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Sympathy with Intelligence

Here’s a nice excerpt from Walking, by Henry David Thoreau:

My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant. The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence. I do not know that this higher knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel and grand surprise on a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called Knowledge before—a discovery that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. It is the lighting up of the mist by the sun. Man cannot KNOW in any higher sense than this, any more than he can look serenely and with impunity in the face of the sun: “You will not perceive that, as perceiving a particular thing,” say the Chaldean Oracles.


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Failings of the primary literature

Ben Goldacre: What doctors don’t know about the drugs they prescribe:

Publication bias affects every field of medicine. About half of all trials, on average, go missing in action, and we know that positive findings are around twice as likely to be published as negative findings.



“The antidote to obsolescence is knowledge of the process by which facts are obtained.”

Neil Carlson, Foundations of Physiological Psychology

Lairds of Learning

George Monbiot’s “The Lairds of Learning” (via HN) is exceedingly important:

But the academic publishers get their articles, their peer reviewing (vetting by other researchers) and even much of their editing for free. The material they publish was commissioned and funded not by them but by us, through government research grants and academic stipends. But to see it, we must pay again, and through the nose.


Clock of the Long Now

How to Make a Clock Run for 10,000 Years | Wired.com quotes Jeff Bezos, the sponsor of this $40+ million dollar 10,000 year clock project:

“My opinion is that human attention spans haven’t changed much over time. We’ve always been a fairly short-sighted species,” Bezos says, and laughs. “But while our attention spans are staying roughly constant, our problems are becoming much bigger, because of our past successes as a species. Our tools, our technologies, now require us to step it up, and have a longer attention span.”


Calvin and Records


Brownie in Motion

Mykala began waving her arms wildly around while we were sitting on the couch this afternoon. I declared she was a “Brownian motion machine”.



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Carl Sagan Tribute

Carl Sagan: Wanderers (Carl Sagan Tribute Series, Part 3):

Every one of those worlds is lovely and instructive. But, so far as we know, every one of them: desolate and barren. Out there, there are no better places—so far, at least.


Van Allen

In 1958, just after James Van Allen discovered his eponymous radiation belt about the earth, he agreed to work with the US military to attempt to disrupt it. More details at NPR, Exploding H-Bombs In Space:

In any case, says the science history professor, “this is the first occasion I’ve ever discovered where someone discovered something and immediately decided to blow it up.”

RTIs & Apples

The patent for Abacavir (ABC) (trade name Ziagen), a reverse transcriptase inhibitor (RTI) effective against some resistant strains of HIV, expires this December. Incidentally, a guest lecturer in microbiology came to us to speak about HIV. Here’s where it gets interesting:

Using public funds, researchers at the University of Minnesota analyzed primary literature and hypothesized a novel RTI. After testing revealed its efficacy, Abacavir was patented. GlaxoSmithKline then sold the drug as Ziagen… without proper rights to do so. Mark Yudof, president of the University in the late 90s (and a lawyer), decided to sue for royalties. Settlement: 400 million dollars. This is the largest intellectual property case in the U of M’s history.


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God Talk

God Talk - Stanley Fish Blog - NYTimes.com:

By theological questions, Eagleton means questions like, “Why is there anything in the first place?”, “Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?” and “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?”

The fact that science, liberal rationalism and economic calculation can not ask — never mind answer — such questions should not be held against them, for that is not what they do.

And, conversely, the fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do. When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”

Eagleton likes this turn of speech, and he has recourse to it often when making the same point: “[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world … is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.” Running for a bus is a focused empirical act and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement. Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else.

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Wi-Fi Safety

Common sense and a little physics seem to show that the radio waves from Wi-Fi internet connections (non-ionising as they are) are nothing to be concerned about:

A typical UK resident receives far more radiation from analogue radio broadcasts than they do from Wi-Fi. Radio broadcasts have operated in the UK for almost 85 years, so if we’ve not heard of any long term negative health effects caused by radio waves so far, it’s unlikely that we will do in the future.


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Dawkins on Human Perception

A great talk by Richard Dawkins in July 2005, The universe is queerer than we can suppose. A quick summary:

Biologist Richard Dawkins makes a case for “thinking the improbable” by looking at how our human frame of reference — the things we can perceive with our five senses, and understand with our eight-pound brain — limits our understanding of the universe. Think of it: We can’t see atoms, we can’t see infrared light, we can’t hear ultrasonic frequencies, but we know without a doubt that they exist. What else is out there that we can’t yet perceive — what dimensions of space, what aspects of time, what forms of life?


Upcoming: Global Warming Thoughts

Since the last science article I wrote here was pretty successful, I’ve set to work on another one: this time the topic is an intriguing part of global warming. I think you’ll like it.

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Scientific ignorance in the U.S.

Scientific ignorance in the U.S. - The article, which is behind a registration wall (bugmenot to the rescue), talks about the classes not of economy but of knowledge in the United States.


Banquet Souvenir

Banquet Souvenir

The chemistry faculty presented us with round bottom flasks filled with treats - plus, we got to keep the flasks! Glassware like this is pretty expensive, so the gesture was very nice. Unfortunately, mine cracked when I tried to remove the candy from it …

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South Campus Dichotomy

South Campus Dichotomy

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Scientists Create World’s Largest Novelty Atom

Scientists Create World’s Largest Novelty Atom - The best thing about the Onion is their ability to keep funny turns of phrase flowing throughout an entire article like this.

As soon as the image of that atom came on the screen, everyone just lost it. I nearly knocked over my model of a constitutional isomer, I was laughing so hard.

DNA Ligase

When your head is buried in scientific literature, from the “Alarming Increase in Ciprofloxacin- and Penicillin-Resistant Neisseria gonorrhoeae Isolates in New Delhi, India” all the way to “Serum IgE response to orally ingested antigen: A novel IgE response model with allergen-specific T-cell receptor transgenic mice”, you begin to look forward to studying DNA metabolism and its associated reactions for a biochemistry test. So sure enough, this past Sunday night found me studying away from my biochem test on Monday. While perusing Wikipedia (which I generally use as a sort of scientific dictionary for studying—it saves time for basics, compared to looking them up in the book), I found an amazing illustration.


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A peptide that helps fight antibiotic resistant bacteria

A peptide that helps fight antibiotic resistant bacteria - The peptide spurs immune response—basically leveraging our own intricate systems to fight off an infection. This is in contrast to direct chemical inhibition, which is how all antibiotics work. From the article: