Human endeavors that inspire: The International Space Station

We all have ambivalent and contradictory feelings, sometimes about the tiniest, most irrelevant things. And when it comes to the human condition, to the status and development of humanity … well, what can be a greater source of contradiction that development of human society in general? For example, I’ll be the first one to say that we as a species are not doing nearly enough when it comes to Space Exploration and Science, but at other times I take a look what humanity has achieved and I’m filled with inspiration and almost moved to tears.

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The International Space Station as photographed by a crew member on board the Space Shuttle Atlantis, By NASA/Crew of STS-132 - Public Domain (Source)

 

This time we’re talking about The International Space Station. This is one major human achievement and not only because it’s a technological wonder, but also because it’s a monument to what humanity can achieve once it pulls together to work on a common goal. It’s  material evidence that our petty little differences don’t matter so much, because when humanity wants a common goal it will pull it’s resources together to make that happen.

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Human Endeavors that inspire: The Large Hadron Collider

Just as a wonderful piece of music or transcendental work of poetry, Science can also be an endless source of inspiration and wonder. Just think about the vastness of Deep Space, or the miniscule of quanta, and try not to be inspired. Imagine the expanding universe, the galaxies running away from us, at an ever increasing speed and try not to feel amazed. You are a part of Human species, the only species known so far that is able to understand these facts about the Universe we live in.

Today we are talking about one Human Endeavor that makes it possible for our species to do just that – gain an increased understanding of the Universe, the Large Hadron Collider.

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LHC tunnel / Photograph Copyright CERN / Maximilien Brice

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator and a largest machine in the World. It was built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).

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A Few words about Conspiracy Theories

Some studies1 are saying that people who believe strongly in all sorts of conspiracy theories have one thing in common: They feel like they don’t have control over their lives.

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Image by FreeImages.com/Cheryl Empey

Basically, it seems that most conspiracy theories appear in times of uncertainty. This is when our brains are in overdrive, trying to figure out what is happening and why is it happening. Human brain is wired to look for patterns, as this behaviour helped our ancestors survive when they were roaming the African savannas. This means we are looking for patterns everywhere, in every situation. And sometimes brain will malfunction, connecting two things that are not really connected in reality.

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Scientific Theory

Making sure to avoid any confusion about what "scientific theory" in context of evolution means, Richard Dawkins in The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution wrote:

Evolution is a fact. Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact.

- Richard Dawkins

 

What I'm guessing he meant is: evolution did happen and it's still happening. This is proven and solid. Evolution also uses and incorporates other facts that support the conclusion that evolution did happen. In this sense, evolution is a scientific theory and it is supported by facts. And of course, it is true and should be universally accepted as the truth. Creationists would not agree with this, but I would say this doesn't really matter to educated people.

But still, a lot of people say things like "that's only a theory", "why should we base our lives on a theory?, etc when they're talking about evolution, for example. Yeah, like a belief in a sky-wizard is something to base your life on? But I digress - the point of this brief post is just to share a understanding about what scientific theory is.

First thing you'll notice about scientific theories is - there's really PLENTY of evidence for them. This very fact makes them different from what we usually mean when we say "Theory" in normal speech.

Triceratops mounted skeleton at Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, Los Angeles, United States of America, by Allie_Caulfield Derivative: User:MathKnight - File:LA-Triceratops mount-1.jpg (by Allie_Caulfield), CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

By using words such as "FACT", instead of "theory" Dawkins does not confuse people that might not be familiar with scientific meaning of the word "theory" and sometimes I wish other scientists would do the same when talking to the public, just to hammer the point more clearly. If you read Dawkins' quote again, there's no second thought about what he meant evolution is.

Let's not get tangled in words too much, but get right into the point about evolution and other well established scientific theories. So, what does actually mean when a scientist says something is a "scientific theory"?

Well, if you simply ask Wikipedia, it will tell you:

A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is acquired through the scientific method and repeatedly tested and confirmed, preferably using a written, pre-defined, protocol of observations and experiments. Scientific theories are the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge.

 

Basically, when scientists use word "theory", they are talking about something completely different than what general public understands under "theory". When you use word "theory" in everyday speech, you actually mean "hypothesis" or "conjecture", something not tested or proven. When scientists use this word, they mean almost the same thing Dawkins meant: That what you and I mean by "fact" in normal speech.

To make an additional point, here are some scientific theories:

  • Special Relativity
  • General Relativity
  • Plate Tectonics
  • Evolution by natural selection
  • Information theory

All these theories have stood the test of time, fought-off challenges, have practical effects and are well-proven pieces of knowledge humanity has. So, don't be fooled by the words and cheap arguments that something is "only a theory". But do be critical and do try and see for yourself. A good rule of thumb would be: if there's evidence for something, it's on it's way to being true and if a idea doesn't have any evidence but requires "faith" or "trust" from you, or only focuses on trying to find flaws in competing idea, it most likely isn't true.

