Monday, January 26, 2015

The Drama of Global Warming

Well, today I started teaching my general biology class about global warming, as I do every semester. Since I write science books (of which I have published four) and novels (thus far unpublished), I began thinking about why global warming is not a more prevalent theme in fiction. I thought about this as I walked to work. Walking is a good way to promote health but also to save energy and reduce carbon emissions. It is also a good time to think.

Global warming does figure prominently in most of the future scenarios of science fiction novels. However, the global warming that is occurring right now is largely absent from fiction. Why?

The main reason is that global warming is very real and is accelerating, but is still a largely gradual process. It is occurring over a time scale that does not lend itself to a plot line very easily. You can’t see it. You can see weather, but you can’t see climate change. You could write a novel about a big storm, but there have always been big storms; the novel would be about the storm, not about climate change. It is impossible to say that any particular storm (such as the one occurring right now in the Northeast) is or is not due to global warming. Any particular storm may or may not have occurred even without global warming. All we can say is that global warming is making storms stronger in general. How do you get a plot out of that?

There have been at least three movies or books based on global warming, and they illustrate three approaches to making fictional drama out of global warming.

First, in the 1990s, there was a TV movie called The Fire Next Time. The approach it took was to show how global warming shattered a family’s personal economy (the main character was a gulf shrimper) and how they came back together in the end. The plot was about the family, with global warming just being the background setting.

Second, a few years back, the movie Day After Tomorrow showed incredibly dramatic weather events. The movie started with a sudden fracture of an ice sheet and ended with a huge storm paralyzing New York City (even worse than the one that is descending upon them this week). This movie derived its plot line from exaggerating the trends of global warming. The ice is indeed melting (according to a study I read about today in the French media but have not seen in the American media yet), but it is usually hard to see. Antarctica still has a lot of ice.

Third, who could forget one of Michael Crichton’s last novels, State of Fear? In this novel, Crichton depicted all scientists, except a few brave outsiders, as filthy liars who have not merely invented global warming but who are actually causing the breakup of glaciers by setting off bombs! Scientists are part of a worldwide conspiracy, and they track down the true heroes (the ones who believe everything the Koch Brothers say) by following them in their evil blue Priuses. It was a poorly written novel that strained credulity so much that it was a third-rate piece of hack work. Every plot component was weak. This, from the man who wrote much better books such as Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park?

None of these works are actually about global warming. Is it possible to have a novel about global warming that is realistic yet also dramatic? Maybe one that is set in Bangladesh. Rising sea levels may inundate half of the country—including their incredibly productive agricultural land—this century. Could Bangladeshis flee over the border into India? India is already building a big fence to keep them out.

(Photo from Brisbane Times)

Maybe a young Indian man and young Bangladeshi woman could meet one another and kiss through the fence…I see plot potential here…Aside from something like this, global warming remains a major threat that is huge but slow, and which even those of us who study it have to measure its components rather than actually seeing it.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Despite Science and Despite Humanitarianism, Racism Continues

I am writing this in late August, 2014, even though I am posting it later. (As of the posting date there have been no new developments.) The flames of racial unrest are burning in localized pockets across the United States right now. In three separate incidents—Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis; Staten Island, New York City; and Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I live—white police officers have killed unarmed black men. (The black man shot even more recently in Berkeley, Missouri, appears to have been armed.) Wait; you haven’t heard about the Tulsa one? I guess I will have to tell you about it, since Tulsa has no violent protests such as in Ferguson and no Al Sharpton as in New York. You expect this sort of thing—police killings of unarmed citizens—once in a while, but three at the same time seems a bit unlikely.

A Tulsa policeman, Shannon Kepler, and his wife (also a police officer) adopted a girl with a troubled past. After many years, the girl’s troubles were apparently too much for the couple to handle. They took her to a shelter for homeless adults and left her there. Things like this happen sometimes. But what happened next was astonishing. The young woman went the house where her boyfriend, 19-year-old Jeremey Lake, lived. What would you expect her to do? And if you have just kicked your adopted daughter out of the house, you at least need to let her decide where she is going to live.

