Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Book Review: The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo

I had a feeling going into this book that it's a little too well-loved to be orthodox. That feeling was right. But overall I'm still glad I read it/listened to it, and not just because it was read by Jeremy Irons on the audiobook. That's because I was able to distill some gold from the dross, but believe me, it is all mixed together in this book. You have to be an alchemist of your own to separate good from bad here.

Myself, I'd take the frequently interesting Biblical allusions (from Melchizidek to Joseph to Abraham to Jesus and the woman caught in adultery) and find what's worthwhile in them, and I'd leave the pseudo-gnostic drivel behind. But there's hints of what to toss, such as the words "personal legend", as in "find your personal legend" (there's GOT to be a better translation of that term), or the "all is one, so everything should be content as it is" stuff.

At least sin is present but it's not really dangerous or warping. Inaction is a far greater sin than action. The great god Plato rises over this book, with a bit of Spinoza, and some other philosophy that drove by too fast to pin down.

It's a fast read, and provocative, just it's only half right, so if you have time to read something half right then this is for you. This is one of those books that I'd be fascinated to analyze in detail why it's so popular, what is true and what is not, because it frequently has flashes of insight, but it also has flashes of the opposite of insight, too. (Would that be out-blind? See what deep questions this raises for me?) I'd say read it skeptically. But that's true for everything, right?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A New Game: Find the Point of Vaccination

I've just come up with a new game. The following is a graph of diarrhea-caused deaths of children in Mexico month by month for eight years. At one point on the graph, a vaccine was introduced that was designed to stop diarrhea-caused deaths of children. The game is, can you pinpoint when the vaccine was introduced?

(If I could do Encyclopedia-Brown-style upside down type I'd do it here!)

ANSWER: May 2007. Any point from April to September in 2007, after the seasonal spikes of death stop, will be counted correct for the purposes of your grade.

Just for reference, most of my test questions are not this easy.

For more details, you can find the original paper here. And thanks to Matthew Herper from Forbes magazine for writing the article that brought my attention to this graph.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Don't You Go Breakin' My (Glass) Heart

The company that built this glass vasculature may not have intended to build a work of art, but it did. What was intended was an accurate model of all the major blood vessels in proper proportion so that flow tests could be carried out. What resulted is a beautiful, tree-like structure that walks the line between life and mechanism. More info found here.

I can't imagine how carefully you must move when you're carrying one of these.  I await the inevitable artist who will make videos of worn-out glass models smashing on the sidewalk or something like that.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Quick Thought of the Day

It's true that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

I'd extend that: The ability to make an extraordinary claim is itself a piece of extraordinary evidence. Evidence that you are alive and wondering in a vast and marvelous universe. How under heaven did that happen?

(In memory of Carl Sagan.)

Ambiance and Archaeology

If the nicer restaurants are all dark, then maybe the nicer ancient Roman villas were too. In this archaeological study, scientists created a simulation of an ancient Roman villa and turned down the lights -- more specifically, they put in lights that would flicker with warmth like candles rather than reflect cold blue like electric lights. Check out the result above. Wouldn't you rather live in the house on the left? Everything looks nicer by candlelight, including the tilework and mosaics.

This reminds me of a nighttime tour of the abbey on Mt. St. Michel I took about a decade ago. In the dark it was lit with brightly colored floodlights but the shadows definitely left more to the imagination and made the experience unforgettable. The type of light is important. Looks like the Romans designed for candlelight and didn't anticipate fluorescent bulbs!

Also, this reminds me of what I read about what it must have been like to enter the Jewish tabernacle in the time of the Judges. It would be dark and mysterious and very impressive. Much more like the picture on the left than the one on the right.

