Links for the week of June 26th, 2010

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Links for the week of June 4th, 2010

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Links for the week of February 26th, 2010

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Framing Embeds Values in Scientific Facts

At the Sustainability Symposium last night (which was nominally about water footprints (PDF) and this paper on the international trade in virtual water) we ended up “off topic” and talking about science communication, public outreach, and how policy gets made.  Inevitably it seems like these conversations end up coming back to the issues from Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet‘s Speaking Science workshop that SASS sponsored last summer.

There is huge discomfort for scientists in the fact that the way in which information is conveyed impacts how it is interpreted.  The idea is at odds with the scientific ideal of objective facts and communication, but nevertheless it is true.  A one liter glass plus 500 ml of water equals what?  The glass is half empty.  The glass is half full.  The glass is twice as big as necessary to hold that much water.  The same objective facts, different connotations.  Different implications.  Different frames.  And sometimes, the frame ends up being a more important determinant of the listener’s reaction than the information the speaker intended to convey.

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Shared Links for Jun 26th – Jul 7th

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Microwire Photovoltaics at Caltech

I went to this year’s second Everhart Lecture yesterday by Josh Spurgeon, who is working with Harry Atwater and Nate Lewis, trying to develop cheap, scalable solar cells.  As with most of the Everhart Lectures, it was a very well presented talk.  Unlike many of them, it was directly relevant to a real-world problem: how can humanity continue to utilize on the order of 10TW of power, without changing the composition of the atmosphere (see Nate Lewis’ excellent presentation for more information). The ultimate solution to that problem will almost certainly involve directly capturing incident solar energy, because the potential resource available is both vast and relatively concentrated, when compared to other sources of renewable energy.  But solar has two very serious problems today: it is expensive (both in absolute terms on a per watt installed basis, and in an up-front capital expenditure sense), and it is not available when the sun isn’t shining.  Whatever the solution looks like, in order to scale up to 10TW, it needs to use only earth-abundant, non-toxic materials.  In semiconductor photovoltaics then, silicon probably has an unassailable lead.  It’s the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, and it’s about as toxic as sand (though silicon semiconductor fabrication has serious toxicity associated with it and certainly needs to be made closed-loop).  Exotic materials like cadmium-telluride, and copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS) are unlikely to scale to tens of terawatts, simply because of the limited availability of elements like indium and tellurium.  Additionally, owing to the vast silicon microprocessor industry, we are much better at micro and nano-scale manipulation of silicon than any other material on Earth (ignoring for the moment biological systems).

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Francis Collins has no evidence for God

I can’t say that I’m surprised, but what Francis Collins presented in his talk last night at Caltech as constituting evidence for God’s existence was utterly unconvincing.  However, what he said and the questions which followed were vastly better framed, less offensive, and in some important respects much closer to the truth than the talk that Richard Dawkins gave at Caltech in 2006 when he was touring for his book The God Delusion (which was ultimately so unpleasant and ill conceived that even I, an atheist who basically agrees with Dawkins’ criticisms of religion, am unable to recommend it).  You can watch or listen to an earlier version of Collins’ talk on the Veritas Forum website.  It’s in support of his own book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

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Francis Collins at Caltech and the future of genomic medicine

Went to Francis Collins’ afternoon talk “fireside chat” with David Baltimore on the future of medicine, as illuminated by genomic work.  Too much introduction and rambling biographical information, but some good discussion anyway.  I thought his best comments had to do with the positive effects of the open data model that the Human Genome project initiated – it’s had a long lasting impact on the entire field of genomics, and thank goodness!  Also, he mentioned that as of now, there aren’t any major studies seeking to correlate and analyze the relationships between genotypes, phenotypes, and environment in the human population, and that such a study is really what’s needed to truly understand what’s actually heritable, what our real low frequency (rare allele) genetic variation is like, and what kinds of effects environmental factors play.  He pointed out, interestingly, that we don’t need to wait until thousand dollar genomes are available to start this study – what we need to do is get people signed up, and start tracking their health history and environmental factors, and we can sequence them when it becomes cheap enough.  He suggested that we ought to do this for roughly 500,000 people, and that it would likely cost on the order of half a billion dollars a year, and need to run for a few decades.  And then we’d know, and medicine would be forever changed.  He also suggested that those $1000 genomes are likely on the order of 5 years away.  Really, once we’ve got fast, cheap sequencing – this study will almost do itself, so long as we can at some point get access to the medical histories and genomes of people.  The real value add is in starting it now, so we have the information as soon as possible, and in getting all the environmental/lifestyle data, in addition to the healthcare records.

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We need more Dionysian Science

Michelle and I just finished reading The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. It was good. He can get a little rambling at times, but overall it was entertaining and enjoyable. The book follows the relationships between people and four plants, through history. The four plants are: apples, tulips, cannabis, and potatoes. It pairs with them four desires, respectively: sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control. The connections are more than a little tenuous, but the histories are certainly worth examining. The apple chapter in particular has inspired me to learn more about hard cider (since it turns out that’s largely what Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman’s apples were used for, all across 19th century America). And who can resist an examination of cannabis’s relationship with humans, written at least partially while stoned?

One theme Pollan has touched on repeatedly, in this book and his others, is the competition between Apollonian and Dionysian impulses in nature and society. Apollo representing order and control, Dionysus wildness and chaos, both being utterly necessary for civilization to be dynamic and persistent, for knowledge to increase and broaden through time. E.g. our Apollonian monocultures of Russet Burbank potatoes are vulnerable because of their uniformity, but are also productive and economically efficient. The Andean potato farmers of antiquity grew dozens of different varieties in different micro climates, all the while allowing the plants to hybridize with the local wild potatoes, maintaining a possibly less productive, but certainly more diverse and robust system of potato cultivation, in which new biological innovation was constantly taking place, and in which the farmers were well protected against catastrophic collapse in any one year… unlike the potato farmers of Ireland in the 1840s. The potato chapter in particular focuses largely on a very recent interaction with the potato: the introduction of a genetically engineered variety called the “New Leaf” by Monsanto, that produces Bt toxin to guard the plant against the Colorado potato beetle and other insect pests. Continue reading We need more Dionysian Science