Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Science as a Search for the "Mind of God"

Why did science arise in the West? That's a loaded question; plenty of folks would argue that "science" arose elsewhere. Still, a quick scan of your surroundings will reveal electronics, plastics, time-keeping widgets, lighting, senders/receivers, engines, etc. It's Western stuff.

One Steve Fuller has an answer to the question: Christians, inspired by a search for the "mind of god", propelled science forward. Surprise, surprise, this Jesuit-educated disembodied blathering head believes that a Christian philosophical quest is responsible for science.

I find the view ludicrous. As I wrote on scienceblogs:

Let's not consider contingency,accidents, and snowballing effects in the development of science. Forget about climate and geography. Ignore abrahamic religions' needs for evangelizing and warmongering and manifesting/discovering magical substances. Toss out any complicating arguments about abrahamic religions' anti-science propensities. Toss out neutral events too (e.g. a need for time-keeping devices for medieval monks). Ignore what non-abrahamic religions actually say, and poo-poo any science that did emerge in non-abrahamic areas. And then Fuller can claim that science was motivated by the religion of his upbringing.

Fuller also says that the Abrahamic view that humans (as opposed to animals) are privileged, being created in the image of god, was a historical driver of science. Obviously, Hinduism and Buddhism lack this sort of creation myth, but anyone with a slight familiarity with these religions will know that humans have a superior birth to animals. The Tibetans, in their juicy way, compare the souls competing for a privileged birth while two humans are copulating to flies on meat.

Enough of my own views, however. How about the views of the folks around me at Mahidol University?

An Iraqi Student: The era of Muslim domination of science (roughly 900-1300) might have continued indefinitely had the Hulagu Khan not invaded Baghdad in 1255. He says the Tigris River turned blue as ink leached out of the pages of books that were tossed there by Mongol forces.

An Indian Muslim: The Western concept of separation between church and state was responsible for the rise of science in the west over the last 400 years.

An American Ichthyologist: Refuses to cop to the notion that science is a Western development, even when I attempt to narrow the scope down to the last few hundred years.

A Thai Toxinologist: The need for the technologies of war spurred science in the West.

The Director of a Dengue Research Lab: Life is easy in the tropics. Just pick a mango off a tree and gather up some frogs in the forest. Ingenuity was required in cold climates, however. He was also quick to chuckle about the supposed Christian/science link, knowing full well that Christianity has a history of feuding with science.

I'll add more views as they come in.

A few more words of my own: Ask for an example of non-Western ingenuity, and it's a decent bet that you'll get the Chinese invention of explosives. I wonder, though, if systematic thinking, a hallmark of science, was at all responsible here. In the bomb-making case, was there ever any attempt to formulate hypotheses, falsify them, and build on the results? And, if systematic thought is crucial for "real" science, how could the destruction of books signal the end of science in the Middle East? It seems like we need to discriminate between mere "technology" and "science", how-to-manuals and deduction/induction. Maybe my own cultural bias/ignorance is showing here, while I'm griping about someone else's. Correct me, if you wish.

Oh, the pic above is Marcel Duchamp's "Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even." I don't dig it, but it came to mind, somehow.

A Conversation with Mr. Oarfish

As a kid, I had a collection of flashcards with pics of fish on one side, and their specs on the other. The oarfish stood out as the weirdest and most captivating of the lot.

One of the folks I bump into fairly regularly at the Institute is an ichthyologist...a fish expert. Over lunch, I asked him if he had seen the recent video of an oarfish in deep waters:

I expected my acquaintance to express surprise that such a video existed. Instead, I got a 30 minute lecture on the subject of oarfish. It turns out he might be the single most oarfish-knowledgeable individual on the planet. He didn't seem thrilled about the possibility that I'd blog on his knowledge, possibly because some of his opinions haven't been thoroughly vetted by the science community, so I won't offer his name. But here's what I recall:

The video shows the oarfish in a vertical position. Mr. Oarfish expressed skepticism that the fish, Regalecus, actually spends sizeable amounts of time in that position; it might be reacting to the unmanned submersible taking the video or to its environs (which include the massive vertical risers of an oil rig). At the same time, he theorizes that the oarfish may drift vertically in a catatonic state for thousands of kilometers.

