End times

“The world will finish one of these years. If it finishes to-day I’ll not see it, because I’ll shut mine eyes till to-morrow.”

-Portuguese woman during the solar eclipse of 1900 (p. 214)

 

Maunder, E. W. (editor). 1901. The Total Solar Eclipse 1900. Report of the Expeditions Organized by the British Astronomical Association to Observe the Total Solar Eclipse of 1900, May 28. “Knowledge” Office, London. (Available online at: https://archive.org/details/totalsolareclips00maunuoft)

 

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Extension Pete in: The Case of the Missing Menace

This was certainly a new one for Extension Pete, Entomologist Detective. He had solved mysteries where there was a bug and it was causing damage—cabbage loopers (on cabbage!); mysteries where there was a bug but it wasn’t causing damage—bark lice weaving a thin film of silk on a maple trunk; even mysteries where was wasn’t a bug and it was causing damage—dark lint left behind from an old rag, resulting in a new crop of “bugs” immediately after the last batch was wiped away. But this mystery was the first of its kind:

There was no bug.

There was no damage.

So, wherefore Extension Pete? Mrs. Pauline Miller, glacially old, wearing brand new clothes purchased 40 years ago, her whole bearing like crisp, dry parchment—stiff, prideful, and intact, with the same content of its former self, but fragile beyond words and unaware of it—explained at the door, voice with a thin vibration of age, “My roses you see. Ever since, well back when we first moved here it was just after the war, and Charlie, he was my husband, well he had a friend, Stan, at the grocery store. Well Henry thought it would be a fine thing to surprise me with rose bushes on our first anniversary, so while I was at the hairdressers he and Stan planted all these roses.” She gestured to the line of roses along the front of the house. A house and a yard that were painted-perfect. Straight out of watercolored schematics you might find in an article on “New Landscaping Fashions and Layouts for 1958” in the second October issue of American Nurseryman, 1957. “Now that was the year when we got a late frost in early May and it killed the bougainvillea, and then, well it didn’t rain for almost three weeks in July. It was terribly hot, we slept with the windows open at night, but the dust was horrible. I couldn’t have anyone over before noon. Well, our Anniversary was July 31st, we were going to have a June wedding, but the dress maker, that was Gladys Eidelman, she taught at the school, she cut her hand and so we had to postpone the wedding. Now Charlie and Stan hadn’t figured on the ground being so hard, and when I got back from the hairdresser, they only had two rose bushes planted, and Charlie was using a pick ax to dig new holes while Stan was soaking the ground with a hose. They were both covered in dirt from head to toe! Horrible waste of water, but I didn’t saying anything. Charlie said he never thought he would have to become a miner for our anniversary!”

And thus was the narrative of the story of the origin of the rose bushes, Pete nodding and oohing and awing throughout in a respectful manner. Let us summarize the rest or we’ll be here as long as Pete, on the front porch, melting in the sun. Pauline utterly unaware of the blaze.

Originally the roses were regularly fumigated whether they needed it or not, “Joe Parker had a weekly service, and that was what you did back in those days, nobody thought about the chemicals, everything was a chemical.” But times have changed, and the Garden Club has gone organic. And you can’t enter the Contest if you’re not Organic. “Bless their heart” but those “organics” just didn’t work as well as the “chemicals” in the “old days” and ever since she had gone organic the Japanese Beetles (“I never had them until I switched to organics.”) were always around, just a few, and caused damage, just a little.   Except this year.

There were no beetles.

There was no damage.

Thus, the mystery. Thus, Extension Pete.

The high-pitched whine of a toy drone interrupted the tail end of the tale and caused its merciful demise. The narrative shifted to Pete explaining what a drone was and how it worked—interesting that the SciFi stories written about the same time the house was built had anticipated the flying weaponized drones of today, but not the toy drone across the street. Then it shifted back to the roses. It was suspected, by those in the know, that Gladys Caldwell, down the street, in a bid to win the Contest, was secretly spraying her roses with “chemicals”. It was known that she sometimes used box mixes to make cakes and shamelessly passed them off as her own. She was generally thought of as a dishonest and disreputable person because of this.

Pauline’s current working hypothesis consisted of the following: “Could it be that when she sprays, her chemicals get blow over onto my roses?”

The hypothesis was unlikely, the houses were half a block apart, and Pete stalled for time with the careful waffling the youth use to placate the elderly. After much conversation and speculation Pete finally broke from Pauline’s conversational grip to “have a look around”, but not before they had talked about the weather, todays haircuts, “Why don’t young ladies wear hose any more?”, loud rock music, and many, many other such subjects.

