Monday, December 24, 2018

The Big Little World of Robert Hooke

In England in 1664, the scientific world was amazed to see Robert Hooke’s book Micrographia. Hooke was one of the first people to make expert use of early microscopes. The intricate drawings in this book remain some of the best art in the world today. Hooke opened up our vision to a big little world too small for the unaided eye to see.

Most biology textbooks contain the drawing that he made of a thin slice of cork. Rather than being a solid material, it consisted of lots of tiny cubicles, which reminded Hooke of the monastery cells in which monks lived. This observation began the scientific search that eventually led to the cell theory: that all organisms consist of cells. 

But Hooke did not just look at organisms, nor did he just look: he also asked questions about what he saw. One of his drawings was of “gravel in urine,” or kidney stones. When you look at them microscopically, you can see that the smaller ones are crystalline. This helped to explain where they came from: from minerals dissolved in the urine which occasionally crystallize. And because they are crystals formed in the urine, rather than actual gravel, they can be dissolved back into the liquid and thus, perhaps, eliminated. “How great an advantage it would be,” he wrote, “to such as are troubled with the Stone, to find some [liquid] that might dissolve them without hurting the bladder...” This possible solution to kidney stones would not have occurred to someone who did not look at them closely, so someone who just assumed they were gravel.

He also asked questions about the “cells” in the cork. (He was well aware that no one had ever described them before: “...indeed the first microscopical pores I ever saw, and that perhaps were ever seen, for I had not met with any Writer or Person, that had made any mention of them before this.”) He deduced that these cells, which contained air that could not escape from them, were the reason that cork could float and why it was springy. He even deduced that there were also “channels or pipes through which the...natural juices of Vegetables are convey’d, and seem to correspond to the veins, arteries and other Vessels of nutrition in sensible creatures...”

Hooke also rhapsodized about the amazing quantity of tiny objects, such as the cells of cork, of which “a Cubick Inch” could contain 1259712000, or “twelve hundred millions.” It was “a thing almost incredible, did not our Microscope assure us of it...”

How could he be sure that his observation of cork cells was not a mere anomaly of cork? He also looked at (but did not draw) cells in “the pith of an Elder, or almost any other Tree, the inner pulp or pith of the Cany hollow stalks of several other Vegetables: as of Fennel, Carrets, Daucus, Bur-docks, Teasels, Fearn, some kinds of Reeds, &c.”

He also closely observed sensitive plants (a branch and leaf of which appears right under his drawing of cells) to try to figure out why and how the leaflets closed when touched.

His drawings of small arthropods revealed a new world of awe to his readers. Although creatures such as the flea can be very ugly, one must admire the intricacy of their adaptations, which allow them to suck blood and to avoid being scratched away or swatted.

Hooke also wrote about the things he saw through the telescope, and drew craters and mountains of the moon.

The beginning of science is thoughtful observation. The microscope and telescope extended our observation to the very small and the very large and allowed us to ask new questions that we could not have imagined. Thank you, Galileo, and thank you, Robert Hooke.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Plants Will Save the World! Or Not

An old acquaintance of mine (well, no older than I am) responded to a message that I had posted on Facebook, in which I said I had my students do a project in which they increased their health and reduced their carbon footprints. My friend wanted to know why anyone would want to reduce their carbon footprint. Plants need carbon dioxide, so if we put as much carbon into the air as possible, we are feeding the plants, right? He was puzzled that I, as a botanist, did not seem to understand this.

He even had a scientific source for his views. He referred to the work of Sylvan Wittwer, a horticulturalist whose research showed that plants grow better in higher carbon dioxide. From this, Wittwer concluded that rising carbon dioxide levels in the air was a good thing.

In the narrow sense, Wittwer was right. Back in graduate school, I worked on experiments with Fakhri Bazzaz (University of Illinois, later Harvard) that proved this very thing. They were greenhouse experiments. But later outdoor experiments, using Free Air Carbon Enrichment (FACE) reached similar conclusions. What happened is that, at first, plants grow more when they have more carbon, but then the growth enhancement slows down. Just one example of this is a 2006 article by Stephen Long and Donald Ort, from the University of Illinois where I got my Ph.D. Unfortunately, I cannot provide the full text, since it is available only to members of AAAS. But you can read the abstract. Here is a photo of one such experiment. It was led by my fellow graduate student from Illinois in the 1980s, Rick Lindroth.

The problem with saying that plants will grow more and cleanse the air of excess carbon is that plants need lots of things other than carbon dioxide in order to grow. They need light, which on this planet is usually abundant. But they also need soil with water and nutrients. A lot of places on Earth have droughts and soil erosion, and in those places the plants cannot make use of any extra carbon dioxide. Most of all, plants need to not be destroyed if they are to grow and absorb carbon dioxide. A lot of forest and grassland is being destroyed. Forests grow back, but we are destroying them faster than they can grow back. Apparently the plants grew quite well in Wittwer’s greenhouses, but in the great outdoors, they frequently do not.

The results are clear. Carbon dioxide levels have been increasing. When measurements began in the 1950s, carbon dioxide levels were less than 300 parts per million. Today, they exceed 400. These numbers sound small but carbon dioxide is very good at holding in the atmospheric heat. Carbon dioxide is the main reason that Venus is hotter than Mercury despite being further from the sun.