But Shannon Kepler did not do this. He drove over to Jeremey Lake’s house and shot and killed him, and then shot in the general direction of the young woman also. Was Lake’s killing murder or was it manslaughter? And was Kepler actually aiming for his stepdaughter with the second shot? That is, was there premeditation? Police investigators found that the step-parents had, in their home, a copy of Lake’s arrest records, on which they had written his address. This would seem to be premeditation. Kepler’s defense attorney said that the shooting was understandable because Lake was a sexual predator, which as far as I can determine was not the judgment of any court. So the defense attorney asked for a bail of only $50,000. The prosecutor asked for a bail of $1 ½ million. The prosecutor’s request that Kepler be fitted with an ankle bracelet for monitoring his location was denied by the judge, who imposed a bail about halfway between the two requests. The judge must have considered that this police shooting was not much of a continuing danger to the community. This decision was issued August 22, the same day that Staten Island and Ferguson, Missouri were in the news.

What the Tulsa World newspaper article of August 22 did not mention—and which I had to locate finally in the New York Daily News—was that Jeremy Lake was black.

I know that if I were a young black man I would be worried right now, especially if I lived in Oklahoma, a state where apparently police shooting young black men does not get noticed very much by national media.

When are we going to stop thinking of white police shootings (or, in Staten Island, strangling) of black men as normal? (The authorities seem to have thought that the Staten Island victim was manifestly guilty of a dangerous, dangerous crime: selling untaxed cigarettes. That deserves getting someone killed, they seem to think.)

As most readers of this blog will know already, there is no biological basis for considering one race inferior to another. Pseudoscientific claims of black inferiority have been repeatedly discredited. And even if there was such evidence, it would not justify members of one race killing members of another and having it treated lightly by authorities.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Junk DNA

One of the strongest evidences of our evolutionary ancestry is that we carry around, inside of our very chromosomes, DNA that is left over from our evolutionary ancestors. Most of it is DNA that functioned as genes in our evolutionary ancestors, but today are inactivated (pseudogenes). One example among many is our olfactory proteins. We have about 350 of them, which means that we can distinguish about 350 primary odors (and a very large number of odor combinations). Other mammals such as dogs and mice have about 1000. They can distinguish many more odors than we can. Dogs and mice depend on scent information to survive, while primates such as humans depend more on vision, which is why we can get by with fewer of them. But here is the evolutionary part. We have about 650 olfactory pseudogenes. That is, we have the genetic material for all 1000 scent genes, but 650 of them are sitting in our chromosomes unused. We also have vestigial centromeres and telomeres in our chromosome 2, left over from the time when two ape chromosomes merged together into one.

This noncoding DNA was, in the past, called “junk DNA.” This term is now seldom used, however, because it turns out that, although pseudogenes and other noncoding DNA are no longer used for their original function, they often have a regulatory role. That is, they don’t do what they originally did, but they do something. A big group of scientists, Project ENCODE, recently published their results that indicate that at least 80 percent of noncoding DNA has some function.

So it turns out that much of the noncoding DNA is not junk after all. Creationists jumped up and down with joy at this announcement. They claimed that the newest genetic evidence shows that God created all the DNA to be useful.

But not so fast. What, exactly, is that use? As I noted above, many pseudogenes now have a regulatory function. For example, the olfactory pseudogenes no longer produce olfactory proteins, but they do something. As one creationist article said, “Over 80 percent of the human genome is actively involved in at least one or more biochemical reactions associated with gene regulation in at least one type of cell. Nearly all of the genome lies within close proximity to some sort of regulatory event and, therefore, very little of the genome can be considered extraneous to its full function.”  However, these pseudogenes are still recognizably similar to the olfactory genes of other mammals. Their structure is mostly suited for the production of scent detection proteins, a function they no longer have. Their regulatory function is largely unrelated to their structure; the regulatory function is incidental to their structure. That is, the genes became pseudogenes and then later took on a regulatory function. They are still pseudogenes and are still evidence of evolutionary ancestry.