And, at home, why clean up after the kids when you can just turn down the lights?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Glass Pyramid of Books

If the Egyptians built stone pyramids for Pharoahs, we're building glass pyramids for books. This is a library in Rotterdam, but it reminds me of the new Central Library here in Seattle. I've been to our library several times but have never checked out a book from it -- I just like to walk around such a unique, free, and open building. It's more like a park than a bookstore, and that's OK with me. I've also walked around the library in Back Bay/Copland Square in Boston with a similar sense that just walking around can be part of the library experience. Maybe someday I'll get the chance to walk around this library in Rotterdam too. For now we've got the pictures at this link.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Book Review: The Age of Miracles

Finishing a book in the genre of "apocalyptic science fiction" does not usually inspire the emotion of gratitude or wistfulness. But for this book it does. Most sci-fi books I've read don't celebrate faithfulness, or sensations, or growing up (2001's version of the human race growing up definitely does not count, I mean truly growing up like all of us have to).

Part of the sign that The Age of Miracles is a different kind of sci-fi book (if it really can be shelved there, it's arguable that it can't) is that it's told unflinchingly from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl. The apocalypse in this case is a quiet one, in which the Earth's rotation slows down from its precise 24-hour tick and then stuff starts to go wrong accordingly. The genius of Karen Thompson Walker is that she couples this kind of not-a-bang-but-a-whimper setting with the gradual and sudden changes of adolescence, and does it with a perfect tone, not sentimental but elegaic, never overstepping her narrator's voice. The subtle realism of this book insinuates itself into the listener to the point that I caught myself occasionally thinking of the book as real. A truly bittersweet, simple joy of a book.

DNA Polymerase, Stereograms, and Faith

Last year I was asked if I'd let a few videographers tape my class for a learning-and-faith project from different disciplines sponsored by the CCCU, a collection of Christian universities including SPU. So here's the final product, about 10 minutes of class about DNA, stereograms of protein structure, and how that reflects the "Two Books" philosophy of science and faith (thank you Sir Francis Bacon, which reminds me to check out my colleague Rod Stiling's talk on Newton on the same "channel"!).

Here's a link to the video (can't find an embed code yet!):

From this "experiment" I found out that having a videocamera trained on me causes my voice to rise in pitch by a certain interval. Interesting result ...

Monday, November 12, 2012

Two Concrete Ideas: Glow-in-the-Dark Roads and Self-Healing Bacterial Concrete

What's better than a good idea? Two good ideas in one blog post! Both have to do with concrete or asphalt, so I thought they'd go together.

1.) Even when I mentioned the long-lasting glow-in-the-dark pebbles for driveways earlier, I didn't think of this use for them: embed them in roads for glowing directional signals, even without streetlights. They can even be made temperature sensitive, so when the road gets icy, big glowing snowflakes could appear on it. This is a great idea (although implementing it could run into some problems in Seattle given our infamous lack of sun in the winter months).

2.) Instead of glowing pebbles, mix in something much smaller into concrete: bacteria. Bacterial spores can survive a long time without water or nutrients. When the concrete is cracked, the water will wake them up (like Sea Monkeys) and they'll start making carbonate. Deposits of calcium will react with this to make calcium carbonate (calcite) which is a little bit of mortar that will fill in the crack. The result is self-healing concrete.

The problem is keeping the bacteria alive in the concrete for a long enough time, but they're working on that. Given how long some spores can survive, this might just work.

Realize that this shows that you can use bacterial spores as dormant little chemists waiting to control their environment through chemistry: in this case, ejecting carbonate and making concrete in a newly formed crack. Life is a powerful thing, if you can keep it alive in the place where you want it to work.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Dante + Scientific Fraud = Peer-Reviewed Amusement

Midway upon the journey of our life // I found myself in a forest dark // Oh, and I was a scientist too ...

Science blogger Neuroskeptic has come up with a spot-on version of Dante's inferno translated into the realm of scientific fraud. The picture give you a general feel for the shenanigans but to really enjoy it you should read the short, pithy, and peer-reviewed article found here.