If plants are going to save the world, why are they not doing so now? They seem to be totally incapable of absorbing the surplus carbon dioxide we have already put in the air. If plants are going to save the world, when are they going to start?

Plants need carbon, and we need water. But you can’t make us healthier by drowning us in water. You can’t make plants grow more by gassing them with carbon, except sometimes in a greenhouse.

Another problem is bias. Wittwer helped to start two major think tanks. One of these is the Greening Earth Society, which is sponsored by the Western Fuels Association. The other was the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, which does not reveal its funding sources but IRS records showed that at least one source was ExxonMobil. The very purpose of these think tanks is to convince people, mainly politicians, that global warming is nothing to worry about and we should use as much oil as possible right now. They fund only research that is consistent with this view.

Having bias does not mean that you are a liar. We all have biases, as I explain in Chapter 13 of my new book, Scientifically Thinking. But there is certainly pressure for scientists whose work is funded by oil companies to reach conclusions those companies would like. You would have to be nearly superhuman in your fairmindedness if your funding sources did not influence your conclusions.

One would think that the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change would gleefully promote the conservation and replanting of forests and grasslands, in order to get them to grow back faster and absorb more carbon dioxide. I asked the lead scientist of that organization if his organization promoted conservation and reforestation. He answered that taking a stand one way or the other on reforestation was outside the mission of his organization. I took this to mean that his oil donors did not want him to say that we should save and replant forests, even if he personally believed it. Your funding sources not only influence your conclusions but limit what you can say. This man struck me as being honest, as honest as he was permitted to be.

My own research shows that buds of deciduous trees in Oklahoma have opened earlier in the spring by about one to three days per year over the last dozen years. This is associated with one component of global warming. Earlier budburst is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a sign of global warming. This graph shows the earlier budburst dates in four major species of deciduous trees. Lower numbers on the y axis mean earlier budburst.

Budburst did not occur earlier each year, but over the twelve year period, the odds of this result occurring by chance were (by statistical analysis) less than one in ten thousand.

I have received no funding for this research, not from science agencies, nor from environmental groups, nor from oil companies.

So, what is my bias? Of course I have one. But it is not what you might think. I am a botanist. I love love love plants, starting with the green chlorophyll that absorbs sunlight all the way up to the whole organism and the whole forest.

In the photo on the top, green chlorophyll glows red because it absorbs visible white light but emits red light by fluorescence. The photo on the bottom is a water oak leaf, which is a photosynthetic factory filled with veins that deliver water and take away precious sugar.

I would love to be able to tell everyone, plants will save the world! They will scrub the excess carbon out of the air. Unfortunately, I have to dejectedly accept the conclusion that they will not. This is the conclusion I reached in Chapter 3 of my earlier book, Green Planet. The subtitle of that book shows clearly that I really hoped that plants would rescue us from the greenhouse effect: How Plants Keep the Earth Alive.

It is with a heavy heart that I must report to you that the research conducted by a handful of oil-funded scientists is incorrect, and global warming is real, getting worse, and very dangerous.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Terrorist Attack in Strasbourg

Last night, a terrorist attack in Strasbourg left two dead, one brain-dead, and twelve injured. This attack has shocked people around the world. French police responded immediately and are looking diligently for the shooter, whose identity is known and whose face has been broadcast everywhere.

Very quickly les citoyens strasbourgeoises created memorials to the slain.

(Photos from 

This was the same response that I saw in July 2016 when the citizens of Strasbourg created memorials for the victims of the terrorist attack in Nice.

While the horror of this attack cannot be ignored, I must remind my readers that there were more people killed, thirteen in all, on October 27 at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California. That was the 307th mass shooting in America. America has so many mass shootings that people here and around the world quickly forget them.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Mix Together Religious Zeal and Scientific Ignorance, and What Do You Get?

You all already know the answer to this question. I want to give you a particularly vivid example.

In eighteenth-century France, as in other places in Europe, Catholics massacred a lot of Protestants, and the reverse was often true as well. One of the worst massacres was in August, 1572, when French Catholic mobs murdered thousands of Protestant Huguenots in the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre. Historical summaries generally say the triggering event of the massacre was the attempted assassination of the Admiral de Coligny. But there was more to the story. I cannot find this information online, but I distinctly remember reading in a book in 1976 (written by Henri Noguères) that one of the triggering events was the flowering of a crabapple tree. Crabapple trees usually bloom in spring. When some of them bloomed in late summer in Paris, many people, already stirred up by religious zeal, took this to be a miracle; if a miracle, then a message; if a message, then from God; if from God, it meant that they were supposed to go kill Huguenots.

This event, however, was all based on ignorance—in this case, botanical ignorance. If crabapple (or Bradford pear) trees experience a summer drought, and then rain begins to fall, the rain serves as a trigger that makes the trees bloom. This is because the trees do not have heat and cold sensors; to a tree, winter is dry (because the water is frozen) and spring is wet. Therefore, many trees will respond to a dry midsummer followed by a wet late summer as being winter followed by spring. This is why the crabapple trees bloomed in Paris in August 1572.

When the trees bloomed, the religious zealots did not know why. And if they do not know why, then it must be a miracle. This was their religiously deluded line of reasoning. Who knows how many people lost their lives because some religious zealots did not know enough botany!

