Friday, March 22, 2019

The Book of Knowledge

In its twenty volumes, an immense amount of information is crammed. It was intended for children 6 to 16, but I doubt that even 16-year-olds could handle it back in 1951, certainly not now. It was the strangest mixture: Mary Had a Little Lamb would be right next to a long article about English portrait painting during the Restoration, and pages of unclear black and white photos of cathedrals. This set of books struck me, a writer, as a really bad idea from the start, but somehow The Book of Knowledge persisted for at least 40 years. There were pages and pages of “birthday congratulations” for the encyclopedia on its fortieth printing, even one from Bing Crosby, who carefully avoided saying whether he had ever actually read anything from earlier editions of the book when he was a kid.

But I actually enjoyed looking through The Book of Knowledge recently. I do not have television or internet in my second house, where I was confined to recover from the antibiotic-resistant infection of which I wrote earlier. To me, looking through these books was a fascinating glimpse into the past: How to send a telegram, how telephones (the old black bakelite ones) worked, how card catalogs worked in libraries, how sorting machines were used on census cards, how motor cars are made. “Could we ever travel to the moon?” Fun with your typewriter! (You can make faces on typing paper with it.) Wax cylinders for temporary recordings from which secretaries could transcribe letters!

The Book of Knowledge was extremely American-oriented. Under “The Distribution of Wealth,” the entire discussion was about capitalism, which also dominated “How Wealth is Created.” At the same time, one passage said that the assumption upon which taxation is built is equality of sacrifice of both rich and poor. God, where did that idea disappear to? We need it back.

Despite the American bias, The Book of Knowledge presented all the parts of the world equally and, by mid-century standards, without judgment. All religions were treated equally. Women of every race were beautiful, men handsome, and every culture had its own brilliant literature and music. The encyclopedia did not talk about the early civil rights struggles; instead, it included a big section about outstanding American “Negroes,” which was the honorable term at the time, leaving the reader to conclude that black people deserved far better than what they were getting.

And the books told kids how to do some things that were, at least at the time, important, such as how to do first aid, how to knit, how to make a whistle, how to make a violin from a cigar box, how to make a princess petticoat for your doll, how to cook.

There were classic stories, everything from Guy de Maupassant’s The Diamond Necklace to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. They were always nourishing and uplifting even if, like Maupassant’s story, the ending was a little tragic.

But there was something in this set of books that is often missing in modern education: a sense of wonder. Over thousands of pages, the book asked questions about things that kids had seen many times but never thought about. The wonder of a piece of silk! Does a plant go to sleep? Why is it good to boil potatoes in their jackets? How do chemical bonds form? (Smiling atoms looked at each other and said, “Got any room for a lonely electron?”) How do plants move and feel? And the life of a tree: “How thrilling would be the story of trees if only they could speak!” This sense of wonder was the best thing about this set of books.

The strangest part was how the books were organized. They weren’t. One topic was smooshed against another at random. As a result, each volume had to have an outline at the beginning to classify the topics and tell which page they were on, and Volume 20 was an index. Very confusing. No wonder that the New Book of Knowledge, which replaced this old one, is alphabetical like every other encyclopedia.

On the other hand, all of knowledge is interconnected. That is the way the world is: each bit of knowledge is mixed in with other bits. The kids were expected to just read through the Book of Knowledge and have their knowledge enhanced in every way at the same time, a carnival of sensations. I wonder if it might not be time to go back to this sort of non-arrangement. If such a set of books was online, then you could search for any topic you might want by pressing Control F. I hesitate to admit that this old Book of Knowledge was organized somewhat the way my brain works! As a matter of fact, when I was a kid, I used to imagine that I would lead a big research institute in which all knowledge would be encapsulated. I started a list of topics, in which birds had equal standing with bubbles. I imagined that I would complete the work and die happy at age 103. I soon recognized that it was impossible to gather all knowledge into one place.

But I will never lose my passion for the interconnectedness of all knowledge.

Friday, March 8, 2019

What Does a Scientist Do When He or She Gets Sick?

