rees) goes on to detail two important questions about the association between religion and right-wing authoritarianism.
There are at least two possible explanations for why these two sets of ideologies often go together.

One is that religion might represent tradition and ethnic identity. If so, then the association is purely circumstantial. If a society were historically atheist, then that would be held up instead as the rallying cry (think of a historically communist state facing some kind of threat).

The other is that fear - of uncertainty and threats - generates both conservative views and also increases religiosity. As far as I know, there's been surprisingly little research into this possibility. It is know that 'existential anxiety' (the fear of death) can increase religiosity. But there's no study I know of that looks into whether more generalised fear and uncertainty make people more religious - even though it's widely supposed to be the case.

He has raised this question before, such as here. I agree that more research on this topic is desirable.

However, evidence continues to appear of the association between authoritarian conservatism (as opposed to the libertarian kind, perhaps) and uncertainty avoidance. The blog post refers to this recent research:

Are Needs to Manage Uncertainty and Threat Associated With Political Conservatism or Ideological Extremity?
Three studies are conducted to assess the uncertainty— threat model of political conservatism, which posits that psychological needs to manage uncertainty and threat are associated with political orientation. Results from structural equation models provide consistent support for the hypothesis that uncertainty avoidance (e.g., need for order, intolerance of ambiguity, and lack of openness to experience) and threat management (e.g., death anxiety, system threat, and perceptions of a dangerous world) each contributes independently to conservatism (vs. liberalism). No support is obtained for alternative models, which predict that uncertainty and threat management are associated with ideological extremism or extreme forms of conservatism only. Study 3 also reveals that resistance to change fully mediates the association between uncertainty avoidance and conservatism, whereas opposition to equality partially mediates the association between threat and conservatism.

I have additional material along these lines I'd like to discuss. Maybe I'll get to it before long.

An infinitely good read

Via CP at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker (a highly recommended site for general science news) comes the suggestion for this excellent article by Science News editor Tom Siegfried: Success in coping with infinity could strengthen case for multiple universes.

Despite the strangeness and fanciful-seemingness of some of the ideas suggested in the title and the article itself, it's a pretty good summary of some current thinking about life, the universe, and everything. It's even understandable on one level – as long as you don't insist on knowing the mathematical details of things like string theory and cosmic inflation.

In outline, some reputable physicists, including some of the originators of inflationary cosmology, are arguing that they may have mathematical "proof" that there must exist multiple universes. The argument is based on the idea that without an infinite number of existing universes, similar in some respects to ours, yet possibly different in radical ways, the probability is nil that all the characteristics of our universe could be so precisely tuned as to allow the existence of sentient life.

While some may question whether sentient life does in fact exist in our universe, just take that as an assumption for the present. The idea just described is sometimes known as the Anthropic Principle. There are several forms of this principle, and all are rather controversial, in some degree or another, in the minds of people (such as physicists and philosophers) who think about such things.

Tom Siegfried is reporting (among other things) that physicists like Alan Guth and Andre Linde think they may have found a way to prove mathematically that an infinity of multiple universes must exist in order to explain the highly unlikely existence of sentient life in the one universe we know about.

Using the word "unlikely" here means that what's involved in a rigorous argument has to use the mathematical theory of probability. And to employ that theory, it is necessary to define what's called a "measure", which is a way of assigning a specific number to the relative size of a subset of a larger set. What has to be done, to support a mathematical argument for some validity in an application of the Anthropic Principle for deducing the necessity of multiple universes, is to find a suitable measure that makes it exceedingly unlikely that the universe we are aware of, with its particular forms of life as we know them, could exist if there were only one universe (or a finite number of them).

There are certain unobvious problems that have to be dealt with, for example the problem of "Boltzmann brains". That refers to something exactly like a human brain that could arise purely by chance in a universe that's infinitely large and infinitely old.