Pete started down the street toward Gladys’ house watching yards for Japanese Beetles and potential hosts. There were few of the latter, it was a boring neighborhood. The monoculture of short cut Kentucky Bluegrass, overbred varieties of non-native bushes, and Bradford Pears (a tree that was slightly worse than an open sewer) might as well have been AstroTurf and plastic to an insect. No doubt the birds were hurting too, what do you eat when there are no bugs? And where do you get fine sticks to make a nest when either the trees don’t make them, or any that do fall are immediately removed, disappearing like cats on an alligator farm.

One house offered a respite from the over manicured nature of the neighborhood. A “For Sale” sign offered an explanation for why the yard had not been mowed into the dirt and some taller grass was allowed to grow along the edges. There were three rose bushes clustered around the front door, and several more at the edge of the house opposite the garage. Pete went up the walk to the front door, no beetles. He followed a path flattened in the high grass to the other bushes, no beetles there either. What’s happening? Big juicy delicious leaves! There should be Japanese Beetles here. He looked again, closer. Beetles? Damage? Frass? Anything? Noting.

The other houses along the block, at least those that had plants susceptible to Japanese Beetles, all came up negative as well, including Gladys’. The drone was back and Pete caught a glimpse of the girl at the controls. About 12–14 years old and concentrating on the flight of the drone, trying to keep it going at a steady speed as it rose straight up following the trunk of a pine tree. A big camera hung underneath. Lucky kids. Around the corner Pete found some blackberry bushes growing in the corner of a fenced-in yard (“Beware of Dog”). Still no beetles. He started to move on, but a glint of light?, an odd movement?, a strange color pattern?, something, caught his eye and he suddenly noticed that one of the blackberry leaves about 3 feet back from the fence was skeletonized. He shifted his focus from the leaves against the fence (undamaged) to the leaves further back and saw that they were riddled. Suddenly a beetle took off, swirled around, and crashed back into the foliage.

And Pete had his answer. The path in the tall grass of the house that was for sale hadn’t extended past the roses at the end of the house. If it had been made by a cat, dog, rabbit, wood chuck, etc. it should have continued on. Pete had looked to see where it led, but it didn’t, and there wasn’t a hole under the house, he had glanced. So the path was only from bushes to bushes. And the reason the girl wasn’t “right” is because she wasn’t playing with a toy she’d been given, she was practicing with a piece of equipment she had worked hard to get. There is a definite difference between the two.

“I get a nickel a beetle!,” Sofia said. “My gran doesn’t want to hurt the butterflies and bees with spray, so I pick the beetles off by hand. I tried just doing her yard, but they would fly in from the neighbors’, so I started collecting their beetles, also. There’s a fortune in Mr. Davis’ yard but I can only get what I can reach from the fence. He has a dog.”

“How many beetles did your drone cost?” asked Pete.

“Ten thousand!” She said, smiling. “I walk the same route every morning and evening and collect every one I can. They’re getting rarer now. Maybe it’s the end of the season. I’m going to make nature documentaries with my drone!”

Another mystery solved by Extension Pete, Entomologist Detective!

Sometimes if you tell people the truth it’ll only cause trouble. A loose neighborhood kid coming into your yard and picking beetles off your rose bushes every evening, it’ll never fly. “Well Mrs. Miller, I have made a thorough search of the neighborhood and I’m happy to report that there is no evidence of anyone using chemicals.” Pete launched into some babble about how the leaves change very slightly if pesticides are used and he found no evidence of it, everyone came up clean. They worked on that for a while until Pauline was OK with the idea that no one was cheating. Step one done.

Now time for step two, why no beetles? Pete decided to tell the truth, in a way. “Japanese Beetles are exotic and when they first showed up none of the birds or animals knew what to do with them. But over time wasps might parasite them, birds might eat them. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but something in this neighborhood has a use for those Japanese Beetles, and it must find them quite profitable.”

The End

Prophets, Scientists, and Evolution

I’m not trying to pick any fights here, I’m just want to point out a difference between the people who tell us about God (prophets), and the people who tell us about the workings of the universe (scientists).

The Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism) are based on revelation. Revelation is when God communicates with someone, and if this person passes that info on to others, he (or she) becomes a prophet. When God talks to someone is ultimately up to God; there’s no way to repeat a conversation with God if God’s not willing. Also God typically communicates with only one person at a time; think of Joseph Smith by himself as he talked with an angel and received the Book of Mormon. This means that it’s up to that individual to pass the information on to others.

