Some I’ve read, some I haven’t yet gotten to, but either way, they all involve science in one way or another.I just finished Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle at an urging from a friend of mine. It’s about a guy who is researching the fictional inventor of the atom bomb for a book, gets tangled up with the late scientist’s crazy kids, ends up on an Island post-end of the world, etc., but there is an underlying theme of the power of science, and it’s funny as hell.Another book, which I just started, is by the late Carl Sagan, titled, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God. It’s a collection of his lectures on science and religion from 1985. Sagan was known for his ability to live a life of faith and science without conflict, so I’m pretty curious as to what he has to say.I also started 112 Mercer Street: Einstein, Russell, Godel, Pauli, and the End of Innocence in Science, which let me down a little bit when I found out it’s not what I thought it was, but it’s still pretty good. I thought it was about the actual meetings between Einstein and a few of his genius friends at his Princeton home, but as it turns out, there is no actual record of the meetings, so the book is written like a four-way biography, hinting at what might have happened.Lastly, I bought famed geneticist, James Watson’s recent book, Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science. Remember, that’s the book he was being interviewed about when he said those things that got him into so much trouble (see The Untouchables, below).
The fortieth anniversary issue of Rolling Stone is chock-full of interviews, including that of Craig Venter, human genome decoder. Here’s what he had to say:
On early life: It may have evolved somewhere else before coming to earth.
On religion: “The more I look at the complexity of the genome, the less need there is for any religion aspect to it.”
On challenges facing the world: “People think they’re going to solve everything by buying a few carbon credits so they can justify what they are doing, but we need fundamental solutions. I think biology can provide a major part, if not the entire solution.”
On virus outbreaks: “The number-one complaint against what we’re doing with synthetic biology is that we will create a man-made virus. But the real danger is that the government is funding very little research into antivirals and antibiotics, and neither are pharmaceutical companies.”
On stem cell research: “There is probably nothing more important to study about human biology than stem cells. The fact that it has been blocked by the Bush administration on religious grounds is one of the intellectual tragedies of the century.”
On fighting global warming with biology: “Biology created our entire planet – we have an oxygen-driven atmosphere because it is created by plants and other living things. It’s the only thing that could possibly work on the scale needed to reverse global warming.”
On the meaning of life: “My answer is that life has no meaning. It’s part of the natural world around us – life comes and goes. But lives can have meaning. If everybody focused on what they can do, the world would be a very different place.”
The other night I got a call from my dad, informing me of the recent backlash toward DNA co-discoverer, James Watson, for comments made in a recent Sunday Times (UK) article. The comments, inferring that blacks are genetically less intelligent than whites, lead to his suspension from Long Island’s Cold Springs Harbor Laboratoy, where he has worked for 35 years.
The October 14th profile, titled, “The Elementary DNA of Dr. Watson,” is essentially the tale of an energetic 79-year-old who has dedicated his life to science. Watson had just written a book, and thanks to Cold Spring Harbor’s new $100 million building, he was looking forward to being able to “diagnose the problem of schizophrenia by looking at a patient’s DNA,” something he was convinced would happen within 10 years. Unfortunately, Watson had no idea that within a few days, he would be relieved of his position as the lab’s chancellor and director, for comments made in that same article. So, what exactly did he say?
The “hot potato” as Watson called it, was essentially dropped on his foot when he said he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.”
Whooooooah! Ok. Maybe he meant, literally, testing shows Africans are not as intelligent, because they don’t have schools over there like we do. Maybe? If he stopped there, his post-backlash attempts to refute what he said may have worked, but he went on to say that although he hoped everyone is equal, ‘people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.'”
Watson is no stranger to controversy. Prior comments on innate differences between the sexes, a link between skin color and sex drive, and the right for women to abort gay babies (which he said was “hypothetical”), have stirred things up in the past, but nothing has matched the current backlash.
Now Watson is left eating his words, but the question has been begged: Are there still questions that are too dangerous for science to ask?
I just found my August ’07 issue of Paste Magazine, which features a nice three page article about Biologist and Bad Religion front man, Greg Graffin. Now, before I go any further, I must confess, I am a fraud. If you read my “Feynman on Religion” post below, you know how I asked some people in the geoscience department at UNLV about their religious beliefs for a paper. It wasn’t an original idea. Never said it was. I just couldn’t remember where I read about it or who it was that had done it first. It was Graffin, and I read about it in the Paste aritcle, “Punk Rock PH.D.”
The article tells how Graffin, for his Ph.D dissertation, sent questionnaires to a couple hundred of the world’s leading evolutionary biologists, asking them the same: “Do you believe in God.” 149 replied. 130 of them answered, “No.” Much like my own experience, Graffin was not surprised by their answer, but also like myself, he was surprised to find a majority of the scientists did not have it out for religion, and were willing to “live and let live.” The article states the majority of the scientists agreed with the statement, “I keep my beliefs about morality and ethics separate from my practice and teaching of evolution.”
It says Graffin, an athiest, is angered by what he feels is the “self-censorship” of scientists who are afraid the public association of evolution with atheism will hurt evolutionary biology, and he is offended by the “intellectual dishonesty” of compatibilism. He said, “There is no way to reconcile the two viewpoints, so quit trying to make them compatible when they’re not.”
I wouldn’t consider myself the radical that Graffin is. I’m not an atheist, and I’m not a believer. I’m a “don’t-really-care-much-either-way-er.” Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t, but I’ve always felt, because we have no way of knowing, all time spent dwelling over it is a waste. After speaking with scientists and seeing how they are able to, not so much make science and religion compatible, but keep them separate, I currently don’t feel it’s as much of a problem as I once thought. That is only if they are, once again, kept separate. Once they start crossing into each other’s realms, all bets are off.
For the latest on what NASA is doing, check out their Space@NASA website. It not only features all their headline news, but podcasts to accompany every story. One that I particulary liked was, “The Sun Rips Off a Comet’s Tail,” about how a coronal mass ejection cut the tail off the Comet Encke while it was passing too close the the sun. NASA says this has surely happened before, but this is the first time in history a spacecraft has filmed it. The footage is pretty cool.
I asked a professor how a comet (ice), can pass that close to the sun without melting, and I was informed that even where this comet was (inside Mercury’s orbit), it’s not that hot. Remember, earth would be much colder itself if it weren’t for our greenhouse effect.
The October 4 issue of Rolling Stone featured an article on Swedish musician/biologist Jose Gonzales, with a picture of him wearing a lab coat and mixing beakers at a bar. This may be a bit innacurate, considering, according to Rolling Stone, “Gonzales abandoned his studies around the time he released his full-length debut” album, but it is still good for science. He is exactly the type of “cool” scientist I was referring to in my Seed contest essay. Gonzales, who was pursuing his master’s degree at Goteborg University in Sweden, has had songs featured in a Sony commercial and episodes of The O.C., and can be musically described as a South American-influenced Nick Drake (his parents are from Argentina).