Archive for January, 2017

Science vs. Politics: A Personal View

I’m not by nature a political person.  I do have my own strongly held convictions on the political issues of the day, and I vote in every election I can get my hands on, but I generally refrain from discussing politics in person, in writing, on Facebook, or in this blog.  I’d much rather write about writing or science or the environment.  Those are topics I feel much more strongly about, than, say, the length of Donald Trump’s ____.  (You fill in the blank.)  But in this day and age, politics is all about us, like a miasma that infects every aspect of our lives.  Ignoring it is difficult.  Everywhere you turn, you are pummeled with facts, pseudo-facts, opinion, pseudo-opinion, and all manner of intellectual graffiti, designed solely to influence you to believe someone else’s opinion.  My feeling about all this is: I have my own opinion; don’t mess me up with yours.

Perhaps that’s why I became a scientist.  I like the rigidity of the scientific process.  Sure, there’s room for opinion in science; in fact it’s full of it.  But your opinion in science is supposed to be based on the facts.  You have to quote chapter and verse in order to be believed in science.  You have to be able to list the reasons you believe something.  No “alternate facts” here, just the realistic facts and data that support and bolster your opinion.  Do viruses cause cancer in humans?  What are the facts concerning the existence of dark matter?  What is the evidence that the Zika virus causes microcephaly in newborns?  And so forth.  Just the facts.

Politics, on the other hand, is largely reactionary.  I’m not talking about extremely conservative politics which wants to take us back to the 1700s or 1800s, but reactionary in the sense that it rarely generates anything new, but mostly reacts to what has come before.  Science, on the other hand, is progressive.  It is what generates the forward motion in many fields.  Science found the Higgs boson; politics has yet to react to it.  Science showed that chlorine kills bacteria and viruses in water; only later did political organizations make it mandatory that drinking water be treated to reduce the number of water-borne diseases in the US.  Science developed the transistor, the integrated circuit, the computer, the internet, and now politics has to regulate it.  Science is on the cutting edge; politics trails and many times cuts itself on the cutting edge.

That’s not to say politics isn’t necessary in our lives, and I’m not trying to say here that politics is unnecessary.  Politics concerns itself with the relations between various groups of people, and regulates and restricts those relations.  Important, certainly.  Politics also takes it upon itself to codify the important discoveries and make them law.  In many cases that’s also necessary.  But it’s far more satisfying, enjoyable, and rewarding to be in the front of discovery, to be doing what no one else has done before, and to know facts that no one else knows.  Especially the politicians.  Science is like being in the Lewis and Clark expedition up the Missouri River.  Can you imagine how exciting that must have been?  Especially after they crossed the Continental Divide and began to work their way down the western side of the Rocky Mountains toward the Columbia River and eventually the Pacific Ocean.  No white man had ever been there.  I would like to have been there.  I couldn’t, obviously, so I explored the interactions between virus particles.  It’s the explorer in me.

Damn the politicians—full speed ahead.

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Affect vs. Impact

Recently, over I-don’t-know-how-many-years, maybe ten, the word “impact” has become a verb.  It’s now commonplace to hear how something “impacted” something else.  We even hear it used on the usually staid evening news.  We hear how a hurricane “impacted” a state or town.  We hear how new federal regulations will “impact” our daily lives.  The use of the term “affect,” or its almost identical twin “effect,” has been replaced by “impact.”  Do you remember the difference between affect and effectAffect is a verb, in the sense of “to affect someone or something.”  Effect is a noun, as “the effects of fluoride on dental caries.”  But now, impact has replaced both in a number of situations, partly, I suspect, because impact can be used as either a noun or a verb.

