"Our sense of wonder grows exponentially; the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery."

-- E.O. Wilson

Web scienceontap.blogspot.com

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"Death From the Skies"

A Bad Astronomer (...and Punster)

Phil Plait is an astronomer and writer who runs one of the most popular (and award-winning) science blogs on the Web, "Bad Astronomy." When I stumbled across his book "Death From the Skies!" in my local library I was so put off by the National Enquirer-like title and cover (...I can only imagine that the publisher was trying to appeal to a teenage audience???), I almost ignored it, but luckily did relent and check the volume out.
The writing is interesting, lively and fluid, even playful (especially for a book basically informing us that we're all eventually doomed!), touching upon much science, but at a level that the astronomy amateur or even lay reader can readily follow. To a total novice, unfamiliar with modern day physics the topics and content may seem almost unreal, and thus some background in the physical sciences is helpful.
For wordsmiths the writing is peppered with puns and word-plays (who knew physics could be so funny), almost to the point of sometimes taking away from the seriousness of what is being discussed. Lots of facts and figures here as well, and lots of science, but amidst much cleverness and wit. Plait's passion for his subject rings through on every page.
Each chapter is well-written with somewhat stand-alone material (that need not be read in sequential order), covering a variety of basic cosmological subjects: the sun (and its death)/stars/galaxies, asteroids, supernovae, black holes, gamma rays, the possibility of alien life; all with an aim of showing how these might be agents for our world's demise in the distant future.

I likely enjoyed chapter 4 on gamma rays the most, if only because much of the content was new to me (chapter 9, "The End of Everything" is a particularly fun read as well). Chapter 6 on alien existence was possibly the weakest in my view. I'd fall in the camp that thinks probabilistically there are 1000s (maybe millions) of planets with advanced life (that may differ tremendously from us), but Plait seems to downgrade that possibility with what I think are weakly parochial or myopic arguments, while granting too much seriousness to what many perceive as an infinitesimal possibility that we Earthlings might be alone in the Universe. But we won't settle that debate here.
The very last chapter (epilogue) reviews the probabilities that any of the scenarios outlined will actually bring about the world's end, with an asteroid at 1 in 700,000 being the best bet... if that helps you to sleep better at night.

Richard Feynman was fond of saying that he wasn't absolutely certain of anything, but he just held beliefs based on the preponderance of the evidence. My one concern with Plait (and many scientists for that matter) is that he actually believes that much of what he states (the underlying science) is certain (because it currently seems so) when in fact, especially in the sort of time-frames he is discussing, our understanding/beliefs of physical law, the Universe, and life could change in unforeseeable ways, no matter how 'certain' they may seem at this moment. All black-and-white "facts" are actually strongly-held and supported 'beliefs,' still subject to possible, even if unlikely, change --- what we currently view as 'modern' science, will, 1000 years from now, no doubt appear very primitive and naive. Some folks worship God, and some worship empiricism, but both do so at the risk of putting blinders on to the extent that they accept/assume any human logic as 'certain.' But so much for philosophical quibbles...

If you already like Plait's blog you will almost certainly enjoy this book where he has the freedom to write more extensively on his subjects. If you're unfamiliar with him but interested in astronomical matters this book is a fine place to start. But a warning: for those of you with a long-term, 6 billion-year-or-so horizon, this could be a verrrrry gloomy, depressing, scary read given what it foretells... but as long as you're more short-term in your outlook (say the next 10,000-or-so years), feel free to give it a whirl! For the price of admission you'll get both some laughs and some chills, along with a healthy dose of science. (I just hope that for his next publishing effort Plait selects a more adult title and cover! ;-)



Monday, June 29, 2009

Mind Wars

Hour-long interview HERE at another blog with Jonathan Moreno author of "Mind Wars."

Friday, June 26, 2009

Believe It Or Not...

For the Friday video, an incredible stunt (maybe a tad much for the squeamish) given a possible interesting explanation here:

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Kidney Disease Testing Made Easy...

Possible breathalyzer test for early diagnosing of kidney disease, based on components of exhaled breath, reported on here:


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Speech Processing

A current take from neuroscientists HERE on how the human brain processes language; recognizing, segmenting, and applying semantics to speech sounds.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Science Misapplied

an essay worth reading HERE on science, quantum mechanics, and religion...

Monday, June 22, 2009


Natalie Angier elucidates the enigmatic echidna (a mysterious monotreme related to the duck-billed platypus) here:


And a special bonus video today for sheer entertainment....
Not exactly science, but too good (and uplifting) not to pass along --- I'm a sucker for acoustic guitar playing, but had never seen or heard of Tony Melendez, armless since birth; was blown away when I stumbled upon this video:

Friday, June 19, 2009

Schrodinger's Cat

For the Friday video, a real physicist and a real dog explain the anomaly of 'Schrodinger's cat' in less than 4 minutes! :

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Mathematics In 10 Lessons

Mathematics In 10 Lessons: The Grand Tour" by Jerry King

Just a brief review since I can't recommend this offering to a general readership, and only give it an overall "
C" rating. Browsing the volume in a bookstore it looked intriguing to me, as it touched upon many math topics of interest to me: infinity, number theory, probability, calculus, paradox, imaginary numbers, and "truth and beauty."

