Archive for the 'Science' Category

Science and Beer

March 18, 2008

Great story about an article on the correlation between scientific publishing and citation and beer drinking:

Science and Beer (via Mr Verb).

In brief:

[T]he more beer a scientist drinks, the less likely the scientist is to publish a paper or to have a paper cited by another researcher, a measure of a paper’s quality and importance.

The results were not, however, a matter of a few scientists having had too many brews to be able to stumble back to the lab. Publication did not simply drop off among the heaviest drinkers. Instead, scientific performance steadily declined with increasing beer consumption across the board, from scientists who primly sip at two or three beers over a year to the sort who average knocking back more than two a day.

As a scientist who no longer drinks any alcohol, I certainly welcome this. However,  what type of window are we averaging over here? Do I have to count the terrifying amounts I used to drink in my youth?

Scientific packages in Python I just discovered

February 20, 2008

I like to think that I’m abreast of the best of the scientific packages in Python, but I just discovered several cool packages today:

  • SymPy, a symbolic math package in Python, which actually is part of the Sage program that I like so much;
  •  sfepy, a finite element analysis package in Python (also symfe, for symbolic finite element analysis).

DOE/BES Proposes Energy Frontier Research Centers

February 16, 2008

To build a future of energy security, we must trust in the creative genius of American researchers and entrepreneurs and empower them to pioneer a new generation of clean energy technology.- President George W. Bush, 2008 State of the Union Address

All is not bad in Washington. The DOE Office of Basic Energy Sciences is seeing a big budget increase in the FY09 budget, and is proposing spending a large portion of that increase on creating a number of Energy Frontier Research Centers, each having a budget of $2M-$5M per year. Seems extremely well thought-out from both a scientific and a social level. The amount is enough to allow centers to think big, but not so big that many different solutions can be funded and tried out. And they seem to have a good range of problems in mind.

Is There a Plan for Life After Peak Oil?

February 15, 2008

AlterNet has a good article entitled: Is There a Plan for Life After Peak Oil? Good article, bad title. Of course there isn’t a plan…

AlterNet has noted similar results to ones I blogged on last week, that biofuels aren’t the carbon savior they claim to be, in that they actually increase the net carbon released into the environment, since land would have to be cleared to make way for switch grasses and the like that previously held other carbon-consuming plants.

I like the way the article opens:

Now they might start sitting up. They wouldn’t listen to the environmentalists or even the geologists. Can governments ignore the capitalists?

A report published last week by Citibank, and so far unremarked by the media, proposes “genuine difficulties” in increasing the production of crude oil, “particularly after 2012.” Though 175 big drilling projects will start in the next four years, “the fear remains that most of this supply will be offset by high levels of decline”.

The situation has gotten so bad that the mere mention here of politicians and capitalists taking the energy shortage seriously gives me a feeling of comfort!

Destroying native ecosystems for biofuel crops worsens global warming

February 8, 2008

This article will certainly not be the last word on the subject, but physorg posts a study (to be published in Science magazine later this week) that claims destroying native ecosystems for biofuel crops worsens global warming. From the report

The carbon lost by converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands outweighs the carbon savings from biofuels. Such conversions for corn or sugarcane (ethanol), or palms or soybeans (biodiesel) release 17 to 420 times more carbon than the annual savings from replacing fossil fuels, the researchers said.

I obviously haven’t read the soon-to-be-published paper, but here’s why I think it worth mentioning:

  1. It is likely that biofuel won’t become competitive energetically and economically until we learn how to make fuel out of waste. Converting waste fry oil into diesel might supply the fuel needs of several hundred people, but it’s hardly a national strategy. And converting food into fuel is simply not a solution in a world where many people do not get enough food. Only by deriving a set of industrial strength enzymes that can break down the cellulose in corn stalks can we make practical use of biomaterial.
  2. The factors that go into the environmental and economic impact are subtle. It’s not that you necessarily need a Ph.D. before you’re qualified to comment, it’s that it is best to study the problem carefully for a while before declaring the problem solved.
  3. There is a very good chance that Americans will have to change their consumption habits in the future. I find very few statements as poisonous as the Bush administration’s comment that “The American Way of Life is not Negotiable.” And the hope that goes along with that that we can all continue to commute 50 miles per day in giant SUVs, and that we just have to find another way of fueling them, one that is carbon neutral, one that is renewable, whatever. I certainly can’t see the future. Perhaps nuclear fusion really will save us all, but, were I a betting man, I would say that the odds are pretty small, and that very likely the American Way of Life will most likely change qualitatively in the next two decades.

