Weekly Roundup

As we’ve previously discussed, when you decide to name something with an online poll, you shouldn’t be surprised when the winning name isn’t quite what you wanted. And to preempt your disappointment, let me stress that it’s unlikely we’ll see the RRS Boaty McBoatface anytime soon, because the Natural Environment Research Council gave themselves final say. But that’s what makes these cases closer to how democracy really works.

To be a successful historian, it helps to be the only one working in your area. Like Andrew Groen, whose book describes the context of the Great War and its influence on remaining political structures… in the EVE Online MMO.

Whether we find extraterrestrial life depends on what scientists consider to be alive.

Here are the winners of Popular Science’s 2016 Invention Awards.

We’re so invested in the idea of our superiority to other animals that we find it hard to acknowledge their specific achievements, argues Frans de Waal.

Money can’t buy me happiness, but I’m happiest when I can buy what I want: It turns out that having money available in your checking account (and not total earnings, savings, net worth, credit, or amount of debt) has the greatest effect on individual happiness. Liquid assets, particularly the first $1000, contribute most highly to life satisfaction.…

Weekly Roundup

free willy

SeaWorld has committed to stop breeding killer whales in captivity after years of protests and declining sales resulting from Blackfish, the documentary detailling the conditions of orcas in captivity and the deaths of several trainers in marine parks. This is good news for animal-rights activists. But now SeaWorld faces another crowd of upset stakeholders: marine biologists who want to study orcas in captivity. I guess you can’t please everyone.

Here is a rundown of the response from scientists to Andrew Wakefield’s anti-vaccination film that contributed to its removal from the Tribeca film festival.

Is it unusual to be surprised that the general public lacks complete, up-to-date knowledge based on the latest breaking evidence about a disease outbreak? Science News doesn’t think so, and takes us to task for having “flunked” this Harvard public health survey about Zika. Here are 5 things Science News wants people to know about the virus, and pay attention, because there might be a test.

The bioethics of paternity testing suggest consent and discretion, but this gets muddy when a single case combines the Church of England, Winston Churchill’s cabinet, DNA evidence, and investigative journalism. It turns out that Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is actually the son of the late Sir Anthony Montague Browne, Winston Churchill’s private secretary, and Jane Williams (Lady Williams of Elvel), who was then Churchill’s personal secretary.

After launching an inflatable module for the ISS into space, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully landed on a ship at sea for the first time.

John Yudkin, the nutritional scientist who discovered that sugar, not fat, was the culprit behind obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, faced ridicule, personal attacks, and loss of institutional support because his findings challenged the prevailing low-fat orthodoxy. His story offers a useful case study in the intractability of scientific theories and a warning that the path from evidence to policy is fraught with research trendiness, charisma, corporate interests, and political influence.…

Roundup Triple Shot

March has been busy here at the Roundup; so much so that it would be inaccurate to call this one “weekly.” I hope what we lack in punctuality we make up for in the sheer bulk of relevant stories below.

A paper on the biomechanics of the hand was retracted from PLOS ONE due specifically to mentions of a “Creator” that had passed unnoticed through the peer review process. Some think retraction was the wrong move, as it was motivated by swift Twitter mockery (#Creatorgate) and not necessarily by best editorial practices.

Nutrition is a confusing field, perhaps in part because studies funded by the food industry have a bias in favour of the food they produce. When nutrition researcher Marion Nestle compiled industry-funded studies on her blog, Food Politics, over 90 percent had results favourable to their funders.

If you let the Internet name your polar research vessel, I hope you’re ready for a polar research vessel named “RSS Boaty McBoatface.” This should be no surprise after crowdsourced poll results led to the “Chuck Norris” Slovakian bridge or the “COLBERT” ISS module. Sadly, both proved unsuccessful; the Slovak lawmakers decided on the “Freedom Cycling-Bridge”; and NASA went with the name Tranquility instead, but threw the comedian a bone with a backronym for a new ISS treadmill).

Algorithmic face and body recognition systems have trouble with diverse faces and bodies, a symptom of ill-considered design delectably lampooned in 2012 by office comedy Better Off Ted. Rose Eveleth at Motherboard explores how this relates to the lack of diversity in STEM.