The book claims that it does not require much math background to be enjoyed, and several mathematicians endorse the book heartily on the back cover (although I noticed none of them are major math popularizers who's names would be readily recognized). However, I think a math novice or lay reader might have some difficulty with the material, while those more well-read in math may find the material dull or boring --- the writing is likely too dry and pedantic for a lay reader and too basic or simplistic for those more sophisticated in math. Some math fans may find the content elucidative, but I suspect they may be a small subset of all readers. Much of the material is on math underpinnings and/or proofs that may appear intuitively obvious --- and while there is some benefit in this explication, it can also be somewhat tedious. Generally speaking, the most interesting aspects of math are probably those that are counter-intuitive, and thusly in need of step-by-step rendering. I think the author here has made a very sincere attempt to bring many fundamentals of math to a general audience, but this is actually one of the most difficult tasks in all of science-writing, and so most attempts, as in this case, fall short.

A book that covers at least some of the same type material, which I found much more engaging and do strongly recommend is William Byers' 2007 volume "How Mathematicians Think."

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Nature Poetry

A nature digression today... haven't seen this volume myself, but looked interesting on Amazon, for those with a yen for nature poems:

"Can Poetry Save the Earth?: A Field Guide to Nature Poems" by John Felstiner (Stanford professor)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Form Follows Function...?

Possibly more than you wanted to know... or consider :

This piece from "Scientific American," reports certain evolutionary biology hypotheses and testing to account for the particular shape of the human penis (which differs significantly from our primate relatives)... a fair amount of conjecture, with a smattering of experimentation :


A tad reminiscent of Robin Baker's book, "Sperm Wars."

There has been a small spate of popular books out recently on the never-ending favorite topic of human sexual behavior, including:

"Bonk" by Mary Roach, and "How Sex Works" by Sharon Moalem

Monday, June 15, 2009

Words, Words, Words... and the NY Times

For all word lovers out there:

Not the usual "science" I pass along here, but as a word-lover have to link to this interesting survey of words that the astute readers of the NY Times most frequently feel the need to look up --- how many of these would perplex you if stumbled upon in print? A few of the 50 top stumpers: "louche," "sumptuary," "schadenfreude," "hagiographic," "dauphin," "comity," "bildungsroman," "fealty." And the word with the highest rate of looking up per use: "saturnine" ("solipsistic" a close 2nd).

Friday, June 12, 2009

Ticklish Rats... You Betcha

For the Friday video, giggling rats here:

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Animal Feelings

NY Times piece on scientific evidence for animals feeling 'regret' (...not that any pet owners required scientific evidence) :


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Bird Evolution

The popular, common view that everyone hears is that birds evolved from dinosaurs; yes, those are miniature-seed-eating-feathered-brontosauruses at your backyard feeder... but NOT so fast. Another minority view that has actually been around a long time, but had difficulty gaining traction is that birds have little to do with dinosaurs, evolving instead from earlier small tree-dwelling creatures; they evolved from the trees down, not from the ground up, so-to-speak.
"Tetrapod Zoology" blog recently covered some of the arguments HERE.
And more HERE, from ScienceDaily.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Black Hole Photography

Getting a picture of a black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy... New Scientist article HERE.

Monday, June 8, 2009

There Be Fungus Among Us

Courtesy of Natalie Angier (and NY Times), a focus on lowly fungi:


Friday, June 5, 2009

The Intelligence of Crows

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Penguin Poo

And now from the scatological sciences....

Scientists are tracking penguin poop (guano, droppings... birdSH*T) from space, via satellite imaging, in order to tally colonies of Emperor Penguins in Antarctica:


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Thomas Berry Dies

Earth-theologian Thomas Berry dies at 94:



(Wikipedia entry for Berry HERE.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Richard Wiseman Redux

'Quirky' British research psychologist Richard Wiseman has begun a mass experiment on Twitter to test for the psychic ability known as "remote viewing." To read about it or take part in his study start here:


BTW, one of my favorite YouTube quickie tricks is from Wiseman HERE.

Earlier on in this blog I recommended his fun book, "Quirkology" to readers.

Monday, June 1, 2009

A Two-fer

Good blogger summary HERE of Michael Pollan's thoughts from his wonderful book "In Defense of Food."

And HERE the same writer covers a talk by popular physicist Brian Greene on his favorite topic, string theory.