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The Creation Museum

This weekend, Catherine (my wife, and an Evolutionary Biologist) and I traveled four and a half hours (one way) from central Illinois to visit the Creation Museum located in Kentucky just across the river from Cincinatti, OH. The Creation Museum is an enormous facility, founded by Answers in Genesis, a group founded to push Bible-based education, but partially by showing how modern science can actually support Creationism founded by Australian, Ken Ham. The Museum is a temple of misinformation about modern science to create, for those who are inclined, what could be a very believable picture of a mere 6000 year history of the world.

Note: If the tone of the first paragraph isn’t clear, I am not a creationist, and I think that anyone who is is grossly misinformed. That doesn’t mean I believe faith is a bad thing, or people of faith are stupid or not worthwhile, simply that they’re basing their world-view on incomplete information, and that their incomplete world-view (and faith-based) world-view has no place in public school. Private schools, and what parents teach their own children? That’s fine, just not public.

Still, there was an enormous crowd at the museum, including at least a dozen Amish. And it was very clear that few (if any) others at the museum were approaching the trip from Catherine and I’s perspective. Unfortunately, I haven’t had an opportunity yet to go through all the photographs we took, and Catherine wants to save some of them for a possible presentation to the rest of her Department during Fall term. However, they will all go up online at some point, and I will update this post with more information when that happens.

Creation is actually a fairly small part of the museum, as it is actually trying to build an entire framework for belief in Creationism and the history of the world based on the Bible as a literal history. It does so by focusing on what Answers in Genesis calls the ‘7 C’s of History’, which I, who was active in a Church youth group through High School, had never heard of.

  1. Creation
  2. Corruption - Adam & Eve eat the Apple
  3. Catastrophe - Noah’s Flood
  4. Confusion - Tower of Babel and the spread of man
  5. Christ
  6. Cross
  7. Consummation - I believe this would be the Rapture, but the Six C’s and an R isn’t as catchy.

And there is a ‘walk-through’ history that focuses on each of these periods in order, with a beautiful Garden of Eden walk-through (complete with dinosaurs, more on that later), and the eating of the Apple, the first sacrifice, the hardness of life after the Garden and the murder of Abel by Cain. Then there is a huge Ark exhibit, complete with a talking Noah. The last three are not delved into much, but that’s fine.

The basic ideas behind modern Creationism is that God, when he created all life created ‘kinds’, like Ape-kind, Horse-Kind, Man-kind, Weasel-Kind, etc. There was a single male-female pair of each kind, and each kind had the genetic material to form each and every species we see today, since the ‘kind’ is roughly at the ‘family’ level. Also, before the Corruption, all animals (including the dinosaurs) were all herbivores. Either God decided as part of the Curse to add carnivorous behavior to animals, or the Kind always had that potential, but it didn’t manifest until after Corruption. And since there was no death (and probably no reproduction) before the Corruption, it couldn’t manifest until later.

When the flood hit, Noah didn’t have to take every species, merely a representative pair of each kind, which could then repopulate all the world. Okay, so Leopards and Lions are both born from the felid-kind pair that Noah took on the Ark. So…why don’t Lions give birth to Cheetahs today? In Creation-land every mutation to DNA that happens is a loss of information. This is one of the first really obvious places where creationism completely ignores well understood science, and redefines words to suit their own needs. Mutations are any change, and in fact most mutations add code. They may not actually do anything, until paired with other mutations later on, but actually very few mutations are a true loss of information. Given that these are a people who believe in Rapture, and probably believe it’s coming sooner rather than later, the idea that the genome will become too corrupted to be viable, probably isn’t much of a problem.

I plan to write more on the museum as Catherine and I review the photographs and prepare her talk. But I think it’s interesting to have a discussion of how this is such a big and popular museum, and why we’re having such a problem with people taking ‘creation science’ seriously.

For decades, the Scientific Community has treated creationists as foolish people who aren’t really worth addressing, because their wrong. And they may be wrong, but they’re not stupid, but their marketing is top notch. If the scientific community is going to be able to win this argument, they are going to need to get off their asses and take this threat seriously, and actually take the time to educate people on the truth. As it stands, creationists are using real science, but only part of that science to make their points.

