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The 'perfect chaos' of π [video] (from Grrl Scientist's blog)

Tue, 04/10/2012 - 3:00am

SUMMARY: One of the most important numbers is irrationalScreengrab. π has fascinated mathematicians, engineers and other people for centuries. It is a mathematical constant that is the ratio of a circle’s circumference (C) to its diameter (d);

The sensitive plant [video] (from Grrl Scientist's blog)

Mon, 04/09/2012 - 3:00am

SUMMARY: This video captures a weird plant behaviour; a sensitive plant folding up its leaves in response to a variety of disturbances Screengrab: sensitive plant, Mimosa pudica. I am sure many of you have met sensitive plants, Mimosa pudica, on your travels through the local glasshouses and plants nurseries. This plant is native to Central and South America, but now it seems to have escaped captivity and has established itself in several parts of the world. Neither this plant nor its flowers are particularly attractive, in my opinion, but it is a popular houseplant because of a particular “behaviour” it exhibits. Basically, this plant closes its leaves at night and opens them in the morning. But that’s not all; this plant also closes its leaves in response to being touched, blown on, shaken, or heated. Below the jump is a charming video that captures the plant’s movements in response to being touched, bumped, hit, and heated with fire along with time lapse videography that captures the plant opening its leaves again a few minutes later.

Let The People In (from Graham Morehead's blog)

Mon, 04/09/2012 - 2:17am

<!-- START CODE --><!-- END CODE --> me-mall_200.jpg <!-- Place this tag where you want the su badge to render --> Sneakers, computers, and little plastic toys can go all over the world, but people cannot. No matter who you are, there’s some country where you can’t go. Those of us who do get to travel, we cherish our journeys. We bring knowlege to and from our waypoints. We meet people. We tie the world together more tightly. Hiding here in plain sight is a solution to global poverty that works many times better than foreign aid.

moose.jpgI live in Maine (The way life should be, only colder). We’re right next to Canada and sometimes I like to cross the border. A couple of years ago I found myself in Fort Kent (top edge of nowhwere). I had an hour to kill. I wanted to cross the border for a bit — buy a baguette and wash it down with un café au lait.

Do I look suspicious to you? Canada seems to think so. Getting through the border was arduous. I was questioned by several people. My car was searched. I had to submit to a criminal background check (good thing they didn’t know my name used to be D.B. Cooper).

The funniest part was right before the criminal background check. It had to go inside the main office after entering Canada. After passing through the gate, the guard pointed it out and said “Go there.” I was not accompanied. After driving a couple feet were no guards in sight. I could have just kept on driving. This kind of “enforcement” doesn’t stop criminals, but it annoys honest people to no end.

caution.jpgHow hard it is to get into the U.S.A.? It’s quite difficult for most of the developing world, but they come. They jump the hurdles and jump through the hoops. What happens when they do come? Who are the winners? Who are the losers? More and more people are making the case that we all win — even the countries these people are coming from. Andrew Mountford said this in a paper back in 1997, “Can a brain drain be good for growth in thesource economy?” [Journal of Development Economics, Vol. 53 (1997) 287-303].

Why do they come? Usually for economic gain. They want our jobs, of course, but mostly the ones we don’t want. It’s not just janitorial work anymore. All those jobs in science and technology that require a deep math background - it seems like we don’t want them. Some of us just hate math. Others are being actively discouraged or prevented from pursuing math and science [“America’s Wasted Talent: A Karplus Lecture”, David Drew, Journal of Science Education and Technology, Vol. 7, No. 4, 1998].

Consider now the unintended consequences of all this immigration:

  1. Many of the world’s experts have immigrated here
  2. Many immigrants send remittances home
  3. Many immigrants return home to start businesses or teach
  4. Brain drain changes the payoff matrix in those source countries

It is a wonderful thing that we have so many experts in this country. Engineers, Physicists, Chemists, Computer Scientists, Mathematicians, … so many of them were foreign-born. By their ambition and guts they came here. By our opportunity we attracted them. Without them our economy would suffer. Inventions would go uninvented. Courses untaught. These foreigners are national treasures.

carry-on-head.jpgConsider remittances. It’s a wonderful thing to receive a check from a family member when you’re poor. However you define poverty, poverty is inefficient. Attempt to fathom the daily mammoth worldwide effort spent on subsistence farming and washing clothes by hand; think of all those people carrying heavy loads on their heads. Highly intelligent people all over the world are walking for miles to work for pennies because they have no other option. They should be curing cancer or solving the Millenium Problems. As a race we are wasting precious cognitive resources. Poverty pours talent down the drain. However, when a family member in the U.S. sends money back home, that money can send them to school. It can pay for clothes and food. It can transform their lives.

