Bag of Water?

Sugar1The question of the month for me is this: “If you take all the carbon out of sugar, what do you have left?”

Those who actually know biochemistry tell me it depends, but that basically one would be left with nothing but a collection of H and O atoms in some configuration. I say, “Water” because I don’t really know what I’m talking about.

What spawns such a silly question is an even sillier label on this bag of sugar I bought last week.

Sugar2

I know what is meant, but context is everything, and this being a bag of sugar, a CARBOhydrate par excellence, I could not help but be amused.

I wonder if Dr. Atkins would approve?

Serendipity and Biographies of Note

How does one comprehend the serendipitous overlap of various threads of his life? I haven’t a clue. See if you can follow those weaving the portions of my life together.

1. Two years ago, my son announced that he wanted to be the next Einstein. (He is not short on ambitions.)

2. Recently, somewhat in keeping with the above, he has taken a deep interest in particle physics. Quarks, muons, and anti-matter pepper his conversation. It’s all a mystery to me.

3. Steve Jobs died. (The connection here is really tenuous.)

4. Walter Isaacson publishes a wildly popular bio of Jobs. I learn that Isaacson had previously published a well received bio of Albert Einstein. My brain takes note.

5. On Father’s Day, my son gives me, bless his heart, a gift certificate to Amazon. An hour later he has bought for me Isaacson’s Einstein biography. It seemed a perfect way to spend his Father’s Day gift. Einstein His Life and Universe Walter Isaacso

6. A few weeks later, I am a hundred pages in, hanging around 1905 trying to comprehend special relativity, when suddenly particle physics is THE hot topic in the news. My son’s obscure interest is now in the headlines. I resolve to read more physics when I finish with Einstein.

7. Einstein is my fun, home, off-duty reading. Every fall, however, I line up a list of books needing to be read in direct support of my pastoral ministry. History and biography are a part of that reading plan, which dictated that I begin last week Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.

8. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906, 20-something years Einstein’s junior. Both were German. Both would encounter Germany’s rising anti-semitism. Only one would survive.

9. I found myself, therefore, reading two biographies at the same time dealing with the same period of European history. Unplanned, but intriguing.

10. And I found myself able to compare two biographers. Both biographers are dealing with fascinating men with lives of significant import.

11. I came to Metaxas’ bio with great anticipation since several friends had recommended it highly. My wife started to read it, but couldn’t finish. She wrote that off as a deficiency in her. It isn’t.

12. As a writer, Isaacson shines. His bio, even when dealing with complex scientific theory, flows and when dealing with the life of the man, reads with ease and pleasure.

13. Metaxas on the other hand could have used a good editor to cut detail, to trim (or eliminate) quotes, and to arrest his temptation to be clever, which easily becomes trite. (Someone should have stopped him before he had Bonhoeffer ‘bid adieu’ to Paris, for example.)

14. One gives a good report. The other tells a good story. I’m a sucker for the story every time.

But I’m thankful for the serendipity – I think we call it God’s ‘most holy, wise and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures’ – which has allowed these lines to intersect so fluidly in my life.

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UPDATE: One more serendipitous note – Bonhoeffer grew up in the Grunewald district of Berlin and attended Grunewald High School.

Physics for Future Presidents

The cover of my copy of Richard Muller’s Physics for Future Presidents is crowned with a quote from Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg in his review written for The Boston Globe. The quote says simply, “A triumph.”

I’m not sure what to make of that. The review itself as far as I can tell is inaccessible to all but subscribers to the Boston Globe. A triumph of what? A triumph over what? I would love to see the point being made. Muller is a professor of physics at UC, Berkeley and has taken this book, subtitled “The Science behind the Headlines” from a popular course taught there for non-science students.

The idea for the course/book is in fact brilliant, perhaps even a triumph. (I should like to write a book, or see someone write, “Theology for Future Presidents”. It wouldn’t necessarily be a triumph of any sort, but it could be helpful to inject some careful thought about theological and religious issues into current political debate.) Muller’s intention is to bring a sense of objective scientific understanding to the issues of the day, specifically terrorism, energy, nuclear war/power, space exploration, and climate change.

His intention is fulfilled. That he intended to accomplish this without bias (“Just the facts, ma’am”) is cute, but always impossible. I do feel that I know more now about the science behind many of the current debates. But I know enough as well to realize that no objective treatment of such hot issues is ever possible. I resist the scientists’ claim to absolute objectivity. As much as any of us may want to follow the facts where they lead, we must be aware, with much humility, that our interpretation and application of the facts will be always tainted with our own subjective predisposition.

It is good that he attacks his goal with non-technical language. But is there a reason the book reads as if it were intended for a sixth grader? Simple sentences predominate. Perhaps he feels that this style better communicates. Perhaps this is his assessment of the intellectual capacity of those who might aspire to the land’s highest office. The book’s triumph is certainly not literary.

Don’t let my quibbles mislead, however. Good information is here. I won’t remember the statistics that suggest that the danger from nuclear power plants is minimal, but I will have a resource to which I can turn if I need to defend that case. I have been made to think and to reflect upon the value of manned space exploration and the legitimacy of the science behind global warming. I’m grateful that he removes from the table the fears which lead to panic regarding the possibilities of a mass terrorist attack. There is good stuff here. A helpful resource, for sure. An accomplishment if not a triumph.

Muller, some of you may know, was a staunch critic of the science of climate change until a Koch brothers’ funded research project led him to refine his position, to the consternation of his benefactors. (This led to his being crowned a ‘brave thinker‘ by the Atlantic.) Curiously, critics of the book in on-line reviews slam it for its harsh treatment of Al Gore and those standing with him. And yet, the edition which I have read begins the section on global warming with a sentence which reads, “…as our most recent Nobel Peace Prize laureate, form Vice President Al Gore, says in his powerful Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006)….” If he is a Gore critic, I’d be interested in seeing what Gore’s fans might say. He critiques the extreme presentation of the evidence of global warming, even that which is found in Gore’s film, as unhelpful. I find his critique of sloppy reasoning to be the most beneficial aspect of the book, for sloppy reasoning is found everywhere in political debate.

Is the book a triumph? No. Helpful? For sure.

Astrobiological Impressions and Gratitude

One of the things that our 11-year old son likes to do when we have guests over is to survey them to see who does and who does not believe that life exists on other planets. This has been a fascination of his for many months, if not years, and to his credit I think he has persuaded a few to change their answers.

A week and a half ago he and I were talking about the possibility of alien life and I wished that he could ask his questions of someone who really knew what he was talking about.

At the NASA Grail Tweetup I attended a few weeks ago (which I have yet to report on) I met Dr. Jim Adams, NASA’s Deputy Director of Planetary Science. Though he is a busy man with many responsibilities, I sensed that he would be sympathetic to my desire. He was, and passed my request immediately on to Dr. Mary Voytek, NASA’s Senior Scientist for Astrobiology, from whom I heard within the hour.

I should pause and admit that until my son developed his interest, I had no idea that there were such things as astrobiologists. This is a discipline that studies all facets of the possibility of life in extraterrestrial environments. (For more information, you can go here.)

Dr. Voytek contacted one of NASA’s contracted astrobiologists, a researcher associated with the University of Florida and the Kennedy Space Center, Dr. Andrew Schuerger. By Friday I had an invitation from Dr. Schuerger to meet with my son at a local Beef-O-Brady’s. Dr. Schuerger, it turns out, lives but 9 miles from us.

I know some of you who read this don’t believe in God and I know that you will therefore write this off as coincidence. I can’t do that. God was giving a gift to my son, and through this, to me.