This is my six hundredth post.

Friday, November 30, 2018

A Fictional Experiment: An Example from René Barjavel

René Barjavel (1911-1985) was a French novelist who explored perplexing scientific themes. Perhaps his two best-known books are La Nuit de Temps (The Night of Time; translated as The Ice People) and Le Voyageur Imprudent (The Careless Traveler, translated as Future Times Three). In his 1943 Voyageur time-travel novel, he became perhaps the first person to suggest the Grandfather Paradox: If you go back in time and kill your ancestor, then not only do you not exist, but you could never have existed, therefore you could not have killed your ancestor, therefore...

I would like to use Le Voyageur imprudent as an example of performing a scientific experiment by means of fiction. For something impossible like time travel, this is the only way to test hypotheses.

Time travel novels are nearly always the author’s way of making social commentaries. H. G. Wells used The Time Machine as a way of saying that if current (as of a century ago) trends continue, the leisure class will evolve into childlike, tender, stupid Eloi and the working class will evolve into bestial Morlocks. The twist was that the Eloi appeared to be the privileged class but were mere cattle for the Morlocks. (Sorry to spoil it for you if you haven’t read it.) Wells was, by writing this novel, saying that we had to do something to solve this problem. Wells’s open proclamation of eugenics, however, was not the right way to deal with the problem.

René Barjavel certainly fit into the social commentary pattern. When the time travelers visited the year 100,000, they found that humans had evolved into a multitude of forms, but that they had transformed the face of the Earth so that it consisted only of flat plains with regular lines of conical structures. Some of the human forms had mouths without jaws, and digestive systems without anuses; they lived off of milk, delivered through teats that fit directly into their conical mouths, and completely assimilated the molecules. Each of the cones on the landscape had a gigantic woman with thousands of teats and into whose huge body little males were irresistibly drawn to deposit sperm and then the males were digested. This sounds like Barjavel’s nightmare vision of what you get when you cross a twentieth-century Soviet state with a spider and run it forward to the distant future.

Barjavel’s novel was based on the totally preposterous premise that a man named Noël Essaillon invented a material known as noëlite that would allow a person, when wearing a green diving suit, to float through time and space. Of course it was preposterous; it was merely a device to get us into the story, and the author had no intention of making it plausible. My time travel novels are equally preposterous for the same reason. Essaillon chose a young math teacher, a French soldier in World War Two named Pierre Saint-Menoux, to be his collaborator, since Essaillon was wheelchair-bound and could not himself travel in time. Spray on some noëlite, slip into the scaphandre suit, and off you go. But when Pierre slipped into the near future, he found that Essaillon’s pretty little daughter Annette had grown up. Love was inevitable. During one of their trips to the future, the elder Essaillon (pushed around by Pierre) died, then came back to life, then decided that God wanted him to stay dead.

Saint-Menoux wanted to understand the time structure of reality. So he performed experiments. He went into the past and interrupted a wedding so that he could steal jewels. (He and Annette were also very poor in wartime France.) When he got back to the future, though, he discovered that the wedding he had interrupted was that of the parents of one of his friends. That friend no longer existed or, more properly, had never existed. However, the incredibly ugly building for which that friend had been an architect still existed, designed exactly the same way by some other architect. Perhaps, Saint-Menoux thought, history was inevitable and individuals did not matter. He also wanted to see if he could make himself appear in history books by doing something outrageous in the past. In his green scaphandre, he stole money from a bank. What he did not count on was getting his scaphandre ripped and inactivated. The distraught Annette had to go back in time and rescue him. Back into his home time, he found that he had appeared in history as The Green Demon. He had become a legend.

Saint-Menoux was to marry Annette the very night when he decided he had to answer one last question before giving up his time traveling to become a husband. He wanted to know whether he could change all of history, not just the history of individuals. He decided to go back to 1793 and kill Napoleon. Pierre found Napoleon, but accidentally killed another man instead, the man who turned out to be his ancestor. At that moment, Saint-Menoux ceased to have ever existed. The final scene was very touching. Annette heard a shriek outside, it reminded her of Pierre, but even as she was thinking about Pierre she forgot who he was. She ran past the workshop where her father was still working unsuccessfully on his time machine.

Annette raised the lamp as she looked outside of the door: La lampe dessine sur les pavés un carré de lumière. Très haut, dans les étoiles ...  La lune éclaire la rue vide. Un petit tourbillon de vent ...  jette sur ses pieds nus un feuille morte. Isn’t French beautiful? The lamp threw a square of light on the paving stones. Very high up, amidst the stars, the moon illuminated the empty street. A little whirl of wind threw upon her naked feet a dead leaf. And that was the end of Saint-Menoux, and the very memory of him, and of noëlite, which Annette’s father would never actually discover.

I wrote previously about Jacob Bronowski who saw an essential unity in the processes of scientific and artistic creativity. Barjavel’s novel, I believe, is a good illustration of it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Ascent of Jacob Bronowski

I just finished reading a pre-publication copy of Timothy Sandefur’s upcoming The Ascent of Jacob Bronowski. If even I, a reader of many popular science books, have barely heard of Jacob Bronowski, you can bet that most people have forgotten him. But before there was Neil DeGrasse Tyson, before Stephen Jay Gould, before Carl Sagan, there was Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974) whose passion was to open up the minds of non-scientists to the power and beauty of science.

