The editorial column of the February 2008 issue of Scientific American includes a call for the presidential candidates to have a debate over issues of science and technology.
Consider this partial list of issues that the next president of the U.S. will need to address: reducing greenhouse gas emissions; ensuring freshwater supplies; encouraging reliance on renewable energy sources; preparing for pandemics; developing stem cell technologies; improving science education; stimulating technological innovation. How many of the current candidates for the presidency have stated clear positions on those subjects?
Do any of the presidential candidates have a clue when it comes to science? Should they? Or can they get by by relying on advisers? (My answer is that I’d prefer a scientifically-literate president, but I’m not sure who that would be).
Grace and Peace
A new book is out: The World Without Us. This isn’t some left-wing or Islamo-fascist book about how much better the world would be without the United States. This is speculative science, and I don’t use the word “speculative” in a negative sense. The book asks the question: “What would happen to the Earth if suddenly, all people were removed?”
There is a serious side to this speculation, and that is the question of the extent of the impact of human activities on the environment. How long will toxic organic chemicals persist in groundwater? How long will it take for plastics to decompose? What will happen to the structures we build if we don’t maintain them?
This doesn’t seem to be a book of the hyper-environmentalist humans-are-a-disease genre. Some on the vocal fringes of the environmental movement view humans as a cancer that is destroying the pristine Earth, and that the planet would be better off without us. The book doesn’t seem to be advocating anything of the sort.
The July 2007 issue of Scientific American has a full-length article on this book, which includes an interview with the book’s author, Alan Weisman. Here are the first two paragraphs from the article:
It’s a common fantasy to imagine that you’re the last person left alive on earth. But what if all human beings were suddenly whisked off the planet? That premise is the starting point for The World without Us, a new book by science writer Alan Weisman, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Arizona. In this extended thought experiment, Weisman does not specify exactly what finishes off Homo sapiens; instead he simply assumes the abrupt disappearance of our species and projects the sequence of events that would most likely occur in the years, decades and centuries afterward.
According to Weisman, large parts of our physical infrastructure would begin to crumble almost immediately. Without street cleaners and road crews, our grand boulevards and superhighways would start to crack and buckle in a matter of months. Over the following decades many houses and office buildings would collapse, but some ordinary items would resist decay for an extraordinarily long time. Stainless-steel pots, for example, could last for millennia, especially if they were buried in the weed-covered mounds that used to be our kitchens. And certain common plastics might remain intact for hundreds of thousands of years; they would not break down until microbes evolved the ability to consume them.
Here’s a few items from Weisman’s timeline for Manhattan without Man:
- 2 days — New York City subways flood.
- 7 days — Nuclear power plants melt down or burn.
- 5 years — Much of New York burns.
- 100 years — The steel in skyscrapers corrodes to the point that buildings begin to topple.
- 300 years — New York’s suspension bridges collapse.
- 15,000 years — Last stone buildings fall.
- 10,000,000 years — Only human relics that have survived are bronze sculptures.
Even if you don’t read the Scientific American article, it is worth going to the site for the video and timeline.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21 NIV)
All the great works of man will eventually turn to dust. Some of the stuff we want to last a long time doesn’t last; and some of the stuff we want to go away quickly is going to be with us for a long, long time.
Grace and Peace
From Scientific American Blog:
The best dietary advice is fundamentally, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Not too complicated. Not very expensive. Not tied to the latest diet fad. Good for your heart, and your wallet.
However, I’ll still eat a good steak every once in a while.
Grace and Peace
Back in October, I wrote a post about the idea of introducing large mammals (elephants, camels, lions, and so on) into the high plains of the United States (see Pleistocene mega-fauna — coming to a drive-thru safari park near you). The idea is to somewhat restore the pre-human ecosystem by bringing in mammals that went extinct at about the same time that humans arrived in North America. Elephants would fit into the niche that mammoths occupied, camels were native to North America, and lions would fill the role of large carnivorous cat.
