Happy Darwin Day

Charles Darwin was born 200 years ago today. Great site: www.darwinday.org I think I like Darwin so much because he was so surprized by his own discovery, and in fact was not thrilled by it. He enjoyed his garden and his insect collections, but not elaborating theories into the realm of speculation. It was Herbert Spencer who coined the term “survival of the fittest”, Darwin wasn’t interested in that train of thought. He was an honest naturalist. Now, that’s humanistic science.

The canon. The beautiful basics of science

Once in a while you stumble upon a book that will change the way you see and approach things. This is one of them. Natalie Angier, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the NYT (booksite), has written a book for those of us who need beauty, involvement and lateral thinking to get into science. It’s all here: Thinking scientifically. Probability. Calibration. Physics. Chemistry. Evolutionary Biology. Molecular Biology. Geology. Astronomy.

Excerpt: “As youth flowers into maturity, the barrier between nerd and herd grows taller and thicker and begins to sprout thorns. Soon it seems nearly unbreachable. When my hairstylist told me he was planning to visit Puerto Rico, where I’d been the previous summer, and I recommended that he visit the Arecibo radio telescope on the northwestern side of the island, he looked at me as though I’d suggested he stop by a manuafacturer of laundry detergent. “Why on earth would I want to do that?” he asked. “Because it’s one of the biggest telescopes in the world, it’s open to the public, and it’s beautiful and fascinating and looks like a giant mirrored candy dish from the 1960s lodged in the side of a cliff?” I said. “Huh,” he said, taking a rather large snip from my bangs. “Because it has a great science museum to go with it and you’ll learn a lot about the cosmos?” “I’m not one of those techie types, you know,” he said. Snip snip snip snip snip.” (p. 3)

My teachers managed to drill the love of science out of us at school. Just look at this picture by Martin Heade, soon to be on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum in an art exhibition entitled “Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts“. How can you not love science?

Martin Heade, Cattleya Orchid and Three Brazilian Hummingbirds, 1871, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Martin Heade, Cattleya Orchid and Three Brazilian Hummingbirds, 1871, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The Eagle Nebula

Today is the big day. To celebrate a president we can be proud of and who allows us to dream of a more humane world, have a look at the beautiful Eagle Nebula, described as follows:

From afar, the whole thing looks like an Eagle. A closer look at the Eagle Nebula, however, shows the bright region is actually a window into the center of a larger dark shell of dust. Through this window, a brightly-lit workshop appears where a whole open cluster of stars is being formed. In this cavity tall pillars and round globules of dark dust and cold molecular gas remain where stars are still forming. Already visible are several young bright blue stars whose light and winds are burning away and pushing back the remaining filaments and walls of gas and dust. The Eagle emission nebula, tagged M16, lies about 6500 light years away, spans about 20 light-years, and is visible with binoculars toward the constellation of Serpens. (Robert Nemiroff (MTU) & Jerry Bonnell (USRA)

Bright blue stars, do your work! (Image: NASA)

Pink Moon

2009 is the International Year of Astronomy and I’d like to kick it off with “Pink Moon” by Nick Drake (1948-1974). The moon becomes pink during a lunar eclipse, traditionally considered a bad omen. Drake’s depression was his personal “pink moon”:

I saw it written and I saw it say
Pink moon is on its way
And none of you stand so tall
Pink moon gonna get you all
Its a pink moon
Its a pink, pink, pink, pink, pink moon.

To me, of course, the pink moon of a lunar eclipse is pure magic.

Your brain on Google

Gary Small, a neuroscientist at UCLA in California, has found through studies that Internet searching and text messaging has made the brains of “digital natives” more adept at filtering information and making decisions. The thinking part of the brain can be trained by surfing,  which is scanning for the next bit of new information and then connecting the dots to get the big picture. That means that in fact surfing is not a waste of time – it makes you smarter.

The downside is that all of this surfing creates stress and can damage neural networks. I’d like to know more about that.

In addition, “digital natives” tend to neglect human contact skills which you need to read emotional expressions and body language. So more going out with friends, doing sports, making music together, having dinner with the family… (did I miss your favorite January activities?)  And at work: Having a well-prepared but informal meeting where everyone is focussed on here and now… and on each other! In fact, the trend is towards the topless meeting – that’s official new-speak for a meeting without a laptop!

(Thanks Christian & Eamonn for your various tips.)

Michael Crichton RIP

Michael Crichton (October 23, 1942 – November 4, 2008) was a great science fiction thriller writer (Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park) who criticized politicizing science to manipulate the public. He advocated fighting the “fear of unproven danger” and “pseudo-religious environmentalism”  (see his website) as harmful misinformation. His position can be and has been abused by ideologues on the right – but IMHO that doesn’t make it any less valid and enlightened. 
Here is an excerpt of his speech “States of Fear: Science or Politics?”:

Now, I don’t need masses of dying people to wake up to a problem, and even a little radiation sickness is reason for me to be very skeptic about atomic energy. The key issue, to me, is the longterm effects of what we are doing. But this is where life gets so incredibly complicated, as there is simply no way we can foretell the future. So I live my little rituals, trying to keep my carbon footprint small and carrying glass bottles and paper out to the container, more or less religiously. We all have our altars.