Monday, December 13, 2010

Annoying words: Planet, and company, pt.1




Part of a continuing (I hope?) series called
The consequences of equivocation in scientific rhetoric.
(or, Words that both freaking Annoy Me and allow other Jerks to Annoy Me, and why I think Someone should do Something about it before I get more Annoyed)

Please read the premise for all these "annoying word" posts at this link right here.
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Special note: 
This Annoying Word problem is a bit different than for most of the Annoying Words.  Most of the words I'm thinking of for this series are those which truly mean one thing to the scientific community and another subtly, but crucially different thing to the public at large.

This one's different.

This one's about a word that kept losing its meaning over time.  And, in my opinion, has become laden with so much weight and confusion that it just looks like a problem to me.

I don't know if anyone else agrees, but I have my reasons for thinking this way.

And also, too, it's my freaking blog so I can share my own opinions, even if they are dumb. 

Remember Pluto!

Do you? Yeah, I do.

Short version of that whole bizarre episode:
  • Some astronomers decided that Pluto is not planety enough to be a planet.
  • Ultimately, they proclaim that not only is not a planet, but is, in fact, a "Dwarf".
  • The general public, at least in the United States, freaked the frak out.



On the side of the public reaction to the Putocolypse, it seemed as if people started getting mad at "those scientists" either for
  1. forcing the public to swallow whatever these "elites" from on high proclaim as the new truth, 
  2. yet again changing what they say is true.  "Just like when they said oat bran helped with good cholesterol and then turned around and said it didn't.  Same thing!", or
  3. being mean to a rock.

Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson - who is the most engaging communicator of astronomy, physics, and science in general - recounts the public reaction to his role in the whole thing with his book, The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet.  He also had a show on Nova about the situation which was informative, humorous, and a even little bit touching.

While he was the first to catch grief about Plutoid abuse,  Dr. Tyson was not responsible for the word "Dwarf".  However, astronomer Mike Brown, self-described "Pluto-killer", is... at least to some extent.

Dr. Brown also just released a new book, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, which sounds to be a gleeful account of a man with Plutonian blood on his hands.  Not surprisingly, Dr. Tyson thanks Dr. Brown for being the new target of hate-mail from 3rd graders.


What is it that Pluto isn't?

Now, looking back on it all, I really am starting to feel that this was a big stink about nothing but words:

Astronomers got hung up on definitions.
People got hung up on scientists changing the meaning of a word without even (in their minds) an explanation.

Of course, there were explanations.  A lot of them.

But the reasoning about what the problem was with Pluto was - to my mind - all over the place: Pluto's too small to be a Planet, it has too weird an orbit, its moon is too close its own size,  it's too far away, or it's got too many other space objects near it to be a Planet.

It started to remind me of when I was a kid and a teacher decided to really dislike a student in the class.  Once the decision had been made that the kid was a bad egg, then any and every transgression, no matter how minor, was continuing proof of the student's badness, by definition:

"You were one minute late! Typical.  You stay for detention!"
"But Jack was five minutes late and you didn't say anything to him!"
"Yes, but he isn't a bad student like you!"

But really, the source of this Pluto angst was nothing more than disagreement about what a being "Planet" actually meant.  In 2006, a large group of astronomers decided to try its hand at a clearly defining the word "Planet" and decide whether Pluto fit into this definition.


But the more I read about it, I find the solution they devised to be a lot less than satisfying.

And it doesn't have anything to do with Pluto.

So what's my beef?


Thursday, December 2, 2010

How I told everyone that science isn't interesting. And it's all NASA's fault.

"NASA will hold a news conference at 11 a.m. PST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life," NASA said in a Wednesday statement. "Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe."

In hindsight, we should have foreseen the use of these words would cause problems.

But I had no idea it would end with me telling people that an exciting new finding in Biology was, in effect, NOT "monumentally exciting".

How on earth did it come to this?!?


I mean, we'd just been through this a month before when NASA made a similarly intriguing pre-statement statement. That one was along the lines of (and I’m pretty clearly paraphrasing):

"NASA will hold a VERY IMPORTANT news conference in a week regarding an OBJECT IN SPACE which is NEAR THE EARTH.   Dot.   Dot.   Dot."

It is certainly understandable how the NASA community may have been surprised at how many people just assumed this announcement was going to be about an asteroid headed for Earth in the near future. I mean, they didn’t SAY that anywhere, did they? Why would anyone come to such a conclusion?

Then followed days of buzzing and breathless speculation which invariably involved talk of large astral bodies, 2012, both the year and the shite movie, and that really well-done clip from that show where you see the surface of the Earth dramatically vaporized after a ginormous moon-sized rock hits the planet.



Moments before the announcement, Facebook and Twitter had become Apocalypse Central, at least if you were to judge by the endless questions about who might survive if an asteroid were THIS big as opposed to THAT big.

Then the announcement came: For the first time, astronomers have identified a very new black hole in our galaxy, one only 30 years old and about 50 million light years away, which clearly has enormous potential for the study of the universe.

And once everyone learned that this black hole - which was, firstly and disappointingly, not an Earth-killing asteroid – hadn’t at least appeared between the Earth and the Moon, and thus would not lead to a different but also acceptable imminent and cinematic death, most people slumped away, apparently dejected that their doom had not yet come.

Some even shook their fists at those damn scientists, lying again!
Boo! No cataclysmic death! Refund!

So, not too surprisingly, this more recent press release – which really does have “alien life” or at least “alien microbes” written all over it – had a similar buzz around it.

Well, come today, a new crescendo of Alien Invasion starts bubbling through the net.  This time it's more of a joke (which I actually participated in, I'm not ashamed to say: I said NASA had sighted an alien invasion fleet).  Regardless of the play, I was curious in exactly what way the actual report would not be quite what it seemed.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

On Evolution: Quiet Accumulations

[Note: a good chunk of this text is from old stuff I'd written on this and at least two other attempts at science-oriented blogging. It's critical to note this post is an exercise to write for absolute beginners with zero knowledge of science.

Anyway, with little feedback (no one came, no one saw, no one, um... critiqued), I guess I kept giving up. However, I keep going back to these old bits and re-working them with new introductions, new frameworks, etc. So here it is again. I have a bunch of the other chunks that follow this which - I feel - make a complete story. Just need to work out the kinks. Now about that feedback...]

Before reading this,  
please read Part 1 to follow my train of thought.


The simple summary from Part 1 is this:
  • DNA is the instructions, written in a simple alphabet, that says how to build proteins.
  • Proteins are the things that actually go about building you.
  • You - and everyone else - start off life already having a bunch of changes, or mutations, in your DNA



You are the Boringest. Mutant. Ever!

"I was lead to believe that mutations do dramatic things, mostly bad"

Yes.  I understand that.
The key here is that you were led to believing this.
So this type of thought is understandable.
It's also wrong.

But that's not your fault.

Who's doing this "leading"?  Now, I could pin this on groups that deny evolution for purely religious reasons.  And yes, they are certainly doing their best to make everyone else believe the following:

  • Evolution needs "good" mutations to work.
  • Mutations are always bad:  They make deformed things!
See!
SEE!!!
  • Therefore, evolution doesn't exist.

Turns out, not too surprisingly, that all these points are wrong. 


But, you know, there's also another "leader" here.   And it's behind a similar belief - not that all mutations are harmful, but that:
all mutations DO SOMETHING REALLY BIIIIG!
And where would this idea come from?

Yes, you do know where:


Mutants
Mutants!

MUTANTS!!!

Uh... WOW!!

Yeah, that's where.

So, reconcile this:   just a while ago I spent a whole post yammering on about how each of us were born with mutations - a scattering of new changes within our DNA instructions.  If so, these changes in instructions should alter the way some proteins are made - and that should somehow affect us.

So why aren't there just legions of three-armed twenty-eyed people wandering the streets - or at least why the heck don't I look like Hugh Jackman?


The simple reason for this is:
Most new genetic mutations creep in silently, resulting in neither obvious harm nor help to the person who has received them. 
A brand new mutation which results in a something really unusual or disturbing, can happen.
But those dramatic mutations (er... the real ones, not the comic/TV ones) are far, far rarer than those that do... well, next to nothing.