March 30, 2005

A Story

Galileo, Marin Mersenne, Honore Fabri, and Christian Huygens were on a fishing excursion on the Arno River one day, and Galileo was relating his ingenious reasoning on ballistics.  The others were congratulating Galileo on the profound mathematical and physical insights that in one fell swoop allowed him, and every man coming after, to exactly know the path of an object flung through the air. 

Fabri:  Indeed professor.  By simple geometry you have shown us what Aristotle had missed, and now we can predict the impact point, the struck target, of anything a man can throw, loose, or a cannon can shoot, windage excepted.

Their fishing guide, Victorio, fisherman that he was, though he would bait them with a problem.

Victorio:  You mean I can fling this oar, hard as I might, and you can by dint of calculations tell me where it will land?

Galileo:  But of course.  By simply knowing the angle at which you throw it, from the north and from the vertical, and with what degree of speed you hurl it, we can plot the parabolic path and tell you exactly where it shall land, with some errors due to the resistance of the air, which we can also put into our calculations to a degree.

Huygens:  Indeed, and that this is repeatable by any number of men is what makes it science as opposed to the mere speculations of the uneducated.  We know the physics of t he thing.

Victorio:  I'll bet you twenty bottles of ale that you're wrong, and can't tell me where the oar will land.

Fabri:  You're on.

The intrepid fishing guide then flung his oar high and far, sending it spinning into the heavens, tumbling and twirling until it made a big splash right in the middle of the river.

Fabri: Twill be a dry night for you, as you haven't given us any time to calculate, nor a measure of the angles and velocities of the oar when it was loosed.

Victorio: You have all the time in the world.  For you see, the oar hasn't landed yet.  It's still floating.  I'm betting it beaches upon the left bank, down just past that large oak.  What say you fine scientists?

Galileo:  Ah, a most fascinating problem you've posed to us.  Where lands the oar, given the currents, the tides, the winds, and the swirls and eddies.  This is a fascinating problem indeed.

What followed was hours of learned debate. They proposed models of currents and engaged in discussions about the formation and dynamics of eddies and whether these would enhance or subtract from the shoreward drift of the oar.  They put forth long deep thoughts on the mass, buoyancy, and drag forces on the oar; the relations between the oar's drag due to the winds versus the currents, and how much the surface currents are pushed by those winds.  That brought up predictions of the winds, since they would shift throughout the day.  Indeed it seemed that to predict the oar's landing required a prediction of the very weather, since the wind and current were set by the rains.

In exasperation Huygens suggested they observe the shore to see where floating limbs have historically accumulated, but Fabri noted that this would also be a function of where they entered the river.  Galileo correct him to say it would be a function of their relative position, from bank to bank, as they passed particular bends.  Mersenne added that these limbs would probably accumulate during high water periods, or when the flow was starting to drop, as opposed to the current conditions, so that the past record wasn't a completely sound predictor of the problem as posed.

During their long and reasoned debate a turtle bumped the oar, creating ripples in the flow of the river and the discussion.  If the influence of such chance events must be included then all sorts of additional effects are in play, causing doubt as to whether a true mathematical solution was even possible, especially on a problem dependent on the flick of a fish's tail.   But Huygens pointed to the mathematical theories of chance as put forth in his own book on the subject, along with the statisticalworks of Galileo, Fermat, Cardano, and others.  If the problem of the oar depended on odds and probabilities then science could encompass that too.

The debate raged back and forth, discussing the forces driving the oar toward the left bank versus those driving it toward the right.  Since the oar stayed stubbornly toward the middle it seemed the bulk of these forces were balanced, and that the final outcome might come down to the error terms that everyone ignores.  After several hours of this the boat and oar had drifted close to the old oak the fishing guide had firsts picked, and it looked certain that the oar would drift right past.

Victorio:  You have put forth many complicated reasons why the oar might do this or that.  How am I to know which one of you is right, and when your answer is correct?

Mersenne:  You can put faith in our answer when we are in agreement amongst ourselves, having thought about the subject sufficiently to convince each other of the soundness of the theory we have produced.

Victorio:  Ah, I see.  So when a boatload of enlightened and astute men have reached consensus then their answer can be trusted.

Mersenne:  Quite so it is.