There are physicists who object violently to the idea of the Anthropic Principle, in any form, as an explanation for why the universe we can perceive seems to have the properties which allow the existence of sentient life. An alternative that many of these physicists prefer is the existence of mathematical principles that uniquely determine the properties of our universe – rather than have it all be a matter of chance, which leads to an infinite number of universes, each with very different characteristics and physical laws. Einstein, too, was a believer in the existence of deterministic principles, long before inflation was even thought of, but also before it was recognized just how finely-tuned a universe has to be to support life.

Unfortunately, a huge problem remains with this deterministic view, that our universe, if it's one of at most a finite number of other possible universes, can have the life-friendly properties we (think we) observe. Namely, why should mathematical principles dictate exactly this kind – and only this kind – of universe? Yet if such principles could allow more than a finite number of other universes, we'd be back in the multiple universe scenario, whether or not it's the scenario string theory seems to call for.

Further reading

Boltzmann brains and the scale-factor cutoff measure of the multiverse – August 2008 arXiv paper by Alan H. Guth, Andrei Linde, Alexander Vilenkin, and others

Life, the Universe, and Everything: A Conference Looks to Ultimate OriginsSky and Telescope report on the conference

Proto-eukaryotes and LUCA

LUCA stands for "last universal common ancestor". It refers to the presumed common ancestor of the three presently recognized "domains" of life – Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya.

This common ancestor must have been very primitive, of course. One is tempted to think it might resemble modern-day religious fundamentalists, but in fact it was probably even more primitive, if you can imagine such a thing.

It's not absolutely clear there was actually one common ancestor, but that's what evidence currently indicates. But assuming there was, it's fascinating to speculate about what this ancestor was like.

Here's a very detailed blog post that discusses the issue: Ur... Again (Sort of).

It's based on an original research paper: The origins of phagocytosis and eukaryogenesis. The paper is open access and appears to be great reading, though it's conjectural and requires a little familiarity with fundamental biochemistry and cellular biology. Probably a good excuse to learn some of the details if you need to. These are topics that everybody ought to know about, even though our public educational system is way too inadequate to have done a good job of that.

Try reading at least the blog post, with a copy of Wikipedia close at hand.

The Science and Reason Network is now open

Sunday, May 17, 2009

OK, but what is it?

Concisely, it's an extension of the Science and Reason blog that makes possible sharing many types of information among many people.

A blog is generally just a one-to-many (or perhaps several-to-many) communication tool. A network, however, is many-to-many, like Facebook or Linkedin, for example.

Because a network is inherently many-to-many, it's much easier for sharing of news, information, opinions, questions, or whatever.

The structure of the network makes it convenient to share many different types of things. Not just articles on a specific topic, perhaps with subsequent comments. But also things like news stories, bookmarks, RSS feeds, images, videos, audio files, documents, slide presentations, calendars, maps, polls, bibliographies, reading lists, course syllabi, Google searches, notebooks, wikis, databases... you name it. Anything that can be stored digitally.

It's possible, though sometimes awkward, to put such things (or links to them) in a blog post. Some of them have worthwhile value only as part of a collection. Breaking out of the traditional blog format makes collecting such things easier. Blogs generally have a sequential format. But collections get added to randomly, and the order is usually not too important. A person new to the network can, in principle, go straight to what is of most interest at the time, without having to wade through much that's not immediately relevant.

So why not do this sort of thing in an existing social network, like Facebook or Linkedin? That's quite possible, of course. But my impression of these services, which are both useful and (sometimes) enjoyable, is that they are often too busy, too chaotic. Sometimes it's best to focus more narrowly. That, anyway, is the most obvious benefit of a special-purpose network. Fortunately, it's not necessary to be completely separate from the general-purpose networks. The network structure makes possible for simple, natural affiliations between networks.

I could go on for some time discussing this from many points of view. And I certainly will do that here, eventually. But I'll leave off for now.