My favorite thing about it may be the way Neuroskeptic makes the punishment fit the crime in exactly the same way Dante did. Each level just fits the universal sense of justice that we all share. And it makes me wonder if Dante intended us to take his tale only semi-literally, like Neuroskeptic does. There's value in this kind of semi-literalism to be sure.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Are We in a Goldilocks Zone in Time as Well as Space?

A recent finding has just blown my mind and I'm not sure if anyone else has put it together with other results yet. To me at least, putting it together, it makes the universe look much different than I thought at the beginning of the day, so I'd like to share it with you and see what you think. It also suggests that Earth is that much more special. Let me explain.

The Kepler space telescope is exciting stuff, because it's looking for planets around distant stars and finding them all over the place. Here's an orrery of the planets found by Kepler (and even this is more than 18 months old now!):

The real key is to find a planet in the habitable zone (the "Goldilocks zone"), which is the right distance away from a sun so that ice melts and steam condenses, giving liquid water. Note that even this is only one element in the recipe for life, but it's got to be one of the most important ones. Here's one planet recently discovered to be "in the zone."

But, like I mentioned, you need more than liquid water for life. For instance, you need metals far down on the periodic table like iron, molybdenum, etc., to build a rocky planet out of, and to provide important catalysts for life. Basically, you need a decent portion of the periodic table built in order to do complex chemistry. After the Big Bang you start with the simple stuff, hydrogen and helium, and have to build up to iron and company. That's takes a while, past the first generation of stars, at least, according to this article, "a few billion years."

I've been aware of that for a while, and that some people say you need more than "a few" billion years, you need something more like 7 or 8 billion years. (You need at least three because the oldest stars of this type are about 10 billion years old, and our sun's right in the middle of that.) The universe is 13.7 billion years old and the earth is 4.5 billion years old, so by that logic, there's a "few billion"-year window in which an earth-like planet could have been built and produce complex life. Kind of like a "Goldilocks zone" in time rather than space. I've always wondered if the reason why we're not hearing much through SETI or seeing many aliens coming down from the sky (well, I haven't seen them, have you?) is if we're kind of the first kids on the block, because it's taken this long for the periodic table to form and then a planet to form and gestate life. I've assumed there's plenty of time for more planets and stars to form in the universe. I may have assumed wrong.

So, you need water and you need metals. But don't forget, you also need a star to have formed at the same time as the planet. The "photo" part of the whole photosynthesis thing is kind of important. That's why I was shocked to hear that a recent comprehensive study of star formation has suggested that the universe is almost done making new stars. By looking at star formation rates, the astronomers concluded that the golden age for star formation was 11 billion years ago and has been declining ever since, and recently it's just dropped off the table. Check out this graph:

It's not that the universe's biological clock is ticking ... it's more like it's wheezing its last. The universe is not just out of childbearing age, it's close to collecting retirement. [Insert bad "my universe is so old/how old is it?" joke here.] This -- if it holds up, and it looks solid to me -- is one of the most mind-boggling things I've read. It also means that complex life is that much more likely to be rare and precious. If it ain't happened yet, it ain't happening.

Maybe complex life can form in 3 billion years rather than 4 (maybe the "boring billion" didn't have to happen ... but my impression is that it did). Maybe a star has formed 2 billion years ago that will have complex life in 2 billion years. But it looks like the constantly-expanding universe combined with limited energy and matter would suggest that if something hasn't happened yet it will not have much more of a chance to happen. That's a "few billion"-year window that may have already closed. The numbers are adding up to be surprisingly restrictive in time, even in a universe that is huge in space beyond comprehension.

As my physics colleague likes to quote, "There are two possibilities: either we are alone in the universe or there are others like us out there. Either way it blows your mind." For me, the likelihood of the former just got raised, and my mind is suitably blown.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Play Without Ceasing

Great article (with a great title) written by my friend Jeffrey Overstreet about the overlap of play and work in the recently released issue of Response (the SPU magazine). Oh, and they took a picture of me playing with LEGOs in my lab too, but I'm too self-conscious to put that on my blog. Maybe it's time to change my Facebook profile pic?