Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

As I write this post, Christmas is just days away, and despite the overworked (though still valid) lament that it’s all about commerce, hundreds of millions of Christians will take the time to go to church and turn their thoughts to the Divine.

This will undoubtedly drive a small group of true believers nuts.

I’m not talking about Jews like me. When I was growing up, Christmas wasn’t a time for minority outrage; it was a blissfully quiet day when we might go out for Chinese food and then to a nicely uncrowded movie. I’m not talking about Muslims, either; Islam recognizes Jesus as a great prophet, and while some extremists are still furious about the Crusades, most Muslims find Christmas pretty uncontroversial.

I’m talking about the New Atheists — people like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. What makes them New is that they’re not merely non-believers. They’re evangelists—missionaries out to convince religious folks that belief in God is not only misguided, but ignorant, superstitious, dangerous and just plain stupid.

I should say at this point that I’m more or less an atheist myself. Actually, I’m technically an agnostic. I don’t claim certain knowledge that God doesn’t exist, and doubt there would be any way to prove such a proposition (for the record, I don’t buy any of these “proofs“). But as an old friend pointed out to me a few years ago, I must at least have a default assumption about God’s existence, and that assumption is what scientists call the “null hypothesis,” meaning that he doesn’t. Carl Sagan once said that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” — but he didn’t specify what counts as an extraordinary claim. For me, the notion that a supernatural, invisible, all-powerful being exists seems pretty extraordinary. The idea that he, or He, is aware of my every thought and has a plan for my life is even more far-fetched.

But the New Atheists are the genuine article. They’re quite convinced that God doesn’t exist, and they’re not shy about letting you know it. “Tolerance of pervasive myth and superstition in modern society is not a virtue,” it says on their website. “Religious fundamentalism has gone main stream and its toll on education, science, and social progress is disheartening. Wake up people!! We are smart enough now to kill our invisible gods and oppressive beliefs. It is the responsibility of the educated to educate the uneducated, lest we fall prey to the tyranny of ignorance.”

Joseph Stalin, non-religious mass murderer

They are indeed smart. Most of them are scientists, and anyone foolish enough to try and match wits with non-scientist Hitchens is asking for trouble. Many of the points they raise, moreover, are valid. Terrible crimes have been committed, and continue to be committed, in the name of religion. These things are well worth fighting against — but anyone who thinks they’re uniquely the product of religion has clearly never heard of Stalin or Pol Pot or Augusto Pinochet.

It’s also true that some religious people push a worldview that is actively hostile to science, and it’s nothing short of appalling that so few Americans accept the theory of evolution by natural selection—in large part thanks to the doubts sowed by religious fundamentalists.

But it’s also true that plenty of scientists are also religiousFrancis Collins, for example, the director of the National Institutes of Health and a self-described born-again Christian. To their enormous discredit, some New Atheists claim that Collins, a topnotch geneticist, is somehow unqualified to run a major research institution because of his beliefs. It reminds me of the claims when John F. Kennedy was running for president that he would take orders from the Pope because he was a Catholic.

What’s most annoying about the New Atheists is their attitude that if only you were as smart as they are, you simply couldn’t believe in God. Daniel Dennett has even coined a term to replace “atheist” that would embody this particular attitude. He proposes that they call themselves “brights,” demonstrating monumental arrogance and a tin ear all at once.

Tonight I’m going to a performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, a transcendentally beautiful work inspired by religious belief. I’ll be going with, among others, one of my dearest friends, an ordained Presbyterian minister. We’re both appalled by evil done in the name of religion. We’re both disturbed by religion-inspired attacks on science. He knows I don’t believe in God. I know he does. Neither of us thinks the other is stupid or misguided. Neither of us feels the need to be in each other’s face about our beliefs. We do sometimes talk about where we’re coming from on the topic, and while we don’t agree, we somehow manage not to get all worked up about it.

So we’ll just enjoy each others’ company and the Bach. Thank g…oodness I’m not a New Atheist.

—Michael D. Lemonick

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Earlier this week, one-of-a-kind comedian/musician Reggie Watts rocked WNYC’s Jerome L. Greene Performance Space for a special “Studio 360” all about Theoretical Physics. That’s right…Theoretical Physics.  Here at 360, we like a little science sprinkled in with our arts and culture.

It turns out that Reggie Watts – an improviser who seeds audiences with disinformation (some of it in musical form), confusing them into fits of sublime, disoriented laughter – is also a well-versed physics enthusiast.  Watch him raise the curtain on our show, and tune the crowd to his unique frequency:

Over the course of the evening, Reggie talked physics with Kurt and astrophysicist Janna Levin – they even had a sort of informal science smack down (you can watch the full show here).  Reggie closed the evening with another song – a hip-hop ballad dedicated to perhaps the most ambitious topic, ever: the universe.

– Michael Guerriero

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Last weekend, Studio 360 was all about art as medicine. We had stories about how music helps patients recover in a burn unit; why a children’s cancer doctor turns to fiction writing; and medical students learning how honing their narrative skills will make them better doctors.

When we were doing research for the show, we called our colleagues in the WNYC archives – a treasure trove of nearly a century of media made or collected at the station. Here are a few things found in the stacks – click on the images to see them up close:

This three-record set came with a guide to exercises including the “Liberty Bell march” (No. 1) and the “Salut d’amour” (No. 3 – not unlike the now-hip “sun salute”?).

Try out the “Salut d’amour” yourself – listen here:

And to finish your workout, two exercises from Dr. Erich Klinge (recorded sometime between 1903 and 1926) – Nos. 9 and 10, in bracing German!

Special thanks to New York Public Radio’s Andy Lanset and Marcos Sueiro Bal.

– Jenny Lawton

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Final preparations are underway for tonight’s live show in WNYC’s Greene Space: the science magician loads in his equipment in a couple hours, then Reggie Watts will soundcheck, and doors will open at 7pm.  And then… black holes will play drums!  We’ll bend space and time!  And we may just come up with the Theory of Everything. (At the very least, we’ll come up with a Theory of A Lot of Things.)

Not in NYC?  Or in NYC but holed up against the bad weather?  No worries: we’ll be streaming the show live online – check back here at 7:30 for the live webcast.

TITLE: Our Universe Goes to 11


Final preparations are underway for tonight’s live show in WNYC’s Greene Space: the science magician loads in his equipment in a couple hours, then Reggie Watts will soundcheck, and doors will open at 7pm.  And then… black holes will play drums!  We’ll bend space and time!  And who knows, we just may come up with the Theory of Everything.

Not in NYC?  Or in NYC and holed up against the bad weather?  No worries: we’ll be streaming the show live online – check back here at 7:30 for the live webcast.

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Rendering of Gliese 581g (National Science Foundation and NASA)

A few weeks ago, a couple of astronomers made headlines when they announced that they’d found a planet orbiting a distant star. It was hardly the first: since 1995, about 500 planets have been discovered in orbit around stars beyond the Sun. What made this one extraordinary was, first of all, that it wasn’t all that much bigger than Earth, where the earlier finds have been mostly giant balls of gas, like Jupiter.

More important, it orbited smack in the middle of the “Goldilocks zone” — at just the right distance from its star where temperatures would be not too hot, not too cold, but just right for the existence of life as we know it.  (That balmy location is more properly called the “habitable zone;” in our solar system, only Earth qualifies.) Sadly, for me, there’s now serious doubt that the planet exists at all; the “discovery” may have been announced prematurely.

Speculation about extraterrestrial life left the realm of philosophy for astronomy in 1960, when a young astronomer named Frank Drake wondered if it would be worth his time to search for radio signals from alien civilizations. He understood that it might not be worth his reputation: the golden age of flying saucers was in full swing; “The Twilight Zone” was a hot new show; and Ed Wood had just produced “Plan 9 from Outer Space”, often rated the worst movie of all time.

A still from "Plan 9 from Outer Space" (1958)

So Drake was cautious. He came up with a formula — which came to be known as the Drake Equation — to calculate how many planets might have life.  It was more or less a checklist: How many stars are there in the Milky Way? How many of them have planets?  How many of the planets might be suitable for life, based on their distance from stars? And so on.

Nobody had an answer to anything more than the first question — planets are dark, and too far away to be seen — until 1995,  when astronomers finally began to find planets by the hundreds. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence wasn’t necessarily crazy. There’s still a way to go, of course. In this planet-searching endeavor, the caveat is a biggie: finding a planet that could harbor life isn’t the same as finding one that does —  and it’s very possible that the only aliens living there are bacteria, which don’t build radios.

But more news is waiting in the wings.  For almost two years now, a space telescope called Kepler has been staring unblinking at more than 100,000 stars, looking for a planet, and the team has an announcement scheduled for February 1.

Rendering of the Kepler spacecraft (NASA/Kepler mission/Wendy Stenzel)

It’s a big secret, and when I spoke with Kepler’s inventor, Bill Borucki, he wouldn’t reveal what they’ve found. But I asked him, “If there’s an Earth-size planet out there, would Kepler have seen it by now?” His answer: “Yes.”

Kepler was built to detect objects (like planets) passing in front of stars.  Depending on how much the starlight dims, they can say how big the planet is; depending on how often it happens, they can tell how long the planet takes to complete an orbit, which tells you how far it is from its sun.  Here’s the trick: Kepler mission rules say it doesn’t count until you’ve seen it pass by three times, to avoid the embarrassment of another retracted ‘discovery.’ In less than two years of operation, Kepler can’t have seen three passes separated by a full year each, so any Earthlike planet they do announce will be in less than a year-long orbit. But that key discovery could well come in the following year.

I for one am praying for front-page headlines when the Kepler crew steps up to the microphone in February.  I’m working on a book, and I rashly promised my editors that Earthlike planets would be found before I turn in the manuscript next August.  Either the planets come out, or I go into hiding.

—Michael D. Lemonick

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Last spring, a young guy at the checkout counter was being friendly. “Who do you like,” he said, “Boston or L.A?” It took me a minute. In order to be sociable, I didn’t tell him the truth, which is that I have zero interest in the NBA. Instead, I picked . . . um . . . one of them. With enthusiasm!

It was culturally appropriate for him to assume I had an opinion; sports are an integral part of our culture. Even college professors, or those who dress like them (I’m thinking of George Will), love baseball, at the very least. I was the one who was out of step here, and I knew it. Now imagine the kid asking me, “What do you think about exploration of the solar system — human or robotic?”

No, I can’t do either. Unlike sports, or movies, or politics, science is not considered essential cultural knowledge. That’s true even in Princeton, New Jersey, where there’s a high proportion of scientists. Everyone knows Einstein lived here, and that’s about it. Bring up some scientific topic at a dinner party in this town and you mostly get embarrassed looks. Everyone knows it’s important to know about science, for vague reasons, but very few actually want to.

Photo/Illustration for TIME by Aaron Goodman

This naturally upsets scientists and science journalists a lot. We know that science has an essential role in American life, and every so often, we wring our hands over the nation’s appalling lack of science literacy. (Some of our favorites: the percentage of Americans who think the Sun orbits the Earth; that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old; and that evolution by natural selection is a hotly disputed theory. No wonder we have trouble thinking seriously about climate change, stem-cell research, and the anti-vaccine movement.) I did my own hand-wringing in TIME back in 2006, and last year the writers Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum published Unscientific America—hand wringing at book length.

An answer to the crisis? “We must begin to train a small army of ambassadors who can translate science’s message and make it relevant to the media, to politicians, and to the public in the broadest sense” they write. Inevitably, they point to Carl Sagan, who made us a nation of science-lovers back in 1970s and 80s (or maybe not; more on this later).

But Mooney doesn’t just long for the return of Sagan. He’s got another idea, called “Rock Stars of Science,” and he explains on his blog, The Intersection. The idea is that a bunch of top scientists pose with rock stars for glitzy photos, the rock stars say something about how cool science is, and the whole thing is becomes a feature in GQ—Harvard researcher Rudy Tanzi and National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins get down with Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry, for example. The first installment appeared last year, and the second is going into GQ’s 2010 “Men of the Year” issue.

The theory, as I probably don’t need to explain, is that readers will say “If Joe Perry thinks Francis Collins is cool, I’m subscribing to Scientific American!”  Kind of like being born again, you might say.

I don’t buy it—just as I didn’t buy the idea that Carl Sagan turned us into a nation of science lovers. He was a frequent guest on Johnny Carson, and “Cosmos” on PBS was certainly popular (by the standards of public TV).  But the things most people remember about him is that he had a goofy voice and said “billions and billions” a lot (and only the first of those is true).

It’s true that for a few decades in the last century, Americans had a reverence for science that bordered on the religious. Scientists were the heroes who won World War II, invented fantastic machines and medicines and organ transplants, and got us to the Moon. But then the Challenger crashed and we still haven’t won Richard Nixon’s War on Cancer and the environmental movement drew our attention to the downsides of technology (cf. the Gulf oil spill, just a blip compared to the furor over Silent Spring).  Science had not delivered on the unrealistic promises that had been made for it.

But even before those setbacks, popular awe didn’t make the average American science-literate in any meaningful sense. Back in 1959, C.P. Snow famously described the “gulf of mutual incomprehension” between the “two cultures.”  Science might have more effect on our lives, he said, but the humanities were more familiar, more comfortable, by far.

As we settle ever more comfortably into consuming the handsomely packaged end-products of science, we are ever more distant from the effort and ideas that went into the science.  Despite the best efforts of Joe Perry, I don’t see that changing any time soon.

—Michael D. Lemonick

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This summer, Luke Geissbuhler, the cinematographer behind the mokumentary-style movie Bruno and the upcoming film The Virginity Hit, masterminded a very different kind of movie.  With nothing more than a weather balloon, an HD camera and a GPS device, Gessbuhler and his 9-year old son created a homemade spacecraft and set out to capture its journey on video. The duo encased the camera, GPS and a parachute in a foam container, tied it to the end of the balloon and released it near their home in Newburgh, New York. Hoping to view the video once the balloon fell back to earth, Geissbuhler tucked a note inside the foam container promising a reward to anyone who returned the spacecraft to its rightful creators.

Turns out, the spacecraft was found in a tree later that night, not far from where it was released. But when Geissbuhler and his son watched the video they were amazed to find out that their experiment was a tremendous success. Their makeshift spacecraft had spent the afternoon in space!

To me, the video is a testament to the adage that anything is possible. With a bit of tenacity, research, and a few “flight tests,”  the duo engineered a device that overcame huge odds. Their tiny balloon made it through 100mph winds, reached the upper stratosphere of Earth in only an hour, and managed to land only 30 miles from where it was released! Oh yeah and the resulting film is pretty fantastic too.  Geissbuhler managed to tailor the spacecraft to keep it from spinning and the result is a steady and watchable short film.  When the balloon first breaks past the white clouds and reaches the blackness of space, the view is truly breathtaking. For all of you who wondered as a kid what happened to those birthday balloons that got away, you now have your answer.

-Julia Botero


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