8.20.2014

The Day I Met Dr. Edward Teller

Dr. Edward Teller in 1987 (Wikimedia Foundation)

Dr. Edward Teller in 1987 (Wikimedia Foundation)

Dr. Edward Teller, the “Father of the Hydrogen Bomb,” is often known for his uneasy relationship with fellow Manhattan Project member J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “Father of the Atomic Bomb.” Their rivalry was not limited to the specific type of nuclear weapon each was the “father” of, but was most publicly aired when Teller was one of the very few people to recommend that Oppenheimer be stripped of his security clearance during the McCarthy era commie witchhunts—a motion that succeeded.

This effectively ended both Oppenheimer’s work with the government and Teller’s support from much of the scientific community. The rift was somewhat healed when Teller recommended John F. Kennedy’s 1963 presentation to Oppenheimer of the Enrico Fermi Award, but by that time Oppenheimer was largely retired to the US Virgin Islands, and Teller was just starting a long and prosperous career with US atomic programs. / read more…

8.19.2014

The Ice Bucket Challenge: Awareness is Not Money

Like the rest of you, my social media feeds are being inundated by people dumping buckets of ice water over their heads. Friends, relatives, celebrities, athletes. Big Deal Important People like Oprah, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk. If you’ve heard of someone, chances are they’ve either already taken or are about to take the Ice Bucket Challenge – publicly immersing themselves in the aforementioned ice water, then daring three others to do the same thing.

Why are they doing this? For charity, specifically to raise money in support of the ALS Association. The point of the challenge is that you either accept it and dump freezing water on your head, or decline it and make a donation to fight ALS, a figure generally given as $100.

But why does a video of someone chilling their brain help fight ALS if the person doesn’t make a donation to go along with it? Because it makes people feel like they’re doing something good. And, of course, it “raises awareness.” / read more…

8.18.2014

It’s Quantum Mechanics… Or Something

Aerial View of the Spallation Neutron Source

Aerial View of the Spallation Neutron Source

Scientists get things wrong very often. I, for one, am thankful they do. Being wrong is an opportunity to learn new and interesting things about the world. Or it might simply mean we need to do more work in order to see how our hypothesis was wrong. Giving scientists an opportunity to be wrong and the opportunity to simply explore is one of the best things we can do to make better and more useful technology. And in the last couple weeks we’ve gotten to see hints as to what this powerful research can bring about.

First, I want to explain the humor of my title. Those of you familiar with scientific skepticism understand that there are many pseudoscience peddlers that try to use quantum mechanics as a way to explain their bogus claims. The recent news I will briefly explain next actually does involve quantum mechanics. Even for physicists, it is not an easy concept. I will use an explanation that involves quantum mechanics, but at a very basic level. Please forgive me if you have some background in the subject and I over-simplify it, but I want to make this accessible for a wide range of readers. / read more…

The Loss of Vitamin C: One More Proof for Evolution

Evolution never ceases to amaze me. It’s one of those scientific facts that has been proven correct over and over. I didn’t know however what to expect when one of my favorite podcasts, Irreligiosophy, tackled “5 Evidences for Evolution.” Apart from the unpronounceable name, it’s quite a good podcast. Its main focus is a critical discussion of religion (Mormonism in particular), but from time to time they also tackle skeptical topics, like this one. The episode is marked as “explicit” since they talk about anatomy and use strong language, so be forewarned if you wish to avoid such content.

I was however pleasantly surprised to hear 5 cases that contained recent research, like the following one (the 4th, just before the 35-minute mark). We humans, as almost all simian species (lemurs and prosimians excluded) are not able to synthesize our own vitamin C.

“Eat More Fruits And Vegetables High In Vitamin C.” above the lettering is a green pepper, below, one half of an orange, inside up. From the 1989 published by the National Cancer Institute (USA)

/ read more…

8.11.2014

No, ISIS is Not “Branding” Christians in Iraq

Over the weekend, a post began to make its way across Facebook. Originally shared by Scott and Kelli, an on-air duo from syndicated radio station K-LOVE, the post alerts people to a horrific act being committed against Christians by the ISIS militant group in Iraq.

ScottandKellipostAt the time I’m writing this, the post has been up less than 24 hours and it has already been shared over 40,000 times. Clearly it has struck a nerve with the online Christian community. But is it actually happening?

/ read more…

8.7.2014

IMO: Breaking the Laws of Physics

Mass-energy equivalence

Mass-energy equivalence via Pixbay.com

This new technology breaks the laws of physics! That, or something similar, is such a common refrain in both popular culture and in fiction. There seems to be something secretly delightful in knocking down such an arrogant target as a so-called physical law. Your science can’t hold back the truth! Laws are made to be broken! Perhaps. / read more…

8.5.2014

Barack Obama and Golf: A Skeptical Analysis

The great thing about math is that it doesn’t take sides. Whether or not something is greater or less than something else doesn’t change at all based on what you happen to think about that thing.

A perfect example of this is President Barack Obama’s hobby of playing golf. When hits the links, pundits on both sides of the aisle chime in with what they think about it, whether it’s right for him to do it and how it looks to the rest of the world. And they’re all right. And all wrong. It’s a matter of opinion, and only that. / read more…

If You Don’t Like The Truth… Litigate It Away

Snake oil salesmen and woo purveyors have deep pockets; in the United States money means influence and power (probably the same everywhere). Despite the claims of being corporate-paid shills and/or disinformation agents, scientific skepticism is primarily funded by small, private, grassroots donations. As a whole, the skeptical community is a large, well-informed collective that does have influence. Monetary support for skepticism is a drop in the bucket compared to the money or influence of people like Dr. Oz (whose net worth is estimated at $14 million), Deepak Chopra (estimated at $20 million), or the resources of the US supplement industry (whose annual sales were estimated at $30 billion in 2011). Recently there has been a concerted effort to silence or minimize skeptical criticism of pseudoscience. Some, like Deepak Chopra, offer farcical, impossible challenges. There are examples of idiotic and troubling personal attacks, such as Mike Adams’s recent screed calling GMO advocates “Nazi Collaborators.” Frequently there are threats of lawsuits like threatened action by the quack Stanislaw Burzynski against skeptic blogger Rhys Morgan. Sometimes actual lawsuits happen, as in the case of the British Chiropractic Society suing Simon Singh for libel. Affluent woo purveyors easily have the resources to intimidate skeptics and to mute criticism. / read more…

A philosophical note on the outbreak of World War I, 100 years ago

This weekend we commemorate the start of hostilities 100 years ago in World War 1. Direct and indirect causes were, of course, already long in the making, and you can find a lot of information about it in the media. For a good and very thorough introduction, I recommend Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast series on “Blueprint for Armageddon”.

/ read more…

8.2.2014

A Quick Example of the Effect of Climate Change

By Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

[Writer's note: Both me and my math checker missed a decimal error - my fear when I wrote this! Thanks to a comment I had to check my calculation again. I will fix the error of inland inundation below.]

Because I wanted to use the following quick calculation as a reference for a future blog post, I wanted to publish this as its own post. I think it will serve as a nice example of why we cannot underestimate even small changes to our climate.

Before getting to my calculation, I want to state here that I am not making a statement about what actions we should take to address climate change, at least not in this post. While most of the scientific community agrees there is climate change and humans play a part in it, there are those who still want to deny either one or both of those positions. While some of those scientists do also advocate changes to government policy to reduce carbon emissions, that is a separate discussion from what I am trying to accomplish today. For this post, I will assume no government actions and try to avoid advocating for such changes. / read more…