Archive for October, 2012

Back to the Past

I read a poll of Russians taken approximately a year ago that said one-third of Russians believe the sun revolves around the Earth.  Now, it’s difficult to draw any substantial conclusions from that poll for several reasons, not the least of which is that many of them may have been–cliché alert–trying to pull the leg of the pollster, but it does tend to make a scientist like me take notice and try to make something of it.  Such a widespread belief (Russia has about 142 million people, so one-third would be about 47 million) may be due to poor education in science or to staunch religious beliefs or to some such other situation.  After all, Russia is the home of the first artificial satellite (Sputnik) and the first human to orbit the earth and return alive (Yuri Gagarin).  After all those space successes, wouldn’t you think the population would be more astronomically literate?  If the same poll were taken in the USA, I like to think the results would indicate that less than one percent would make such an unusual declaration, though I could be surprised here.  There are people in the USA who still believe the world is flat, but it may be they don’t really believe it, it’s just something to do to pass the time.  If the Earth were really flat, gravity wouldn’t work the way it does and a satellite couldn’t go into orbit around it.

How much of the Russian belief of an Earth-centered universe is due to poor science education?  Russians don’t win many Nobel prizes.  When I was an active scientist, most of the papers I read in my field–and, hence, the discoveries–were from US or western European scientists, and later from Japan.  That’s where the majority of Nobel prizes have gone over the last fifty years or so too, except for the Literature award.  We would do well to note that US scientists have garnered more than their share of Nobel awards, a fact that can be traced directly to science education in this country.  Science education has been under attack for a long time because US students don’t do as well as other countries, especially the Western Pacific rim countries, in science competitions and in general science studies and critics bemoan the fact that Europe has the Large Hadron Collider and most of the Nobel awards that come from it will involve European scientists.  Some say we should be leading the world in science.  Yet we (the USA)  make many of the important discoveries that have changed our lives recently: the Internet, the Hubble telescope, the Space Shuttle, most of the electronic devices such as the iPad, and so on.  The transistor was developed in the USA and that has made such a tremendous difference in all our lives–small, easily portable computers arose directly from it.

So, don’t knock US science education.  It leads the way.  At least it isn’t living in the past.

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Back to the Moon

I’ve been reading a book lately called “The Case for Mars,” by Robert Zubrin.  In it he lays out in considerable detail his plan to mount a manned expedition to Mars that would go directly from Earth to Mars without stopping anywhere along the way.  His plan, which apparently has been adopted at least provisionally if not fully by NASA, would use large rocket ships based on shuttle components and shuttle-derived technology to send a manned expedition to Mars.  His plan would not utilize the current space station as an assembly point for putting together a Mars-bound spaceship, nor would it us the moon as a jumping-off point.  He makes a good case for his plan.  I’m not enough of a rocket scientist to be able to judge relative merits of different Mars trips, but a trip to Mars directly from Earth does have the advantage of not needing to carry fuel to land on the moon and then blast-off from there.  Going directly to Mars (he calls it the “Mars Direct” plan) is the simplest and most straight-forward route.

All of that is fine as far as I’m concerned.  Zubrin downplays the use of a manned base on the moon, though he does say that technology developed for Mars can be used on the moon.  Personally, I think this is a good idea.  I would like to see a manned base on the moon as the next step in the United States space program.  The space station has shown that humans can operate in space for long periods of time and has been well worth its cost.  Now the next step is a base on the moon, not as a jumping off point for trips to planets or asteroids, but as a laboratory and observatory.  For example, a large telescope–maybe several of them–on the moon could benefit from an airless environment from which to do observations that would expand and extend what the Hubble telescope has already done.  The moon is a great platform to do astronomy because it’s much more stable than being in orbit.  An orbiting telescope can only take pictures when its orbit brings it in view of its target.  Part of the time the Earth is in the way.

I believe it was Newt Gingrich back during the Republican primaries earlier this year who suggested that if he were President, he would press NASA to go back to the moon.  Now, I’m not a conservative Republican and I disagree with much of what he said about other topics, but on that one subject I will agree.  Instead of President Obama’s plan to go to an asteroid (!), or even going directly to Mars, let’s take the next logical step, that of going back to the moon.  It’s the closest object to Earth (other than all the orbiting debris around Earth) and it makes sense to travel there first.  We learned a lot about the moon from the samples brought back by the Apollo missions; it’s time to return and finish the job.  We don’t have to use it as a base for Mars-bound trips, but the moon has advantages all its own.  I’m ready to go tomorrow; anyone want to join me?

We could call it the Neil Armstrong Lunar Base.  Appropriate.