I mean, besides griping and whining like everyone else. And feeling embarrassed for sneezing in front of a class. And I don’t mean an ordinary sneeze. I mean a convulsive one that makes me bend over double, one that is uncontrollable, and which makes me invent new consonants. Red Skelton did a comedy routine about this once.

What do we scientists do when we get sick? We test a series of hypotheses, that’s what. It keeps our minds occupied even though we may never find out which hypothesis, if any, might be true.

When I became sick over a month ago, I tried to figure out what it was. I first assumed it was allergies. Allergies are famous in Oklahoma. I got a severe sore throat one night, assumed it was a cold, Hypothesis 1, but it was gone the next day, to be replaced by all the usual symptoms of either an allergy or a cold. Lots of other people had the same experience on the same day, which just happened to be the day the rain stopped and a strong wind came from the south during cedar pollen season (Juniperus ashei, abundant in Texas). How likely was it that I had an infection when everybody else had allergies? The rain came back and our windshields ran yellow with cedar and elm pollen. That was hypothesis 2: allergic reaction.

But it didn’t go away. I assumed that Hypothesis 1 had been correct. But nine days later, I still had this cold. Maybe, I thought, it was a bacterial infection, Hypothesis 3. Maybe the allergic reaction weakened my immune system, making me vulnerable to bacteria that I already harbored and which had been waiting their chance to invade me. Evidence: yellow snot. Not just from breathing pollen, but even when the pollen had been rinsed away by more rain.

Ten days of amoxicillin seemed to help. At least my sense of taste returned. But my cough and congestion continued. I went to the clinic again. My snot was now clear, so the conclusion was that Hypothesis 2 had been correct, and I got an allergy shot.

By the beginning of the fourth week of whatever-the-hell, I was beginning to think of bacteria again, because the allergy shot brought no relief. I thought it was working, but this was bias on the part of my brain. My snot was yellow again, and there were the convulsive coughs, along with abdominal muscle pains just from the coughing. I have already used more tissues than I typically do in two or three years. But this is Hypothesis 4: amoxicillin-resistant bacteria.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria kill thousands of people. They are the premier example of the statement I used in my encyclopedia: What you don’t know about evolution can kill you. If I had not studied evolutionary medicine, I might never have thought of Hypothesis 4. Most infections, even bacterial ones, are self-limiting, which means you eventually get over them in a few months or decades. But I have too much life that I want to finish before I die, so I hope it doesn’t take this long. And recovery is not guaranteed. Weep not for me, gentle friends, but for the books I will not have a chance to publish unless I recover.

As of this posting, the second-line antibiotic seems to be working. If it does not, I hereby authorize my heirs to post a notice on this blog.

I was in the mood for hypothesis testing because I was reading This Is Biology: The Science of the Living World, by the late great Ernst Mayr. He wrote the book when he was 92 years old; he died at age 100 in 2004. It is thick with information, but pleasantly written (even with a joke or two), and I could relax in the assurance that he had figured out the philosophy of science so that I did not have to. He was not a great fan of philosophers; during the height of Karl Popper’s popularity, he said that every scientist he knew claimed he or she was a Popperian and then went ahead and did whatever he or she was going to do anyway. If I did not have to sit at home, I might never have looked at this book.

Hypothesis testing helps us understand reality, but it also helps take our minds away from the reality that would depress us.

Monday, March 4, 2019

May the Spirit of Science Be With You!

If you can, find some time to sit back with a copy of my latest book Scientifically Thinking and read it while sipping your favorite drink. Preferably a book you have bought rather than borrowed from the library, though enough libraries have purchased it that you can probably look at it first before buying it.

I have received several emails from people who have thoroughly enjoyed this book, which presents science as a thoroughly human activity but one that is constrained by logic that does not come easily to the human mind. One of them interviewed me on his radio show even though he had only read the introduction. (He asked me to tell him more about the Acknowledgements page.)

