Friday, May 17, 2024

What Is Faith?

As a scientist, let me start off by saying what faith is not. It is not simply believing something that somebody else has told you.

Faith is something broad and deep that you believe. It is the most important thing in life. It is so important that you are willing to spend years, or the rest of your life, proving or disproving it. Faith is not, therefore, something you believe despite evidence, but because of it. As a result, scientists may have more faith than anyone else. Every scientist will agree that if you believe nothing, then you will never try to find out what is true and what is not.

In the previous essay, I wrote about my Ph.D. dissertation work in plant ecology. I believed that weedy fields had more environmental variability than the forest floor, and that prairies were intermediate between the two. I also believed that plants that live in weedy fields can adjust their growth to variable conditions better than forest floor plants can, and that prairie plants were intermediate between the two. Makes sense, but just because something makes sense doesn’t mean it is true.

I spent seven years in graduate school trying to even partly prove that my belief about weeds, forest floor plants, and prairie plants was true. It was like a vision that kept me going through hours of tedious work out in weedy fields and slapping mosquitoes in forests; afternoons of hot work in a humid greenhouse; hours of computer analysis and writing; and years of reading journal articles. I was Galahad and it was my grail.

I could have been wrong. But the results came out not just non-random but perfect. I still marvel that the results were so good. Hard work is no guarantee of success. It also takes luck.

Whenever you pursue a belief, and continually test and refine it into a faith, you should have a backup plan. What if you are wrong? But I had no backup plan. If my belief had proven wrong, I could still have published some results and made it into a Masters degree. I would not have been a failure in life, but I would not be Dr. Rice. There were a couple of years when things were, in fact, not looking very good.

I hate taking leaps of faith. But that is what I did. Maybe I had more faith in my scientific beliefs than I realized.

And it has left a residue of faith in my mind. Largely as a result of this experience, I am convinced that the natural world makes sense and we can understand it if we study it hard enough. And get lucky.

Friday, April 5, 2024

Vulgarization

 I am a vulgarizer. That is, my science books are intended for ordinary intelligent people (the original Latin meaning of vulgar), not for other scientists. This is true for all five of my published books (see links at www.stanleyrice.com), and for the sixth book that is under contract. I have written very few journal papers for other scientists to read. Most of my journal articles have been about science education, that is, for students and teachers. The reward for me was not to hear from a fellow scientist, “Good paper!” but to hear from a high school student who wanted to do a project based on one of my American Biology Teacher papers. My eight magazine articles in Skeptical Inquirer were a humorous approach to literalist creationism. And, of course, this blog and my YouTube channel are for all of you, not just for scientists.

In France, where I now live, la vulgarisation is not a bad word. It describes the work of writers and Youtubeurs such as myself or, in France, Jamy Gourmaud (see my earlier essay) who want to make science not only comprehensible but exciting to non-scientists. Traditionally, in America, scientists were supposed to look down their noses at non-scientists, especially artists and musicians. That is, not only their professional advancement but their sense of self-worth relied on the number of scholarly books and papers they had written, even when nobody outside their field could read or understand them. Popular books didn’t count. Only peer-reviewed papers and books in your field of expertise counted.

Increasingly, fields of expertise grow narrower and narrower. Decades ago, many scientists read papers from many different fields of science. It wasn’t just astrophysicists who read Edwin Hubble’s paper about the red shift. But, in writing my new book, I ended up citing a paper that had been published in the Journal of Osteoarchaeology. Obviously, I found the paper only by the use of Google Scholar.

At the same time, younger scientists are becoming disillusioned by the restriction of their audiences. They, like me, not only enjoy reaching out to the rest of the world, but feel a sense of emptiness at not doing so.

Heather O’Leary, a young anthropology professor at the University of South Florida published a paper that she knew hardly anyone would read. It was about the effects of toxic algal blooms in the Gulf on the tourism economy. It was, as she described it, mostly just records of visitors saying, over and over, that they didn’t like the smell of dead fish. So she decided to set her research data to music. She asked a composition professor to write the music and the university band director to perform it. This met with a lot of enthusiasm. And, now that NPR has covered the story and embedded a link to the paper, she will probably get a hundred times as many readers as she would otherwise have reached.