Victorio: Would this be the same boatload of learned consensus, the convictions of the captain, officers, and navigators, which produced all the shipwrecks dotting our shores?  You esteemed gentlemen have certainly spent much great reasoning on this question, but as you can see this problem, though governed by the laws you discovered, depends on them in such complex ways that you are guessing as much as any other boatload of sailors, idling speculating away on a lazy afternoon.  I bet that my oar would land near the old oak, and now behold.

Victorio stood up and cupped his hands to his mouth, hollering "Eligio!  Eligio!  Come quickly! I've dropped my oar in the water.  Can you wade out and get it?"  And from a cabin tucked behind the tree a man broke from his sawing and waded out, retrieving the oar and winning Victorio the gambled ale.

Victorio: You forgot to include my cunning thirst in your calculations, though I did find your idle but reasoned speculations most informative.  Never forget to include mans' free will and dripping wet Eligio in your models.  It sometimes saves a lot of mathematical argumentation.

Mersenne:  But your bet was rigged from the beginning!

Victorio (laughing): The future often is, and only fools, tricksters, and fishermen bet on it.  Your esteemed physics may be astoundingly good for cannon balls and planets, but when it comes to problems that depend on the battles between the tiniest of nature's whims your predictions grow quite uncertain.

March 30, 2005 in Science | Permalink | Comments (24) | TrackBack

February 24, 2005

Abiotic Oil

Whether abiotic oil be certainty or insanity, the arguments this link presents are of low viscosity.  In his comments on how the theory would have no effect whether true or not, he puts for some dicey arguments like this one:

Secondly, petroleum geology is an empirical field which has evolved largely by trial and error. Petroleum geologists have learned the hard way where to drill (and where not to drill); in the process they have developed a theoretical model that WORKS. It is somewhat difficult to believe that generations of smart petroleum geologists missed huge amounts of oil.

He somehow ignores the fact that petroleum geologists are still making huge new finds, in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and all over the place.  By his logic those finds shouldn't exist because it means they were missed by the previous generation of smart petroleum geologists.

Put another way, a Keynsian and a perfect-market economist are at an economic summit meeting in Manhattan, and when lunch rolls around they head out to find a deli.  As they're walking along they both spy a $100 bill lying on the sidewalk.  The perfect-market economist doesn't even break stride as he steps past it, and the Keynesian asks, "Aren't you going to pick that up?"  "Of course not; it's fake," replied the perfect-market man, "If it was a real one hundred dollar bill someone would've already grabbed it."

On top of that, only about 0.25% of the earth's crust down to 10km is limestone, and about 0.75% sandstone.  Petroleum geologists have rarely, if ever, sunk a hole down deep into the bedrock, because as my textbook of petroleum geology makes plain, there's no oil down there.  Unless a geologist was drilling for somekind of malpractice lawsuit instead of oil, he would stop the bit shortly after grinding on the granite.  That means our drilling has been limited to the places where the data shows oil is a good possibility, leaving the vast, vast majority of the crust unprobed.

February 24, 2005 in Science | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

February 18, 2005

The First Evidence

Scripps says they just found new and dramatic evidence of global warming by looking at ocean temperature records.  If the evidence was really clear and dramatic you think they'd have noticed it before now.

Scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, and their colleagues have produced the first clear evidence of human-produced warming in the world's oceans, a finding they say removes much of the uncertainty associated with debates about global warming.

What's funny about this is that they said they have "the first clear evidence", thus directly saying that the evidence was not clear up till this point, despite the breathless weekly global warming updates on the BBC and CNN..

At a news briefing (Feb. 17 at 2 p.m. EST) and symposium presentation (Feb. 18 at 1:45-4:45 p.m. EST) during the 2005 American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington, D.C., Barnett will discuss the details of the study and explain why the results hold implications for millions of people in the near future.

Yep. Just one day after Kyoto goes into effect scientists step forward with their clear and dramatic evidence, based again on computer models that always show global warming.

In the new study, Barnett and his colleagues used computer models of climate to calculate human-produced warming over the last 40 years in the world's oceans. In all of the ocean basins, the warming signal found in the upper 700 meters predicted by the models corresponded to the measurements obtained at sea with confidence exceeding 95 percent. The correspondence was especially strong in the upper 500 meters of the water column.