So, last night, had you chanced upon the Oviedo Beef-O-Brady’s, you would have seen at some tables families eating and talking about the events of the day, at other tables groups of manly men recovering from their frustrations at work, and all around every sports channel on the planet displaying the games people play. In the middle of it all was an experienced scientist whose research involves testing microbes for survivability in the harsh Marian environment handling and guiding the questions of a fascinated and captivated 11-year old boy. It was as priceless as it was surreal. (And humbling, I might add. They were discussing things clear to my son but opaque to me.)

There is no way to adequately express my appreciation to these men and women, to those who have loved my son, even at a distance. And I have no way to thank Dr. Schuerger for his gentle and enthusiastic way with him.

I have no way of knowing how this will in the future impact my son. But of the present it has thrilled him, and me, beyond measure. Thank you, all.

Out of This World Cool

I had intended to post a much longer piece in anticipation of my next two days, but time has escaped me. So, bullet points will suffice:

> I was selected from a pool of Twitter users (I’m @rg7878, if interested) to participate in a NASA “Tweetup”.

> Thus, tomorrow I will join 150 others in a tour of the Cape Canaveral launch facility and a series of lectures on space exploration and the particular mission set to launch on Thursday.

> On Thursday, then, I return for an up close (I hope!) view of the launch of the Delta II rocket carrying the GRAIL moon orbiters to the moon.

> I’m supposed to tweet about it – I’ll see how that goes. But if I get the chance I’ll return here to report on the experience.

Details can be found at these links:

http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/grail/newsdisplay.cfm?Subsite_News_ID=29216&SiteID=2

http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/grail/home.cfm

Lies, Damned Epistemological Crisis, and Statistics

I began this post on January 28, 2011. It joined my queue of other begun and never completed posts which is at this point quite lengthy. I penned the title in a fit of inspiration which may have been more fit than inspiration, but there it is, and I’m not going to change it. It is taken, many will note, from the quote often attributed to Mark Twain but which, it seems, really originated from the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. He is reported to have remarked that there are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics. I’m not sure what role statistics played as a shaper of human opinion and decision making in the 19th century, but he could not have imagined how influential his third category of lies would become in our own. And since this subject has been bouncing around my head for years, this post will be, apologetically, abnormally long.

What spawned the post was originally this article in the Atlantic Monthly with the curiously familiar title “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science”. The article is a fascinating profile of a Greek medical researcher whose labor is aimed at debunking the claims of other medical researchers. He is not bitter nor one motivated by some high level rejection. Rather, his concern for the work of medicine drives him to hold researchers to a high standard of accuracy.

That he does NOT find that high level of accuracy in medical research disturbed me greatly. Researchers, like many of us, are measured by their results. Funding flows to promise. There exists an immense pressure upon researchers to demonstrate positive results in order to keep their positions and their funding. Such pressure can skew findings, can tilt the table so that we find what we are looking for. Hence, my epistemological crisis: whom do I believe? The one who says that eating eggs is bad for me or the one who says that it has no discernible effect in shortening my life? Do I believe the research that says at my age I should get a PSA test, or the one that says that this test has led to much unnecessary treatment?

So goes medicine, and so, sadly, goes religion. Churches have drunk deeply of the statistical Kool-aid in recent years. Recently, I’ve been approached by several people with stats in hand proving that the church is failing young people who are, supposedly, abandoning the church in droves. Some statistics become so dispersed that they attain something of an unquestionable canonical status. Is it not absolutely true that there is no discernible difference in the divorce rates between secular and Christian people? Common thinking, fed by certain popularized studies, says so. But is it true? No.

Years ago, wanting to not be left at the station as a pastor, I began to pay attention to the epicenter of contemporary evangelical statistical research: The Barna Group headed by George Barna. Barna’s name in evangelical culture is synonymous with polling data and his surveys are quoted widely with great authority. “Barna says…” is a powerful rhetorical weapon.

As I received my periodic reports from The Barna Group, I began to notice the disturbing trend that every report ended with something like this, “You can read more about this important study in George Barna’s new book….” Everything led to a book. (He has 28 of them on sale on his web site.)

And what sells books? Controversy and panic. Nearly everything he published had the air of alarm about it. The church was failing here; young people were being lost there; beliefs were eroding, people departing. I grow tired of the doomsayers.

I sense great similarities between the alarmists among us and the medical researchers desperate attempt to achieve publishable results.

Planned Parenthood needs to elevate the pro-life threat into a frightening frenzy to generate its support (I know – I was once on their mailing list, though I don’t know how). The same approach is adopted by Evangelical alarmist groups – be it Focus on the Family or the American Family Association or any number of other groups dependent upon fundraising. The greater the alarm, the greater the threat, the better the flow of money. And that disturbs me. So, I shut down and mistrust all alarmist rhetoric.

But that flows from my bias. I could never back up my resistance to Barna and other alarmists. Recently, though, some well placed Christian scholars have publicly taken issue with Barna and his methodology and results. Reflecting on one study in 2010, Calvin College philosophy professor Jamie Smith was quoted by Justin Taylor with this criticism of Barna:

This is not social scientific data that would ever pass muster in the scholarly field of sociology of religion (as represented, for instance, by work done in the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion). Indeed, I find it hard not to find this almost laughable in its methodological naivete and anecdotal nature.

Recently Taylor pointed out another public rebuff of Barna by Baylor University sociologists Rodney Stark and Byron Johnson in the Wall Street Journal.

As for media-hyped studies about religion, one should always beware of bad news bearers.

Stark loves the role of myth buster, and one could write this off as a bitter feud among those who get attention and those who don’t. But my experience tells me that it is quite easy to make statistics do what we want them to do. And the result is that the church becomes an alarmist place, with God’s people, serving the one in whom is all authority in heaven and earth, in a body against which the gates of hell will not prevail, cowering in fear and apprehension.

I agree with Stark and Johnson: Beware the bad news bearers. Check and double check all statistical claims. Use a source other than one whose work is used to sell books. And let us become more known for the good news we proclaim than the bad news we fear.

Reflections Meteorological

My usual routine is to run in the late afternoon on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday each week. Since last week was exceptionally busy, I ended up running Thursday afternoon and then again, for the first time, Saturday morning. A morning run was a bit of shock to my body, but it afforded some reflections about the weather.

It made me wonder just exactly what ‘humidity’ means. I know what a dry day feels like and how it differs from a humid day. But all our measures of those conditions are relative. Summer conditions for my normal afternoon run are generally 90-95 degrees and 50-60% humidity. Most mornings here are 70-80 degrees and 90-100% humidity. But my guess is that the actual moisture content is roughly the same. Both conditions feel ‘humid’ and my run Saturday morning felt little different than the afternoon.

All which made me wonder whether there is an objective measurement of humidity, or if the ordinarily ‘relative humidity’ measure is really the best. I suppose a quick trip to somewhere on Wikipedia would probably tell me all that I need to know. But as far as I can tell, 95% humidity on a Saturday morning is every bit as ‘experientially’ humid as 55% on a Monday afternoon.

Those reflections aside, a couple of observations remain. I’m running about 5 K each time out, and enjoying the first 3 K. The rest is a chore. I’ve heard some runners speak of those experiences where some chemical kicks in giving them the assurance that they can run forever. For now he (or she) and I remain absolute strangers.

Interesting Things

A couple more items worth noting from this week’s news:

Winners or near winners of the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search have, as this article says,

…gone on to win seven Nobel Prizes in physics or chemistry, two Fields Medals in mathematics, a half-dozen National Medals in science and technology, a long string of MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants — and now, an Academy Award for best actress in a leading role.

Natalie Portman is, it seems, a pretty smart gal in spite of the fact that she fell for Anakin Skywalker.