Bronowski’s work was based on a fundamental assertion of faith that I share, but which I sometimes question. It is that most people are smart enough to understand science, at least in its basic outlines, and smart enough to use the scientific mode of thought. This is the basis of my book, to be released in December, ScientificallyThinking. Bronowski’s gospel was to get scientists to speak clearly and simply to non-scientists and open their eyes to science. I believe that most people are smart enough to do this, but relatively few people really want to. Most people would rather sit in their backwater of ignorance and listen only to things that reinforce their lazy prejudices.

Bronowski (known to his friends as Bruno) was the perfect example of a Renaissance Man, that is, someone who is interested in everything. I first learned this term back about 1977 when a friend called me a Renaissance Man. I was a biology major who wrote novels, wrote orchestra music, and studied history and languages. Perhaps only a Renaissance Man (or woman) can make the connections necessary to bring people from all different modes of thought together. This was certainly Bronowski. An English child of eastern European immigrants, he started off as a poet. But he was also interested in mathematics, which led to statistics. (Statistics differs from pure mathematics because pure math deals with the certainties of deduction, while statistics tries to understand the messy reality of the world through induction. At least, that’s my summary of it.) His mathematical expertise got him involved in the effort for the Allies to win World War II, and later to make industrial production more efficient.

This mathematical work did not always lead Bronowski where he might have expected. Yes, he helped the Allies win World War II, but like many other scientists he was deeply disturbed by the effects of atomic bombs. He traveled in Japan after the bombs, and knew that the new power we had unleashed from the atom was completely disproportionate to any legitimate military goals even the best of countries might have. Also, his dedication to industrial efficiency led him on the ultimately quixotic quest to produce Bronowski Bricks from coal dust, sort of a fossil fuel version of charcoal briquets. The briquets reduced coal waste, to be sure, but they were very expensive to produce, and, according to Prince Philip, they looked like turds.

But Bruno’s wide knowledge, and being at the right place at the right time, threw him into the public spotlight in radio and television broadcasting. He produced, one after another, important science documentaries, culminating in his still-famous The Ascent of Man. He dabbled in lots of things at which he was not really skilled, such as writing a light opera libretto that was not very good (the music was by Peter Racine Fricker, who was on the music faculty when I entered the University of California at Santa Barbara). But he tried!

Science and art, said Bronowski, were both creative. Take, for example, Copernicus, who did some of the earliest work that proved the sun to be the center of the solar system, rather than Earth being the center of the universe. Copernicus had to imagine what the planets would do if he were at a central solar vantage point, but as an artist has to imagine what the final work would look like. Both scientists and artists test concepts: scientists, how well the concept explains the natural world, and poets, how well the poem expands our experience.

Another idea he had was that animals need intelligence in order to have free will. You have to be able to visualize possible futures before you can choose among them. Only humans can do this. I do not know if Bronowski actually solved the problem of free will, but he clarified it, at least for non-philosophers like me. He helped lay the foundation for the study of language acquisition. He said that only humans can make a sentence out of separate words, and then isolate one word and generalize about that one concept.

When he helped to start the Salk Institute, Bronowski moved to La Jolla, California. He would host scholars for discussions in his living room (where he also filed the final episode of Ascent). He was an inspiring partner for dialogue. While he knew everything about everything, he could make you feel brilliant even when he was saying you were wrong, according to more than one of his acquaintances.

Jacob Bronowski inspired us to think big, to see all human thought as a single fabric rather than as a collage of specialties. And he was an early inspiration for what we now call citizen science. They didn’t have the internet back then, but on his televised shows he encouraged viewers to send in postcards with their own scientific thoughts on them.

You can get a taste for the kind of spellbinding quality Bruno had by seeing this short YouTube clip from one of the Ascent episodes. Apparently when the BBC was filming this segment, they did not expect Bruno to walk out into the pond; this was extemporized.

I have a lot of different kinds of creative and intellectual output. I am not equally good at all of them, and am not world-class at any of them, as far as I can tell. But I can still do a lot of good with them. Bruno is my guiding light in this respect.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

There Is No Mass Market

One of the greatest marketers in the history of economics is Seth Godin. During an interview, he said something that truly astonished me, and I want to pass it on. He said there is no mass market.

A mass market is an imaginary group of homogeneous people who make up at least 51 percent of the population and who want to buy your product. No such group exists. To Godin, it is meaningless to say most people won’t buy this product. Of course they won’t. Your market is not an imaginary homogeneous majority, but a minority of very interested customers. Focus your attention on them. Sell, or write, something that those people that will benefit those people. They will tell other people like themselves—no longer just by word of mouth, but by social media—and your marketing will take care of itself.

A side benefit to this is that you can make, do, or write what matters to you, and you can feel that you have enjoyed and done something useful with your life. The marketing will take care of itself, so long as you give it enough boosts with, for example, an internet platform.

More thoughts?

Godin follows his own advice. Now when he writes a book, it becomes a best seller without the need for promotion or interviews. But he didn’t start out that way. For his first book, he got 900 rejections.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

As the Case May Be: The Subjunctive Mood and Human Evolution

Humans are the only species with true language. Monkeys can respond differently to different calls, and chimps can learn a few symbols. But to have true language, you have to have vivid imagination, which is unique to humans.

Language can communicate situations that do not yet exist—the future tense. In English, we could say if he will go. In French, s’il ira. But even more than this, language can communicate an alternate reality that is different from the one you are experiencing. If he were to go implies that he is not going to go. In French, s’il aille. This is the subjunctive, as it were. You can even have a past subjunctive: if he had gone, s’il soit allé. Language students hate learning subjunctives, but they are a marvel of intellect. That does not mean, of course, that you have to like them.

Organisms have lots of ways of responding to their surroundings. The ancestors of vertebrates specialized on intelligence as their mode of response. As explained in an earlier essay, intelligence is expensive. In humans, natural selection favored larger brains in a runaway spiral of greater and greater intelligence. It is expensive. Along the way in human evolution, a threshold was crossed into the kind of self-awareness that permitted the oft-maligned subjunctive mood.

Friday, October 26, 2018

What's Up with the Stupid Magnolias?

What’s Up with the Stupid Magnolias?

In late September, I saw several magnolia trees blooming in Durant, Oklahoma. Magnolias are supposed to bloom in late spring! What’s up with that?

The reason the magnolias bloomed is because they are stupid. Plants are stupid. I say this even though I am a botanist and have devoted my life to studying them. These magnolias, you see, have no idea what time of year it is. They don’t know the difference between May and September.

Yet, they have to bloom at the right time of year, don’t they? Of course they do. They have to bloom at the time that their pollinators are expecting them to bloom, so that the huge white flowers and sultry lemon scent will not be wasted.

But intelligence is expensive. Brains are expensive. Your brain uses twenty percent of your body’s metabolic energy and oxygen. My granddaughter Léna’s brain uses half of her energy and oxygen. That doesn’t make her smarter than you, but it does mean her brain is rapidly growing. Plants simply cannot afford to make brains. For the last billion years, plants and their evolutionary ancestors have relied on more direct stimuli from the environment to tell them when to do things such as reproduce.

To a plant, there is no difference between cold and drought. They do not have temperature sensors. To them, it is cold when the water freezes, and when the water freezes, it diffuses out of the cells and into intercellular spaces, where the ice crystals cannot harm the cell. That is, when it freezes, plant cells become drier. In spring the ice melts and the water diffuses back into the cells.

This summer in Oklahoma had some long periods of hot dry conditions. They were not record-setting, but they were pretty brutal. Then, in late summer and early fall, it rained a lot, and kept raining. Therefore, during mid-summer, the plant cells dried out, and in late summer, they became moist. For anything that the plant knew to the contrary, the summer drought was winter, and the fall rains were spring.

Plant responses to seasons are not the most intelligent ones, but they are economical. Every few years, the magnolia trees waste a few flowers by blooming in the fall; in the ensuing winter, they cannot develop their fruits. But any magnolia would tell you that its way of adjusting to the seasons doesn’t cost as much as your brain does, thank you very much.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Global Warming Denialism: A Religion

The global warming denialists are the controlling force in America. They are economically powerful and their viewpoint reigns in the federal and many state governments, led by the Denialist In Chief, Donald Trump. They deny all scientific evidence of global warming and claim that the vast majority of scientists, who accept the evidence of global warming, are dishonest.

The science of global warming is accepted by nearly all other nations and their political and economic leaders. The United States stands almost alone in rejecting modern science in this and in some other ways as well. It is certainly the only economically powerful nation whose government denies global warming. Most global warming denialist organizations are American. There is an international organization, known as Clexit (named in imitation of Brexit), which has members from 26 countries, but few if any of those countries officially deny global warming.

There is no scientific evidence that could possibly convince denialists that global warming really is happening. Not only is it a pseudoscience, but it is a religion, since most of its adherents cling to denialism with a religious zeal. Some will even go so far as to say that God will not permit global warming to occur. Senator Jim Inhofe cites Genesis 8:24 as evidence, although that verse says absolutely nothing about global warming. God is in control of the weather, he says. So I guess when powerful hurricanes keep hitting the United States and other countries as well, we need to blame it on God. Certainly not on humans. Absolutely not on Republicans.

It is not merely the scientific evidence that American leaders reject. It is the economic evidence. American leaders say that we cannot afford to make the changes that are necessary for us to reduce carbon emissions. (They are probably right; we are spending our money cleaning up after powerful hurricanes, and, soon, building a border wall.) But economists everywhere in the world, including some in the United States, claim that the cost of doing nothing about global warming will be immense. Already municipalities that are not preparing for global warming are receiving lower credit ratings, which means they will have to pay higher interest rates on loans. The reason is simple. If a city does nothing to prepare for rising sea levels and powerful storms, investors might lose their money in those cities.

Not only do most economists in the world believe that global warming is a real threat, but most believe that a carbon tax is the most sensible economic incentive to promote action. This is the belief of this year’s two winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics: William D. Nordhaus and Paul M. Romer, both of them prominent American economists.