Both global warming and natural temperature variations say there will be a bit of extra heat, which is going to act like heat does, so the fact that extra heat looks like extra heat is now claimed to be proof of the cause and mechanism of global warming. Hrmm.... There thermometer must be way smarter than the average thermometer, because the average thermometer isn't calibrated in units of blame.

It is this high degree of visual agreement and statistical significance that leads Barnett to conclude that the warming is the product of human influence. Efforts to explain the ocean changes through naturally occurring variations in the climate or external forces- such as solar or volcanic factors--did not come close to reproducing the observed warming.

So let me get this straight. If you punch in a tiny value of heating you get a small effect, but if you punch in a big value of heating you get a big effect. And if you punch up those volcanic factors you'd get cooling. And for this they hold a press conference, just one day after Kyoto. What are the odds... Apparently climatologists are far more predictable than the climate.

February 18, 2005 in Science | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

October 25, 2004

Bee Research

Someone had to be drunk to think this one up.

The honey bee, long seen as the world's most important insect, is now helping scientists to discover how alcohol affects the brain.

The study is part of long-term research into whether alcohol increases aggressive behaviour in humans.

Scientists at Ohio State University fed honey bees different amounts of alcohol and watched how long they spent walking, flying, grooming or just lying on their backs. They also measured the level of alcohol in the bees' haemolyph - the equivalent of blood. Unsurprisingly, the more the bees drank, the less they moved around.

Could a sober person even write that grant proposal, or would you have to be stoned. "Let's get some bees drunk and see what they do, man…."

The craziest part of the research is that since bees are "social" their behavior is taken as indicative of what drunks would do in society. Now excuse me, I think I'll get hammered and go pollinate some daisies.

October 25, 2004 in Science | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

October 11, 2004

Maxime Faget - Rest In Peace

Okay, so I didn't get any posting done this weekend. I had to go from Nashville to Dallas on Thursday and unfortunately got a vicious cold on Saturday, so I spent all day Sunday, my first day off in over a month, sleeping in a haze. Monday I return to Nashville, if all goes well down here.

Meanwhile, space pioneer Maxime Faget passed away on Saturday. He's one of the legends of the space program, like Oberth, von Braun, van Allen, Dryden, and so many others whose insight and determination made modern space flight possible.

October 11, 2004 in Science | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

August 22, 2004

Potential Cure for Muscular Dystrophy

This is very good news

Scientists believe they may have found a way to treat muscular dystrophy.

There is currently no cure for the muscle-wasting disease, the most common form of which affects one in every 3,500 children. Most die young. But scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, say they have identified a defect in a key protein which may trigger the disease. Writing in the journal Nature, they said the discovery could lead to new treatments to fight the disease.

Now that would be very good news, wouldn't it? The new research reveals an acetylcholine transporter, which is something they didn't even expect to exist. Acetylcholine is a chemical released by nerve cells to make muscles contract, and like most all signalling chemicals has to be broken down so it won't hang around forever after having completed its job. They used to think it disappeared naturally, being broken down into acetyl and choline for recycling back into more acetylcholine. The new research indicates that there's a protein devoted to breaking it down faster than it normally would, a transport protein, and without this protein it builds up and causes problems. The Amazon poison curare is an acetylcholine blocker, which inhibits your ability to contract any muscles, leading to death, while some nerve agents stop the breakdown of acetylcholine to produce uncontrollable muscle contractions. It's an extremely important chemical.

However, as my friend who works at UCSF says, some "science reporters" know so little about science that what they report is often a rather addled version of what the scientists are trying to explain, so you can get a clearer view by simply going to the source, in this case UCSF's new release. I'd continue blogging on it, but I couldn't write any clearer than the UCSF release, so go give it a quick read. Interesting stuff.

August 22, 2004 in Science | Permalink | Comments (88) | TrackBack

August 18, 2004

Only Breathe Gaseous Air

My friend Rhiain sent me a link to a very bizarre story about a guy who actually drank liquid nitrogen. Liquid nitrogen keeps itself insulated with nitrogen gas, and any time something warm is too close it causes nitrogen to boil off, so the blob of actual liquid doesn't contact warm surfaces. Apparently you can roll it around in your mouth as an impressive stunt, but unfortunately the author, though he'd done that, had thought you could also swallow it. Turns out you can't.