Let me draw a parallel that will make this clearer. Like many of you, we have a ski machine. We used to use it when we lived in Minnesota, where the year was divided into ice vs. mosquitoes. In order to get walking exercise, we needed the machine. We brought it with us to Oklahoma, but today it stands in the bathroom where its major function is for drying towels and washcloths. We can actually take walks outside most of the year, and no longer need this piece of exercise equipment. Now, a drying rack does not need belts and wheels and foot rails and a digital distance monitor. It is not junk—it is a perfectly serviceable drying rack—but its ski-machine structure is vestigial. It is a pseudogene of a ski machine, so to speak.

And this is why the creationist use of Project ENCODE results as supposed proof of intelligent design is invalid. Noncoding DNA is not junk but neither was it designed in detail for its current function. It is not junk but it is vestigial. In this sense it is no different from other vestigial characteristics. Staminodes in female flowers used to be stamens. They no longer produce pollen, and are therefore vestigial, but they still function in attracting pollinators. They are now just sticks, their original function gone, but they are pretty sticks that attract bees. They are not junk, but they are vestigial.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Does Science Kill the Spirit?

Just posted: a Darwin video about global warming, soil, with a mole joke at the end.

Some people in the humanities perceive science as a threat. They think that it turns all human creativity into the mere operation of neurons, the product of a complex brain computer. A scientific explanation of creativity, in terms of action potentials and neurotransmitters, may, they fear, kill the spirit.

When I was an undergrad, I took music theory courses. I learned about the overtone series, and how the notes of major chords blended together within that overtone series, whereas the notes of a minor chord created discord because they differed from that series. An overtone series occurs when the vibrations at a certain frequency, say 256 Hertz for middle C, also create resonant harmonies at higher frequencies, first at the octave (512 Hertz, or twice that of middle C), then the fifth above that (G), then another octave (high C, at 1024 Hertz), then the third above that, which is E. C major contains C, E, and G, while C minor contains C, E-flat, and G; the E-flat grates against the natural overtone of E. Major chords make us feel at peace, while minor chords make us feel on edge. This is usually interpreted as happy and sad. This is not quite true; Andean music, for example, consists largely of minor-mode melodies that are happy. Even if you do not know anything about chords, your emotions can be affected by hearing these chords. One could say that the human mind, with all its happiness and sadness, is the plaything of the laws of physics, particularly the overtone series of vibrations.

Furthermore, the overtone series can explain the differences in what musicians call timbre, which can be figuratively described as the color of the sound. A flute and a trumpet playing the same note, for example 512 Hertz, sound very different, because the trumpet has more of the high, piquant overtones than the flute. So also, the overtone series explains why you need to avoid certain compositional mistakes, such as doubling your leading-tones or having parallel fifths.

I learned this, and knew it, yet at the same time I was able to participate in the near-magic of musical experience. I knew that all of music could be explained by the mathematics of vibrations and by the human brain’s response to them. But I still imagined music as magic. At the time, I was a creationist, and believed that music was literally divine. It never occurred to me to worry that my knowledge of the physics of sound might destroy the magic of musical experience. I knew just enough about music to be able to write some mediocre stuff of my own, and just enough to be frustrated when I heard works of true genius, such as those of Mozart. You think Mozart’s music is nice; I understand why it is not only nice but profound. (You’ve never heard my “Emmaus Road” symphony of 1977? Thank God it was never performed or recorded.)