Importantly, almost all of the money gets into the hands of poor people in the target country (Western Union fees vary by country and amount). Compare this to the IMF. According to the Brookings Institution, the IMF spends %20Best%20and%20Worst%20Practices%20in%20Foreign%20Aid.pdf?1">75 cents for every dollar that actually goes to the needy country - and how many of those dollars do you think actually get into the hands of needy people? (See pg.19 of %20Best%20and%20Worst%20Practices%20in%20Foreign%20Aid.pdf?1">this report).

Not everyone stays in the U.S. forever. They return to their home countries and start buisnesses or they teach. People call this “brain circulation.” The whole world is slowly becoming a melting pot of people and ideas.

Imagine you’re trying to make ends meet. You live in a developing country where you can hope for $5/day, maybe. Five of your family members moved the U.S.A., where each earns more than $100/day, but they had to get educated first. What would you do?

brain-drain.jpgPeople watch their friends and family achieve success through education and emigration. It changes how they see the world. It opens their minds to options in a payoff matrix they would have otherwise never considered. Brain Drain inspires education and training. People call this the “Brain Gain,” and according to NYU‘s Development Research Institute, it can offset brain drain entirely.

In conclusion, immigration could potentially solve global poverty. Let the people in. Have a border check to monitor who comes and goes — of course, but let the people in, without the need for visas. Ironically, if we allowed people to move freely, the “undocumented” among us would spend more time in their home countries visiting family.

We’re only keeping out the honest law-abiding people anyway. Criminals and terrorists won’t be stopped by a little border station.


Four Ways Brain Drain out of Africa is a good thing, by Laura Freschi (New York University’s Development Research Institute)

Is Brain Drain Good for Africa? by Stephanie Hanson (Council on Foreign Relations)

Can a brain drain be good for growth in the source economy? by Andrew Mountford

“America’s Wasted Talent: A Karplus Lecture,” by David Drew

Opposing view :Brain Drain And Brain Gain In Africa, by Dr. Ravinder Rena (Eritrea Institute of Technology)

Underfunding of Basic Sciences in Arab world: does religion play a role? (from Kausik Datta's blog)

Sun, 04/08/2012 - 10:15pm

Today’s Nature Middle East published an interesting and thought-provoking commentary from Dr. Nidhal Guessoum, an astrophysicist and professor of physics at the American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, entitled: Does the Arab world (not) need basic science?

The accompanying blurb nicely summarizes the main argument in the commentary.

The Arab world cannot afford to ignore curiousity-driven basic research in favour of applied research, if the different states hope to produce an enlightened science culture at home.

Dr. Guessoum starts by defining what he considers basic vis-à-vis applied research. For the basic research, he refers – and justly in my opinion – to the French description thereof:

The French say “recherche fondamentale”, referring to any research around a foundational topic, be it in the laws and fabric of nature or in the essential components (particles, fields), interactions and phenomena that we need to scientifically understand and describe it.

This definition of Basic Sciences is profoundly important, because it accepts the premises that empirical, evidence-driven scientific research is the only real way available to humanity for exploring, learning about, and understanding nature in all its glory and the laws that govern the natural phenomena. In fact, it would not be stretching a point to consider that Basic Sciences research is fundamentally grounded in rationality.

In contrast, Applied Sciences research – what Dr. Guessoum also refers to as ‘development research’ – is done with the express purpose of testing and developing an idea into a tangible product, such as a particular technology, that can be put to good use in the society.

While acknowledging the need for continued support of applied research, Dr. Guessoum makes a strong argument for basic research. He discusses the primary defence of basic research, noting that “… few innovations are made without prior discoveries in fundamental science.” In addition, he makes a more fundamental appeal, saying:

I believe that science is not solely, or even primarily, for improving lifestyles: it is for human progress. We humans have been blessed with reason, intelligence, and the growing capacity to control our environment. With this comes the responsibility of both stewardship (khilafah in Arabic) and proper moral behavior and spiritual attitude (amanah).