The message behind the work is that climate change will, among many other things, kill a lot of fish and spoil beaches that would otherwise enhance the local economy. But if you listen to the music, which is more or less a transcription of her data, you will not get this message. It sounds to me like a hundred other modernistic musical works (and I was in bands for almost two decades). To me, it is much more fulfilling to write simple (some would say, simplified) books that will, in fact, leave readers with a better understanding of the world.

Viva la vulgarisation!

Friday, March 22, 2024

Fiction that Makes You Think

I have just finished reading my third science fiction novel by the twentieth-century French writer René Barjavel. I have written previously about his novel Le Voyageur Imprudent. A time traveler accidentally kills his own grandfather in the past and thus finds that he does not exist and has never existed. This novel also included a glimpse into a very distant nightmare utopia.

Other Barjavel novels dealt straight on with the main issue of the writer’s time, nuclear disaster. In La Nuit de Temps he wrote about a previous utopian world that destroyed itself by nuclear war, but also the explosions pushed the Earth to its present tilt. Modern scientists discovered this ancient temperate utopia underneath Antarctic ice.

Un Rose au Paradis also raises disturbing questions about nuclear war which, we can only hope, we do not need to worry about anymore. The richest man in the world, Mr. G, is richer than most rich nations. He sells cheap nuclear weapons. This draws our attention to the fact that one reason nuclear weapons are relatively rare is that they are expensive. What if they were so cheap that every little country, state, or even corporations could buy them from Mr. G? You would have a world thickly implanted with weapons.

The next thing to which the novel draws our attention is that once a crucial density of nuclear weapons is reached, the use of even a single one of them could cause the others to explode just from the heat. At the beginning of the novel, this density had been reached. The next day, another country was going to activate its weapons. If a war got started at that point, it would be big enough to permanently sterilize the surface of the Earth. But if the war started before that point, all organisms would be killed but the Earth would still have a solid surface, the atmosphere would still have oxygen (something I doubt), and life could be seeded anew. Mr. G pulls a console out of his pocket, presses a button, and destroys the world a little early so that it can be resurrected. This raises the question, would it ever be right to start a nuclear holocaust?

Mr. G had prepared a survival pod for animals and seeds in suspended animation, and with just two human survivors: a man and his pregnant wife who gave birth to twins, one male and one female. From this, Mr. G could start the world over in twenty years. The twins, of course, would have to produce children. Barjavel apparently did not understand the genetics of inbreeding very well. But was this any different from a world population started by Adam and Eve, which grew from brother-sister matings in a literalistic interpretation of Genesis?

The little family had all their needs taken care of. Every day, meals of roast chicken appeared. The family had no contact with the outside world, and had nothing to do. The family had slipped in a copy of a big French dictionary, from which the son learned everything about a world he had never seen. He ate chicken but had never seen a chicken. He was impatient to see the world. His sister was even more bored. This raises the question, would you be happy without work? Even if it is just mental work like what I am doing by writing this essay.

But Mr. G, who lived with them, had made a mistake. He had not counted on the boy getting his twin sister pregnant before the end of the twenty years. With six people instead of five, they would run out of oxygen. Mr. G insisted the girl abort her fetus; she could always get pregnant again. But the mother would not permit this. She had another idea of how to reduce the population. She pushed Mr. G into the food recycler. This, however, messed everything up, the animals left suspended animation and began breathing, and the little biological restart pod almost asphyxiated. This brings up the point that no one, not even Mr. G, is smart enough to plan a perfect future.

Some parts of this novel were silly. When things were falling apart, the food synthesizer produced, instead of roast chicken, a big live rooster who chased the people around until he knocked himself out against a glass pane, but in so doing he cracked the pane and started the process of animal resuscitation, before the twenty years was up. Whether this was sillier than the four-headed robot I cannot say. And the ending was too nice. The family and all the animals figured out how to emerge from the pod, and they not only found a fertile Earth waiting for them, where the cinders of lost civilization fertilized the soil, but also Mr. G wasn’t actually dead but was awaiting them.