And so it is with all of science. A biological explanation of the working of the human brain in no way destroys the wonder of human creativity. Explaining religion in terms of stimulation of the right temporal lobe does not negate the transcendent experience of religion. Franz Schubert put the poetry of Wilhelm Muller to music in Die Winterreise, proclaiming that all our joys and all our sorrows, “alles eines Irrlichts Spiel,” they are all the playthings of illusion. Everyone who has sung Die Winterreise, including the late great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, could experience the transcendent beauty of this line of music, even while proclaiming that this beauty is a mere illusion of the mind. You see, when we are participating in music, or in the world of nature as explained by science, we are inside of it, and the mathematical and physical explanations do not destroy the evolved capacity to experience them as transcendently inspiring experiences. We can analyze our animal evolution, but we are still animals, exulting inside of those experiences.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Have an altruistic new year!

Oh, no! Not another essay about altruism! But I have a couple of ideas to share with you about what might be the most important evolutionary adaptation of the human species.

The first regards radio interview I heard recently. The interviewee was a man who had published a major article about how our economic system saps the middle class and oppresses the poor while making the rich richer. He made specific reference to raising the minimum wage. Almost all recent economic growth has gone to the now famous top one percent; if that growth had, instead, gone to the average worker in the form of a higher minimum wage, each worker would earn $20,000 a year more—and this would bring back a healthy middle class.

A caller then made a point about altruism (he didn’t use the term) as a resource. He said that for him to pay his workers higher wages than other companies was a good investment: he gets the better workers, who are more productive, and keeps them longer, lowering the costs of training, etc. But then he said he was opposed to raising the minimum wage because then employers would be forced to treat their employees right—something that he saw as his special niche.

Leave it to an American businessman (who sounds like he is nicer than most) to turn altruism into something entirely selfish, the purpose of which is to make him rich. But this is better than no altruism at all.

The second point is that you can’t legislate altruism.

In recent years in Oklahoma, new road signs have appeared. When there are lane closures on turnpikes and interstates, orange signs proclaim “State law merge now” almost a half mile back from the place where the lanes merge. The reason it became necessary for such a state law is that some altruistic and courteous drivers would merge early, while the demonic and selfish ones would wait until the last few meters and crowd in, not only gaining them a direct advantage but pushing the courteous drivers even further back. Simple common-sense courtesy would have made such a law unnecessary.

Oklahoma does not have big mountains, but Idaho does. When I drove through Idaho last summer, I saw road signs on steep portions of two-lane highways: “State law slow vehicles pull over when three vehicles following.” For most drivers this is common sense, but a few selfish drivers will hold up huge lines of traffic as they chug slowly along the mountain roads. This is a new twist on the old “Keep right except to pass” policy for four-lane highways. Hundreds of times during my travels I have had to put on my brakes uphill as a truck going 51 miles per hour pulls out immediately and dangerously in front of me to pass another truck going 50 in a 75 mile per hour zone. Many truckers consider the interstate highways to be theirs, not the property of the American people.

It is impossible to translate all the common sense principles of courtesy and altruism into laws. Altruism is an instinct. We all know its subconscious dictates. But it is impossible to codify them into laws that cover every detail. And it is not merely a matter of writing laws. Selfish people can ignore a law that dictates some minor component of altruism unless the penalty is sufficiently steep.

Trusting altruism in society seems hopelessly naïve but there is no realistic alternative.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Science is Alive and Well in Oklahoma, part two.

This is probably the last post for 2014. Normally I would think about how to summarize the past year, but it is not different enough from any other year for me to do so. I suppose, then, it is good to end the year with the second essay about the Oklahoma Academy of Science meeting. Science is alive and well and actively responding to the challenges of the modern world. I focus here on a symposium that was an overview of the present and future scientific challenges in Oklahoma, which are not that different from the ones faced by other states. I posted a version of this essay on the Oklahoma Academy of Science blog.

Among the afternoon activities at the 2014 Technical Meeting of the Oklahoma Academy of Science was a well-attended symposium about science-based issues in Oklahoma. About forty people were in the audience to learn the latest about evolution education, climate change, conservation of natural areas, fracking and earthquakes, and water issues.