So... the consequences... my entire upper GI tract, from epiglottis to the bottom of the stomach was badly burned, scarred, and perforated. The gas also expanded quite a bit while inside my body. It filled my chest cavity with several liters of nitrogen gas, which was under enough pressure to collapse a lung. So after what I'm told was a grueling all-night surgery, they removed part of my stomach, and had my entire digestive system, top to bottom, running on machine power for a while. I also had a breather for the first day or so, until my lung was restored. There are a few details which are considerably uglier which i will spare you.

So... the recovery... they were impressed with my recuperative skills. I could breathe on my own completely after a few days. I could sit up in bed after a week, and was walking in two. About that time, I began to eat again as well. After four weeks, I was up and about again. Now, something like eight weeks, I'm virtually healed, with the exception of a number of unsightly scars.

But.... the good news is that I am the first documented medical case of a cryogenic ingestion. Read the New England Journal of Medicine. Three articles are in review now, and will be published soon, I'm told.

Ah, physics students. I had a pair of physics student friends who performed an ad hoc experiment that wasn't nearly so catastrophic. The shorter one reasoned that if breathing helium makes your voice go up, breathing a heavy inert gas like xenon should make it go down. And wouldn't you know, they had a xenon tank handy, so naturally he took a hit….

Well, he confirmed that the voice drops, which was expected. Then he started turning blue and couldn't really breathe. The taller one reasoned that as helium is lighter than air, it would naturally stay toward the top of your lungs and clear itself out in short order, whereas xenon is much heavier than air and would stay stuck in your lungs. So he picked up the shorter guy and flipped him upside down, holding him by his legs, and sure enough the xenon poured out. The lesson? Don't breathe xenon when you're rightside up, or helium when you're upside down. Then again, sticking to regular air might not be a bad idea. Oh, and make sure it's gaseous, not liquid.

August 18, 2004 in Science | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

New Protein Involved in Sleep and Anxiety

Ooo… This is good news. Researchers have found a protein that controls sleep and anxiety. I suffer from sleep problems, and a psycologist friend of mine says I have mild anxiety disorder. Although she wears Birkenstocks and sings the praises of patchouli oil (nearly fell out of my chair on that one, given how often I bash it), she's probably right.

Brain anti-anxiety switch found

Scientists have found a switch in the brain that appears to control anxiety and wakefulness.

In tests on rodents, the University of California team found a protein called NPS was active in areas of the brain governing arousal and anxiety.

This switch could be a target for drugs to treat sleep and anxiety disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, they hope.

The findings appear in the journal Neuron.

Scientists had recently discovered the brain protein neuropeptide S (NPS), but had not fully explored its actions

So we have a new brain chemical to investigate, one involved in sleep, anxiety, and attention disorders. What's interesting is the same chemical seems linked across them, and given the alleged enormous increase in childhood attention deficit disorders coinciding with kids staying up late chatting, watching late night TV, and playing on the computer, maybe the increase is more real than imagined.

August 18, 2004 in Science | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

August 16, 2004


This was interesting. If seems a protein, interleukin-6, fights obesity naturally.

A medical treatment to reduce obesity in humans without diet or exercise could be developed through research at RMIT.

Everyone always wants a short cut, don't they? If I wasn't thin I'd be one of them, too!

A team of medical scientists led by Mark Febbraio from RMIT's Skeletal Muscle Research Laboratory has isolated a protein, interleukin-6, which breaks down fat in adipose tissue in the human body and obese animals.

Tests on people in Melbourne and in Copenhagen, where a team of scientists is co-operating with the RMIT group, have shown the therapy to be effective against serious obesity and in helping patients suffering from Type 2 diabetes, in which obesity is also a factor. Interleukin-6 is naturally released by muscles in mammals during exercise but, the research has found, it can be injected into a human to reduce body fat by as much as 20 per cent.

So the body fat is tricked into thinking the muscles are actually doing something more than lifting potato chips, which is quite a clever little trick. I'd been thinking the eventual solution to obesity would be found in really heavy potato chips, but it seems there's a better way.