There was also a video called ‘Men in White’ that we visited that is about a young girl questioning her life, and a pair of Angels, Mike and Gabe (obviously meant to be the Archangel’s Gabriel and Michael) trying to show her “God’s Truth” and it paints modern science as these smug people who follow science as a Religion, and can’t deal with evidence that seems to contradict generally accepted scientific fact.

Ultimately, that is the difference. Creationists have built their worldview on a very rigid structure, the Bible as a literal history of the Universe. Whereas Science bases understanding on where the preponderance of evidence point. That is the primary difference. There are parts of Creationism that can never change, while in Science, if there is strong evidence that something believed is wrong or different than was believed, than the view can be changed. When Astronomers announced that Pluto was just a Kuiper Belt Object, and not really a whole Planet, it was not astronomers and other scientists that really argued that point, the evidence was fairly clear. Pluto is large, but not the largest thing in an area of plenty of other large things of similar composition. It’s an important Kuiper Belt Object, certainly, but not a planet.

I want to work with Catherine on a book that looks at these ideas behind Creationism and presents the rest of the story that the Creationists choose to ignore, in plain language, to help demonstrate that Creationism does not possess quite as much strength in argument as they want you to think.

Ultimately, we need to remember these people are not stupid they are misinformed. And we can no longer afford to ignore them, or treat them badly. There is a lot of work to be done in this country to repair this dangerous, insidious, pseudo-scientific thinking that has done so much damage to real science in recent years.

Electricity from Algae

Mike Thompson, a British designer working in the Netherlands, recently published the design for a solar-powered lamp, that uses water, CO2, and blue-green algae to charge a small battery, which then powers a small LED lamp when power is needed.

I was pretty excited when I saw the story cross my feed reader. In High School, I spent some time doing a bit of research on a similar battery, using blue-green algae and a purple chemical whose name I can not recall, which would strip the electrons from chloroplasts as they were excited by a proton of light. The reaction was stimulated by heat as well, you’d get a sharp rise in the current drawn from the reaction. However, the chemical had a saturation point, and after a while, it couldn’t draw any more electrons. We did some work to see if there was a way refresh the reaction, but got nowhere.

So, to see something that functions identical to work that I was doing a bit on over ten years ago, was pretty interesting.

Now, reading the PDF linked above, the mechanism for this is a lot more involved. It required inserting 30 nanometer wires into a chloroplast, it’s able to produce about 0.6 milliamps per square centimeter, not much, but if all it’s going to do is charge a battery to power a small lamp, then it doesn’t need to be much. Now, I don’t remember the exact output of the reaction that I was working on all those years ago, but I do remember it being more prolific, though immensely shorter lived.

However, once done, you have a system that requires you only add water and CO2. And, if you read the document, a large part of the reason behind this is to make people more cognizant of their energy usage by making the generation of that energy more personal.

I think this is a really interesting project, but I’m not sure it’s sustainable. Cory Doctorow in his new book, For The Win, several times makes the claim that all the gold ever mined on Earth, would create a block no larger than a regulation Tennis court, but that the certificates for gold sold amounted to roughly double that. Gold has value because it’s rare. It’s current value, according to Yahoo! Finance, is over $1200 per ounce.

Admittedly, the amount of gold in a 30 nanometer wire is miniscule, and if anything is going to be in the way of this process, it’s likely to be the difficulty of building this device than the cost of gold needed to build it. However, the general idea of making people more cognizant of their energy use decisions, is valuable, and I’m in favor of any research that focuses on energy generation in novel ways, and I think algae could be a really interesting source of electrical power if we can find an easier way to recover that energy. I’m not sure this method can be done at scale, but in a world where 2.6 Billion people still defecate openly; by streams, rivers, or lakes; generating energy on the small scale, to provide light into the evening, is certainly not going to hurt anyone.