The April 2007 issue of Scientific American will have an article on this concept. Here is most of an entry from Scientific American Blog (Jan 23, 2007):
Scientific American magazine offers some of its articles online for free. Free material from the October issue includes Impact From the Deep, which gives evidence that some mass-extinctions in Earth history were not caused by asteroid impacts but by massive upwellings of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) gas from the oceans. Here’s the scenario:
- High levels of volcanic activity leading to high levels of atmospheric CO2 and methane.
- Increase in global atmospheric temperatures due to a stronger greenhouse effect.
- Increase in oceanic temperatures.
- Decrease in oceanic oxygen content (warm water holds less dissolved gas).
- Lower oceanic oxygen content allows H2S-rich water from depth to rise to the surface.
- Poisonous H2S causes mass-extinctions in the oceans.
- H2S diffuses into the atmosphere, killing many land plants and animals.
The level of atmospheric CO2 that accompanied this bubbling of oceanic H2S was around 1000 ppm. The current CO2 concentration is 385 ppm, with an increase of 2-3 ppm per year. At this rate, CO2 could be at 900 ppm by the end of the century. The warning: Higher levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere could lead not only to global climate change, but also to global H2S asphixiation.
Here is my initial response:
- The article was written by Peter Ward, one of the authors of the respected book Rare Earth. That gives it credibility.
- The data seems sound. We can get a good understanding of past global CO2 levels, H2S levels, and rates of extinction through carbon isotope studies and paleontology.
- From the following graph, There were also long periods of elevated CO2 levels which did not lead to mass-extinctions. This may be the greatest weakness of the hypothesis.
Graphic from Scientific American
- Because of this, the investigators may have a good hypothesis, but it still needs work.
- Of course, many will dismiss this as the just the latest unlikely disaster scenario from wild tree-hugging environmentalist wackos. But if it is to be dismissed, it should be on scientific merits, not because of a knee-jerk reaction.
Grace and Peace
Do the concepts of expertise and excellence lead to a narrow focus on one thing, to the exclusion of all else? Does the kind of focus that it takes to become a top computer programmer necessarily mean that person will be the stereotypical “computer nerd?” I think not. Take the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. He had his passions—not only paleontology and evolution but baseball as well, and could write intelligently about a wide range of subjects. His ability to draw from so many different areas is one thing that made him a very readable author (The Panda’s Thumb, Wonderful Life, many others).
I would say that for someone to be a leader or expert in one’s field, it is necessary to be broad as well as deep. I don’t just read about science and science education; I read books and articles about theology, geography, history, politics, culture, philosophy. The key is to find the right balance—and I do not claim to have found that balance yet—and to look for ties between the area of one’s expertise and the wider world. This breadth enables the expert to more effectively relate the significance of his or her work to others who have different areas of interest.
Yesterday’s entry was a bit long; here’s the Reader’s Digest version:
According to the August 2006 Scientific American article “The Expert Mind,” motivation and effortful study are more important than natural ability for becoming and expert in one’s field. It takes ten years of intense work to truly become an expert in an area, but most people stop working at it far short of expertise.
Grace and Peace
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men. —Colossians 3:23 (ESV)
I don’t ordinarily read books or articles on psychology—a “soft” science—but for some reason the cover article in the August issue of Scientific American caught my eye. The article, by Philip E. Ross, is entitled “The Expert Mind,” and the summary in the table of contents reads: “The mental processes of chess grandmasters are unlike those of novices, a fact that illuminates the development of expertise in other fields.”
The article focuses on chess masters, but with the intention of drawing out applications for expertise in diverse activities. The questions the author asks near the beginning of the article are:
- But how do experts in these various subjects acquire their extraordinary skills?
- How much can be credited to innate talent and how much to intensive training?
Like all full-length articles in the magazine, there is an overview box that lists the main points of the article:
- Because skill at chess can be easily measured and subjected to laboratory experiments, the game has become an important test bed for theories in cognitive science.