Sage: great free mathematics software

February 1, 2008

Sage is an open source effort to replace the commercial math codes like Mathematica, Matlab, Magma with a free product of equal quality. It uses Python, my favorite language, as the glue that holds together a variety of existing open source math programs (Pari, Maxima, Numpy, Scipy, Blas, Lapack, etc.).

Such a product is a real revelation to me. I rarely have need for a symbolic math program, so that even though I have access to Maxima and Mathematica, I use them rarely enough so that when I do need them, I’ve completely forgotten the required syntax. But when I need the program, I really need it, which requires a long slog through the documentation. However, I use Python almost every minute of every day. But Python has its problems as well. Getting users to install all the various widgets required to run one of the pieces of software I write is itself very time consuming. Sage has solved all of this, as far as I can tell, by simply distributing all of the source code with the program. This makes for a rather time consuming build procedure, but one that worked for me the first time I tried it.

I’ve already mentioned how much I love Project Euler, and it’s gratifying to see Python making such a respectable showing on the statistics page there. However, I found that my versions of some very critical programs, like testing whether a number is prime, or computing the number of integer partitions, were enough slower than fast implementations, that my programs often took much longer than those written in Mathematica, for example. Sage solves all of these problems for me quite ably, and lets me use Python to write the code that drives the functions.

The graphics are worth noting as well. Sage has integrated the best Python plotting package (matplotlib) into a Firefox-driven duplicate of the Mathematica notebook into something that is both simple to use and elegant. They even have a free web portal for the program, where you can sign up for a free account and try things out.

Very slick and very, very well done. In all seriousness, I haven’t been this excited since I discovered Python for the first time.

End Links:

What Makes the Stars Shine?

January 26, 2008

What Makes the Stars Shine? Physical Review Focus has a brief note about Bethe’s two papers from 1939 that demonstrated that nuclear fusion causes the stars to shine, as well as having links to the original papers.

On a personal note, I saw Bethe speak once. He gave a talk at Caltech, and I ended up leaving a conference early to make it back in time to hear the man speak. Bethe spoke of the formation of black holes from twin stars. I’m not an astrophysicist, but I do quantum mechanics, where Bethe also made huge contributions. Bethe was very old at the time, and lost his place in his notes several times during his talk, but he had a packed room eating out of his hand. It was a wonderful experience.

Malcolm Gladwell on IQ Tests

December 10, 2007

Malcolm Gladwell has written the best article I’ve seen on IQ tests in the current New Yorker. Reading Gladwell is always a thrilling experience for me, because he synthesizes information so well.

Spintronics breakthrough at NRL

December 5, 2007

Scientists at the Naval Research Laboratory are claiming to have made a breakthrough in spintronics. From the press release:

Scientists at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) have generated, modulated and electrically detected a pure spin current in silicon, the semiconductor used most widely in the electronic device industry. Magnetic contacts on the surface of an n-type silicon layer enable generation of a spin current which flows separately from a charge current.

I’m not a spintronics expert, but evidently the breakthrough is seeing the effect in silicon, rather than the III-V semiconductors.

Good and Bad Alternative Medicine

December 2, 2007

My eye wandered off the crossword to one of the religious adds next to it in my local newspaper:

Learn about household uses of the 12 oils most frequently mentioned in the Bible. ABC Senior Center, $10.

Many of my fraud detection alarms went off at that point. I wonder if someone could get people in the credulous desert community where I live to pay $10 for a lecture on legitimate science, but it’s a sure deal to find a group of seniors to pay for it by pointing to questionable biblical authority, with the tacit implication that the medical establishment doesn’t want you to know these secrets.

Which is not to say, of course, that just because a cure is natural or unheard of it is necessarily bunkum. Aspirin was first discovered from chewing tree bark, after all. There’s a part of me that can’t believe that people are so gullible to fall for a ploy like the one above, but, of course, they are. Sagan’s baloney detection kit from The Demon Haunted World, is, sadly, known to few people in the general community.

Which is why Joe and Terry Graedon’s newspaper column The People’s Pharmacy is so refreshing, which is also carried in the local newspaper in my credulous desert community, but which is the polar opposite of the above hucksterism. Maybe they don’t qualify as alternative, since they actually have medical qualifications, but they cover questions on natural remedies and alternative solutions that their readers email, but do so with professionalism, humility, and, when possible, references to the medical literature. In the same issue of the same newspaper I found a reference to an earlier discussion on the linkage between the bergamont oil in Earl Grey tea to muscle cramps, complete with a reference to a 2002 article in The Lancet. Recent articles discuss the use of alcohol, Listerine, tree tea oil, and urine as cures for toenail fungus as well. Intelligent, humble, respectful, and referenced when possible. A great column.