Tag Archives: physics

Some good science and thinking related books for you

screen-shot-2017-01-12-at-9-07-03-amA Fortunate Universe: Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos

This is a concept that has always fascinated me, ever since reading some stuff about the Periodic Table of Elements. Check it out:

Over the last forty years, scientists have uncovered evidence that if the Universe had been forged with even slightly different properties, life as we know it – and life as we can imagine it – would be impossible. Join us on a journey through how we understand the Universe, from its most basic particles and forces, to planets, stars and galaxies, and back through cosmic history to the birth of the cosmos. Conflicting notions about our place in the Universe are defined, defended and critiqued from scientific, philosophical and religious viewpoints. The authors’ engaging and witty style addresses what fine-tuning might mean for the future of physics and the search for the ultimate laws of nature. Tackling difficult questions and providing thought-provoking answers, this volumes challenges us to consider our place in the cosmos, regardless of our initial convictions.

screen-shot-2017-01-12-at-9-12-09-amGetting Risk Right: Understanding the Science of Elusive Health Risks

Understanding risk, and misunderstanding it, became a major topic of discussion, initially in economics, about the time that I was working in a major think tank where much of this discussion was happening. Risk perception had been there as a topic for a while (the head risk-thinker where I worked had already won a Nobel on the topic) but it became a popular topic when a couple of economists figured out how to get the message out to the general public.

In my view, the modern analsyis of risk perception is deeply flawed in certain ways, but very valuable in other ways. This book is very relevant, and very current, and is the go to place to assess health related risk issues, and I think it is very good. I do not agree with everything in it, but smart people reading a smart book … that’s OK, right?

Do cell phones cause brain cancer? Does BPA threaten our health? How safe are certain dietary supplements, especially those containing exotic herbs or small amounts of toxic substances? Is the HPV vaccine safe? We depend on science and medicine as never before, yet there is widespread misinformation and confusion, amplified by the media, regarding what influences our health. In Getting Risk Right, Geoffrey C. Kabat shows how science works?and sometimes doesn’t?and what separates these two very different outcomes.

Kabat seeks to help us distinguish between claims that are supported by solid science and those that are the result of poorly designed or misinterpreted studies. By exploring different examples, he explains why certain risks are worth worrying about, while others are not. He emphasizes the variable quality of research in contested areas of health risks, as well as the professional, political, and methodological factors that can distort the research process. Drawing on recent systematic critiques of biomedical research and on insights from behavioral psychology, Getting Risk Right examines factors both internal and external to the science that can influence what results get attention and how questionable results can be used to support a particular narrative concerning an alleged public health threat. In this book, Kabat provides a much-needed antidote to what has been called “an epidemic of false claims.”

screen-shot-2017-01-12-at-9-19-43-amFeeding the World: Agricultural Research in the Twenty-First Century (Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Service Series)

In the not too distant past, it was understood that we, the humans, were going to run out of food within a certain defined time range. This actually happened several times, this estaimte, followed by the drop-dead date coming and going, and the species continued. Kind of embarassing.

Historically, that estimate of when we would run out of food has been wrong for one, two, or all of three reasons. First, the rate of population increase can be misestimated. We now know a lot more about how that works, and still probably can’t get it right, but in the past, this has been difficult to guess. Second, it hasn’t always been about food production, but rather, distribution or other aspects of the food supply. Right now, the two big factors that need to be addressed in the future are probably commitment to meat and waste. Third, and this is the one factor that people usually think of first, is how much food is produced given the current agricultural technology. That third factor has changed, in the past, several times, usually increasing but sometimes decreasing, depending on the region or crop. Sadly, this is probably also the factor that will change least (in a positive direction) in the future, even given the supposed promise of GMOs, which have so far had almost no effect.

Anyway, this book is about this topic:

The astounding success of agricultural research has enabled farmers to produce increasingly more—and more kinds—of food throughout the world. But with a projected 9 billion people to feed by 2050, veteran researcher Gale Buchanan fears that human confidence in this ample supply, especially in the US, has created unrealistic expectations for the future. Without a working knowledge of what types and amounts of research produced the bounty we enjoy today, we will not be prepared to support the research necessary to face the challenges ahead, including population growth, climate change, and water and energy scarcity.

In this book, Buchanan describes the historical commitment to research and the phenomenal changes it brought to our ability to feed ourselves. He also prescribes a path for the future, pointing the way toward an adequately funded, more creative agricultural research system that involves scientists, administrators, educators, farmers, politicians, and consumers; resides in one “stand alone” agency; enjoys a consistent funding stream; and operates internationally.

screen-shot-2017-01-12-at-9-22-54-amModern Prometheus: Editing the Human Genome with Crispr-Cas9

Gene editing and manipulation has come a long way. We may actually be coming to the point where methods have started to catch up with desire, and applications may start taking up more of the news cycle. We’ll see. Anyway:

Would you change your genes if you could? As we confront the ‘industrial revolution of the genome’, the recent discoveries of Crispr-Cas9 technologies are offering, for the first time, cheap and effective methods for editing the human genome. This opens up startling new opportunities as well as significant ethical uncertainty. Tracing events across a fifty-year period, from the first gene splicing techniques to the present day, this is the story of gene editing – the science, the impact and the potential. Kozubek weaves together the fascinating stories of many of the scientists involved in the development of gene editing technology. Along the way, he demystifies how the technology really works and provides vivid and thought-provoking reflections on the continuing ethical debate. Ultimately, Kozubek places the debate in its historical and scientific context to consider both what drives scientific discovery and the implications of the ‘commodification’ of life.