[Photo from New York Times]

In economics as in science, American scholars lead the way in dealing with global warming. Certain large American corporations, and the politicians whom they own, however, lead the way toward denialism. Around the world, American scientists and economists are in demand (a university in China wants me to teach for them, and I am not even a prominent scientist), but the world largely distrusts the American government. According to the New York Times, Robert Stavins, head of Harvard’s Environmental Economics Program, says, “Any Nobel Prize linked with global climate change will inevitably be seen as an international critique of Mr. Trump’s outspoken opposition to domestic and international climate change action.”

The Republican Party, especially their leader who prides himself on being offensive, has begun to alienate the world. When he says “America first” he means “America only,” as if we can survive all by ourselves. French president Emmanuel Macron tried to befriend Trump, inviting him to Bastille Day celebrations last summer, so much so that commentators started calling it a Bromance. But since that time Macron has denounced Trump, using colorful language, and announced that France would not make further trade deals with America as long as it rejects the most recent international climate change agreement. I cannot find a transcript of his speech, but when I heard part of it, I clearly heard him use the word bêtise, which translates into stupidity.

We have many of the world’s best scientists and economists, but the world increasingly thinks our government is stupid. Can you blame them?

Denialism is a religion because denialists believe it so strongly that they are willing to send us into a future of economic decline and possible collapse. Republican religious zeal will take us to the end of civilization.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

The Bermuda Triangle: It's a Real Gas

In the twentieth century, there was a lot of popular discussion of “the Bermuda triangle,” a triangular area of ocean roughly bounded by the tip of Florida, Bermuda, and Puerto Rico. There have been numerous instances of ships and airplanes simply vanishing without record, without remains, and without explanation. Some writers indicated that, because they could not imagine how such disappearances happened, then it must have been the work of extraterrestrial aliens.

I consider this topic, while of limited value in itself, to be a very interesting illustration of some aspects of the scientific method.

Many criticisms of the Bermuda triangle mystery claim that there is no mystery at all. Millions of planes and ships navigate through this area of the ocean without incident. The disappearances must therefore be very rare. But just because they are rare doesn’t mean they did not occur. Many of the disappearances were in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, when navigation technology was inferior to what we have today. Now that we have better technology that can explain what happens to vessels that experience trouble, we no longer have unexplained incidents. Some critics attack each example and question the reliability of the documentation.

The assumption that I want to criticize is the one shared by both the critics of and the believers in the Triangle mystery. It is that, if we cannot think of how it happened, then it must have (a) not happened or (b) an explanation outside of existing science. Both the critics and the believers assume that their imaginations can cover all possibilities.

My favorite explanation for the disappearances is the sporadic release of methane gas from underneath the sediments. Decomposing organic matter in the offshore sediments produce methane which, under the pressure of the ocean water, remain in a condensed state. If the pressure is relieved, for example when the water becomes warmer, some of the methane can go back to a gaseous state and erupt from the sediments. As global warming makes the water warmer thus less dense, numerous methane eruptions are occurring in shallow waters. Take, for example, this image that was published in Science in 2017, showing craters from methane releases off the coast of Norway:

Most of these releases are small, but it is possible that some large ones occurred in the twentieth century in the Triangle. Many scientists believe that these massive offshore “burps” contributed to the Permian Extinction 250 million years ago. This illustration is from Penn State:

A methane burp fits the evidence nicely.

  • Almost the entire Triangle is shallow sea with sediments.
  • Methane, diluting the oxygen, would cause engines to fail.
  • The vanishing vessels, if they reported anything, told of extreme disorientation, which could happen if the vessel encountered turbulent methane.
  • The methane would disrupt the sediments, allowing the vessels to sink into them without a trace.
  • This explanation calls for the operation of no processes that we do not already know.

Today, methane is monitored, and if a methane burp caused a vessel to disappear, we would know it. This was not the case in the mid-twentieth century.

This explanation is an example of something that neither critics nor believers had even thought of at the time. Sherlock Holmes was wrong. He said that, once you have discounted all other possibilities, then the one remaining possibility must be right. This is, of course, not true. Scientists and everybody else has to face up to the possibility of “unknown unknowns.” I address this topic in my upcoming book, Scientifically Thinking though I do not use the Bermuda Triangle example.

The foregoing is not an original idea. Though I believe I thought of it independently, many other people have thought of it also.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Another Useless Message to President Trump

I sent this message to the White House on September 20, 2018.

“Mr. President, you have made many people angry at you, including your fellow Americans and our allies abroad. You are doing your best to make people hate the Republican leadership of America.

“But you will not make me bitter or angry. I will continue to be a force for good in the world. I will continue to spread love even though your work of spreading hatred has a billion times as much impact on the world as do my efforts at helping the world.

“You will never control my soul.”

Monday, September 24, 2018

Somebody had to invent terraces

Human history has largely been the story of destructive human impact on the natural world. Deforestation is at least as old as civilization and is specifically mentioned in Plato’s dialogue Critias. There is indirect evidence for salt buildup, resulting from irrigation, that damaged the grain fields of Mesopotamia thousands of years ago. Since the explosion of both human technology and population, our impacts have become extensive enough to alter the entire ecosystem of the Earth, ushering in a new geological age, the Anthropocene (the epoch of humans).

Nature will eventually clean up our mess. The problem is that this cleanup can take such a long time that our civilization will not be able to persist while the Earth cleans up our mess. We are like the massive dinosaurs that, at the end of the Cretaceous, required daily masses of food. When the asteroid plunged the world first into a pizza-oven fire and then into darkness caused massive disruption of food chains, life recuperated, but the dinosaurs, who could not persist through this interruption, did not.

Occasionally, however, human cultures have invented technologies that reduced our impact on the Earth. One of the best examples of this is terraces. Agriculture always causes soil erosion, the loss of the very soil on which agriculture depends. But this erosion is greatly reduced by the use of terraces. As the rain water runs downhill, it slows down on each terrace and lets the soil settle before proceeding further down the hill. Sometimes terraces wash away, but they have had the overall effect of reducing erosion. Terrace agriculture, especially of rice, can continue for centuries.

We cannot simply relax and assume that somehow human culture will solve our environmental problems. Terraces reduce soil erosion, but somebody had to invent terraces. Terraces may have been invented over and over in separate locations. It required human creativity and will.

Whoever invented terraces did not do so in order to save the Earth. They did so because they wanted to save their own farmlands from the ravages of erosion. The long-term and widespread effect was to help save the Earth.

Today, one of our biggest challenges is global warming. What can we do about it? We can invent new technologies that allow us to use less energy in order to achieve our goals or find new sources of energy that do not emit carbon dioxide. Human technological creativity has given us a dazzling array of such inventions, from wind generators to LED bulbs to solar power.

But these things do not simply happen. Somebody has to do them. And it requires an initial investment to get the technology started. In modern society this occurs best with government support of invention and application. And many countries are doing a much, much better job of this than the United States. Western European countries, China, and Japan are examples of places where the government invests heavily in new energy technology. Already, the people in these countries are reaping the benefits of these investments. That is, the taxpayers that supported these projects are seeing the benefits of their tax money. In contrast, the American government seems hostile toward alternative energy development. This has been the case for a long time. Most wind generators come from China and Denmark, not because Americans can’t invent good wind generators but because China and European countries have invested in wind generator development. This is part of a general Trump Administration hostility toward science. Republicans see basic scientific research (e.g., into ecology and evolution) as a threat to their beliefs, and they actively oppose applied research into alternative energy as a threat to the oil companies who give them so much money.

It is as if, thousands of years ago, ancient governments actively opposed the adoption of terraces and insisted on the continuation of soil erosion.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Feminist Fluid Mechanics?

According to post-modernists, science is just a social construct. There is no such thing as truth, or at least truth that we have any chance of understanding. These scholars, most of whom are on the political left, keep trying to demolish all of science. With friends like these, who needs enemies? Fundamentalists can walk right in and say, See? Science has nothing to do with truth, which means that you should send lots of money to my Ministry so that I can pay for my whores.

One example is an article by Katherine Hayes about fluid mechanics. Entitled “Gender encoding in fluid mechanics: Masculine channels and feminine flows,” this Duke professor of literature seems to think that fluid mechanics is filled with sexism. I cannot find a link to this article, so I use a Nature review about it. She derived her ideas from Luce Irigaray, so it is not even original. She indicated that scientists feel that fluid flow is feminine. “Men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women have openings that leak menstrual fluids and vaginal fluids.” She concludes that fluid mechanics in general, and turbulent flow in particular, cannot be understood except from a feminist perspective.

Now, I can see that maybe behavioral studies of chimpanzees might be sexist, in which the actions of the animals are interpreted differently by male vs. female observers, but fluid mechanics?

Where do you start with something like this? I think it is sexist to say that, because women menstruate, they are better able to understand fluid mechanics. While I am no expert, I wrote an educational article about fluid mechanics (American Biology Teacher 66 (2004): 120-127). I do not feel that my protrusive organs impaired my ability to do so. Besides, male sexual organs are not solid; they engorge with...with...with...fluid!

Academics need to publish papers and there are journals that will publish anything. My favorite example was a fake article written by a newspaper reporter that mixed hematology and plate tectonics together and would have gotten it published had he not voluntarily revealed his fraud. This is especially true with online journals, but Hayes published her article back in 1992 when journals were all on paper.

Sorry, post-modernists. Science discovers truth. Occasionally there is bias, but the scientific method itself is an attempt to get rid of the bias. This is the subject of my upcoming book, Scientifically Thinking: How to Liberate YourMind, Solve the World’s Problems, and Embrace the Beauty of Science).

Besides, there might be another reason that women can understand fluid mechanics better than men. My wife just told me that she spends more time than I do cleaning the bathroom (by her choice). I suppose that gives her some insights I do not have.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Science and Democracy: Confusion

I read a pre-publication copy of a book about attacks on science and on democracy, to be published soon by a company that has published two of my books. Because I do not want to give bad publicity to this publisher, I will give no further identification of the book.

The book has no overall theme, because it is a collection of essays from different authors, each one writing whatever he or she wants. The essays contradict one another. That is fine, and is part of the appeal of a multi-author edited volume. One possible theme is that both science and democracy are being attacked by the same people and for the same reason: the so-called conservatives want to control the world, and they want to brush aside or destroy any criticism they may receive from scientists. Another possible theme is that science is essential to a functional democracy: citizens without access to reliable knowledge cannot make the right decisions for running their society. Along these lines, essays range from the extremely pedantic (e.g., John Dewey would not have approved of the modern attacks on science) to leftist pot-shots, with which I agree but I would prefer to make my own rather than to read someone else’s. I may throw potshots into this blog but I try to leave them out of my books.