It’s another Sokal scandal; this time, doggy-style. A paper on the role of alsatians in the history of totalitarianism turns out to be an elaborate hoax designed to mock the “animal turn,” the field of human-animal studies, and what the perpetuators [link to German site] interpret as the faddishness of the humanities, which they believe ought to be dedicated to social criticism. Responding to the hoax, animal studies scholars defended their research interest [also in German]. The ruse included a fabricated CV, a “satirical” performance of a research presentation at an academic conference, and a paper good enough to pass peer review in the German journal Totalitarianism and Democracy. It’s a shame, because the paper sounded really good.

Thrilling times in metrology, as the 11-inch “footlong” sandwich lawsuit debacle has made its way through the courts.

In case you don’t have enough to worry about, meet superlice. But cheer up! A newly-discovered “ghostlike octopod” has charmed all onlookers.

Political criticism of specific science projects is nothing new and continues apace as a feminist glaciology study comes under conservative scrutiny.

Famed astrophysicist, public science advocate, and vest-wearer Neil deGrasse Tyson has caused a  Twitter ruckus by opining on biological matters, claiming that organisms for whom sex was painful would be long extinct, and attempting to clarify that celibacy could not be inherited. Biologists quickly pointed out the many errors and mistaken assumptions in these tweets, and gave Tyson a taste of his own medicine with #BiologistSpaceFacts. It is not uncommon for prominent scientists to hold forth outside their areas of expertise (the phenomenon has particular prominence in Nobel Prize winners, and is claimed to be common in physicists). Disappointingly, it’s also not uncommon for public science communicators to misunderstand and denigrate the field of philosophy.

Preeminent philosopher Hilary Putnam has died. Obituaries focus on the remarkable breadth and relevance of his research interests, as well as his capacity to revisit and overturn previously-held views.

Here’s an interactive chart of PhD distribution by gender, worldwide, based on data from the NSF.

Hospital funding is tied to patient satisfaction surveys. That sounds great, argues Atlantic author Alexandra Robbins, until the patient-as-consumer model gets in the way of effective care.

The CDC recommends restricting painkiller prescription and dosage to combat addiction.

What should therapists do when the world is out to get you? Also, what’s next for psychology after the replication crisis.

Lies, damn lies, and P values: there are increasing calls for the end of oversimplified significance.…

Weekly Roundup

It’s Groundhog Day! Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow, according to the interpretations of the Groundhog Club (whose machinations are as mysterious as those of the Nobel Committee). A Canadian groundhog, Shubenacadie Sam, is the best weather groundhog, with 42% accuracy. Sadly, we mourn the loss of one of Canada’s weather-predicting groundhogs, Winnipeg Willow.

Speaking of helpful animals, the Netherlands is training eagles to protect Dutch airspace from malicious drones.

Physicist and science blogger/journalist Sabine Hossenfelder elaborates her call out against sloppy science journalism in this interview in Scientific American’s Cross-Check:

Yes, there is good science journalism. But then there are a lot of outlets that just seem to uncritically repeat press releases or what a scientist told them about their own research. And after one major outlet picked it up, it will appear in a dozen other places, each trying to make a bigger headline than the others. How come we still haven’t confirmed string theory if we’ve read two dozen times that it’s soon going to happen?

Oh good, a mysterious in-flight illness.

Biographical tweets about male scientists as though they were female scientists: His dour personality made everyone think he’d never marry. Even so, Schrödinger got a wife and a Nobel Prize.

“This discovery shows that there is still more to learn about ancient science, and that every new thing we do learn demonstrates just how clever the ancient astronomers were”: Clay tablets containing abstract calculations reveal that Babylonians invented astronomical geometry much earlier than Europeans did.

The truth, which is out there, is also in these real UFO files released by the CIA.

A “lady shark” ate a male tank-dweller at a South Korean aquarium. She was previously seen bopping her husband, Andy Capp, on the head with a rolling pin.…


Science Isn’t Broken? Of Course It Is!

According to FiveThirtyEight.com’s Christie Aschwanden, “Science Isn’t Broken. It’s just a hell of a lot harder than we give it credit for.” Aschwanden’s article is a remarkably clear and forceful tour of all things wrong with science—poor statistical practice, poor study design, conscious and unconscious manipulation of data, outright falsification of data, plagiarism, fraudulent peer reviews, predatory publishers, fake authors of gibberish articles in mostly fake journals, ingrained psychological biases, and over-enthusiastic journalists breathlessly reporting on each new study as if it is the Truth etched in stone. But despite all that, she concludes that:

Science isn’t broken, nor is it untrustworthy. It’s just more difficult than most of us realize. We can apply more scrutiny to study designs and require more careful statistics and analytic methods, but that’s only a partial solution. To make science more reliable, we need to adjust our expectations of it.

