Rachel Carson biography, On a Farther Shore, one of best books of 2012

December 4, 2012

Kirkus Reviews listed as one of 2012’s top 25 books William Souder’s biography of Rachel Carson, On a Farther Shore.

William Souder, author of On a Farther Shore. MPR  image

William Souder, author of On a Farther Shore. Minnesota Public Radio image

Rachel Carson often gets credit for starting the modern environmental movement.  In highly cynical political times, Carson is under cruel smear attack from people who wish the environmental movement did not exist, and who appear to think that we could poison Africa to prosperity if only we’d use enough DDT, contrary to all scientific work and medical opinion.

Souder’s book, issued on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Carson’s best-known book, Silent Spring, lays out the facts.

Nice to see that book lovers like Souder’s work, too.  Carson’s work was painstakingly accurate as science, but also a wonderful read.  Silent Spring has a larger following among lovers of literature than science, a tribute to her writing ability.  Souder’s book plows both veins, science and writing.

Cover of On a Farther Shore, by William Souder

Cover of On a Farther Shore, by William Souder

In circles serious about science, the environment, human health, and literature, Souder’s book is the book of the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring.  There is irony there.  Pesticide manufacturers mounted a campaign against Silent Spring and Rachel Carson calculated to have cost $500,000 in 1962, when that book was published.  Souder’s book fights propaganda from Astro-turf™ organizations like Africa Fighting Malaria, a pro-DDT group that collects money from chemical manufacturers and anti-environmental political sources for a propaganda campaign that costs well over $500,000/year.  Despite all the paid-shill shouting against Rachel Carson and her work, it is the voice of On a Farther Shore that stands out.


Creationism vs. Christianity (a reprise)

October 30, 2012

This is an encore post, a repeat post from about four years ago, back in 2008.  For some reason the post got a couple hundred hits one day this past week, probably from a reference at another blog that I could not track.  I reread it — still true, still good stuff.  In this campaign year of 2012, I am dismayed at how anti-science and the denial of reality haunts election discussions, especially on-line, but also in the newspapers and magazines, on television and radio, in diners and drugstore fountains, in churches and PTA meetings.  Denial of reality may or may not be a genuine ailment to humans.  When it becomes a core belief of a significant number of people, denial can cripple our nation, our states, cities and towns. We need to ask deep questions.  We need to have real answers, not fantasies nor dangerous delusions.

PhotonQ-Charles Darwin 's Office

Charles Darwin’s study, where he conducted experiments and made many of the observations he wrote about. Photo: National Endowment for the Humanities

Denying reality plagues us as an actual political response to several problems.  Denialists wander so far down paths of disreality, they argue that we should ignore serious problems, and that the problems will then go away.

Should we teach the science of evolution to our children, or should we pretend fairy tales will substitute?  This has deep meaning to those who understand that Charles Darwin’s greatest contribution to science probably was his strict methodology, which required observation of things in nature before writing about them as if authoritative. 

Early in his life Darwin recognized that the natural world he saw, in Brazil, in the Galapagos Islands, in Australia and Tasmania, in South Africa, bore little resemblance to the world portrayed as authoritative by the great William Paley in his Natural Theology.  Throughout his science career Darwin observed real things in real time.  For his monograph on coral atolls, Darwin extensively observed the volcanic island phenomena throughout the South Pacific.  To write about barnacles, Darwin raised them in tanks in his study.  Looking at the mystery of exactly how the ivy twines, Darwin put a plant before him, and watched it, unraveling the secrets of how tendrils “knew” what to latch onto for support of the vine.  To write about leaf moulds, Darwin observed worms at work, in his lab and in his gardens.  To show the variation existing in what we now call the genome of a species, Darwin made extensive interviews and correspondence with animal husbanders of pigs, sheep and cattle, and he raised pigeons for generations himself, demonstrating how variations can be expressed that drive populations of one species to split into two through natural, everyday processes familiar to anyone who observed nature, and accessible by anyone who made methodical notes.

This familiarity with reality made Darwin a great scientist.  The methodology proved extendable into other areas when he carefully observed the mediums to whom his brother had cast great credence.  Charles revealed to Erasmus that spirit knocking on the tables at the séances did not occur so long as they held the hands of the mediums, who were then unable to feign the knocking. 

Ultimately it provided some despair to Darwin, too:  In the face of criticism from William Thompson, Lord Kelvin, that the Earth was not old enough to allow for evolution as Darwin suggested it must have occurred, Darwin had no answer.  Lord Kelvin calculated the ages of the Earth and Sun to be no more than 200 million years.  This was shown by the present temperatures and color of the Earth and the Sun, and calculated by Lord Kelvin from how long it would take the Earth, known to be composed of much iron and nickel, to cool from white hot to current temperatures.  Lord Kelvin ventured deep into coal mines to measure the temperatures of the Earth deep underground, to confirm his calculations.  At his death, though he defended his own observations of fossils and breeding of live animals, Darwin had no response for those arguments.  Darwin thought there must be other forces at play.  Only some years later did Ernest Rutherford find the secret of the Earth’s heat:  Radioactive decay in the mantle and core of the planet keeps it warm.  Measures of heat loss for such a large body had not accounted for continuous heating from within.  A short while later astronomers and physicists discovered problems with Lord Kelvin’s calculations of the age of the Sun:  The Sun is not composed of iron, cooling from white hot temperatures, but instead is hydrogen, fusing into helium, and making its own heat.