Science Education

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A few weeks back, Powell’s Books posted an editorial article by Theodore Gray, author of “Mad Science: Experiments You Can Do At Home — But Probably Shouldn’t”, asking if Science is an important as Football. On the surface, the question seems ridiculous, and I can’t think of very many people who would dream of saying that Football is more important than Science. Mind you, the people I know are a non-random sample, but even on a large scale, I don’t see most people viewing Science Education as less important than school sports.

This discussion isn’t about funding, though that is certainly an issue. Science instructors do tend to find their budgets for specimens, equipment, and chemicals getting leaner, while sports programs (especially football) are almost always able to get the money they need to continue operating. More than that, however, is how Science education has consistently gotten less dangerous, and consequently less exciting.

Safety is important, but when science becomes boring, kids don’t get interested in science. When people don’t have an interest in Science, we end up with a systemic societal problem where people honestly believe that evolution is a lie, the Earth is flat, that lighting it on fire is an effective means of igniting PETN, and that global climate change doesn’t have any anthropomorphic causes (the degree of humanities involvement in climate change is under debate, but no real climate scientists claim that humanity hasn’t impacted the environment). Plus, we delay the progress of Science, since fewer people are interested and participating, progress is slowed.

Gray really bemoans the fact that these moderately dangerous experiments (which aren’t that dangerous when done correctly) have been abolished, but other dangerous activities, Football, are not only sanctioned, but celebrated. And kids do get injured, some badly, every year. Most aren’t bad, but then, neither were most classroom-accidents either.

Being so close to Academia, I’m really afraid that we’re moving more and more, at least in the US, to the kind of world that Neal Stephenson described in Anathem, where the scientists are sequested away from the rest of the population, who mainly continues to operate in ignorance and fear of things that they don’t fully understand. The worst part is that a fair amount of it comes from within Academia itself. Academics strongly stigmatize people who do outreach. People who write for non-scientific publications. People who reach outside of Academia to help the general populace understand why what goes on within Academia is so important.

After all, isn’t a little ridiculous that the most well-respected writer on food science issues, is a journalist?

Some scientists break that barrier, as Carl Sagan did in the 1980s, but only after becoming well established in their career, and often with plenty of derision from their contemporaries. Unfortunately, Carl Sagan has been dead for 13 years, and the no other Scientist-Author has risen who has been able to make the topics as accessible, or as fascinating as Sagan. Others who have tried have focused on issues that have made their writings far more controversial than was necessary, or even helpful.

As important as it is that Science begins reaching out to the public, making people understand their work, essentially arguing for their very existence… Isn’t it just as important that the schools do their part to keep science interesting as they lay down that basic educational, and foundational, framework that they impart upon young people? Certainly parents must play a role here as well, but every child, every student deserves to be exposed to the wonder of Science, the excitement of discovery, and, regrettably, not all parents are up to the task of revealing these wonders.

Minor Thanks: Symphony of Science

On last week’s Science Advocacy post, I included a video from the Symphony of Science, but given that they just released a new video on Monday I figured this would be a great opportunity to give some thanks for the work this composer is doing.

The new song, entitled “Our Place in the Cosmos” features clips of Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Michio Kaku and Robert Jastrow for the purposes of putting together this composition, and it’s pretty awesome.

Now, this really isn’t quite what I meant when I said that we need a new voice for Science in America, but it’s still awesome work that I hope will catch some people’s attention and imagination, because at this point, every little bit helps.

Science Advocacy

I’ve always been really interested in Science, and while my career has taken me to Computers and software in particular, I still try to keep up on, at least in a superficial sense, what is going on in scientific research. In the last few years, this has involved getting a crash course on modern evolutionary theory, since my wife is a researcher in that field, but more than that, it’s a topic that (miraculously) has been the topic of an increasing debate in the last few decades, so evolution is something that anyone with an interest in science should at least have a basic understand of.

Today, at least in the United States, there seems to be a war on science, at least in the public eye. We have scientific principles that have decades of evidence and research backing them up, that some people claim is simply wrong, even though their entire argument is based on the fact that the body of knowledge can’t yet explain everything. We have states that have passed laws to counteract scientific consensus.