This is a deeply recondite statement; in fact, I can find no stronger argument for the support of basic sciences, the foundational concept being reason and application thereof, in order to find answers about everything around us, some of which concern us directly and/or immediately, while others provide a framework for future understanding.

Dr. Guessoum goes on to cite some national and international statistics, emphasizing the observation that unless “countries… do not have a strong basic science program in both education and discovery… their scientific and intellectual progress will remain modest” – however much they “…pursue ‘research and development’”. He cites instances of poor allocation of funding for science in the Arab world, noting the inordinate emphasis placed on “applied”, “innovation”, and “technology” in existing Arab scientific literature, as well as amongst the primary funding agencies, and calls for an attitudinal balance, indicating – again, justly -

… encouragement of basic science is a must if we want to produce enlightened, informed, and well-educated communities, as well as robust home-grown socio-economic development. Basic research is difficult to control and direct; outcomes are often unexpected, and even results which initially seem devoid of potential can later yield important applications. Furthermore, for research to truly be productive, the scientists must feel free to explore all kinds of paths and ideas.

Intriguingly, Dr. Guessoum seemed to take pains to emphasize that he was, in fact, “not calling for basic research to be given priority in funding or support in the Arab world.” – to which my question is: why on earth not? Perhaps there are political realities in the Arab world that I am not aware of, but given all the arguments Dr. Guessoum made favoring basic research, anything else would seem counter-intuitive, and indeed, counter-productive in the long run.

What struck a particular chord with me about Dr. Guessoum’s commentary is that what is true for the Arab world is true for the rest of the world, too, especially the developing countries, such as mine, i.e. India – a fact that often remains poorly understood. In 2003, the vice-Chairman of one of the country’s premier funding agencies, The University Grants Commission, acknowledged that “No cutting-edge technology will emerge without the background knowledge in basic sciences. So the interface areas of knowledge in physics, chemistry and biological sciences need to be strengthened at the universities” and called for the allocation of at least 2% of India’s GDP for basic research in science and technology. In 2005, the Ministry of Human Resource Development of the Government of India set up a Task Force for basic sciences, which recommended several pro-basic science changes, including that “…every institution of higher learning should earmark 5% of its non-plan budget for the furtherance of research in Basic Sciences” (PDF). And yet, according to official statistics in 2011, the investment in the field of Scientific Research & Development in the country remained at less than 1% of GDP. So, the problem of underfunding (and possibly low appreciation) of basic sciences is by no means restricted to the Arab world.

However, in the context of the social climate in the Arab world, there is another significant question that Dr. Guessoum seems to have skirted across, using grandiloquent, but rather vague, terms. He says:

As Arabs, contributing to human civilization in basic sciences will make our lives meaningful and comfort us in our quest to be morally responsible stewards of Earth.

Will the good doctor care to answer an uncomfortable question about the role religion plays in his region’s societies, and how far that fact influences the funding decisions he laments about? I submit that research in applied science and technology most often does not have to answer fundamental questions about life, nature and natural phenomenon, minimizing the chances of any intersection with the territories claimed by religion and religious philosophies, whereas questions in basic science often impinge upon the same areas.

Consider, for example, the evolution of human beings from less complex organisms; without the fundamental understanding of this evolutionary heritage, it is impossible to use the modern technological tools, such as molecular genetics, to probe the integral mechanisms underlying core biological processes. It is also an area about which a multitude of religions make grandiose claims that have been contradicted and disproven by empirical evidence gathered by basic science research. Can this be a/the pivotal reason for the devoutly religious (from all appearances) Arab world to consciously shy away from funding basic sciences?

Old News for Carbon Dioxide, New Threats for Climate Change (from Paige Brown's blog)