I like to read fiction that makes me think, even when I am disappointed by some parts of it. The novels of Barjavel had proven to be a good place for me to think.

 

Friday, March 1, 2024

What Was I Thinking? Remembrances of My Dissertation

In 1987, I submitted my Ph.D. thesis, “Environmental Variability and Phenotypic Flexibility in Plants,” at the University of Illinois. What was I thinking? I was dealing with three variables: plants, the growth flexibility of those plants, and the variability of the environment—in this case, of sunlight intensity. I intended to write about all three of these things in this essay, but it quickly got out of hand, so I will just tell you about how I dealt with the complex problem of measuring environmental variability in three habitats: abandoned agricultural fields, tallgrass prairies, and forest floors.

One of the major problems with measuring environmental variability is construct validity—that is, how valid is a way of measuring something so that it is a believable construct of what you claim to be measuring? I explain this concept in my book Scientifically Thinking. There is no single valid way of measuring environmental variability. What I did instead was to measure it three different ways. If these three ways all gave the same results, then they were probably valid, and I could believe the results.

First, I made instantaneous measurements of light (that is, the colors of light that stimulate photosynthesis) with a “quantum sensor” designed to do exactly this thing. The problem is, this kind of light intensity varies from one moment to the next.

So I used a second method. What I really wanted to know was the spatial patchiness of shade caused by leaves. So I made three-dimensional profiles of leaf area in the three habitat types. To do this, I used nine pieces of wood, a string, and a nail. But neither of these methods could prove that variability of sunlight intensity would actually have an effect on plants.


So I used a third method as well. I used phytometers, that is, actual potted plants. I measured the weight of the plants (plus the soil, or course) in lots of different places in the three habitats in the morning and the afternoon. I measured environmental variability as the differences in how much water the plants transpired.

This was how I tackled the problem of construct validity. I measured what I wanted to know three different ways. I was taking a chance. What if the three ways gave three different answers? But I got lucky. All three methods agreed. Chalk one up for construct validity.

I had expected that weedy fields would be the most variable, the forest floor the least variable, and prairies intermediate between them. And this is what I found. I still marvel that it came out that way.

I announced my results triumphantly: weeds had the most phenotypic flexibility and lived in the most variable environment; forest floor plants had the least flexibility, and lived in the least variable environment; and prairie plants and their environment were intermediate. The results all lined up. Despite all of its limitations, this quixotic quest was successful. I believe the results, largely because I took a risk with construct validity, and it paid off. There is no way I could have gotten these results by sheer luck. Here is the plain English summary of my thesis.

A lot of the scientific method is about validity. You have to measure it, and every time you do, you are taking a risk. But if it works, you are closer to understanding the world.

Friday, February 23, 2024

A Risk of Science

 

I just finished reading a French novel, Cent millions d’années et un jour, by Jean-Baptiste Andrea. It was not the best novel I have ever read, but I did learn something interesting from it.

I chose the novel because the protagonist was a paleontologist named Stan, which is my name. He got a team of explorers together to go high into the Alps to look for a cave that was reputed to have a huge skeleton, maybe a dinosaur. After long personal struggles and dangers from the weather, the team gradually abandoned Stan, and he was alone when he actually found the cave. Success?

The author apparently did not understand the process of scientific research very well. Stan started his expedition based on a story. An old man a half century earlier had claimed he knew a cave that hid a big skeleton. Stan asked around in the mountain hamlets, and the rumor was confirmed only by a five-year-old girl. To most scientists, this is not an adequate basis for launching an investigation, especially one that involved a lot of time and personal risk. At least one person died by falling into the chasm that the team painstakingly created to get into what they thought was the right cave.

When Stan entered the cave, winter was advancing on him. The old man who claimed to have found a skeleton was not lying, but was mistaken. It was not a skeleton, but a pile of sticks that looked, at a glance, like a dinosaur skeleton.