Aschwanden is one of my favorite science journalists, but in this case I feel like she dipped her toes into the abyss and turned back, unwilling to to take that final step into the terrifying unknown of admitting that yes,  science is broken—obviously, deeply broken. It is permeated by perverse incentives that reward publishing results over discovering truth, and corporations are hijacking scientific institutions to give their products the stamp of scientific validation. No simple fix in how journalists report about science or to the details of statistical practice or study design will fix it.…

Weekly Roundup

We have no idea what to eat.

Women suffer the deleterious health effects of stressful jobs more strongly, and should be relegated to career choices better suited to the feminine temperament, like “scientists and architects.”

Dark side of the moon(base).

Back to the Future II’s “future” happens tomorrow (October 21st, 2015). We’ve already seen a working hoverboard prototype; which of the film’s other predictions have come true?

“What was once whispered privately in laboratories and offices is being discussed publicly, loudly, and clearly.” WIRED looks at why we’re not putting up with sexism in science anymore.

Lastly, a bizarre story from the GMO wars, in which University of Florida plant scientist Kevin Folta, whose ties to Monsanto were revealed in a FOIA-aided investigation, had previously interviewed himself on the topic of GMOs via his pseudonymous science podcast personality Vern Blazek.…


How likely is it that there are aliens around KIC 8462852?

Like many, I was fascinated and excited to read about KIC 8462852, “The Most Mysterious Star in Our Galaxy.” According to Ross Anderson, writing for The Atlantic, citizen scientists looking at data from the Kepler Space Telescope for signs of extrasolar planets picked out KIC 8462852 as having a very peculiar light curve. Whereas stars with orbiting planets show dips in their brightness of up to 1% as planets pass between them and our telescopes, KIC 8462852 showed dips of up to 22%:
Kepler's light curve for the entire 1580-day observation period, showing two large dips in brightness, near days 793 and 1520. Source: Boyajian et. al, "Planet Hunters X" http://arxiv.org/pdf/1509.03622v1.pdf.
Kepler’s light curve for the entire 1580-day observation period, showing two large dips in brightness, near days 793 and 1520. Source: Boyajian et. al, “Planet Hunters X” http://arxiv.org/pdf/1509.03622v1.pdf.

Tabitha Boyajian, a postdoc at Yale working with the Planet Hunters program, and her coauthors considered several possible explanations for the dips, including instrument malfunction, dust orbiting the star, contamination of the star’s light curve by nearby stars, and comets disturbed out of their usual orbits by a passing star. They found severe problems with each explanation, but settled on a comet as the most likely possibility.…

Weekly Roundup

Do you like black coffee? Celery? Tonic water? Beer? You may have psychopathic tendencies. Or you may just be a person who likes to eat and drink stuff.

Yesterday was Ada Lovelace Day, celebrating the contributions of the woman we generally (but not always) consider to be the first computer programmer. It’s also a time to highlight historical women scientists as well as encourage girls’ interest in technology. There are events worldwide; in Canada, there will be a Wikipedia edit-a-thon at York University on Oct. 29th. In addition to her role as STEM touchstone, Lovelace has also become something of a steampunk heroine.

The Dr. Oz ShowNot as terrible as it was before.

Finally, a debate on the state of federal science policy during the election. Candidates from each party (including the Conservatives, who refused to participate in a similar debate earlier in the election) answered questions from Bob McDonald, host of CBC’s Quirks and Quarks on federal research, muzzling, and the environment.

Queen’s University emeritus professor Arthur McDonald will share the 2015 Nobel Prize in physics with  Takaaki Kajita for their work demonstrating neutrino oscillation, which required a non-zero mass for neutrinos and consequently challenged the Standard Model of particle physics. Science fiction fans will recognize SNOLAB, the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory laboratory where McDonald conducted his research, as the location of a portal to a parallel dimension of Neanderthals in the Hugo award-winning Robert J. Sawyer novel Homonids.