The best thing to do, if any of this sounds interesting, is just go ahead and access the system here, or via the Science and Reason Network widget in the upper part of the right-hand column.

The first time on, there’s a short set of questions to provide information for your profile. Most of them are optional, and most allow you to list your profiles on other networks. This information will be useful in finding others who you might have interests in common with.

When you get in, just look around, and check out whatever interests you. You may enter comments into the system itself, either as replies to discussions, or as notes on a comment wall.

And if you still feel you need to read a little more, here's a short list of reasons you might want to join.

RNA may form spontaneously

Friday, May 15, 2009

I'd pay attention to this one. Could be a very big story.

Chemist Shows How RNA Can Be the Starting Point for Life
An English chemist has found the hidden gateway to the RNA world, the chemical milieu from which the first forms of life are thought to have emerged on earth some 3.8 billion years ago.

He has solved a problem that for 20 years has thwarted researchers trying to understand the origin of life — how the building blocks of RNA, called nucleotides, could have spontaneously assembled themselves in the conditions of the primitive earth. The discovery, if correct, should set researchers on the right track to solving many other mysteries about the origin of life. It will also mean that for the first time a plausible explanation exists for how an information-carrying biological molecule could have emerged through natural processes from chemicals on the primitive earth.

Here are some more references:

How RNA got started
Life’s First Spark Re-Created in the Laboratory
Origin of life: building an RNA world from simple chemicals
RNA world easier to make
Chemists see first building blocks to life on Earth
New clue to origins of life on Earth
Molecule of life emerges from laboratory slime

Neutron Stars: Billions of Times Stronger Than Steel

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Neutron Stars: Billions of Times Stronger Than Steel
New supercomputer simulations of the crusts of neutron stars--the rapidly spinning ashes left over from supernova explosions--reveal that they contain the densest and strongest material in the universe. So dense, in fact, that the gravity of the mountain-sized imperfections on the surfaces of these stars might actually jiggle spacetime itself. If so, neutron stars could offer new insights into a mysterious phenomenon known as gravity waves.

Neutron stars are the remnants of supernovae – basically the corpses of stars that were much more massive than our Sun. After the supernova explosion so much matter remains with no means to support itself (such as radiation pressure from thermonuclear reactions) that it all collapses into a relatively small object having a radius of about 12 km. The density of such an object is extremely high. Because the material is so dense, it is also very strong and rigid. Consequently, it does not collapse to a perfectly smooth sphere, but instead should contain surface imperfections roughly the size of (small) terrestrial mountains, each as massive as Earth.

In neutron stars that spin rapidly, the asymmetrical mass of these imperfections experiencing acceleration due to the periodic spinning motion should generate gravitational waves. The simulations that were performed in this research have shown that the energy in such gravitational waves could be a hundred times more than previously expected.

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"Awesome blogs"

This little blog has been selected as one of 100 Awesome Blogs By Some of the World’s Smartest People.

Perhaps that is a little bit over the top... but I appreciate the recognition anyhow.

You could certainly do worse than to have a look at that page. It covers quite a few areas, such as environment, politics, health, architecture, art, society, technology, law, education, economics, history, finance, philosophy, writing, and media – as well as science.

In the science category are such luminaries as Bad Astronomy, Cosmic Ray, Wired Science, and Greg Laden's Blog – not such bad company to be in.

M33: A Close Neighbor Reveals its True Size and Splendor

M33: A Close Neighbor Reveals its True Size and Splendor (4/3/09)
One of our closest galactic neighbors shows its awesome beauty in this new image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. M33, also known as the Triangulum Galaxy, is a member of what's known as our Local Group of galaxies. Along with our own Milky Way, this group travels together in the universe, as they are gravitationally bound. In fact, M33 is one of the few galaxies that is moving toward the Milky Way despite the fact that space itself is expanding, causing most galaxies in the universe to grow farther and farther apart.

M33 – click for 750×488 image

More: here

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