Author Archives: Mike White

National Academy to Congress: For economic benefits, support basic research

It’s a sobering exercise to go through your day and identify those common, essential things that exist only thanks to fundamental scientific discoveries made in the last 100 years. Of course some of our technology was developed in the Edisonian style, invented without any recourse to a understanding of the underlying science. But so much of the technology of modern life would not be possible without major basic science discoveries made during the 20th century. How we eat, communicate, travel, work and care for our health are all closely tied up with fundamental discoveries made in the past century. In other words, basic science has made a huge contribution to society’s economic growth and well-being.

That basic science generates huge material benefits has been the major justification for federally-funded research since Vannevar Bush’s 1945 manifesto. Unlike, say, the National Endowment for the Arts, which exists mainly to support a vibrant culture, federal science funding is specifically intended to generate tangible economic benefits for society — not simply to support science for its own sake. Continue reading

Haldane, Huxley, dystopia, biopunk, biotech, and Windup Girl

All that in six minutes and 40 seconds. Last week I gave my first Pecha Kucha talk at Openly Disruptive’s Disruptive Diner series. The topic was science foreshadowed by science fiction. Have a look. The script of my talk is below the fold. If you want the post-talk Q&A session you can find it on Openly Disruptive’s YouTube channel, where you’ll also find science fiction author Mark Tiedemann’s talk on robots in our society and imaginations.

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Modern Statistics make the absurd appear significant

This is too good not to share, from a preprint by Andrew Gelman and Eric Loken, “The garden of forking paths: Why multiple comparisons can be a problem, even when there is no ‘fishing expedition’ or ‘p-hacking’ and the research hypothesis was posited ahead of time”

Without modern statistics, we find it unlikely that people would take seriously a claim about the general population of women, based on two survey questions asked to 100 volunteers on the internet and 24 college students. But with the p-value, a result can be declared significant and deemed worth publishing in a leading journal in psychology.

The paper is here (PDF).

The “poetry you find in science” in Cartarescu’s Blinding

Romanian author Mircea Cartarescu’s massive novel Blinding is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time – and I’m only 80 pages in. It’s a dream autobiography/family history, heavily influenced by scientific ideas and metaphors. The author described his thinking to Bookforum:

It is the point at which science is unified with poetry, with geography, with mathematics, with religion, with everything you can imagine. Three quarters of the books I read are scientific books. I’m very fond of the poetry you find in science. I read a lot about subatomic physics, biology, entomology, the physiology of the brain, and so on. I’ve always thought that being alive is a great gift, one that should be explored.

If you like science in poetry or literature, this book is worth checking out.

Mother’s Day Science Poem: Mitochondrial Mothers

Heid E. Erdrich’s “Seven Mothers” (2012)

(Originally posted here in August 2012, this poem is worth a read on Mother’s Day.)

Despite my experiences of crushing boredom studying cell trafficking pathways in grad school, there was no way I was going to just walk past a book of poems titled Cell Traffic without stopping. In this delightful book, poet Heid E. Erdrich mixes themes of genetics, motherhood, ancestry, and Native American mythology to produce poetry that feels very relevant in a day when we can read information about our ancestry from the text of our DNA.

Today’s Sunday Poem is “Seven Mothers.” The title refers to the seven major, maternally inherited mitochondrial haplogroups popularized by Bryan Sykes in The Seven Daughters of Eve. Since Sykes’ book was published, we have developed a greater ability to use genetic variation in our nuclear DNA to trace our ancestry, and mitochondrial DNA now plays less of a role in our efforts to understand human ancestry than it once did. But it’s hard to beat the impact of mitochondrial maternal ancestry on our imaginations. Continue reading