Being a prophet isn’t easy; a prophet has to overcome two main difficulties to be successful:

1) Getting people to believe him (or her).

The only evidence we have of the communication event is the word of the prophet. Although, sometimes God gives the prophet insight into a future event, and this can act as secondary evidence of the authenticity of the message. If our prophet is of good moral character, never lies, drinks, steals, etc., if he (or she) is all around moral and trustworthy, so much the better: we can believe what he (or she) has to say. But if there is some question of his (or her) morality or honesty, if our prophet turns out to be a drinker, liar, womanizer (manizer?), etc. then maybe he (or she) isn’t telling the truth, maybe he (or she) didn’t receive a message from God, but is just making stuff up. In many ways the message is only as “legitimate” as the prophet who delivers it.

2) Maintaining the message content.

This is a lot harder than you think. Go ahead and write down what you had for breakfast. Try to put in words the sight, smell, taste, and texture. Can you fully describe in words what your senses felt? For instance: the pepper you put on your eggs- how many grains did you write about, did you described how they were arranged? You saw and experienced the pepper in a way your audience never can through your writings. No biography could contain all that a subject experienced, no matter how thorough it may be. Just so, a prophet presumably received a message that is more than a verbatim essay, it may have included feelings, emotion, inflection, etc. The prophet has to summarize the experience to make it available to his (or her) audience. Necessarily when an audience interacts with a prophet’s teachings a lot will be left out from the communication event the prophet had with God. The audience will have to interpret the prophet’s teachings, study them, meditate on them, and even then they may not get it right. How the teachings are used is important. If they are used for bad purposes then this calls into question their legitimacy, because presumably, following orders or advice from God should result in good things.

One more thing to consider about what a prophet tells us about God is, for lack of a better term, the “quality” of information. The prophet had the initial conversation and there is no way anyone (even the prophet) can play back a recording to check any specific details, etc., it’s a onetime event recorded by the prophet and the record of it, after the prophet has died, can never be improved, edited, expanded, etc. expect by another revelation from God. Once a revelation is recorded, it’s done.

So it is with prophets and revelations. Now let us look at scientists and observations of the universe.

The scientist observes nature. This might be watching the nesting habits of birds, or recording the wavelength given off by rarefied hydrogen in an excited state. Because of the nature of nature, it’s all around us and always available, these observations can typically be made multiple times. When the scientist presents his (or her) findings he (or she) must provide a detailed, unambiguous account of how the observations were made, and it must be good enough that others may repeat the process so that they may make the same observations. Unlike the prophet, the scientist may ask the same question to nature over and over again. Others can join in, repeat the question and receive an answer, check their answer against previous answers, and/or modify the question and see how that affects the answer. Sometimes, you can ask a question in two very different ways and come up with the same answer. For instance, some wood of a certain age can be dated by 1) dendrochronology, counting and comparing the rings formed from yearly growth, and 2) by measuring the remaining amount of the radioactive isotope carbon-14. Both methods give similar ages.

This ability for multiple people to check and recheck an answer, to observe and refine, to modify the question in light of new findings, to ask it using new technologies or techniques, means that there can be no prophets in science. Once our scientist has made his (or her) findings available to the public, typically by publishing in a journal, we are no longer beholden to the scientist that did the research. Now the audience, even you dear reader, have the ability to evaluate the findings of the scientist; to ask a question of nature and get an answer.

To put this another way, we do not base the validity of scientific discoveries on the character of the individual who made them. Germ theory is correct whether or not Louis Pasteur crept through the city at night and stole women’s underwear from backyard clothes lines. Sir Isaac Newton may have been a proud believer in alien abduction, but this in no way takes away from his work in physics. Now certainly if the scientist in question turns out to be untrustworthy as regards to what they were researching, then we must be very skeptical of his or her findings. But in science we’re skeptical of everyone’s findings. This isn’t to say quality of research isn’t important, but even the greatest scientists know that their findings will be reshaped, altered, and ultimately added to an ever expanding body of knowledge as new discoveries are made. As for bad or poorly done science, well, we can rest assured that “truth will out”.

Remember that in religion the “quality” of the information decreases as it moves from God to the prophet to the audience (unless we have a new revelation event). But in science the “quality” of information can increase. Indeed that concept of “scientific progress” is the manifestation of that quality increase (greater accuracy and precision). This, again, reduces the role of the individual’s personality (moral or otherwise) in science.