Request For Comments: Nutritionism

Currently thinking about "Nutritionism". I know almost nothing about it, but yet, it doesn't sound right to me. Just think about how many times have you heard "eat this and you will be healthy", only to hear that same advice declared bullshit in the very next study?

Image by Peggy Greb - This image was released by the Agricultural Research Service, the research agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, with the ID K11083-1.

It seems to me that Nutritionism as a science, if it indeed does belong into science has no solid foundations. Just think about it, when was the last time you heard for example that theory of gravity was debunked? Yet, I somehow have the impression this happens very often with Nutritionism.

Just look at the picture above. Wikipedia description reads:

Good sources of magnesium: bran muffins, pumpkin seeds, barley, buckwheat flour, low-fat vanilla yogurt, trail mix, halibut steaks, garbanzo beans, lima beans, soybeans, and spinach.

A reminder, "A NUTRIENT is either a chemical element or compound used in an organism's metabolism or physiology. A nutrient is essential to an organism if it cannot be produced by the organism and must be obtained from a food source."

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nutritionism)

So, I would say, when Nutritionism finds that a certain nutrient is good for you, it seems to me most of the Nutritionists will hurry to recommend foods which contain this, possibly at the expense of other foods that also contain this nutrient, but that also contain other useful things. And here my friends is where I see the potential for Nutritionists to be on the payroll of huge corporations, usually recommending products that these corporations are producing.

So, this seems to me a very dubious practice to judge foods only based on this. Because, by definition, food must contain a lot of beneficial, nutritional substances. Also, as it's discussed in this New York Times article - Most "nutritional science" involves studying one nutrient at a time, which at least to me seems shaky at best.

Yes, science when proven wrong acknowledges that mistake and goes back to the drawing board, But it seems to me that the only stable thing Nutritionism has is "eat fruits and vegetables". And not even this seems very stable. Actually, if you look at Wikipedia, it seems that Nutritionism is nothing more than the idea that the nutritional value of a food is the sum of all its individual nutrients.

Here's another article from The Scientist magazine. In this article author argues that Nutrition research uses "pseudoscientific measures". Well worth of reading.

As I said before, I know nothing about this. My instincts may be completely wrong and I hope that they are, because I believe in science and I do believe that science has a lot to say on a variety of topics, so why should be food be excluded? But I also believe in critical thinking and I believe in deciding for yourself.

This is my first attempt at doing so with regards to this field. I encourage you to do the same. If you have an opinion or a good (preferably layman-friendly) resource you recommend to read, feel free to leave a comment. Thanks for visiting!

Few Facebook pages to like

We mostly use Facebook to get in touch with our friends, colleagues and family and in this regard we can say that Facebook can be very very helpful. Also, it's fairly low-risk for a woman to tell how to find her on Facebook, instead of giving the phone number. And ... that's about the limit of Facebook usefulness. Or is it?

Below is a list of few pages that I find interesting and "like-worthy".

NASA - National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Bill Nye The Science Guy

Discovery News

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Look up from your phone and see that there are problems in the World

Sometimes I feel the world really needs a reminder that it has problems, so I'm going to spell out a few of them here. Generally it helps if you have problems spelled out, as humans tend to forget what things are important and just focus on the newest, shiniest phones and apps. Even as a developer, I must admit that apps are not going to change the world. Not really. Not in any REALLY, I mean REALLY important way.

OK, this was a gross generalization, as our precious phones and apps all help us to lead better and more comfortable lives in some way. You can connect with your long-lost friends. You can send messages to people more cheaply. Of course, sometimes these wonders of technology will save somebody's life. This is all great. But I sometimes feel that humanity in general has lost sight of the fact that there are REAL, bigger problems in the world.

1. Water Crisis

Water crisis or water scarcity means that there's a huge amount of people (even as high as 2 billion) that don't have access to clean water. There's a huge amount of people that don't have enough for their daily needs. "One in five people in the developing world lacks access to sufficient clean water (a suggested minimum of 20 litres/day)" (source - Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations).

Taken by fir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.au Canon 20D + Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 - Own work, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=729941

Projections of population growth predict that by 2024 world population will reach 8 billion and 9 billion by 2040. (wikipedia). Humanity must work hard to ensure that there will be enough clean water for everyone.

Currently, there doesn't seem to be a global scarcity as such, but there are regions that are very short on water. So, basically, humanity is currently simply unable to govern properly all the water resources on this planet. For example, one in five people in "developing world" don't have access to enough clean water, while citizens of Europe and US have access to more than necessary.

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