It wasn’t just scientists or students in the audience or on the panel. We included speakers from citizens’ groups as well. You didn’t have to be at the symposium very long before you realized how important it is to understand science in order to make the right decisions about these issues, which are among the most important that Oklahoma (and every place else) now face and will continue to face in the future. This is an important fact that, I think, most politicians and perhaps also most members of the press overlook. Fracking, for example, is not something that oil companies have the sole competence to judge. Citizens need access to scientific information. Perhaps even more, they have to know that they need scientific information.

Vic Hutchison, a retired zoology professor from the University of Oklahoma, is the grand old man of evolution education in Oklahoma. He started Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education (OESE), which may be the most active state-level anti-creationist group in the country. He summarized recent creationism-inspired bills that have come before the Oklahoma legislature and have, thus far, failed, mainly due to the persistent efforts of OESE members. Because OESE focuses on the importance of science, rather than attacking religion, we have been able to convince not just the Democrats but some of the Republican majority as well. A couple of years ago, Vic received an award from the Academy for his many years of work. Such an award is not an annual event but given only for special reasons. OESE leaders will have a hard time even collectively continuing the work that Vic has started.

Monica Deming, a researcher at the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, summarized the scientific evidence of current and future climate change and how it will affect Oklahoma. Oklahoma is facing higher temperatures and droughts in upcoming decades that will have a major effect on the economy. As an employee of a state scientific agency, she did not address any political issues. She didn’t have to. The facts speak for themselves.

Jona Tucker, a project manager for The Nature Conservancy, told about the conservation efforts of the Conservancy, which works with private land owners—conservation problems simply cannot all be solved by the state or federal government. She called on any scientists present to conduct some of our research on Conservancy properties. Nothing proves the usefulness of Nature Conservancy work as well as having scientific research done in areas that the Conservancy has saved, and having this research published.

Amberlee Darold, one of Oklahoma’s two state seismologists (scientists who study earthquakes), explained that Oklahoma has begun to rival California as the earthquake capital of the United States. While from 1882 to 2008, Oklahoma experienced an average of 0.1 earthquakes per year of magnitude 4.0 or greater, there were three per year in 2009 to 2013, and 2014 by itself has had twenty-four such earthquakes—and the year isn’t even over yet. This corresponds precisely with the recent acceleration of new oil extraction techniques. The earthquakes correlate closely with wastewater injection for oil extraction, but not actually with hydraulic fracturing (fracking) itself. A member of the audience, representing the Sierra Club, pointed out that these were not mere numbers, but reflected significant damage to the homes of people who cannot afford to rebuild their damaged homes. Amberlee just presented the science, but it was obvious to all of us that the explosion of earthquakes in Oklahoma represents a cost shared by nearly everyone in the earthquake-damaged regions of Oklahoma that pays for the profit enjoyed by corporations, mainly by its wealthy directors and investors.

Amy Ford is president of Citizens for the Protection of the Arbuckle Simpson Aquifer (CPASA). The Arbuckle-Simpson is a very important aquifer in south-central Oklahoma. Amy told us about the long struggle to prevent this water, upon which several large and many small communities depend for their survival—many thousands of people—from being sold and piped away for the profit of just a handful of land owners. The passionate efforts of this citizens’ group, and its legal work that is funded by private donations, has resulted in laws and policies that now protect this aquifer. CPASA shows that citizens need not be the helpless victims of corporations. (And it helps to have rich donors helping out as well.) Amy emphasized the importance of science in this effort. CPASA had the scientific evidence on its side. When corporate interests challenged them, CPASA invited them to present their scientific evidence—of which they had none. As unlikely as it may have seemed, science won the day against political and economic shouting matches—even if just barely.