At first, I was against the use of “impact” in this way.  I figured, if we’ve got two perfectly good words that can be used in place of “impact” and are well-known and well-characterized, why change?  But there’s a subtle contrast in the definition of the word “impact” between it and the affect/effect duo.  That contrast has to do with intensity.  Impact is stronger in its meaning.  It’s used when the speaker or writer wants to show a heavier “impact,” rather than a simple “effect.”  A tornado has an “impact.”  A gentle breeze has an “effect.”  That may be because impact has always carried with it the image of collision, or force, or a real punch or shock.  (This is getting tricky; it’s hard to define “impact” without using “effect” or “affect.”  And vice-versa.)

Now I’m coming around to being more accepting of the use of the word “impact” in situations where a speaker or writer wants to show a strong force.  “Affect” and “effect” may go out of style, but I suspect they will be relegated to milder situations.  In my writing, I will probably still use the older two, perhaps because I’m so used to them.  But “impact” may have a big impact (effect?) on the writing of others.  The wave of the future.

I wonder, though, about the term “affectations.”  Will we eventually have “impactations”?

But don’t get me started on the word “impactful.”

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Life On Venus?

Could life ever arise on the planet Venus?  That is, Venus as it exists today.  Venus is a hellish place, with temperatures of around 462°C at the surface, rain composed of sulfuric acid, lava-flows over much of the surface, and an atmospheric pressure around 90 times that of Earth at sea level.  It’s not a pleasant place, and a manned spacecraft would find it difficult to land there, and it might be even more difficult for humans to get out and walk around.  In fact, I think we can dispense with the possibility of humans walking on Venus’s surface for the foreseeable future.

Many billions of years ago, some scientists speculate, Venus may have had a climate similar to Earth.  Water may have been present in abundance, enough to fill relatively shallow oceans.  An atmosphere of oxygen may have existed that could have been conducive to life.  But if it did, under the influence of the heat from the sun (Venus gets about twice as much sunlight as Earth) the oceans boiled away, the water was split by ultraviolet light into hydrogen and oxygen, the hydrogen escaped into space, and the oxygen combined with carbon on the surface to form carbon dioxide, and the greenhouse effect took over.  That pushed the temperature into the stratosphere.  So to speak.  And here we stand today.

But the presence of water making life possible on Venus in the distant past isn’t what I want to hypothesize in this post.  I’m thinking about the possibility of life on Venus as it exists now.  Yes, in the presence of all that heat, lava, pressure, and sulfuric acid.  Earlier, on March 13, 2011, in a blog post entitled “Life–A New Definition,” I suggested that life on any arbitrary planet should be defined as “that which arises . . . under the influence of the energy from its sun over and above any other milieu . . . .”  That’s without regard as to what the life forms look like, or what they’re composed of, or how they replicate, or any other limiting factor we may require to define life on Earth.  We can’t think of life on other planets within the limited range we find here on Earth.

So, what would life on Venus look like now?  Under the influence of that tremendous heat and pressure, chemical reactions are running wild, at least in comparison with Earth.  That might be a good thing.  It might be the very factor that makes “life” viable on the surface.  Lava may stay liquid all the time on Venus.  Possibly a life form could arise composed of lava globules that slowly creep across the surface, consuming other bits of the ground, extracting necessary elements, metabolizing them by sulfuric acid digestion, and eventually dividing into smaller globules that continue the process.  And that’s just one scenario.  I’m sure others could be visualized by those who are better at chemistry than I, so there’s no sense in me speculating much further here.

I certainly realize that the chance of “life” actually existing on the surface of Venus is probably very low, and that speculating about what it looks like could be a somewhat unscientific pursuit.  But the real reason for looking at Venus this way (sorry about that) is that it gives us a different way of looking at life in general all across the galaxy.  (Think what it would mean if we did find some sort of life on Venus.)  Life certainly exists on (a few? many?) other planets somewhere in our galaxy because there are so many of them, and we should always be aware that it won’t necessarily look like us.  It may be so vastly different that we may not recognize it at first, and we have to remain open to any possible physical form, and any possible metabolic form.  Temperature and pressure won’t necessarily be a limiting factor.

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