I see two major problems with all of the essays in this volume. First, there is the assumption that science is essential to democracy. This is true. It was certainly what the Founding Fathers envisioned, especially the very scientifically literate Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The first presidents, all Enlightenment figures, governed with the spirit of scientific reason, even though they were sometimes wrong. But, starting with Andrew Jackson, everything got messed up and has remained messed up ever since. Andrew Jackson despised scientific knowledge, or any knowledge at all. Even when he was shown that the Cherokee tribe had adopted the advancements of civilization, he continued to call them savages and insist that their land be taken by white people. He simply would not look at the facts in front of him. That is exactly what Donald Trump does today. Trump has a painting of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office. To discuss the importance of science to democracy is so Enlightenment and has been an irrelevant topic in American politics for almost two hundred years.

A more important problem is that all of the warring approaches to the relationship between science and democracy, whether positivism or Popperianism or Deweyanism or post-modernism or whatever, totally ignore the evolution of the human brain. As I point out in my new book Scientifically Thinking, the human brain did not evolve to reason. It evolved to rationalize in such a way as to promote the evolutionary success of the person with that brain. The human brain creates illusions that may or may not bear any resemblance to the real scientific world. That is, without science, the human brain is open to infection by any and every kind of delusion, whether from the right or from the left. Ideas live in human brains as organisms live in habitats, and the successful ideas are not necessarily the ones that are right but the ones that, for any reason or no reason, people like.

As I plowed through all the approaches to science and democracy in this book, I wondered, which approach is right? Probably none of them.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

There Is No Such Thing As a Desert

Or a forest, or a grassland, for that matter. But I think I can illustrate my point most vividly using the example of deserts.

Many different kinds of habitats get lumped together in the category we call “desert.” Unfortunately, once our human minds have created a category, we assume that everything within that category is the same.

The habitats we call “deserts” are very diverse. The most obvious way they differ is that the “deserts” of the different continents are the homes of almost entirely separate sets of species. When you see desert shrubs in California, in the Middle East, and in western Asia, they are not the same species. Leafless, succulent plants in American deserts are usually cactuses, whereas in Africa they are spurges or milkweeds. South Africa has many species of succulent, leafless plants in the Aizoaceae family, different from all the others. The animal inhabitants of the deserts on different continents are also distinct.

But even within one “desert” there is a lot of habitat diversity. Consider the southwestern deserts of North America. The areas that ecologists refer to as the Mojave Desert (e.g., southeastern California) are covered with widely-spaced shrubs. The areas that ecologists call the Sonoran Desert (e.g., in the Phoenix area) has shrubs (but not the same species) and many species of cactus. In fact, the shade cast by acacia bushes is important to the survival of young cactus seedlings. The areas that ecologists call the Chihuahuan Desert (e.g. near Big Bend) has shrubs and succulents (though usually agaves rather than cactuses), but the space between them, unlike the other deserts, is filled with grasses. This makes sense, as this kind of desert intergrades into the high plains grasslands. (No, that’s not where chihuahuas come from.)

Above: Chihuahuan desert in Big Bend National Park; below, saguaro flowers in the Sonoran desert near Tucson.

But even within one of these subtypes of desert has a lot of habitat diversity. The Chihuahuan Desert grow on the tops of hills as well as on the slopes and lowlands. At the tops of some of these mountains in southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, and in northern Mexico, there are some small oak forests. These forests are the remnants of oak lands that used to be widespread in the countryside back when the climate was wetter. As the climate became drier, the forests survived only as little patches on somewhat cooler and wetter hilltops. Most of these oak species are found nowhere else in the world; some of them live only in one forest. If you scan your eyes over the entire Chihuahuan Desert, you might not even notice these forests. Of course, the oak-patch animals are a lot different than those of surrounding desert land. See here for a link to a 2013 blog entry.

Maple trees in a desert? In Big Bend National Park, maple trees grow in an isolated moist spot near the base of the pinnacles.

Another example is desert arroyos. Arroyos are stream beds that are dry most of the time but which can be filled by flood waters during heavy rain. The soil under the arroyos is usually wetter than in the surrounding desert. Not surprisingly, the species of plants that live there are almost entirely different than those of the surrounding landscape. In southwestern North America, one of the shrubs that grows in arroyos, but not away from them, is the desert willow Chilopsis linearis, which is not really a willow.

An arroyo is the same as the middle eastern wadi, although the species found in wadis are almost completely different from those in arroyos.

All this does not include what scientists sometimes call “polar deserts” in which there is too little snowfall to allow soils to support plant life even during the brief summers.

I find the word “desert” to be a useful category. It is one of the entries in my Encyclopedia of Biodiversity. It refers to a place with too little water to support a thick growth of plants. But I recognize that “desert” is an artificial category that exists only as a way of us making sense of the world. As I explain in my soon-to-be-published ScientificallyThinking, humans tend to lump things into categories, which is find unless we then homogenize everything within the categories.

The human tendency to lump things into categories may seem harmless enough when we lump different habitats into the category “desert.” This makes us overlook much beautiful diversity. But when we start lumping people into racial categories, we start assuming they are all alike, characterized usually by the worst people in each race.