If the research leads to a viable, and approved, medical therapy it could be worth billions of dollars in the lucrative pharmaceutical market. But Associate Professor Febbraio is cautious. There seems no doubt that the treatment works and promises to be valuable in treating chronic obesity, but he does not believe it will lead to an over-the-counter weight reduction pill.

Taken orally, the protein is cleared by the liver before it can be effective and, he said, long-term use could result in the patient developing an immunity to its effects.

Well, I guess since the liver breaks it down you can't just run a cow around the ranch right before you shoot it, eat the meat, and have it make you thin. However many societies, including some North American Indian tribes, felt that if you eat a fast animal you become fast, and if you eat a slow pig you become one. Aside from fat content maybe they had noticed some small effect of some of these "exercise" proteins in the diet, but surely any such effect, if any exists, would be swamped by the fact that for the deer to be running the guy hunting the deer is running a hell of a lot too. Plus hauling it back and all that.

Still, I'm sure the method stands to make a fortune once they get any bugs worked out, such as the fact that injections are the only way to administer it, unless they can come up with a patch you can wear. Short of that we're all going to have the problem of telling the thin waifs with needle tracks from interleukin-6 from the thin waifs with needle tracks from heroin, while the cops will always here the plaintive cry "I'm just dieting, man…"

Monte Burns: Soooo.... I can pay Smithers to jog around the track for an hour, then give me a blood transfusion. He'll be doing all the work, and all be getting the benefits.... [rolls fingers]

August 16, 2004 in Science | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

August 15, 2004

A Mother's CRH

The UK Telegraph had an interesting article on a hormone that makes mothers fearless and protective of their babies.

A mother's instinct to protect her child is triggered by the same hormonal change that makes her more caring, new research shows.

The brain suppresses the release of certain chemicals during pregnancy and lactation to allow the female to feel less stressed and fearless, scientists found.

The findings emerged after six years of research led by Professor Stephen Gammie at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States.

He found that levels of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), a peptide that acts on the brain to control behaviour, were significantly reduced in new mothers.

This produced "maternal aggression", the response that helps to ensure the survival of young animals and humans.

So lowering CRH levels makes for maternal protective behavior, which is quite interesting. I wonder if they've looked at the effect of this hormone in men. Perhaps low CRH levels similarly determine how protective we are of the TV remote, with high levels more likely to result in our misplacing or losing control of it.

Prof Gammie said: "We've known for a long time that fear and anxiety decrease with lactation, but what I set out to prove was that it is this same decrease in CRH that allows mothers to attack during a situation that would normally evoke a fear response."

Prof Gammie used laboratory mice to test his theory but said that the results were relevant to human behaviour.

"When a mother feels that something is threatening her child she doesn't experience fear; she is ready to jump in front of a truck or do whatever it takes," he said.

"If she felt afraid, she might run away from the situation or freeze. If you eliminate fear, it allows a parent to react much more quickly. Our data support this."

The article goes into much more detail, so be sure to read it if you find this subject interesting, but I'd also like to bring up two related questions, or possibly opportunities.

We know there is a very large gap in political affiliation between married and single women, one often even larger than the gender gap. Could the CRH hormone level play even a small role in a woman's political worldview? It would probably take some pretty in depth studies to get through all the comlexities to see if the resultant fearlessness tends to shift some liberal women toward the gun-toting conservative side of the aisle. Obviously if it does happen it doesn't happen in all cases, but the only current data I know about, off hand, compares only married versus single women, as opposed to examining the views of mothers based on the age of their children. Keep in mind that voting patterns tend to remain fairly constant, yet obviously this particular shift keeps repeating, and requires single women to be changing from Democrat to Republican in a slow but continual flow. If it was merely "information" that caused the shift it wouldn't be specific to married women, since all women have access to the same information all the time. It could simply reflect circumstances and the stability of their relationships, or their role in society and the family, or their relative ages. Of course responsibility and maturity also come to mind, but it might be fun to look into.

My second idea is to see if we can develop a pill that would lower the CRH levels in teenage babysitters, making them more caring and fiercely protective. Stick one in the pizza you leave them before heading to the theatre… We'll make millions.

August 15, 2004 in Science | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack