The Church of Science

September 29th, 2008

I happen to think this temple of science, called the Atheon, in Berkeley,CA is a terrible idea. However, I do understand where the idea comes from.

Anyone involved in science these days is well aware of the gulf between science and religion. It is a gulf that has been apparent since before Copernicus revived the theory of heliocentrism, since before Galileo was punished by the Catholic church for teaching it as truth.

Religion is doctrine for a belief system based on mythology. The mythology was necessary in a time before science to explain the world, and doctrine to create order amid chaos. Science, as a tool to understand the world around us, slowly chips away at the myths. Of course, this is threatening to many religions. If the myths weaken substantially will the doctrine have any basis for control?

So, for ages there has been a perceived conflict of interest between science and religion. Fine, but does it really have to be such a deep and wide rift? I for one agree with those who think that science and religion both have their places in this world, their own jobs to do. And, I’m normally a champion of projects that try to make peace between the two.

This project in Berkeley, though, is getting in the way of that kind of progress. Science is not religion. It’s hard enough to teach people that science is simply a tool without so-called artists actually going out and promoting it as religion. This way of thinking is part of the problem rather than leading to a solution.

Religions that fight science are afraid that science wants to replace them with a purely scientific institution. How many times have I heard people refer to the Church of Darwin, or talk about scientific dogma? This use of words promotes the idea that science is thought of as a religion.

Science is a tool, a methodology, for examining the universe, not a belief system. It is a mistake to equate the two.

How Do You Walk?

September 8th, 2008

This video on the Live Science website is quite interesting from the perspective of visual perception. What do we perceive about a person from a distance? How do we see the movements a body makes, and how does that determine our behavioral responses even before we can see a face or hear a voice?

The study, published in Current Biology, found that moving masculine figures were perceived as coming toward the observer, while feminine figures were perceived as heading away. The researchers posit that the difference might have been evolutionarily beneficial since men are more often perceived as threatening. Whether or not they are actually coming at you it might be a good idea to be subconsciously ready to run.

Another study, published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, found that people trained in the field of sexology were able to determine a woman’s vaginal orgasmic history simply by watching her walk. It seems like a vague and subjective measure to me, but then again maybe visual cues like gait cannot only inform an observer about threats, but also the reproductive status of potential mates, when olfactory or other cues are unavailable.

The studies together lead me to ponder how changes in a woman’s fertility throughout her cycle might affect the way she walks on a day to day or week to week basis. Might some shoes be better suited for a particular phase? Are stilettos functionally designed to enhance the most fertile, receptive period? Or, do they help a woman fake her fertility? Is there a reason that I love my sneakers some days more than others?

Science Itself

September 8th, 2008

From Scientific American:

THE CREATIVE PROCESS— “The most remarkable discovery made by scientists is science itself. The discovery must be compared in importance with the invention of cave-painting and of writing. Like these earlier human creations, science is an attempt to control our surroundings by entering into them and understanding them from inside. And like them, science has surely made a critical step in human development which cannot be reversed. We cannot conceive a future society without science. —Jacob Bronowski”

The Debate Continues To Rage

September 5th, 2008

I received a press release today from an organization called the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank located in Washington DC and committed to “free enterprise and limited government.”

And, while free enterprise and limited government are not inherently bad, years of bad politics and close-minded agendas immediately put a bad taste in my mouth when I read the phrase.

Still, I was interested in what they had to say this time around.

… a new report from the Competitive Enterprise Institute calls into question whether, ethics aside, stem cell research is even a sensible expenditure of taxpayer dollars.

 Government stem cell research programs, such as California’s Proposition 71, are bureaucratic, wasteful, and mired in political controversy And, because stem cell research is inherently speculative and politically controversial, the public would be best served if governments left it to the private sector.

 “This is not a question of whether the research should be conducted, but whether public funding for it is justified,” said Fry-Revere. “It is impossible to know how successful this research will be or whether any individual projects will produce genuine medical treatments, and it is not the place of government to gamble with taxpayers’ money.”

I can see the argument here; stop government funding of the research because private groups will do the work anyway, and public funding comes with beaurocracy that almost negates the benefits of the research itself. It is true. Publically funded labs have to comply with incredibly strict regulations that make doing the research nearly impossible… not to mention the restrictions on cell lines.

However, this is not what I see as their main point. They primarily argue that the nature of the research is too speculative. Why should the government fund research that might not amount to anything? Sure, fair enough. Why should it?

But, then again, why shouldn’t the government be a part of promoting science and the search for knowledge? The government can help the economy by putting taxpayer money back into industries like scientific research. Not only will that money increase the number of jobs in that sector (something that is good in this time of a 6.1% unemployment rate), but the result could also be something that will help mankind.

Whether or not cures actually come from basic research is not the point of supporting science with taxpayer money. Besides, didn’t the California taxpayers decide to set a certain amount of money aside for stem cell research? It’s not as though the decision was made by someone other than “the people” in this case.

I am amazed to think that supporting science is “gambl[ing] with taxpayers’ money.” The arguments made in the press release are emotional at best, and not supported by fact in the least. If supporting things can be considered gambling one might as well say that public funding of the educational system is a gamble because we have no idea how any of the kids are going to turn out. They might all end up drug addicts and thieves. I’d like to counter that financial support of science and basic reasearch is rather an investment in the future.

Finally, if they really have an issue with the speculative nature of stem cell research, why bring up this question only for stem cells. Why not bring into question funding of science in general? Take the argument to its logical end. It seems that this focused approach belies an underlying agenda.What that agenda is I can only guess at, but I feel that their argument against stem cell funding in this case was disingenuous at best.

A Small Request

September 4th, 2008
I’m asking for help motivating young women as they start thinking about their careers. Share your career/life stories with me and together we’ll do something great. Distributed by Tubemogul.

What’s Your Story?

September 4th, 2008

I’ve been invited by the Center for STEM Excellence at Scramento State University to give the Keynote talk at their Expanding Your Horizons conference this October. As a result, I’ve been thinking about all sorts of topics for my talk. Do I talk about science in general, specific areas of STEM, my personal experiences?

In my thinking and searching I came to realize that as the Keynote speaker it is my job not to inform, but to be inspirational and motivational… to get the girls at the conference fired up and excited about both the day ahead and their own futures. But, how to do that when I have my own struggles with inspiration and motivation on a daily basis?

I think I’ve come to an answer; lead by example. How do I get past those daily hurdles, and keep moving? How did I find a career that I love? How did you?

I want to hear the stories of real women from real women, especially if you are working in a STEM related career. I want to share our stories.

  • What do you do as a career?
  • How did you wind up in your career (did you choose it or did it choose you)?
  • Do you love what you do?
  • What do you love most about what you do?
  • How do you stay motivated (are your motivations internal or external)?
  • What is your measure of success?

I’ll take your answers as comments here, emails (kirsten at this week in science dot com), video comments on youtube or seesmic, however you see fit to send them.

Hopefully, we’ll be able to use these stories to motivate not only the girls at the conference, but everywhere, and of all ages.

More Science Raps

September 3rd, 2008