Thursday, December 01, 2005


I really need to get better at this whole updating thing. Unfortunately, the next week is going to be the most like hell since I came to Northwestern.

Outline for Next Week:

Monday, December 5:
  • 12pm-Inorganic Final
  • 2pm-Chem 210 Exam Grading

Tuesday, December 6:
  • 9am-Chem 210 Exam Proctoring
  • 12pm-Physical Organic Final
  • 2pm-Chem 210 Exam Grading

Wednesday, December 7:
  • 7pm-Organic Mechanisms Final

Thursday, December 8:
  • Meeting with Thomas O'Halloran and Hillary Godwin to decide my fate

Last things first, I'm not technically in a lab yet. I've got some ideas for a project working with zinc probes and fluorescent dyes in O'Halloran's lab, basically going on with the project of one of the graduating PhD students, but I've also got another option in the form of Nicola Pohl, a professor that's perhaps(?) moving to Northwestern to do some carbohydrate chemistry, which would be more heavily synthesis and whatnot.

I have no idea what to do, but let's not go into that now.

Instead, let's do a quick rundown here.

Can we interest you in a new face? France performs a face transplant. Well, doctors in France do. Touted by its proponents as a breakthrough that would allow people that have been disfigured to return to a state of normalcy (normalcy being "I have a face"), but criticized for the possiblity of rejection of the face, they're elective (though I think that that's more of a criticism for people that are undergoing cosmetic surgery that doesn't... give them a face where they have none,) and because they pose risks of identity confusion, as pointed out by Slate.

Again from Slate, Lawrence Krauss continues to be a pretty awesome guy. For those of you joining us late, Krauss is the physicist/author of The Physics of Star Trek and Atom, the latter of which I recommend strongly. Anyway, in a story that does kind of seem like science sensationalism, Krauss criticizes string theory for not actually being testable, which is kind of a huge component in the definition of science (as well as being the primary reason that Intelligent Design doesn't fit the definition of "science"). Good for you, Lawrence Krauss. Again, Slate plays it up a bit too much as "When Krauss Attacks," but whatever. Decent read.

On the subject of Intelligent Design, Lore Sjöberg's got a new Lore Brand Comic up and has resumed posting in his blog at The Slumbering Lungfish Dybbuk Hostel and All-Night Boulangerie. That's good.

Ok. I'm going to go home and read about X-Ray crystallography until either

a) my eyes fall out of my head and roll comically across the floor, having become detatched from the nerves and all that at some point between socket and carpet


b) my eyes, having seen so much about X-ray crystallography, develop the nice, old-fashioned "X-Ray Eyes" ability thing, whereby I can find out what in my refrigerator needs has gone horribly, horribly wrong without actually opening any food containers therein.



Jenna said...

What's wrong with theorizing about a theory? Sounds okay to my French-Studies ears.
I don't understand, the theory Can't be proved because of its nature, or it can't be proved because we don't have the means to do it yet?

Also, you should stop reading about X-ray crystallography, and instead read "X-Ray," Ray Davies's autobiography about his early days with the Kinks.

-Murphy said...

It's positively fine to theorize about a theory, and there's nothing wrong with that...really. The problem is that no one can think of a feasible experiment that differs from anything that we can explain without string theory, yet string theory is being treated, in many instances, as fact. Which it isn't. Not yet. Until it is, it can't be claimed as such.

Hal said...

And so, the problem of so much science comes in (well, and the difference between competing definitions of "theory").

I imagine string theory as sort of a mathematical philosophy. Sure, you can show that it works (I guess? I never understood the math.) mathematically, but the concepts go beyond being testable. It talks about dimensions beyond 4. How could we possibly test that? Our very manner of understanding reality demands a 4 dimensional view (if you include time).

I look at ID the same way. People complain that it's "not science." Duh, people. It's philosophy. The problem just arises because people want to completely isolate intellectual pursuits (in this case, keeping philosophy out of science) and declare one to be superior based on a materialistic worldview.

Well, that's my ¥2.4 at any rate.

-Murphy said...

The problem with string theory could be remedied though, if one were to come up with a way to test it out that would differ from experiments that can be explained using other, simpler theories that don't require as much supposition.

And I would argue that the problem with ID isn't that it's philosophy, as I would wholly support it being taught as being what a specific set of people (in this case, the set being pretty enormous) believe in schools, but that the major proponents (ie. Michael Behe) are trying to cover up the fact that it is philosophy and call it science. His arguments (from what I've read and from the lecture he gave that I attended) seem to be founded in trying to prove that ID is a scientific theory, and then trying to discredit Darwinism using a double meaning of the term "theory". In other words, I don't think that ID shouldn't be taught in schools, but I don't see how you would be able to present it as science.

Hal said...

And there the problem becomes even more complicated.

Because what is science, really? It's a process wherein natural phenomena are understood through repeated observation. What does observation give us? Data. How do we interpret that data? Philosophy.

This is not to say that all philosophies are equal. The problem is that people don't realize that interpretation of data is a philosophical process.

Not that this changes the tenor of the debate at all, but I find it a more interesting conflict to consider that what we have is the clash of philosophies. One is linked to an obvious religious element, but is considered a bit of an upstart. The other is established, but has a religious-like devotion with generally agnostic principles.

On a sidenote, I like what Scott Adams had to say about it:

"I understand the argument for excluding Intelligent Design from science classes. Most scientists believe it doesn’t meet the definition of science. You can't argue with the people who MAKE the definitions. If the vast majority say it doesn't have enough substance to qualify as science, that's okay with me. But I have to wonder if that’s the real reason most scientists oppose including it in schools. I would expect scientists to welcome such a clear model of something that is NOT science, as an example of exactly that.

“Kids, astronomy is science and astrology isn’t. Here are some more examples of things that aren’t science...”

"Sure, it might confuse the dumb kids, but they aren’t the ones building the spaceships of tomorrow anyway. I learned about not using "ain't" in English class and that didn't hurt me too much. So it just seems fishy to me that scientists are so worked up about Intelligent Design. Could their true fear be the slippery slope argument? If you let ID in the door, before long we'll all be wearing scraggly beards and beating ourselves with prayer paddles.

"I propose a little thought experiment.

"Imagine that lightning suddenly carves into the side of the Washington Monument the words “I am God. I created you. Darwin was a nut.” And let’s say there are hundreds of witnesses who all have video cameras and capture it from multiple angles.

"Now imagine that the same phenomenon repeats every day for a month, each time on a different monument. Scientists study the phenomena and conclude that humans probably didn’t cause it, but beyond that, there are no further scientific clues about how lighting could seem so directed.

"If I crafted my thought experiment right, no one would have any idea how to devise a test that would confirm or exclude the possibility that God really did it. Hypothetically, being omnipotent and all, he would be capable of leaving no clues, other than signing his name. Therefore, any speculation as to the cause is not science.

"Here’s the question: Should teachers be allowed to tell science students about the lightning messages?

"You may commence misinterpreting what I just wrote and attacking that misinterpretation now."

-Murphy said...

Adams' thing is interesting, but I'm not sure about his crtiicism of attacking scientists as some cabal of fanatics, bent on using faulty logic (the slippery slope and the implication that anyone that attacks his argument must be using a straw man) to keep God out of everything, which is perhaps most solidly put in the semi-paranoid assertion that you can't argue with scientists because tehy make the definitions. In fact, your own argument does just that, it challenges the definition given by scientists and proposes a slightly altered definition.

Certainly, it can be reduced to a set of philosophies which can (but don't necessarily always) clash. The only thing that really bothers me about the whole thing is the implication that scientists are somehow out to destroy humanity and, in their fanatical devotion, are completely incapable of listening to reason. Which it does, on occasion, with many yielding that science can't explain everything, or at least can't yet. Many will say that yes, the Big Bang occured, but have no clue as to why or how. Perhaps in the future, we'll be able to test for the extra dimensions required by string theory in a meaningful way, and perhaps we'll be able to test what happened in the creation of life. Maybe we shouldn't even try, but until then, I'm not sure how science can say one way or the other without introducing whatever specific religious beliefs the instructor happens to hold.

As for the lightning messages, it sort of presumes that students are completely shielded in whatever discipline they're in. I wouldn't be averse to science teachers saying "Look, these lightning messages have shown up, and there's no way to explain them, and science doesn't know what to do. We tried, and we just have no idea what the hell to make of it." And then perhaps discussing with the class how we could look at it that would explain the data. It, as an example, differs from the Evolution/ID debate, as in the ID debate science has proposed a theory that accounts for the data and there is evidence. So, yes, while scientists would have to accept that they're stumped in the lightning message situation, that's not the case in the Evolution debate.

-Murphy said...

Incidentally, I'd urge you to register at Our serious debate section's been lacking of late, and some new blood that can actually post intelligently would be incredibly welcome.

That, and it's easier to respond to things when I can do so on the forum, rather than 20 times on my blog. It makes me seem less, what's the word, narcissistic.

Hal said...

Dude, I'd kill for more comments on my blog. Wait . . . no, I wouldn't kill, but man do I like blog-traffic.

I don't think Adams is calling them fanatics; remember, his trade is in humor. His point does remain a fair criticism, though: There should be inherent suspicion of the people making the defintions. Are their reasons for excluding certain things valid?

In general, I'm most suspicious of biologists. I don't care if you want to argue about evolution, that's a philosophy that really only has philosophical implications (and seeing as how Christianity has survived just fine, with many people, even if wrongly, integrating evolution into their faith, I don't think it's that big of a deal). However, the ethics issues that arise with things like cloning and ESCR . . . too many just take a "progress now and screw the ethics!" kind of approach. Destroy the world? I doubt that's their intention, but does that make us anti-science if we predict it as a consequence?

Hal said...

Incidentally, I take it you, too, are avoiding your studying for finals?

-Murphy said...

I like the blog-traffic too, in the sense that I think I'm at least somewhat dependent on it to function, but probably spend more time on Rumandmonkey, and the amount of people that are able to put together an argument needs a shot in the arm.

i agree that Adams' profession should be taken into consideration when regarding his (in my opinion) slightly hyperbolic statements, and perhaps I was a bit too sensitive. And yes, questioning those who make the definitions is a valid enterprise, but I'm not sure how much scientists nowadays are making the definitions. But overall, I agree.

And yes, those ethics issues need to be debated and I sincerely hope that I didn't come off as saying that scientists are incapable of destroying the world (in the way of "Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean everyone's not out to get me."), but I take a bit of offense at the implication that we're all that way. I don't believe it makes one anti-science to believe that those ethics issues could land us on a path to destruction in the same way that I don't believe it makes one anti-America to question the decisions of whatever government is in power at the time they're questioning it. Preserving that, the key to intelligent debate, while searching in earnest for ways to make sense out of everything by incorporating the knowledge that comes from these things is, in my opinion, one of the most precious things we've got going for us.

And nooo. I'm studying. Trigon-whatever and Ortho-something. Surface enhanced doodads and EXA-things. See? I've got it together, man.

(Which is to say yes. I'm avoiding it as well. ;_;)