The panel participants are important people and I am glad they accepted our invitation to speak. It wasn’t always easy. For example, the governor of Oklahoma appointed Amy Ford to a panel that is evaluating Oklahoma reading and math education standards (and eventually, I assume, science education standards as well). Because at some point she may be confronted by creationists, she had to avoid any appearance of favoritism with OESE, and had to politely leave the room while Vic was talking. In order to have all of these fine people on the same panel, we found a way to work things out.

The presentations generated some lively discussion. Although I had to step in at least once and direct the energies of some audience members in a constructive direction, I believe that the occasional strong feelings were a good thing: it means that these issues matter! Even some inconvenient comments were, in my opinion, welcome (to a point).

Here is a photo (sorry, it is not of the greatest quality) of the panel members. L to R: Amberlee Darrold; Jona Tucker; Amy Ford; Monica Deming; Vic Hutchison.

I think symposia of this nature are going to become a new tradition in OAS. Terry Conley, president-elect of OAS, is already planning a symposium about endangered species, which is an important issue in Oklahoma, where many citizens do not realize that it is an important issue.

I end the year with this thought: in upcoming years, scientists and science activists will continue in their passionate work to make the world a better place for everyone.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Science is Alive and Well in Oklahoma, part one.

I posted the following on the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences blog a few weeks ago, but the rest of you might want to know about this too.

The Oklahoma Academy of Science held its 2014 Technical Meeting at Northeastern Oklahoma State University (Broken Arrow campus) on November 7, preceded by the Executive Council meeting on November 6. As president, I enjoyed watching and occasionally coordinating the good and enthusiastic work of so many students and faculty from around the state. Nobody had to be there. It was sheer enthusiasm for science that made the meeting a success.

I wanted to mention one paper that really got my attention. Lois Ablin, a chemist at Oral Roberts University, talked about advances in “green chemistry,” particularly in student organic chemistry laboratories. I took organic chemistry in 1976 and it has been downhill from there. Back then, we poured toxic chemicals all over the place (including benzene on our hands), and all of them ended up down the drain and probably out in the ocean (I was at UC Santa Barbara). Today, thankfully, we have many rules that preserve personal and environmental safety. One of the easiest ways to reduce the amount of waste produced by student labs is simply to use small-scale reactions. In my day we used whole flasks and beakers of toxic chemicals. But in green chemistry, the same reactions can be performed in small vials, heated in a microwave oven instead of over a burner or in a hot glove. It saves time, too: you can microwave a reaction for eight minutes with the same result that you would get with an hour-and-a-half reflux. Some universities have even gone so far as to carry out reactions on filter paper, rendering fume hoods unnecessary.

There were lots of student posters. This is an time for faculty to see the excellent work done by students at other universities. I barely had time to glance at them and take grainy photos. I got to stop and look at a poster from a student at Cameron University who had studied the stomach contents of a mammoth that had lived in what is now southern Oklahoma during the last ice age (in case you didn’t know there were mammoths here). The mammoth had eaten horsetails.

Bruce Carnes, from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, gave the luncheon presentation about the evolution of aging. What an interesting topic, especially for people who might have wondered what evolution has to do with medicine. For those who might have thought that aging is simply a problem that can be solved by some magic medical bullet, Bruce (who described himself as a disappointed optimist) had some bad news. Natural selection has indeed produced a human species that is guaranteed, in the absence of intrinsic and extrinsic accidents, to live for about 55 years, which is enough time not only for nearly all reproduction to be completed but for a person in tribal society to discharge their grand-parental duties as well. Fifty-five years, then, is our “warranty period.” After age 55, the body starts to break down in multiple ways. There’s no way to stop it, even though we try very hard to prolong our lives as much as possible. It makes more sense, Bruce indicated, to try to have a healthy old age rather than simply a long one. Once the “expiration date” has passed, a car or a person might keep running for a long time, but will require more and more intervention. Old age is not a problem to be solved but a process to be managed.

In the next entry, I will write about the symposium about science-related issues in the afternoon. It was one of the most exciting things the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences has ever done, I think.