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To the rest of us, the political uprisings in the Middle East seem sudden and mysterious. But Thomas Friedman had some interesting observations on what lay behind these uprisings, other than the contribution of the 83 year old former Harvard professor whose booklet on toppling dictators seems to have been influential.

Among his suggestions are geeky things like Google Earth:

On Nov. 27, 2006, on the eve of parliamentary elections in Bahrain, The Washington Post ran this report from there: “Mahmood, who lives in a house with his parents, four siblings and their children, said he became even more frustrated when he looked up Bahrain on Google Earth and saw vast tracts of empty land, while tens of thousands of mainly poor Shiites were squashed together in small, dense areas. ‘We are 17 people crowded in one small house, like many people in the southern district,’ he said. ‘And you see on Google how many palaces there are and how the al-Khalifas [the Sunni ruling family] have the rest of the country to themselves.’

Read the whole. Like I said, interesting.

Old Shuttles Never Die

They just fade away into a museum. In the case of the soon to end space shuttle program, museums are apparently jumping over themselves trying to, shall we say, ‘land’ the prize.

This was sent to me by a friend; not sure where to find it on line.

My vote is for the museum at the Wright-Patterson AF base near Dayton, Ohio. I have fond memories of that place.

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Shuttle Diplomacy: Museums Launch Bids for Retiring Space Planes
NASA Offers Orbiters Free, With One Catch: $29 Million in Shipping Costs

By DANIEL MICHAELS

WASHINGTON—The space shuttle fleet’s looming retirement ends an era—and launches a new space race. This one is on the ground, among museums scrambling to land one of the three orbiters.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration says it has received expressions of interest from 21 institutions. The competition has sparked intensive lobbying campaigns, massive fund-raising drives and a sprint for letters of support from astronauts, politicians and the public.

Because NASA has agreed to give the shuttle Discovery to the Smithsonian, one of the museums not selected for the newly retired shuttles will get the Enterprise, a shuttle prototype and a museum centerpiece.

NASA is offering the space planes free to qualified institutions as long as they pay for shipping and handling. The catch: those costs add up to $28.8 million per shuttle, including post-flight repairs and strapping the orbiters to a special 747 jumbo jet. The shuttles also must be displayed indoors, which for most museums means building a giant new structure.

“Everybody would love to have one, but very, very few museums can afford to transport and store one,” says Jay Miller, an aviation historian in Fort Worth, Texas.

Aviation museums haven’t scrambled like this since the Concorde retired in 2003. Then, operators Air France and British Airways received dozens of requests to host the supersonic jetliners. But that decision was simpler because there were 13 Concordes, and the airlines were free to choose the planes’ homes.

The current competition, says shuttle expert Dennis Jenkins, “is going to be stupider than Concorde was because the government is involved.” Mr. Jenkins, an aerospace engineer who wrote an exhaustive history of the shuttle program, predicts that after NASA officials decide, “Congress will immediately go into an uproar and un-decide for them.”

Legislators are already weighing in. New York Senator Charles Schumer in March addressed the Senate to stump for Manhattan’s Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, which proposed building a new structure next to the aircraft carrier Intrepid to house a shuttle. “It’s time to convince NASA that the Big Apple has the right stuff to showcase one of these iconic spacecraft,” he enthused.

Ohio’s entire congressional delegation in April wrote NASA to push for the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton. Florida Senator Bill Nelson—a former astronaut—has been working on behalf of the Kennedy Space Center.

The shuttles’ exact retirement date remains unclear, and politicians are bickering over what will succeed it. But NASA’s choice of retirement homes could come as soon as this fall, say people familiar with the deliberation.

To get a shuttle, museums must first be able to receive it. That requires a nearby runway where a jumbo jet can land. The shuttle must then be able to move from the tarmac to the museum without dismantling, which eliminates most locations.