Fri, 04/06/2012 - 3:40am

iceberg.jpg 100 parts per million. That was all the carbon dioxide, a colorless, odorless gas, that was required to end the last ice age. An article in Nature Magazine this month confirms what many scientists have been agreeing upon for years: that CO2, anything but a harmless gas when released into the atmosphere, is a major driver of climate change. Watch out gas-guzzling SUVs and ‘dirty’ fossil fuel industries. I interviewed article author Dr. Jeremy Shakun from Harvard University to learn more about his recent climate study.bench/quotejeremy4.jpg" width=“500” height=“160” class=“mt-image-center” style=“text-align: center; display: block; margin: 0 auto 20px;” />The article in the April 2012 issue of Nature describes a study conducted by Jeremy D. Shakun and colleagues to confirm the link between carbon dioxide and climate change during the Pleistocene ice ages. Scientists have known for years that a link existed, according to analysis of air bubbles trapped in ancient ice from the Antarctic. “People drilled down through the Antarctic ice sheets, and we actually have a record of [the link between CO2 and temperature] that goes back to almost a million years ago,” Shakun told me in a recent interview. From these air bubbles, scientists could figure that carbon dioxide rose and fell over our planet’s most recent ice age, suggesting that carbon dioxide had something to do with rising temperatures that ended that same ice age. “…if you look at these two [CO2 and temperature] together, you see that they have this amazing correlation. It’s a better correlation than you almost ever get from nature – the two just go lockstep up and down together over the ice ages for the last 1 million years almost,” Shakun said. But just what exactly was that relationship? This is where strong debate has plagued many scientists’ efforts to pin the blame on carbon dioxide. “People have realized that there is clearly some link between CO2 and temperature in the past, but the question you get to is, well, how does it work? Which one is cause and which one is effect? How do the two interplay off of each other?” Shakun said.The curveball, as Shakun puts it, is that when scientists looked more closely at the ice-core records they had from Antartica, they found that the temperature in Antartica actually started changing a bit before the CO2 did. Not exactly the best of news for scientists and climate change communicators trying to stave off arguments from climate deniers that there is no ‘CO2 problem’ today. “This is something that [current] global warming skeptics have jumped on, to say ‘ah jeez, obviously CO2 must not cause warming because if we look in the past, in these ice cores, the CO2 comes after the warming… so we are in the clear today’,” Shakun said. Climate deniers have pointed to the fact that CO2 might be an effect of global warming, but not a cause_. They argue, based on these important old records, that carbon emissions don’t really matter for climate.They couldn’t be more wrong.“Scientists don’t really buy that logic for a lot of good reasons,” Shakun said. “Most climate scientists have seen that timing difference to mean that CO2 wasn’t the trigger for the past climate changes over the last ice age, but that it was an amplifier.”Shakun’s study with colleagues affiliated with Harvard University, Columbia University, and other major research universities in the U.S. and abroad sought to fill the gap that currently exists in the relationship record between CO2 and climate change in the last ice age. “These ice cores tell you about the global level of CO2, but they only tell you about temperatures just in Antartica, and that’s it. That is just one dot on the map,” Shakun said. Shakun describes how, for an analysis today, one can’t just go look at one place in the world to demonstrate a global phenomenon. “You go find some place in the last 100 years that got colder, and that doesn’t disprove global warming in the last 100 years – it’s just that one spot happened to get colder,” he said. “It’s global climate change we are talking about. It’s about the whole planet.”jeremy.jpg" width=“500” height=“150” class=“mt-image-center” style=“text-align: center; display: block; margin: 0 auto 20px;” />**Shakun and his colleagues set out to gain insight on global temperatures during the last ice age.“People have records of temperature from ice cores in Greenland, we have lots of ocean cores that people pull up from the sea floor, we have lake cores on land… people have used all these different kinds of ways to construct what temperature was in the past,” Shakun said. This data is especially rich from around the last ice age, as a point in the not-too-distant past of vast importance for past climate research. Samples can also be dated reliably using carbon-dating, ensuring an excellent picture of past climate conditions. Shakun and colleagues went to this data to solve the ‘mystery’ of CO2 and the last ice age. Sort of a “Who dun’ it?” for the last major glacial melt.“We went to the literature, and we just dug up as many of these good temperature records as we could find. We got a total of 80 of them,” Shakun said. “They come from pretty much all over the world.”“It was really simple science,” he said. “We said, we’ve got 80 records from around the world, let’s just slap them together, average them into a reconstruction of global temperature.” What a fabulous idea, for such “simple science”! “What you see when you put them all together is a pattern of global warming at the end of the ice age that really strongly mirrors the rise in CO2 at the end of the ice age. Even more interesting, you find that the global temperature started warming a bit after the CO2 rose.” This is very different from the view that many people currently hold that temperature changed first during the last glacial melt. “That is true for Antartica, but if you look globally, that’s not the case,” Shakun said. *“Global temperatures are following CO2.”It is hard to ignore the new evidence that Shakun and his colleagues have brought to the table this April. “… Global warming at the end of the ice age, resembling a rise of CO2 and coming after it… It’s pretty hard to look at that and not think that CO2 was a big driver of global warming during the last ice age,” Shakun said. *But what are some of the implications of CO2 being a big driver of global warming during the last glacial cycle? Why should we care that CO2 once ended an ice age?“[Our findings] are not really going to change scientists’ perspective … I think as far as the actual science on the matter, we have already got a lot of strong pieces of evidence on CO2,” Shakun said. "But obviously when we look out in the public, that’s not quite the case. We meet people all the time who say ‘eh, I don’t believe that. What’s the story with this global warming idea anyway?’ I think this is just one more additional piece that goes on that pile that says ‘yep, like we thought for a bunch of different reasons, CO2 causes global warming.’ “”CO2 Albert Bridge.jpg" src=“” width=“340” height=“260” class=“mt-image-right” style=“float: right; margin: 0 0 20px 20px;” /> So what is the take home message? “[Our findings] provide you with a really tangible example of what is means for CO2 to cause warming. You are sitting on the bus and you tell somebody ‘yeah, CO2 is causing global warming,’ and it just sounds like this abstract concept. But you tell somebody that CO2 can end an ice age and they get a feeling for what that means, and how powerful that is,” Shakun said. “Obviously if you have an ice age end, then that means a huge difference for the planet, a huge difference for sea level, for rain fall patterns, for temperature, for all sorts of things that actually matter to us, to society.”But the punches keep coming. As Shakun points out, the amount that CO2 rose at the end of the ice age was only around 100 parts per million.* “That sounds small… but it was apparently enough to really help drive the end of an ice age – that’s a huge effect,” Shakun said. *What is even more sobering is that today, humans have brought CO2 levels up another 100 part per million more.* “So we have done just as much,” Shakun said. “And in a century, we are looking to go up, going on as we are, by several hundred more. So 100 parts per million to end an ice age, and we are talking about people bringing it up many times more… this is NOT small potatoes what we are talking about here, what we are doing with CO2. This is big stuff, big changes.”Sobering indeed.* global-warming-juan-amadeo.jpgFor more information about the study in Nature, read here this blog post? Please take the time to recommend it, or any other blog post that you liked here, for the blogging competition Open Lab 2013.Shakun, J., Clark, P., He, F., Marcott, S., Mix, A., Liu, Z., Otto-Bliesner, B., Schmittner, A., & Bard, E. (2012). Global warming preceded by increasing carbon dioxide concentrations during the last deglaciation Nature, 484 (7392), 49-54 DOI: 10.1038/nature10915 Image 1: Flickr by RigmaroleImage 2: Copyright Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.