Darwin’s calculations of the age of the Earth were more accurate than Lord Kelvin’s, based on Darwin’s crude calculations of how long it might take animals and plants to have evolved from much more primitive forms.  History demonstrated by easily observable things provided greater accuracy than history devised without benefit of grounding in reality.

In what other realms might grounding in reality produce answers different from what some expect, even producing better questions that many ask?  Should we consider the migratory pattern changes of birds, fish and mammals, as indicators of a warming climate, over rebuttals provided by untested claims that measuring stations might not be placed correctly?  Can we actually “cool” atoms with lasers, and use individual atoms to store information, no matter how counterintuitive that might sound?  Can it be true that teaching people about contraception, and about sex, actually prompts teenagers (and others) to reduce sexual activity and look for love, rather than just sex?  Does extending medical coverage to an entire population actually decrease total health care costs as observed in all other nations where that solution has been tried, or will it increase costs because the only way to reduce medical costs is to ration it, either with a bureaucracy, or by cutting off access by backdoor, death panel means testing (no money, no health care)?  Is there any place Arthur Laffer‘s “curve” of increasing tax revenues by cutting tax rates, actually does not work — or any place it actually works?  Has any society in history ever gotten rich by showering riches on the rich, and ignoring the poor, the merchants, and the working class?

In short, how does reality we know, inform us about reality yet to be?  Which is the more potent predictor, observed reality, or hoped-for results to the contrary?

Our future hangs on how we answer the question, probably more than what the answer actually is.

I believe Christians, the largest faith group in the U.S., have a duty to stand for reality, and truth discovered by observation.  That was the issue in 2008, too.

Here is my post of four years ago.  I noticed a few of the links no longer work; I’ll replace them with working links as I can.  If you find a bad link, please note it in comments; and if you have a better link, note that, too.

Several weeks ago [in 2008] I responded to a lengthy thread at Unreasonable FaithThe original post was Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” cartoon of the guy in a doctor’s office, just diagnosed with an infection.  The physician asks the guy if he’s a creationist, explaining that if he is, the doc will treat him with old antibiotics in honor of his belief that evolution of bacteria doesn’t occur.

Charles Darwin's Study, Down House. Photo by and copyright held by Bob Radlinski. Radlinski's description: Darwin regularly spent about 5 hours a day here for 40 years and kept a chamber pot behind the partition so that he wouldn't have to trek to the toilet. But he still had time for an active family life with his wife Emma and their 10 children. The low stool with casters was used to spin himself from one desk where he dissected in front of the window to another where he took notes or wrote up labels—the stool the children were allowed to use for their games, punting themselves around the living room with long poles. The sitting room at the back of the house has large windows that go to the floor so that on nice days, the children (and dogs) could roam back and forth from house to garden at will.

Charles Darwin’s Study, Down House, where Darwin wrote all of his publications after his marriage. Photo by and copyright held by Bob Radlinski. Radlinski’s description: Darwin regularly spent about 5 hours a day here for 40 years and kept a chamber pot behind the partition so that he wouldn’t have to trek to the toilet. But he still had time for an active family life with his wife Emma and their 10 children. The low stool with casters was used to spin himself from one desk where he dissected in front of the window to another where he took notes or wrote up labels—the stool the children were allowed to use for their games, punting themselves around the living room with long poles. The sitting room at the back of the house has large windows that go to the floor so that on nice days, the children (and dogs) could roam back and forth from house to garden at will.

Point being, of course, that evolution occurs in the real world.  Creationists rarely exhibit the faith of their claims when their life, or just nagging pain, is on the line.  They’ll choose the evolution-based medical treatment almost every time.  There are no creationists in the cancer or infectious disease wards.

At one point I responded to a comment loaded with typical creationist error.  It was a long post.  It covered some ground that I’ve not written about on this blog.  And partly because it took some time to assemble, I’m reposting my comments here.  Of course, without the Trudeau cartoon, it won’t get nearly the comments here.

I’ll add links here when I get a chance, which I lacked the time to do earlier.  See my post, below the fold.

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One more time: Intelligent design is a pig that still doesn’t fly

July 26, 2012

Gee, I think I first posted this more than a year before the Pennsylvania decision.  In any case, the subject has come up once again in another forum:  Why don’t we teach intelligent design as an “alternative” idea in public school science classes?  The answer is, simply, ID is not science.  It’s not an alternative hypothesis, it’s a chunk of minority cult religious dogma.
Most bad science claims recirculate year after year, until they are simply educated out of existence in the public mind.  We can hope intelligent design falls into that category.  But we might worry that modern creationism, begun as a backlash to the anti-Soviet, National Defense Education Act‘s effects on beefing up science teaching in American schools, survives.
Picture from Flying Pig Brewery, Seattle, Washington
Image: Flying Pig Brewing Co., Everett, Washington

[From 2006 and 2007]:

We’re talking past each other now over at Right Reason, on a thread that started out lamenting Baylor’s initial decision to deny Dr. Francis Beckwith tenure last year, but quickly changed once news got out that Beckwith’s appeal of the decision was successful.

