Category Archives: Follies of the Human Condition

Trusted Sources

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal reminds us that the public at large believes in the results of science based on their trust in scientists and, quite often, those that communicate the science.

The comic also shows how hazardous it can be to abuse that trust. This is why efforts to hold the institutions through which we do science accountable – like Retraction Watch, Rep. Speier’s HR6161, SAFE, critiquing of the publish-or-perish system, p-hacking, journal profiteering, and embargo abuse – are vital. It needs to be clear in public forums that we take that trust seriously and are more committed to protecting the integrity of the practice of science than to protecting individuals who violate that trust to maintain an illusion.

Apocalypse 1913: Adrift In A Hostile Cosmos

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt (1913)

415px-Strandus-1913-05End of the world narratives are typically about a fight for survival – people fight for food, shelter, and safety as the asteroid, pandemic plague, or zombie hordes threaten to wipe out human life. This was just as true of SF a century ago as it is today: In 1912, Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague featured armed Berkeley professors, holed up in the chemistry building as a plague swept away civilization; while Garrett Serviss’ The Second Deluge tells of a thousand lucky survivors who, in a modern ark, escape a world-wide flood.

The next year, Arthur Conan Doyle also published a novel about a group of hardy survivors. But the terms of survival in The Poison Belt are much more ironic: Professor Challenger and his fellow adventurers, who had fought off dinosaurs and ape-men on a remote South American plateau in Doyle’s 1912 The Lost World, now confront the extinction of human life as passive observers, watching the destruction of humanity from the window of the “charmingly feminine sitting room” of Professor Challenger’s wife. Continue reading

Sunday Science Poem: Darwin and Happy Endings

Wisława Szymborska’s “Consolation” (2002)
henri_rousseau_-_fight_between_a_tiger_and_a_buffaloEvolution has always been more controversial socially than scientifically. After Darwin published the Origin, the idea that all species descended from common ancestors was quickly accepted by most biologists (though his proposed mechanism of evolution, natural selection, remained controversial until the 20th century). Socially, however, evolution was and remains difficult for many people to swallow. The literalist beliefs of religious fundamentalists of course conflict with evolution. But even among those who don’t have a particular religious axe to grind, discomfort is not uncommon. Evolution in practice is brutal: we posses our unique adaptations – our brains, our opposable thumbs, our ability to talk, to socialize, to feel, see, and touch – thanks to the selective death of billions of organism over eons.

In her hilarious poem “Consolation”, the late Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska ironically contrasts the brutality of the real world in which evolution plays out, with the romantic world we construct for ourselves. She portrays Darwin, the great thinker who first grasped the harsh reality of evolution, as someone who escapes by reading novels with only happy endings.

Supposedly for relaxation he read novels.
But he had a requirement:
they couldn't end sadly.
If he happened on one,
he flung it furiously in the fire.

True or not –
I gladly believe it.

Roaming in his mind over so many times and places
looking back on all the extinct species,
such triumphs of strong over weak,
so many tests of survival,
sooner or later all in vain,
that at least in fiction
and its micro-scale
he had a right to expect a happy ending.

And so necessarily: sunrays behind a cloud,
lovers together again, kin reconciled,
doubts dissolved, faith rewarded,
fortunes recovered, treasures dug up,
neighbors regret their mulishness,
good names restored, greed put to shame,
old maids married to respectable ministers,
schemers expelled to the other hemisphere,
forgers of documents cast down the stairs,
seducers of virgins hurrying to altars
orphans taken in, widows embraced,
pride humbled, wounds mended,
prodigal sons invited to the table,
the cup of bitterness poured into the sea,
tissues wet with tears of reconciliation,
universal singing and music-making,
and the puppy Fido,
lost already in the first chapter,
let him run home again
and bark joyfully.

Translation from the Polish by Michael A. White (2016)
Image: “Fight Between a Tiger and a Buffalo”, Henri Rousseau (1908), via Wikimedia Commons.

I dare you to convince me this isn’t decent science journalism

Comedian Nikki Glaser has a new show on Comedy Central, Not Safe, focused on sex in pop culture. The second episode contained a segment called “Studies Show” which invited panelists to riff off the results of sex research. At the end, Glaser provided a stingingly accurate commentary on the way journalists the media apply the results of individual studies on hot button topics too broadly and which aligns well with Mike’s analysis of the challenges of scientific research:

I hope you learned something, but, if not, no big deal. They’ll be contradicted by new studies next week. – Nikki Glaser


Lise Meitner

I’m taking a writing class at the moment, and one of the assignments was to write a profile about Lise Meitner:

Lise Meitner with Otto Hahn

Lise Meitner with Otto Hahn

On Christmas Eve, 1938, sitting on a tree trunk in the snow in Sweden, Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch figured out the mechanism of nuclear fission. They had gone for a walk during a family holiday to discuss a letter Meitner had received from her colleague Otto Hahn. He asked for her opinion on a strange scientific phenomenon he had discovered.

Until a few months earlier, Meitner and Hahn had worked closely together at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (KWI) in Berlin, where they studied the effect of bombarding uranium atoms with neutrons.

Meitner had moved to Berlin shortly after completing her doctorate degree in her birth city of Vienna. She was one of the first women to reach this level of academia, and encountered some archaic attitudes and ideas: in Berlin, she worked unsalaried for a few years, and was occasionally expected to entertain the wives of visiting physicists while the men talked about science.

During the three decades she worked in Berlin, Meitner made Germany her home, but when the Second World War edged closer, it was no longer safe for Jewish people in Germany. With her piercing brown eyes, dark frizzy hair and pronounced nose, Meitner’s heritage was unmistakable. She fled to Sweden in July 1938, with help from an international group of friends and colleagues from the physics community.

Now, six months later, Hahn’s curious letter had reached her. He described how, after another round of shooting neutrons at uranium, he discovered barium in the reaction mixture. Where had it come from? Pondering this question with Frisch during their winter walk, Meitner realised that the neutron in Hahn’s experiment must have split the uranium atom in half. This would leave two smaller atoms in its place, which would continue to produce even smaller atoms, and generate large amounts of energy.

The discovery came at a dangerous time: Could the Nazis use this technology to create a weapon? The USA quickly launched the Manhattan Project to ensure they were the first to build an atomic bomb. Meitner was invited to join, but she refused. She didn’t want to be part of such a violent application of her discovery – not even to defeat the enemy who had chased her out of Germany.

After the war, Meitner spent several months in the USA as part of a visiting professorship. She was named Woman of the Year there, in 1946, and was interviewed by Eleanor Roosevelt for NBC radio.  Roosevelt told her: “We are proud of your contributions as a woman in science”.

Meitner continued to inspire women in science throughout her retirement years. A photo taken at Bryn Mawr, in 1959, shows her sitting casually on the steps of a university building. Her frizzy hair now grey, but with the same dark piercing eyes, she is surrounded by students in long floral skirts who have come to hear her fascinating stories.

Maybe she told them about the time she went for a walk with her nephew, through the snow in a cold Swedish winter. Or maybe they asked her about that other winter in Sweden, when in December 1945, Hahn – and Hahn alone – received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry at the award ceremony in Stockholm.

It’s an oversight that’s still often mentioned, especially in the context of continuing challenges to retain women at the top level of science.  But even without a Nobel Prize, Meitner was well-respected, and happy to sit down for a chat about her work: in the snow with her nephew, on the radio with a former president’s wife, or casually outside on the steps with admiring students.

Image: Meitner and Hahn. Public domain, via Wikimedia. Other image described in the text was not free to use, so click that text for a link.