Maybe ‘war on science’ is too conservative a claim. This is pretty much a war on common sense at this point.

But, when you look at the scientific community, it’s clear why these problems exist. Scientists suck at selling their ideas and work to non-scientists, hell explaining can be a challenge for these people. But, I’ve talked about this before.

This is about the need for advocates. If not the scientists themselves, those of us who follow what’s going on in scientific research, and who are willing to take the time to learn things well enough to explain them. We need bloggers and podcasters and everyone else to take the time to have reasonable discourse with people who deny scientific consensus to find out why, and respectfully inform people why the consensus is what it is.

The scientific community has, regrettably, lost it’s two greatest advocates to the public in the last fifteen years, and both died very young. Stephen Jay Gould is responsible for a large body of modern evolutionary theory, from punctuated equilibrium to heterochrony and beyond. By all measures, a highly accomplished scientist. But more than that, he was a prolific writer of material that could be marketed to non-scientists, he spent a lot of time on television from the 1980s on, including a guest spot on the Simpsons. Now, he’s been criticized by some in the scientific community for not always presenting the cutting edge of evolutionary theory to the public, but it’s the nature of science to disagree with one another. The main thing is that Gould was able to address the issue of evolution intelligently, and approach-ably to the general public.

And then there was, arguably, the most famous astrochemist who ever lived: Carl Sagan. Sagan took the sort of advocacy that Gould was doing to a whole other level (or actually, Gould never quite managed to reach Sagan’s level of advocacy), including the often rebroadcast PBS series, “Cosmos”, where Sagan talked to people about the origin of life and the universe. He appeared with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, and was recently the subject of an xkcd cartoon.

Sagan, if only for his advocacy, is a legendary figure in science, and one of the best advocates that science has ever had, and we’re desperate for a new advocate. I leave you with this mash-up of footage from Sagan’s “Cosmos”, and hope that we’ll see that advocate soon.

This video, and others are courtesy of the The Symphony of Science.

New Thoughts on Carbon Sequestration

Generally speaking, I think that most people in the environmental movement tend to focus a bit too heavily on the issue of carbon emissions, often to the exclusion of other issues. For instance, we’re supposed to use compact fluorescent lamps, because they use less power, but ignoring the mercury used in production (given that most people don’t properly recycle the bulbs, this is a huge heavy-metals problem waiting to happen). Same thing with hybrid cars, like the Toyota Prius. So little of what goes into current environmental thinking even begins to consider long-tail, that while we’re busy putting out this current fire, we’re literally pouring gasoline on the next one.

Which is why, it’s so awesome to see real work going on that could potentially solve a lot of problems. Like this talk from July 2009 at TED by Rachel Armstrong on work that she’s involved in that works on literal nanotechnology that creates this microscopic, almost alive, protist-like things that can create limestone reefs in the ocean. And she proposes using this technology to save cities like Venice, which has been sinking into the sea for centuries.

If this works, and I do have some concerns about the ecological impact (namely, how does this system stop growing), it stands to be absolutely amazing, allowing us to create reefs which not only shore up our buildings, but also sequester carbon and serve as habitat for wildlife. Really fascinating.

But more interesting in the short term, because it definitely seems that the implications are far simpler, is some work being done by Gary Lewis of BioAgtive Technologies, where they’ve designed a tractor kit which takes tractor emissions and uses them to fertilize a field. The Australian farmer in the story linked figures he’s saving a half-million Australian dollars per year on fertilizer costs. Plus, he’s taking an output that he’d have anyway and utilizing it in a productive manner.

It’s this sort of enviromental work that really excites me, because they seem to be something which will bring around real, long term, meaningful change in environmental thinking. Incidentally, this is part of why I love TED. The talks are fascinating, and tend to focus on things that you’re not likely to hear about elsewhere.

Is Funding NASA Worthwhile?

Today, the Daily Tech reported that, according to NASA, Barack Obama is planning to scrap the Constellation program. Constellation is a pair of vehicles NASA has been working on with the stated purpose of getting the United States back to the Moon for the purpose of building a permanent Moon Base by 2020.