A good example of confusion concerning prophets and scientists can be found in some evolutionary debates. This confusion belongs to both sides. Occasionally arguments against evolution take the form of specific criticisms of Darwin personally, of specific information in On the Origin of Species, or of actions supposedly taken in the name of Evolution (“Survival of the Fittest”). While these are perfectly sensible criticisms of prophets, this causes much confusion for the scientist. Scientists don’t understand why these questions are asked because the scientist is not interested in the person who made the discovery, and understanding that publications are “ephemeral,” looks beyond those as well.

While Darwin is celebrated for his discovery, subsequent observations of nature have provided us with a richer understanding of how nature works. Darwin was a scientist. Scientists say, “I made some observations of the universe and I think this is how it works.” They gather evidence for their ideas and then make this available to the community. The community is now tasked with further testing these ideas. If these ideas do not accurately describe how the universe works, they are discarded.

In the 150 years since Darwin first presented his ideas millions of scientists have performed billions of experiments testing those ideas. Criticizing On the Origin of Species is meaningless. One has to criticize all of the millions of experiments and observations that provide evidence for evolution and the mechanisms that drive it. The workers of the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis of the 1940s found that Darwin’s ideas were incomplete and showed that modern genetics was the previously unknown mechanism of heredity. In fact, the greatest critics of Darwin’s idea of Evolution by Natural Selection have always been, and always will be, scientists.

A CITIZEN’S GUIDE TO SCIENCE

WHAT SCIENCE IS,
HOW IT WORKS,
WHERE IT’S POORLY TREATED,
AND WHY SCIENTISTS HAVE
THE RIGHT TO FEEL UPSET

___

FIRE YOUR DOCTOR

You’re sitting in an upholstered chair, there is a duck painting on the wall and a paper weight on the desk. Your doctor comes in, opens a manila folder, and looks at the papers inside. She set’s her face and with calm and compassion tells you that the tests indicate cancer. What do you do?

Quietly take the papers she’s holding, alter the test results with a pen (so they can’t be erased) and go home and celebrate. You beat cancer!

Right?

PRIMER ON SCIENCE

What Science Is: The dangerous idea behind science is that it’s a way of trying to understand how the universe (nature) works by actually studying the universe. Science can be used to answer big questions like the age of the universe, the origin and evolution of life, and smaller questions like Bilbo Baggins’ “What have I got in my pocket?” Because Science is based on looking at nature, it’s open to everyone: every gender, race, nationality, sexual orientation, religious (or non-religious) background, even bald people. We are all scientists. As we move through the day we are constantly erecting hypotheses, conducting tests, evaluating results. I grasp my coffee cup and use the external temperature of the cup to judge how hot the coffee is and how big a sip I can take. Science ten-thousand times a day.

However, at birth we humans are ill equipped to understand the universe, we are rife with biases and handicaps. It really seems like the Earth is sitting still while the sun moves across the sky. Calculus (calculus!) is required to understand that gravity is more than a series of random events. We wash hands and fruit to remove invisible bacteria. We lose at the casino, but remember winning. We hear something that confirms a strongly held belief and remember it, while we forget or deny those things that refute the same idea. (This last, known as “Confirmation-” or “Myside-Bias,” is the greatest demon of all scientists, professional and amateur alike. Certain recent geo-political events are almost certainly the result of this human defect.)

How Science Works: Coupling the two ideas—to understand the universe, study the universe; and that humans are prone to mistakes—results in the process we call Science. Every time we discover a new human failing, scientists incorporate that into the next round of tests to make sure results are less tainted by bias. The double-blind test, where neither doctors nor patients know who is getting the active medicine and who the placebo, is an important result of this rule. The very design of Science—rejection of arguments from authority, peer-review, public publications, reproducibility, falsifiability, and findings that are constantly subject to testing and skepticism—creates a system designed to remove human failings and provide accurate descriptions of nature. Whenever this process isn’t used, there is an enormous chance conclusions will not accurately reflect reality.

When a scientist tests an idea about how nature works they do not simply gather evidence for that idea. Rather they work as hard as they can to show that the idea isn’t an accurate description of nature. Only if they fail to show it doesn’t work (note double negative) do they reluctantly accept that it might be acceptable. It sounds counter intuitive until you put it to a test. In The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, we learn that the answer to “life, the universe, and everything” is 42, an answer arbitrarily picked by the book’s author, Douglas Adams. Recently a fan compiled an entire book listing hundreds of instances where 42 is an “important” number. As a fan myself it pains me to say 42 isn’t any more magical than, say, 37. Imagine the Cult of 37 compiling their own list. Has the group with the longest list really found the ultimate answer? Conspiracy theories are created in this way, too, by only seeking explanations that affirm a preconceived notion, never being skeptical of them. An idea/ explanation/ description of nature only has merit if it can stand up to scrutiny, tests, and skepticism. Confirmation bias is simply the failure to be skeptical of your own beliefs. Many of the most spectacular failures in Science and Politics are the result of confirmation bias. We are very good at fooling ourselves.

What Science Isn’t: If you don’t do Science right—include ALL of the steps—then it’s not Science. Pseudo-science, non-science, and just plain lies presented as Science are not Science. Making random noises is not the same as speaking Mandarin Chinese. Science is not political. Tree growth, earthquakes, the energy required to boil water, in fact, all the known “rules” of the universe, are indifferent to, and unalterable by, human endeavors including politics, religion, charming ad jingles, hacktivism, etc. If a group holds that the moon is made of green cheese, it is not the moon’s responsibly to change. Science does not prove anything (talk to a philosopher about why not). Science is not perfect. Scientists are humans with all the usual human failings of lust, pride, greed, bad breath, etc. We realize this, and a major part of the scientific process is designed to remove those failings from research. (Science does seem to produce fewer felons than Politics, though.) Science doesn’t know everything. There is still a lot to learn, give us time or feel free to join in.

“Truth”, “correct”, “incorrect”, “right”, “wrong”, “real”, “fake”, “good” and “bad” are all words that work well in many everyday situations but don’t work well in Science. Those words are too generalized and can carry (often moral) connotations. (It might be right that you backed over the cat, but it’s not right that you backed over the cat.) The appropriate way to consider Scientific findings is to refer to accuracy and precision. As we develop better tools, technology, and techniques we can make finer measurements and more accurate models (think climate change). More accurate descriptions/ measurements do not invalidate past findings, they enhance them.IMG_1146cMorpho.jpg

The terms “accuracy” and “precision” also highlight uncertainty which is a real part of the real universe we live in. Scientists cannot say “absolute”, “100%”, “never”, etc. because all things carry uncertainty. We humans are very poor at dealing with uncertainty and probability. One way to think about it is to consider warranties. If a product has a warranty, the manufacture feels the probability of failure within that time is low. A lengthy (strong) warranty implies confidence that the product will be defect-free for a long time. A short (weak) warranty implies the product may break quickly. For example, scientists can offer a very strong “warranty” concerning the notion that human-caused global climate change is an accurate explanation of current climate events.

Abuses of Science: Current abuses of Science come in many forms, but two are the most pervasive. The first (and oldest) rejects the idea that the best way to understand how the universe works is to look at the universe (Science), and embraces the idea that the universe is best understood through interpretations of sacred literature. Creationism is a specific example of this larger issue (age of the earth, origin of languages, and rights for homosexuals are a few other examples). Creationism is based on the idea that interpretations of sacred literature are a better way to understand life than actually studying nature. That’s why groups with different sacred literature celebrate different creation stories (Genesis, Spiderwoman, Brahma) and why individuals that share sacred literature disagree over what it says (the vast majority of Christians see no conflict between evolution and their interpretation of the Bible, others interpret an old Earth, others a young Earth, etc.). Interpretations of sacred literature do not help us understand how nature works with any accuracy or precision and are often incredibly misleading if taken literally. If you disagree, complain to the universe, it’s the one that “made” the rules.

A related situation is not the rejection of Science itself, but the rejection of using Science. Kurt Vonnegut articulated this well in his essay, “Your Guess is as Good as Mine“. He pointed out that many decisions made in the past were guesses, simply because information and ability to know was lacking. “Our most enthralling and sometimes terrifying guessers are the leading characters in our history books. I will name two of them: Aristotle and Hitler. One good guesser and one bad one.” Today we have information. Today we have models. Today we don’t need to guess. Listen to representatives and pundits, when are they speaking from knowledge and when are they guessing? Don’t turn this into a drinking game.

Maligning Science for financial reasons is the second major abuse. “Skepticism” over global climate change is not based on lack of scientific rigor or clarity, it is simply a technique to reduce competition. Rejection of scientific findings in order to denigrate the EPA, OSHA, NOAA, NIH, and other organizations that rely heavily on science to set policy and make decisions to improve environmental and human health and safety is another red-herring argument. In both cases scientists should continuing to refute these red-herrings with evidence and rational discourse. However, much more time needs to be devoted to specifically pointing out that “uncertainty” in Science is used as an excuse to institute policies that specifically profit a small number of people while reducing the health and wellbeing of a much larger group. We could have cheaper food if companies weren’t forced to buy rat traps.

