Friday, December 17, 2010
This week the news staff of Science is "stepping away from the trees for a
look at the forest." I'm a little late getting WN out because I couldn't
stop reading. The incredible, and somewhat frightening, rate of scientific
progress prompted me to go back and look at the first decade of science.
Thales of Miletus used the occasion of a full solar eclipse that passed
over Melitus to state the first law of science: for every observable
effect, there is a physical cause. The occasion is taken to mark the birth
of science, but it also marks the death of superstition.
China pledged to reduce the rate at which its emissions are increasing.
Well, at least they're talking, but emission rate is a second-order
problem. First we should worry about the worlds uncontrolled fertility
rate. Reduce the population and emissions will be reduced
proportionately. It is the only emissions-control policy that is guaranteed
to work. Chinas leaders know more about the population problem than
anybody, having undertaken the courageous one-child policy to avert an
inevitable catastrophe from Maos wacky economic theories. The mere
mention of population inevitably draws comments that the industrialized
nations have already achieved zero population growth and warnings by
futurists such as Fred Pearce about a "population crash." The bitter truth
is that Earth's population must be reduced.
"The definition of life has just expanded," declared Ed Weiler, NASA
Associate Administrator for Science. An extremophile bacterium, adapted to
tolerate the relatively high concentration of arsenic found in Mono Lake in
the California desert, has been found. Arsenic is in the same column of
the periodic table as phosphorus, and would be expected to have similar
chemical properties. It would not be totally surprising if arsenic
sometimes substitutes for phosphorus in the Mono Lake bacterium. It is also
not totally surprising that, coming out of NASA, Weilers remarks set off a
frenzy of media reports that an extraterrestrial life form had been
The Science and Technology Committee of the UK Parliament released a report
urging the government to withdraw funding and licensing of homeopathy. It
is unlikely to happen; even the Queen has her own personal homeopathist.
This year is the 200th anniversary of Samuel Hahnemann's "Organon of the
Medical Art." The prevailing philosophy of medicine at the time
was "vitalism, the belief that life involves some spiritual
essence. "Medicinal energy," Hahneman wrote, "is most powerful when it
communicates nothing material." He was unaware of the extent to which he
achieved this ideal by sequentially diluting his medications. It would be
another 50 years before Loschmidt determined Avogadros number. It is now
clear that Hahnemann was many dilutions beyond the dilution limit. Last
week WN commented on the mistaken belief that cell phone radiation causes
cancer. The photon energy in the microwave region of the spectrum is only
about 1 millionth of the energy required to create a mutant strand of DNA,
which is the initiation of cancer. There is no need to go any further.
Epidemiology is expensive, time-consuming, and prone to statistical errors
and faulty recall.