Voyager: humanity's farthest journey [video] (from Grrl Scientist's blog)

Fri, 04/06/2012 - 3:00am

SUMMARY: We knew we were on a journey of discovery when we launched the Voyager spacecraft, but we had no idea how much there was to discover Image: NASA/JPL. “We knew we were on a journey of discovery when we launched the Voyager spacecraft, but we had no idea how much there was to discover.”Yesterday, I showed you a little about the unexplored oceans on earth, so today, I’d like to show you a little about the unexplored regions of space. In this video, created and provided by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, we see an update on the journeys that the Voyager spacecraft are on and what they are showing us about space.

[sic] again (from Lee Turnpenny's blog)

Thu, 04/05/2012 - 1:17pm

‘The editor said no, I’m afraid… ‘Just what does that mean?’The editor said, “No”, I’m afraid…’, as in, ’I’m afraid the editor said, “No”.’Or, ‘The editor said, "No, I’m afraid…" ’ ?Might seem obvious; but I’ve been informed that the editor deemed my offered piece ‘not suitable.’ I understand, of course, that the editor’s decision is final. However, rather than publish my piece, it was preferred to run Tuesday’s edition with no column whatsoever; and then yesterday, there appeared this bolus of abstruseness, that such ‘ecclesiastical burbling’ was apparently deemed ‘suitable’ is not my beef. (And I quite enjoyed today’s nice informative effort that, without being all temperamental luvvie about it, I fail to see what is ‘not suitable’ about my critique of the misappropriation of science by apologetic Christians.It’s at times like these that I’m inclined to quote the last line of The Commitments.