I noted that Beckwith’s getting tenure denies ID advocates of an argument that Beckwith is being persecuted for his ID views (wholly apart from the fact that there is zero indication his views on this issue had anything to do with his tenure discussions). Of course, I was wrong there — ID advocates have since continued to claim persecution where none exists. Never let the facts get in the way of a creationism rant, is the first rule of creationism.

Discussion has since turned to the legality of teaching intelligent design in a public school science class. This is well settled law — it’s not legal, not so long as there remains no undisproven science to back ID or any other form of creationism.

Background: The Supreme Court affirmed the law in a 1987 case from Louisiana, Edwards v. Aguillard (482 U.S. 578), affirming a district court’s grant of summary judgment against a state law requiring schools to teach creationism whenever evolution was covered in the curriculum. Summary judgment was issued by the district court because the issues were not materially different from those in an earlier case in Arkansas, McLean vs. Arkansas (529 F. Supp. 1255, 1266 (ED Ark. 1982)). There the court held, after trial, that there is no science in creationism that would allow it to be discussed as science in a classroom, and further that creationism is based in scripture and the advocates of creationism have religious reasons only to make such laws. (During depositions, each creationism advocate was asked, under oath, whether they knew of research that supports creationism; each answered “no.” Then they were asked where creationism comes from, and each answered that it comes from scripture. It is often noted how the testimony changes from creationists, when under oath.)

Especially after the Arkansas trial, it was clear that in order to get creationism into the textbooks, creationists would have to hit the laboratories and the field to do some science to back their claims. Oddly, they have staunchly avoided doing any such work, instead claiming victimhood, usually on religious grounds. To the extent ID differs from all other forms of creationism, the applicability of the law to ID was affirmed late last year in the Pennsylvania case, Kitzmiller v. Dover. (Please go read that case!)

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Michael Pollan at TEDS: What do potatoes think of us?

December 29, 2011

Pollan asks a provocative question:  Do we force plants to do our bidding when we breed them, or are we being manipulated by them?

Pollan is the author of Botany of Desire, a great book.  There is a PBS production based on the book.

Joy of pollination, according to Louie Schwartzberg

November 21, 2011

It’s a TEDS Talk, of course

Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it.  Plants do it, too, but often with the help of animals.

Here are some of the most glorious pictures of sex you’ll ever see, filmed by Louie Schwartzberg.  Anyone who has ever tried to take a good photograph should marvel at these shots, and the skill and artistry and luck it took to get them:

What will we do if the bees vanish?

The lowdown:

http://www.ted.com Pollination: it’s vital to life on Earth, but largely unseen by the human eye. Filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg [of Moving Art] shows us the intricate world of pollen and pollinators with gorgeous high-speed images from his film “Wings of Life,” inspired by the vanishing of one of nature’s primary pollinators, the honeybee.

Build-a-Prairie update

October 27, 2011

For a couple of years, about this time of year, the Bathtub gets a lot of hits from people looking to play a great little environmental simulation game called “Build-a-Prairie.”  It used to be housed at the site of the Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota.

Alas, money ran out, or the proprietors simply decided not to support it anymore (it was originally sponsored by AT&T), or something, but for whatever reason the game is no longer found at the Bell Museum.

Is it available somewhere else?

Someone at SmartBoard shrewdly captured the game for use with SmartBoards.   At least, I hope they captured it.

Any other places the game can be found?

Nice Update:    Mr. Higginbotham found the Build-a-Prairie game, at the Bell Museum site:  http://www.bellmuseum.umn.edu/games/prairie/build/

Evidence of evolution: Giraffe’s laryngeal nerve

October 8, 2011

One of my favorite examples of evolution and how we can see it in living things today:  The laryngeal nerve of the giraffe, linking larynx to brain, a few inches away — but because of evolutionary developments, instead dropping from the brain all the way down the neck to the heart, and then back up to the larynx.  In giraffes the nerve can be as much as 15 feet long, to make a connection a few inches away.  Richard Dawkins explains:

All mammals have the nerve, and as a result of our fishy ancestry, in all mammals, the nerve goes down the neck, through a heart blood vessel loop, and back up.  In fish, of course, the distance is shorter — fish have no necks.

Tip of the old scrub brush to Pharyngula’s Sciblogs site.

Yes, the laryngeal nerve is sometimes called the vagus nerve, because it originates off of the vagus nerve.

Giraffe's laryngeal nerve, easily explained by evolution; paints of picture of an evil, joker designer otherwise.

Giraffe’s laryngeal nerve, easily explained by evolution; paints picture of an evil, joker designer otherwise.

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