It was too late for Stan to hike out of the mountains, so he had to survive in his tent all winter. He may or may not have succeeded, I’m not sure, and he was harassed by wolves that may or may not have existed. It’s just like Life of Pi, where there might have been a tiger on the raft, or maybe not.

My simple point is that, what do you do if your discovery turns out to be worthless? A lot of scientific research ends in failure. The thing to do is to get as many facts, not just rumors, as you can before beginning a big research project, and to not make one project your entire life. Stan was a moderately successful paleontologist—he found a trilobite fossil when he was a kid. With the failure of this one project, his career had failed. True scientists, like any other true explorers, do not take such risks.

Friday, February 16, 2024

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

This is the phrase that celebrity physicist Richard Feynman used to describe the joy of scientific research. But it also describes the joy of science education. Feynman was as brilliant of a scientist as you could hope to meet, and to him mathematical equations were as obvious as the nose on your face. But he knew very well that science education did not consist of learning piles of facts. He knew it was a matter of joy: professors and students alike should share this joy. This is what I always tried to do as a science educator, even to the extent of trying out what some colleagues thought of as stunts.

This is the reason that Bill Nye the Science Guy is more popular among people in general than any professor could hope to be. Professors try to impress their colleagues; but Bill Nye’s audience is ordinary intelligent people.

 

Jamy Gormaud is France’s answer to Bill Nye. He started off as a reporter, then discovered the joy of science—just as Carl Zimmer and David Quammen started off as fiction writers and found their calling in science writing. Today, with his YouTube channel, Jamy uses humor—a lot of it—to communicate not only science but also history to a large audience. My wife and I started watching his videos in order to learn French, by slowing down the videos and reading subtitles. But I appreciate his joy of science. In one of his books (Mon Tour de France: Des Curiosités Naturelles et Scientifiques) he has assembled a tour of France to see scientific curiosities. Several dozen videos later, he is still one of our favorite video hosts. Jamy describes the pleasure of learning new things as “la connaissance qui soulève l’esprit” (knowledge that lifts the spirit). He practices “la vulgarisation de la science.” Vulgarization is not a bad word in French, although American professors and writers hate to be accused of vulgarization. It just means making science understandable and interesting to non-specialists.

He takes his readers to old places to see new things. He starts his book in the marshlands of northeastern France mainly because he saw some great sunrises there when he was a kid. This chapter is about why sunrises (and sunsets) are red. Maybe you know why, and maybe you don’t. My answer was mostly right.

Sunlight is intensely white, which results from the mixture of all visible wavelengths of light. But when sunlight encounters atmosphere, it scatters. Blue wavelenths, at one end of the spectrum, scatter more than the others, which is why the sky around the noontime sun on a clear day is blue and the sunlight itself is yellowish: the sunlight is white minus some of the blue color. When sunlight has to travel through more of the atmosphere, as when it comes in at an angle at sunrise or sunset, not only do the blue wavelengths scatter but also the others, except those at the red end of the spectrum. If you did not know this, you might have felt your brain grow a little bit right then. Thanks to Jamy, and maybe to some outstanding science teacher you may have had in the past.

Jamy, and other good science educators, also draws in perspectives from outside of science. It was Isaac Newton who explained that white light is all the rainbow colors mixed together. We do not perceive it as a range of colors, but as bands of color. It turns out, for reasons I explain in my book Scientifically Thinking, that our brains create the illusion of bands of color, which helps our brains make sense of the world. But, Jamy wondered, why did Newton say there were seven bands of color? Clearly there are bands, but can you really see seven bands? Violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. Long before Newton, Robert Boyle had written that a rainbow has five bands of color. Jamy explained in his book that Newton was very religious—he wrote more pages about religion than about science—and to him seven had great Biblical significance. That is, Newton had a little bit of religious illusion even in his hard scientific observations.

He must be very satisfied in his work. To the extent that my videos fulfill the same role as his, I am satisfied. Even though I have retired, I continue to be a science educator, in the tradition of Jamy Gourmaud.