Women and Physics by Laura McCullough

Women and Physics by Laura McCulloch is a concise addition to the IOP Science Concise Physics series.

McCullough is an award winning Professor of Physics at UW Stout, and served for several years as the chair of that university’s Chemistry and Physics Department. Her research focuses on physics education, and gender and science. By both chance and design, I know a lot of people in this area, and I’m pretty sure IOP Science could not have had a better choice in authors for this important book.

How do you make a physicist? Well, you start with a child, and poke at it for 25 year or so until it become something, and maybe it will become a physicist. Meanwhile, the growing and developing individual passes through several stages. If the child is a male, those stages are called opportunities. If the child is a female, they are called filters.

McCullough writes,

When I walked into my physics graduate school on day one and there were twenty-four men and me, I knew that we had a problem. A problem begging for a solution, and because I am a scientist and what I do is solve problems, that moment was the beginning of what has been twenty years of research on gender issues in science for me. I don’t know all the answers, and I doubt the problem will be solved in my lifetime, but I know more than I knew then, and sharing that is part of the solution. Hence this book.

McCullough surveys and describes the filters, and the stages. She looks at how women are challenged at every stage. She describes what the field of Physics has done so far to remove gender biased barriers to women’s progress, and what needs to be done in the future.

I should probably mention that the sciences in general, the physical sciences in particular, and super-duper-especially physics (in its various forms) have a) not allowed women to progress fairly at any stage, ever, and b) still manage to have been shaped and influenced by the important work of a number of women. I’m sure you already knew that, but just in case, there it is.

This isn’t just about institutions. It is also about how individuals interact, about social and cultural stereotypes and biases, and individual decisions.

Here is how McCullough underscores the filtering process:

A little girl waits patiently at a science exhibit for another child to finish. Her brother butts in when he comes over to see it and she never gets her turn.

A young woman in high school physics is always relegated to be the record keeper and never gets a chance to play with the equipment.

A woman walks into her first day of physics graduate school and sees twenty four men and no other women.

A physics professor is called ‘Mrs’ by her students instead of ‘Dr’.

An assistant professor is placed on every departmental committee in order to
have female representation.

A woman makes a suggestion at her weekly research group meeting. Her idea is ignored. Three minutes later, a man makes the same suggestion and is applauded.

How many physicists are women? What does the process of filtering, which in some ways applies to all would-be physicists of any gender, do differently with women? How are these trends changing?

Two of McCullough’s core chapters are titled “What helps, what hurts: family and education” and “What helps, what hurts: family and career.”

These social and professional spaces are where the rubber meets the road. This is where, to use a physics metaphor for a social problem affecting physics, kinetic energy (desire and motivation) and friction (the status quo, power structures, the patriarchy) come into play.

Is there a “masculinist” and a “feminist” nature of science? This is the sort of question that can cause spit to come flying out of the heads of the most mild mannered seemingly non-sexist male scientists, especially in physics (many biological scientists know there are gendered features of science, at multiple levels). I suspect that in physics, this is mostly surficial gendering, which has profound impacts on women’s careers. In other sciences, human genders interact with other human genders, and non-human genders, in all sorts of ways. My own biological science with respect to humans had to be fully gender bound, as my field studies could only be done with male subjects. My female colleagues could only work with female subjects. I’m not sure if physicists have the same issues. I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky (maybe) that in the naming of quantum-level aspects of matter-energy, male-female gender was never employed (as opposed to color, orientation, strength, etc.) Imagine what cold have been…

But I digress. McCullough writes about this aspect of gendering in the physical sciences as well, as ingress to the topic of covert discrimination.

I regard this book as something of a manual for women in physics, and for men who may be, should be, mentors. It is for teachers of physical science (or, really, all science) in high schools and colleges. These are all people who a) already feel they know what is going on with gender discrimination, but b) often mistakingly ignore that this is a separate subfield of study and no, they don’t. Parents of kids (boys and girls) who are leaning into the sciences would benefit too, but they are probably not that likely to read an academic book like this. Note to self: Suggest to Laura that she write a version of this for the families.

Women and Physics is available now, go read it.

The Manga Guide to Relativity


The The Manga Guide to Relativity might come in especially handy these days, what with faster than light neutrinos, Republican candidates and other science-defying entities zooming around. And, it is one of those Japanese anime things, which makes it cool. This is a story set in Tagai Academy summer’s school session, where the “plucky” Miss Uraga teaches the kids relativity.

When you have finished reading this book you will be able to calculate the effects of time dilation, explain the Twin Paradox, understand Einsteinium famous E=mc2 and get a job at CERN.

Hideo Nitta, is in the Department of Physics at Tokyo Gakugei University, and an expert in physics and physics education. Masafumi Yamamoto is an applied physicist from Hokkaido University, and I’m pretty sure Keita Takatsu is the artist. This is a little like Pokemon except only things that are possible happen in the book.