These and other abuses of Science and scientists are offensive. Scientists are professionals. The very nature of Science requires that it’s always open to review and scrutiny. No other institution and no participants in any other institution, political, religious, legal, artistic, etc., are subject to such public examination. While scientific fraud can and does happen, in the long run scientific fraud will always be discovered. As Richard Feynman put it, “We’ve learned from experience that the truth will out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature’s phenomena will agree or they’ll disagree with your theory.” Scientists are held accountable for their work and called upon to check the work of others. When levies fail, no one interrogates a religious leader, when health supplements are associated with heart attacks, scientists are called in to investigate. Scientists are working to describe the universe, a fixed element, and report what they find. Sometimes the answer is not what a particular person, group, industry, etc. wants to hear. Jon Stewart put it simply, “Reality has a liberal bias.”

A SCIENTISTS’ LAMENT

Science works: We went from walking behind a plow mule to walking on the moon, we eradicated small pox and have revolutionized medicine, we can look into the heart of stars, we can edit genomes, we have the internet and Angry Birds. By applying scientific principles to industry we’ve been able to take things that even gods and kings couldn’t imagine and make them available to virtually anyone: flying through the air, instant communication, air-conditioning.

It’s no easy feat. Making a lightbulb—tungsten, florescent, LED— requires that we work with what exists in the universe, the raw elements, and combine them in a fashion agreeable to the rules of the universe. Efficiently mass-producing lightbulbs requires that we develop techniques to work with materials, energy, and processes on a large scale. Both science and industry experience real constraints placed on them by the rules of the universe and reality of the available resources here on Earth.

Science and industry have developed technological solutions to most of the problems associated with humans’ basic needs. The technological impediment to providing adequate food, water, shelter, healthcare, housing, transportation, and communication is gone. We know how to grow LOTS of food. We can purify and deliver LOTS of water. We figured most of this stuff out in the 1970s and have improved on it since then. Absolutely, Science has provided us with bulldozers, diesel fuel, pesticides, and loud speakers. Inappropriate and over judicious uses of technology have caused enormous environmental damage and human suffering. But here again, Science not only anticipates, detects, and measures damage, but provides technological solutions to these problems. For example, Science has been telling us for decades that the one and only lifeboat we have in the enormity of the universe is currently being radically altered by (among other things) over use of fossil fuels.Nallachius_americanus_Morgan_square_small.jpg

Natural Experiments: There are nearly 200 countries on Earth. Each one has a health care plan for its citizens ranging from full coverage to no coverage. Each one has air and water quality regulations, drug laws, and gun control laws that range from strict to nonexistent. Each action or inaction taken by each country represents an experiment, one that is freely observable, one we can learn from. Watching the United States flail about trying to enact adequate health care is both one of the greatest comedic farces, and one of the greatest tragedies, the world has ever seen. When others have gone out of their way to reap the rewards or suffer the consequences of their own experiments, why would we not want to learn from their experiences?

“Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed.”: If Science and industry solved so many of the problems of human basic needs, then why do hunger, slums, and cholera still exist? Why doesn’t everyone have access to clean water? If Science anticipated and measured (and is measuring!) the maladaptive changes to the Earth due to fossil fuel use, then why are we still using so much fossil fuel when reasonable alternatives of solar, wind, waves, and biofuel are available?

There is no evidence that human endeavors are held back by lack of energy or materials. No evidence that lack of human imagination or ingenuity is keeping us from solving basic problems like adequate food, shelter, healthcare, and education for all humans on Earth. Nothing in the laws of physics says we can’t visit Europa, double our lifetimes, or even jury-rig a reasonable facsimile of a Woolly Mammoth or Dodo. And there is no reason to believe we have to poison streams or factory workers to achieve those goals.

So many times when we ask our political leaders to explain why they can’t solve these problems, their answer invariably is: “We can’t afford it.” But we can. Economy is a human creation, partially dependent on nature (there is only so much fresh water), but mostly one of our own making. What we can’t afford any more is guessing about how economies work. Science and Industry stepped up to the challenge and delivered, but Economy has failed. Economy has failed because those that institute it are not interested in discarding ideas that don’t work, but have become entrenched in dogma and ideology. It’s time we began treating Economy as what it really is, hypotheses and experimental statements, rather than an immutable ideals. It’s time economic practices had to withstand the scrutiny of Science.