I had read that the video was special because previous footage of Regalecus had been taken near the ocean surface; in such a state, the creature would tend to be near death. Mr. Oarfish replied that there's no reason to believe that healthy oarfish don't spend sizeable periods of time near the surface.

Perhaps the single most famous oarfish shot is the following:

The pic is well-known in Thailand. The Thais seem to think we're looking at Vietnam vets somewhere along the Mekong. This notion ties in nicely with the belief that dragons, the Phaya Nak, abide in the Mekong. Mr. Oarfish points out that the uniforms aren't from the Vietnam era. The pic was taken in 1996 near San Diego.

What's more, I had heard the soldiers dined on the serpent following the photo shoot. No, says Mr. Oarfish, the fish was far too decomposed. In fact, he only knows one person who has tasted Regalecus, and that individual was none too impressed with the result. A lousy cook, perhaps.

Some of the maximal lengths are exaggerated. Anything over 8 meters is suspect. An oarfish can actually lose or shed large chunks of its distal region, gecko-like. The resulting sawed-off appearance might lead one to extrapolate wrongly.

Strictly speaking, the species we're talking about here is Regalecus Glesne (Glesne being a town in Sweden). But Mr. Oarfish says there is certainly more than one species that is commonly labeled R. Glesne; there were some fairly large differences in mitochondrial DNA sequences (around 12%) taken from oarfish in Japan and in the Atlantic. What's more, there are significant morphological differences (e.g. in the number of vertebrae).

The evolutionary history of the creature is somewhat murky. One partial fossil from Italy exists, dating back about 1.5 million years...not long enough to display clearcut trends in evolution.

A couple final tidbits...dogs seen oddly attracted to the scent of the fish. And...there's very little evidence of the sorts of predators the oarfish may have to deal with. Sharkbites are rarely, if ever, seen on the creature.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

GT200 Update

For some background, here's my first post on the GT200. Following up...

The Science Ministry here in Thailand has conducted tests on the widget. It failed. It seems that extreme caution was followed in minimizing loss of face (sia na), red faces (na daeng), stepped-on-shoes, and so on. Phase I of this delicate operation consisted of banning the public and press from the actual tests.

Face-saving phase II consisted of some twisty phrasing on the part of the prime minister. He said the device "detected" concealed C4 in only 4 of 20 tests, for a 25% success rate. Ignoring the PM's cruddy math, if this $30,000 dowsing rod performed no better than random chance, it can't be said to have "detected" anything. As us farangs say, even a broken watch is perfectly accurate twice per day.

The PM also says that existing GT200s will have to be used in conjunction with other devices, again avoiding hurting the feelings of sensitive generals.

One can really sense the divide between scientists and politicians here. Most of my compadres would like to see all the culprits investigated and outed, with the failure of superstition on vivid display, an opportunity for public education properly exploited. On the other hand, I imagine the politicians saying, "Look, we've canceled future purchases, now it's time for you guys to shut up and go back to your labs." I've no doubt as to who would win this little battle.

Pseudo-scientist Pornthip, mentioned in my original blog on the subject, offered the following piece of warped logic upon learning of the GT200's failure: ""I know it's not scientific equipment, but forensic scientists can use it effectively."

Through the entire hoopla, not a single company rep appeared in the media to defend the GT200. It's funny how a company with such amazing salespeople can have such lousy post-sale support, isn't it?

By the way, there are perfectly legit bomb detection devices out there. They're hugely expensive, require real training, electricity, and upkeep, and can't detect all bad substances known to humanity at a distance of four kilometers. They work, however:

Note: I'm not sure of the source of the Harry Potter image. It's the sort of thing that amplifies quickly via mass e-mailing amongst Thais.

Saturday, February 6, 2010