This base is important for several reasons: Learning about life in Micro-Gravity (not Zero G), Telescopes and Radio Telescopes cheaper than Hubble but still free of the Earths Atmosphere, and the stated goal of being the jumping off point for a manned mission to Mars. Even with the plans for ARES, we are already facing an enormous lag of Space Service with the impending retirement of the Shuttle in 2010 (which is long overdue), and scrapping ARES at this point would put the US at such a severe disadvantage as the issue of Space Exploration heats up again.

My main issue is why anyone is surprised. Yes, Obama did endorse a $2 Billion bill to extend the shuttle a single misson, but his stance had always been that he wanted to cut NASA’s funding to support his educational programs. Obama doesn’t feel that human space exploration is worth the cost. And it is expensive. And it is dangerous. But the people engaged in the program are well aware of the risks, and they accept them, for the purpose of science, and the furthering of Human Knowledge and Understanding.

And this is woefully important. Already, we face a looming crisis on this planet. Our population is rapidly approaching 7 Billion, while rising oceans are slowly creating a refugee problem. Ecologists have estimated that the Earth’s Biosphere will only be able to support around 10 Billion people. At the current rate of population growth, we’re likely to face a try, honest, global famine within the next twenty years or so. Science may be able to help us find a way out of this, and space may be able to as well. We’re barreling into a pretty miserable situation, and cutting back on Science is not a good long-term strategy.

Space Exploration may not be the thing that saves Mankind, but the things that we’ll need to fund to sponsor the development certainly won’t hurt. Further development in Hydroponics, Solar Power, Low-Power Electronics, and on and on will be necessary to fund to take us in this direction. All of these have honest, and sincere potential for changing things meaningfully in the next ten years, and the Space Program can (and should) be but one of the ideas pushing this. Even people who don’t believe that the problems of Climate Change are real (or as serious as some claim) can easily get behind pushing these technologies in that realm.

I am reminded, once again, of the words of President John F. Kennedy, given at Rice University in Houston, TX in 1962, where he focuses on the fact that these expensive, and impossible tasks serve to unite us, and drive us forward in ways we never thought we could. We need this sort of inspiration now, we need a goal, and not only the doomsday scenario we are facing. I firmly believe that solving those problems with help with many of ours.

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Working Towards Open Science

We live in an interesting time in Science. In the past, the conducting of science required expensive equipment, and immense amounts of time which made the ability to conduct scientific inquiry wholly out of reach to anyone outside of Academia. Several things have changed in society over the last twenty five years as technology has grown which have led us to the precipice of a fundamental change in the way that scientific inquiry is conducted.

First, the people have access to far more information than we’ve ever imagined before. This is due to the Internet, and Internet-based movements like Open Courseware, which makes the ability to learn far easier, not to mention cheaper. Recently, the California University System sought to use Open Courseware to reduce the cost of Education, citing the high costs of textbooks. As someone who has, in some way or another, been tied to a University for the last seven years, I can certainly agree with that sentiment, but more importantly, it makes the information used in gaining a college education available to everyone. Is it a replacement for a College Education? Not likely, since much of the benefits to a college education are inherent in the working with peers, and with the professors, but for some people it’s enough to help.

This has also been met with the recent movement towards opening up Scientific Journals. However, on this point, we still have a long way to go. A journal that my wife’s advisor has been published in on several occasions, Molecular Biology and Evolution, costs around US$141 per year to subscribe as an individual (US$678 as an Institution), less if your a student or a postdoctoral researcher. Frankly, this is cheap. Very cheap. Another Journal where he has been Published, the Journal of Morphology is only available to Institutions, and costs a blistering US$5533 per year to subscribe.