The most interesting response I have so far received was an email from Gary Spedding, a distillation quality consultant, a member of judging panels for distillation quality, and a contributor to the magazine Artisinal Spirit. (I like to think the title refers both to alcoholic and to creative spirit.) Trained in biochemistry, Gary runs the BDAS (Brewing and Distilling Analysis Services) website. Although British, this Gary is not the same Gary Spedding as the notorious British (brutish?) Holocaust denier by the same name. Gary shared with me an article that is to be published in an upcoming issue of Artisinal Spirit. It is safe to say that I have little experience with this field of study. And I think that Gary probably already knew most of the things that he wrote about my book in his article before reading my book, but my book gave him a framework to organize his thoughts and to show that his work is not entirely different from the work of those of us who call ourselves professional scientists.

Below I will mention some of the topics in Gary’s article, to show you some of the scientific considerations involved in the practice of good beverage distillation. Distillers already know these things, as evidenced by Gary’s articles and references therein, but many need some clarification.

The concept of terroir. I did not know that distillers worked with this concept, though the French wine industry is largely based upon it. Terroir comes from the word for earth, and it means that wine made from grapes raised in one location, say Bordeaux, is very different from an otherwise identically-produced wine made from grapes grown in Alsace. Theoretically, this could apply to almost any agricultural product—I suppose sauerkraut (choucroute) raised in Alsace would taste different from choucroute raised in Bordeaux, that is, if they raise any in Bordeaux. Since it is hotter and drier in Bordeaux, I’ll bet the Bordeaux choucroute would be more bitter. But I had supposed that any terroir-associated differences in the grains used to make whisky or gin would have been lost during distillation. Perhaps I was wrong about this. Gary pointed out how easy it is for an individual, or even a tasting panel, to be biased in its detection of terroir quality (please, Word software, quit changing this to terror).

Tasting panel bias. Humans are all biased, and a panel of expert tasters is no exception. Individual tasters can be influenced by other factors such as color. As Gary pointed out, tasters might think that a darker whiskey tastes better. Also, the taster should do his or her test at a time of day and under circumstances in which bias would be minimized, for example, at least an hour after using toothpaste, but during a time of peak sensitivity, e.g., mid-day. Also, in a panel of judges, some individuals can influence others. If one of them says “Ah!” this must surely influence the others. Are all the tasters blindfolded in individual cubicles? And just how objective are the panelists? Do they enjoy tasting the samples so much that they become the equivalent of the field zoologist’s “trap-happy animals”? (See page 143 of my book.) I wrote that all humans are biased, even scientists, but scientists try to compensate for it. Gary improved on what I said by entitling one of his sections “If you’re biased and you know it clap your hands...” Maybe what you want in a tasting panel is not uniformity of expertise but diversity of tastes, in which case—you might not want to go there—pulling volunteers off the street might be more reliable than what the experts say.

Sample size. A distiller cannot draw a conclusion from one vat, even if s/he has a control vat (whatever that might be) to which to compare it. How many vats? As many as possible? It really depends on your market. If you think “scientifically tested with thousands of independent samples” will sell more product, then do it, if it doesn’t cost more than your likely profits. A scientific rule-of-thumb for statistical significance is to use 30 specimens in each treatment. Is it worth it? Even the statistical tests must be done by expensive computer programs. Don’t use the same vat over and over; that’s pseudo-replication.

Humans as measuring devices. Human senses are not reliable measuring devices. As Gary points out, the sense of smell (which responds to thousands of scents, unlike taste, which responds to only six) varies greatly from one individual to another. One individual might be unable to taste, say, ethyl acetate, while another finds it pleasant, and another dislikes it. Human senses are also influenced by the sequence effect: tasters will pay closer attention to the first sample than to the twelfth, especially if they swallow. (I don’t know whether they do. I have heard that there is such a thing as a spit bucket, so I suppose they don’t.) Even something like how long a bottle has been opened (since opening a bottle introduces oxygen and thus oxidation) can influence taste. Drinks consist of thousands of chemicals, as will anything of biological origin, and a taster cannot pay attention to all of them. But is this really an important consideration? It is, after all, humans who will be drinking it. A subjective (scientifically unreliable) opinion might be exactly what you want from the panel of tasters.

You can use the scientific method just about anywhere. Or, you might intelligently decide to not use it. You just should not overlook it. I will end this entry where Gary ended his article, “May the spirit of science be with you!”