Thor’s hammer Mjolnir can only be wielded by someone “worthy”; in Marvel comics and shared universe of films, it’s the most prominent example of Arthur C. Clarke’s adage that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Indeed, Thor‘s filmmakers relied on Clarke’s “magi-tech rule” to explain the abilities of a pantheon of Norse gods/benevolent aliens. Now someone’s built a real-life Mjolnir with its own “worthiness” criterion, thanks to an electromagnet and fingerprint scanner.…

Will You Ever Be Able to Upload Your Brain? – The New York Times

The Singluarity is not so near?

Futurist Ray Kurzweil is famous for arguing that “The Singularity is near,” meaning that soon humans and machines will merge; we will be able to upload our minds to the cloud and live forever. Kenneth D. Miller, a neuroscientist at Columbia University, agrees that something like this could one day be a reality, but he doubts that it will be anytime soon:

Much of the current hope of reconstructing a functioning brain rests on connectomics: the ambition to construct a complete wiring diagram, or “connectome,” of all the synaptic connections between neurons in the mammalian brain. Unfortunately connectomics, while an important part of basic research, falls far short of the goal of reconstructing a mind, in two ways. First, we are far from constructing a connectome. The current best achievement was determining the connections in a tiny piece of brain tissue containing 1,700 synapses; the human brain has more than a hundred billion times that number of synapses. While progress is swift, no one has any realistic estimate of how long it will take to arrive at brain-size connectomes. (My wild guess: centuries.)

Miller goes on to explain all of the additional difficulties future scientists would encounter in this endeavor due to the enormous complexities of our brain’s anatomy. His argument is fascinating even if you aren’t hoping to live for eternity on Google Drive; I had no idea just how complex the components of our brain such as neurons and synapses are. Each synapse is a world in itself.

Kurzweil’s rebuttal would be that although all of these tasks appear intractable now, the exponential growth of scientific knowledge will reduce the difficulty of each problem Miller identifies far faster than the pace of current scientific progress suggests. One of Kurzweil’s favorite examples is the Human Genome Project, which took 7 years to sequence the first 1% of the humane genome and just another 7 years to sequence the last 99%. I suspect, however, that even exponential growth might not save Kurzweil in this case. After all, not all rates of exponential growth are equal and it’s not like we have full-brain “sequencing” machines just yet.

Adding complexity to our models does not necessarily give us a more realistic picture of brain circuits because we do not know enough about the details of this complexity to model it accurately, and the complexity can obscure the relationships we are trying to grasp.

That adding more detail to a model does not always increase model performance is an effect that has been well-studied in the domain of climate science. Are there philosophers studying brain modelling as well?

Source and Image: Will You Ever Be Able to Upload Your Brain? – The New York Times

The history of science has been West-centric for too long – it’s time to think global

Schaffer & Sivasundaram: The history of science has been West-centric for too long

If you’re like me, you probably give a brief nod to non-Western science in your history courses. Perhaps you discuss Arabic astronomy or Chinese clocks. And then you get back to the familiar narrative of Copernicus, Newton, and Darwin. Historians of science Simon Schaffer and Sujit Sivasundaram are trying to change that—to tell a truly “global history of science”:

“A standard tale is that modern science spread around the world from Western Europe, starting about 500 years ago based on the work of those such as Newton, Copernicus and Galileo, and then Darwin, Einstein, and so on,” explained Schaffer. “But this narrative about the globalisation of science just doesn’t work at all. It ignores a remarkable process of knowledge exchange that happened between the East and West for centuries.”


“Successful science is seen to be universal in its applicability,” added Sivasundaram. “Yet, accounts of scientific discovery, heroism and priority have been part and parcel of a political narrative of competitive ownership by empires, nations and civilisations. To tease this story apart, we focus on the exchanges and ‘silencings’ across political configurations that are central to the rise of science on the global stage.”


Over the past two years, with funding from UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, he and Schaffer have undertaken a programme of debates to ask whether a transregional rather than a Eurocentric history of science could now be told.


To do so, they teamed up with researchers in India and Africa, including Professor Irfan Habib from Delhi’s National University of Educational Planning and Administration and Professor Dhruv Raina of Jawarhalal Nehru University, and in December 2014 held an international workshop at the Nehru Memorial Library in New Delhi. “And now our debate is also being carried forward by a new generation of early-career researchers who came to the workshop,” added Sivasundaram.

You can watch Shaffer and Sivasundaram discuss the project and some of its challenges here:


Source and Image: The history of science has been West-centric for too long – it’s time to think global