Still, there has been movement here. Both the journals mentioned above allow for articles to be made downloadable via the Internet for free, and it seems that the MBE journals subscription is more to cover membership dues into the organization which publishes it. Things are changing where many grants which are based on public funds (ie, grants for the National Science Foudnation, then the papers resulting from the grant must be made freely available to the public. This is fantastic. In my opinion, Science needs to be conducted freely, and out in the open. First, because then it benefits the most people, and second, openly conducted science is the best mechanism to further drive scientific development. And while many scientists do interesting trade in publication credit and such, ultimately, I believe that most scientists agree. However, if you’re not lucky enough to be affiliated with a university, there is going to be a large percentage of journals which you simply can’t read, because historically, the cost of membership to a journal has been too high. And the scientists do not even see any of the money from the publication of their materials.

We have more access to the data, and to the results of science than ever before, but there is more to the development of an open scientific infrastructure than simply the papers that result from scientific inquiry. The next step is Open Data. Luckily we’ve come a very long way in this respect as well, at least when it comes to research on Genetics. The National Center for Biotechnology Information offers a convenient place for scientists to upload genetic sequences they’ve made in order to allow others to carry on work with that sequence information. GenBank, NCBI’s sequence database, contains tens of millions of sequence records from species ranging from humans to hagfish, porpoises to platypii.

Why do projects like GenBank exist? Well, first, some scientists receive grants to sequence an animals genome. The methods they use for this are generally imprecise, and there is a lot of what’s known as “Shotgunning” involved, meaning that they throw enzymes at DNA and see what sticks. Some genes are easier to extract than others, and depending on the perceived value of the gene, the desire of a scientist to extract it changes. For instance, in Catherine’s lab, they feel that the 18S and the 28S ribosomal genes are particularly valuable for deep historical phylogenetics, and they’ve got some data to back that up. For that reason, the lab has developed protocols to extract those two genes in their entirety, something that many others do not feel is worthwhile. It probably doesn’t help that the protocols need to be modified depending on the species being extracted, and there are a limited number of researches using these genes. Genetic research is still very much changing, and I lack the knowledge of biochemistry to speak any more to the difficulties inherent in the practice. The point is that the people doing the sequencing may not get everything, and they make their data available so that others can do the analysis.

So, with the data being made available, the need for complex lab equipment to perform certain types of analysis on genetic material has been greatly lessened. Certainly if you can do your own sequencing you have an advantage, but it’s no longer necessary. I suspect that many other fields have similar open data initiatives, but genetics happens to be a field today where the sheer quantity of data being produced, and needing to be produced is mind-boggling, so it makes a particularly good example.

This takes us to our third level of what’s required for conduct open science. First, we had the Open Knowledge. Then, we had Open Data. All that’s left now is Open Tools. It just so happens that we already have mechanisms in place to supply this, in the work done by the Free Software Foundation and the Open Source Initiative. In the field of Statistical Biology, there are a large number of software tools that are used by most researchers in this field, and save for one or two notable exceptions, this software is all Open Source, much of it copyleft.

With this, we now have all we need to do real science. We have the ability to learn. We have the data we need. We have the exact same tools used by the academics themselves. Science is doable by the layperson, in a way that it has not been before.

This is not to say that Academia is without merit. Most scientific inquiry will still be done in Academia. The scientific inquiry done in privately-held corporations will rarely be released to enrich all society. The funding necessary for certain types of inquiry will always be easier to get in academia. But, for those people who are interested, who have an itch to scratch, they can do their own research. On their own time. And they have the power to discover amazing things. Academia will always be the heart and soul of science. I never see that changing, but the laypeople need to be able to benefit from, and contribute to, science. There are still battles to be fought, regarding truly free access to research and such, but we’ve come far, and I don’t see the movement toward Open Science slowing down any time soon.

We can still hasten it’s coming though. Make sure that research done using public funds must remain available to the public. Not only the papers published as a result, but the data generated for the research. We should do what we can to make it not only easier, but also more valuable to participate in this Open Scientific Community. It’s for all our benefit.

Remote Control Humanity

I’ve known about the sensitivity of our Inner Ear for a long time. But this is just amazing. The Japanese have developed a specialized headset which can allow someone with a remote control to force a person to move they way they want them to.

They use specialized electrical signals that mess with your sense of balance, making you think that you need to move a certain direction so you don’t fall. It’s painless, though disorienting, from what the article says. Creepy stuff.