France’s Cité de l’Espace outside Toulouse, which boasts the only remaining Soviet-built Mir space station, mulled asking for a shuttle several years ago. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Toulouse Airport posed no problem, says spokesman Olivier Sanguy. But driving the spacecraft eight miles would entail destroying and rebuilding highways, bridges, buildings and power lines. “The cost of travel from the airport would be more than the cost of the shuttle,” says Mr. Sanguy. He notes the issue is moot because NASA says shuttles will stay inside the U.S., with geographic distribution a key criterion.

Competitors must also be able to keep the space planes in climate-controlled conditions and away from the elements. Shuttles were designed to withstand extraordinary things like the near-vacuum of space, micrometeor showers and the furnace of re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere. Rain, on the other hand, is a problem. “They leak like a sieve,” says Mr. Jenkins.

The only museum currently ready for an orbiter is the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. Its Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia, abutting Dulles International Airport, already houses Enterprise, a full-size prototype shuttle that NASA used to test the reusable space plane’s aerodynamics in the 1970s. But most of its insides were cannibalized over the years—and it never went into space.

“It’s not a real shuttle, but it’s unique,” said museum spokesman Frank McNally as he drove a golf cart beneath it on a recent afternoon. “It’s the only one you can see.”

NASA has said it will give the oldest surviving shuttle, Discovery, to the Smithsonian, which is the national repository of space history. NASA will select homes for the other shuttles, Atlantis and Endeavour. Two additional shuttles, Challenger and Columbia, were destroyed in fatal accidents. The Smithsonian will then offer Enterprise to a loser. “We realize we can’t be selfish and keep both,” says Smithsonian shuttle curator Valerie Neal.

Boosters of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton say they’ve got a strong case for Atlantis, which handled many missions for the Defense Department. The Pentagon helped design the shuttles, supplied many astronauts, and the Air Force even “saved the shuttle program in lean budget years during its development,” says museum spokesman Rob Bardua.

Seattle’s Museum of Flight has an edge thanks to its West Coast location, say handicappers. The museum also has close links to Boeing Co., which bought part of the company that built the shuttles in California, Rockwell International. The museum’s campaign is being led by former astronaut Bonnie Dunbar.

New Yorkers say Intrepid is ideal to fulfill NASA’s goal of giving shuttles maximum exposure, thanks to the city’s status as a tourist mecca and media capital. Intrepid, a decommissioned aircraft carrier, also has space history because it retrieved early astronauts on splashdown, says Executive Director Susan Marenoff. “It’s a no-brainer,” she says.

Bill Moore, chief operating officer of the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex, argues that his engineers can design the coolest exhibit. After all, each of the 132 shuttle missions lifted off from the center. “A shuttle’s not something that should be displayed on three wheels on concrete,” he says, suggesting the center would show its shuttle as it operates in space.

Ms. Neal at the Smithsonian says a key issue will be keeping the shuttles as intact as possible “for reference 100 years from now.” She has asked NASA to keep Discovery’s toilets and galleys installed, even though they won’t be visible to the public.

“Who knows,” muses Ms. Neal. “Maybe one day we’ll have some extraterrestrials come here to look at our space history.”

Snooty: an Acquired Taste?

I lived for nearly 25 years in Manatee County, Florida which has, as it’s mascot, Snooty, the longest living (in captivity) West Indian Manatee.

PHO-A_home.jpg

I admit that Snooty is not the best looking guy in the animal kingdom, but I never really considered him repulsive. But now I find out that his cousin, the West African Manatee, whose looks are not all that distinguishable, is famous for being overlooked. This article in the NY Times on ugly animals says this:

Assessing the publication database for the years 1994 through 2008, the researchers found 1,855 papers about chimpanzees, 1,241 on leopards and 562 about lions — but only 14 for that mammalian equivalent of the blobfish, the African manatee.

“The manatee was the least studied large mammal,” Ms. Trimble said. Speculating on a possible reason for the disparity, she said, “Most scientists are in it for the love of what they do, and a lot of them are interested in big, furry cute things.”