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All Those Old Guys

When I first began writing (serious writing that is, for entertainment, not for scientific purposes or to hand in to a teacher) I heard that a serious, competent writer had to read other writers and authors in order to advance his own work.  On the face of it, that’s a good idea: learn from the experts, learn from those who’ve been published, from those who’ve been through the process of writing and know the ropes, from those who’ve worked with agents and editors and publishers and have gone the whole nine yards.  But in my naiveté, I brushed aside that advice and told myself I wasn’t going to read the others in my field (science fiction) because I didn’t want to be influenced by them.  I was afraid I’d wind up writing like them or trying to put their plots in my books, or that I wouldn’t be able to think up a plot for my story because I’d have someone else’s story line running through my head.  So, for a long time, I didn’t read much even though I was trying to write a sci-fi novel.  I did read books and magazines on how to write, and they helped, but getting down and reading Heinlein or Asimov or Wells or Verne or Le Guin or any of a number of other well-known sci-fi authors just wasn’t on my schedule.  (As an aside, I’ve even heard other newbie writers say the same thing.)

A few years later I changed my mind, and I’ve been reading books and magazines in the sci-fi genre for over ten years now.  The idea of being influenced by other writers isn’t as much of a problem as I’d thought.  I can come up with my own plot lines and I don’t have to worry about someone else’s story getting stuck in my head and not going away.  If you’re a new writer contemplating the same thing, forget about it.  It’s not a good reason not to read other works.

But that’s not all there is to the subject.  In fact, I was right in my original assumption that I might be affected by other writers, at least in one particular direction.  I finished reading Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson about two weeks ago, and, since it was written over a hundred years ago (first published as a book in 1883), it was written in the style popular at that time: long sentences, outdated and unusual words, syntax we’d never use now.  But what was most unusual about reading that book (as well as other older authors) I found myself thinking and even writing in a style reminiscent of that time.  This tendency lasts for about a week, and finally evaporates.  So I was write (sorry, right) the first time.  I can be influenced by reading other writers and authors.  I try not to write like those older authors, and try to maintain my own style.  But some influence does happen; it just remains to be seen how long it lasts and whether it’s permanent or not.  I do tend to write long, involved, convoluted sentences (though nothing like Dickens or Proust)  to the extreme dismay of members of my critique groups, but I feel there’s a place for them.  Some sci-fi writers use short choppy sentences which I don’t care for, especially when they follow one right after another, and that may be a remnant of the reading of older authors.

Who knows?

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Fraud in Scientific Research

I read an article on Yahoo News this past week about an increase in the number of fraudulent scientific papers published over the past thirty years.  The article was written by Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press, and he says that since the mid-1970s, the number of retractions of scientific papers for outright fraud has jumped from around 10 per 1 million papers published in 1976 to over 90 by 2007.  On the face of it, that’s quite a jump (nine-fold).

Of course, that’s just the number of papers retracted because of fraud.  (I assume it doesn’t count papers retracted for other reasons such as unintentional errors.)  How many other fraudulent papers are still out there because they haven’t been discovered is unknown and aren’t counted.  I don’t have any real figures to back me up here, but I assume there’s been a substantial increase in the number of scientific papers published in that time, and that could be part of the reason.  I seriously doubt the increase in number of papers has been as big as a nine-fold jump, though.  The increase may be partly due to better detection of fraudulent papers.  Overall, though, there may be a real increase.

The reasons for the increase aren’t immediately obvious, but I have several ideas.  As a virology researcher for many years, I never knew anyone I could honestly say committed fraud–of course not, anyone faking results is going to keep it quiet.  Apparently, the greatest part of the number of fraudulent papers is composed of a few habitual, incorrigible scientists so the chances of meeting one are slim.  I’ve heard of researchers who published dishonest papers while working at one institution, only to move to another one when their deceit was revealed and continue to publish faked results at the new place.  But those are rare indeed.

Possibly the major reason for committing fraud in science is the competition for good jobs.  When I was still working, competition was fierce.  The number of new PhD’s that graduated each year was a lot higher than the number of openings for faculty level, tenure-track positions.  For many new PhD’s, that’s the holy grail, and it was for me.  Most new PhD’s took post-doctoral training, honing their skills at doing research under an established researcher, either at a medical school or in industry.  But for many of us, it stopped there.  I took repeated post-doctoral positions (as well as their allied cousin, the research associate) and didn’t get a faculty position until I was in my late thirties.  That position, unfortunately, didn’t last very long, and I was back out on the street looking for another post-doc/research associate position.  So I know what it’s like being forced to get results in order to get another position.  The temptation to get outstanding results is tremendous.  Some give in and fake results.

So, too, is the temptation of a faculty member to get recognized.  Most people I knew would certainly would have liked to be well-known in their field and perhaps garner a few prizes along the way.  The No-bell rings in the head of almost every scientist; the temptation is there.  Most don’t capitulate to the temptation and they stay the true course.  Only a very few do, but that has the disastrous consequences of giving a black eye to the whole field.  As Borenstein points out, the publication of false data can have repercussions well outside science.  He gives the example of the publication of a paper that linked autism to childhood vaccinations.  That study was later found to be totally fraudulent, and the paper was retracted.  The author of the paper was banned from research in Britain.  But to this day, mothers of young children still refuse to have their children vaccinated because they’ve heard there’s a link between vaccination and autism.  The damage has been done, and nothing anyone says can convince those mothers otherwise.

There will always be unscrupulous scientists, just as there are dishonest practitioners in any occupation, yes even law and politics.  Only good peer review of scientific work before it’s published and sent out to the world at large will minimize the effects.

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