- Researchers have found evidence that chess grandmasters rely on a vast store of knowledge of game positions. Some scientists have theorized that grandmasters organize the information in chunks, which can be quickly retrieved from long-term memory and manipulated in working memory.
- To accumulate this body of structured knowledge, grandmasters typically engage in years of effortful study, continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond their competence. The top performers in music, mathematics and sports appear to gain their expertise in the same way, motivated by competition and the joy of victory.
- In light of the ten-year rule, where do you want to be a decade from now? Pick a vocation in your life that is worth attaining “expert” status in: evangelism, church planting, parenting, advocacy for the poor, teaching, chess, speaking, accounting, Cambrian marine biostratigraphy, computer programming. If this is what God has called you to, where do you want to be? Do you want it to still be “good enough to get by” or “excellence in the service of the King?”
- What will it take to get there? What will “effortful study” look like for you? What are the obstacles and hindrances to this? What hindrances can be removed from your life, and which just need to be worked around?
- How can you encourage those around you (family, students, coworkers…) to aim for a higher standard?
Here are some quotes from the article:
The 10-year rule states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field.
Motivation is a more important factor than innate ability.
What matters is not experience per se but “effortful study,” which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one’s competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time.
Experts-in-training keep the lid of their mind’s box open all the time, so that they can inspect, criticize and augment its contents and thereby approach the standard set by leaders in their fields.
Belief in the importance of innate talent, strongest perhaps among the experts themselves and their trainers, is strangely lacking in hard evidence to substantiate it.
The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born. What is more, the demonstrated ability to turn a child quickly into an expert—in chess, music and a host of other subjects—sets a clear challenge before the schools. Can educators find ways to encourage students to engage in the kind of effortful study that will improve their reading and math skills?
Instead of perpetually pondering the questions, “Why can’t Johnny read?” perhaps educators should ask, “Why should there be anything in the world he can’t learn to do?”
I’m sure this won’t be the final word in the nature vs. nurture debate, but it did stimulate thought about how I work and what I’m aiming for in my students’ lives. We all have calls and vocations; my primary call—outside of the calls as a Christian and a parent—is in science education. Many tell me: “You’re a really good science teacher, Kevin. The kids love your classes, and they learn so much.” The risk is that it would be easy to allow myself to plateau. Ross describes this in the article:
Even the novice engages in effortful study at first, which is why beginners so often improve rapidly in playing golf, say, or in driving a car. But having reached an acceptable performance—for instance, keeping up with one’s golf buddies or passing a driver’s exam—most people relax. Their performance then becomes automatic and therefore impervious to further improvement.
Some questions for thought:
Caution: life is not all about being the best in the world at something. It is about following Christ our savior, and letting him do a work in us.
The article can be found at www.sciam.com.
Grace and Peace
Back in March, I had a post about Scientific American’s blog entries on “Are You a Global Warming Skeptic, parts I and II“. Scientific American has updated this with Are You a Global Warming Skeptic? Part III. They posted this on April 24th, but it is still relevant. Rather than bashing opponents of global warming, this summarizes the arguments against global warming, and is worth a read.
The basic arguments people give against global warming were put into the following categories:
- Global warming is not occuring
- Present warming is a natural phenomenon
- CO2 emissions cannot explain the warming
- Climate models are unconvincing
- Warming would be a good thing
- Kyoto is worthless, or worse
- Can’t trust the enviro-wackos and journalists
I haven’t formed an opinion one way or another on these points, though I would like to (along with 100 other things I’d like to look into).
Grace and Peace
For those of us who follow the global warming debates, there have been some interesting blogs on the Scientific American web page. The first post was called “Are You a Global Warming Skeptic?” and it has 170 comments that reflect the range of arguments against human-caused global warming. The follow-up post is called “Are You a Global Warming Skeptic? Part II,” which is a summary of the arguments in the comments from Part I.
I’m not committing either way on the global warming debate, but this is a refreshing break from the “All scientists are convinced by global warming” vs. “Global warming is a socialist enviro-wacko plot” nature that the discussion can degrade into.
Grace and Peace