The only way to truly solve the problems we face today is through economic and social change. For example, we need politicians brave enough to admit that a capitalist model that relies on profit will not work for a government service that should be available to everyone. We need to change the “moral” attitude we take when providing basic needs. For example, we live in communities where people are guaranteed a sidewalk but not food. No moral judgement is assigned to use of government-mandated and taxpayer-financed sidewalks, but a government-mandated and taxpayer-financed food assistance program comes with moral indignation, “my tax dollars,” “warm food not allowed,” etc. Science and Industry have given us plenty, we should not waste, but we are not without resources. We should be indignant when others lack basic needs, not when they receive them.

Economic and social policies are created by humans, for humans. We are in control, and those can easily be changed. What can’t be changed is the fact that one group of humans isn’t better than another, that pollutants cause damage, that climate change is happening, and that reality can’t be altered with paperwork, even if you use a pen.

Earth Day, 2017

Citizens_Guide_To_Science PDF

 

Design

“Because every design must satisfy competing objectives, there necessarily has to be compromise among, if not the complete exclusion of, some of those objectives, in order to meet what are considered the more important of them.” –Henry Petroski, Small Things Considered

Extension Pete in: The Case of the Hothouse Hot Seat

Open on a packed courthouse, lots of stained wood, hanging lights, public in seats, judge in the middle, bailiff standing, stenographer sitting, defendant on the stand—nervous. Defendant is an older, inoffensive gentleman, slightly greyed, putterer at heart, gardener type. The charge: Murder Most Foul.

Prosecution: You claim to have never seen Miss Susan Fade before the week of March 27th. How did you meet?

Defendant: (stammering along the way) She noticed my Welwitschia through the greenhouse glass and came over and started talking to me. I have quite a few unusual plants and she recognized several of them Entada gigas, Amorphophallus, Lithops. She said she was “informally traveling,” hitchhiking I think, across the country. She said she was headed west to see a wild Boojum.

Prosecution: Boojum, you say? [Chuckles.] So how did the young lady suddenly become your house guest for nearly a month Mr. Bloom?

Defendant: Well, first she said she wanted a place to stay for the night, and she helped out with some repotting in the greenhouse, but she turned out to be a wonderful cook, and [pause, wistful look], I have this pool you see, and, well, she didn’t have a bathing suit. So, a few nights turned into about a month. She had a magnificent imprint of a parsnip leaf on her backside, a furanocoumarin burn from having sat on one during an earlier outing.

****

            Prosecution: State your name for the record.

Witness: Mrs. Evelin Dropper. [Older lady, 60s, hair neatly placed, proper.]

Prosecution: Mrs. Dropper, can you tell the jury about your experience of May 16th.

Witness: I was checking my yard for pet waste—the neighbors across the street just let their cat go anywhere it wants, like an animal—and suddenly I smelled this horrible stench. Like death! And it was coming from Mr. Bloom’s greenhouse! [Points accusatory finger at Defendant.] I went by the next day and the smell was still there, but by the third day it was gone. That’s when he must have moved the body! [General kerfuffle in the courtroom, defense springs to feet objecting, judge banging gavel calling for an end to speculation and audience participation.]

****

Prosecution: Mr. Bloom had yellow sticky traps hanging in his greenhouse, one had fallen to the ground, and these traps collected insects. As a forensic entomologist, what did you learn from these traps Dr. Wilson?

Dr. Wilson: [Long blonde hair, very professional, but with a sense that she could drink you under the table.] The traps contained a number of common greenhouse insects: whitefly, aphids, thrips—millipedes in the case of the fallen trap. But they also contained quite a few blowflies, that’s the family Calliphoridae, the metallic green flies, and flesh flies, Sarcophagidae, these guys are grey with black stripes on their back. [Indicates each on an enlarged photograph of a sticky trap].

Prosecution: [Complete with courtroom dramatic pauses and emphasis.] Dr. Wilson, the prosecution argues that Mr. Bloom killed Miss Fade, placed her body in the greenhouse where it was left for several days, then removed the body and disposed of it. Does the evidence from the sticky traps contradict this hypothesis?

Dr. Wilson: It is unlikely there would have been that many calliphorids and sarcophagids in the greenhouse unless they were specifically attracted to rotting flesh of some kind. Absence of fly larvae on the sticky trap on the ground indicates the dead item was moved before fly larvae matured. Additionally absence of carrion beetles, family Silphidae, which show up later in the decay sequence, indicates that whatever was rotting was removed before later stages of decay set in. So, yes, the entomological evidence does not contradict the scenario put forth by the prosecution.

****

Defense: Peter —, Mr. Bloom maintains that Miss Fade went on her way, alive and well, on May 5th to continue her westward quest. A few days later he left to hike the Ozark Trail and see the spring wildflowers, and did not return until May 24th.

You’ve heard the prosecution’s argument: that Mr. Bloom befriended Miss Fade in late March, they cohabitated, she spurned his advances and sometime in mid-May he killed her, her body was left in the greenhouse for several days, then he disposed of the body on or about May 18th. The prosecution presents damning evidence: Mrs. Dropper smelled a distinct stench of rotting flesh, flies well known to be associated with murder victims were collected by the defendant’s own sticky traps, and insects associated with later stages of decay were not collected. No carcass or bones of a dead animal were found in or near the greenhouse. And yet you maintain that Mr. Bloom is innocent. How can you explain away this hard evidence?

Extension Pete: [Suppressing a huge grin.] Mr. Bloom has several automatic systems in his greenhouse, watering, temperature control, etc. Those were there to keep bad things from happening to his plants while he was gone, but Mr. Bloom hadn’t anticipated a very good thing happening. [Everyone on the edge of their seats, including Mr. Bloom.] His Amorphophallus flowered. [Mr. Bloom gasps, doubles over as if hit in the gut. General courtroom mumbling.] Amorphophallus is also known as an Arum, it’s a plant that very rarely flowers, once every five or ten years. Mr. Bloom would never have guessed it might flower while he was away. The inflorescence is huge, several feet high and smells like rotting flesh, in fact it’s commonly called a corpse flower! [Collective “Ah!”] The plants are pollinated by flesh flies and other insects associated with decay that are attracted by the smell, but the flower only lasts a day or two before wilting and withering away, so the smell doesn’t last long and it’s not suitable for fly development. A flowering corpse flower explains the evidence nicely. [Nod of agreement from Dr. Wilson.]

I also emailed a park ranger at El Vizcaino a park in Baja California, the best place to see wild Boojum trees. He emailed me this a few hours ago. [Holds up tablet computer displaying image of bikini clad backside sporting a parsnip leaf imprint.]

[Prosecution drops charges, judge dismisses case, Extension Pete saves the day, accepts no reward except that justice has been done, jubilation all around, except for poor Mr. Bloom. Sad and dejected he’s taken from the court room vowing never to leave home again for fear of missing his Arum, “I waited 20 years!”.]

The End.

Science, Industry, and Economy

Science did it. In less than a century science: took us from discovery of vaccines and antibiotics to eradication of smallpox; from the first heavier than air flight to a rocket to the moon; from invention of the lightbulb to smartphones and the world wide web; from the discovery of the structure of DNA to sequencing genomes; from food shortages to food abundance; from discovery of radio waves to geosynchronous satellites.

Industry did it. In less than a century industry: mass produced lightbulbs, pencils, paper, cars, radios, TV, computers, vaccines, and virtually everything else imaginable; made air travel accessible to nearly everyone; developed multiple ways to clean and deliver mass quantities of water and store, process, and ship food; made communication nearly instant, cheap, and reliable.

Science and industry did their part. Imagine an alien in a little ship orbiting the Earth watching all of this unfold. Imagine a kindergartener learning about what science and industry have recently done. How do you explain to the alien or the child why all the ills that science and industry created technological solutions for (hunger, poverty, preventable diseases, etc.) still exist?

The answer invariably is: economy. “We can’t afford it!” How can this be?

Making a lightbulb—tungsten, florescent, LED— requires that we work with what exists in the universe, the raw elements, and combine them in a fashion agreeable to the rules of the universe. Efficiently mass producing lightbulbs requires that we develop techniques to work with materials, energy, and processes on a large scale. Both science and industry experience real constraints placed on them by the rules of the universe and reality of the available resources here on Earth.

Economics, however, is less constrained. It is a human construct, a delusion, a fantasy that exists in our own minds. Human delusions can be good. The shapes=letters=words=concepts you’re reading now only work in the light of the delusional aspect of our minds. Borders and laws are delusions as well, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad. There are some real “economic” constraints. Not everyone can have all the water they want to fill pools and water lawns in the Desert Southwest of the United States. That constraint is placed on us by external forces (nature if you will). But everyone there could have one reliable car, adequate housing, health care, education, and appropriate nutrition. In fact, everyone on Earth could have have that. The reason they don’t is because the constraints created by our own delusions = economics.

Science and industry work, “economy” has failed. It is time for us to come up with a better economic system.